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'The Tomorrow Game' depicts the violent results of systematic oppression in Chicago

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

It could have just been a teenage spat, an after-school fight between two boys - hurt feelings, dinged pride, move on. But in their Chicago neighborhood, where support systems have been eroded by poverty and drug use and guns abound, their encounter is supercharged into an all-encompassing and life-threatening standoff. The story is told in "The Tomorrow Game," the new book from Sudhir Venkatesh. He's a professor of sociology and African American studies at Columbia University, and he joins me now. Welcome to the program.

SUDHIR VENKATESH: Thank you for inviting me.

DAVIS: So introduce us to the two young men at the center of this story, Marshal and Frankie.

VENKATESH: Marshal and Frankie are two teenagers living in Chicago's South Side - predominantly African American, low-income region of the city. Frankie starts to harass Marshal. He's bullying him, mostly schoolyard stuff. And then one day, Frankie decides that to prove his own manhood, he's going to escalate things. Then we watch as the situation just quickly starts to escalate and gets out of control. Marshal is now pressed to defend himself by his friends and across social media. And the only way out, he hears his friends say and online, is by getting a gun and using that gun and going after Frankie.

DAVIS: Sudhir, just to be clear, this is a true story?

VENKATESH: This is a true story. And it's the story of two kids in a real neighborhood in Chicago. And I should say that to protect a lot of the people in the story, as a sociologist, I often will change names just because I don't want to inadvertently put someone in a position of greater risk. But this is a true story that occurred over the course of a couple of weeks.

DAVIS: A lot of the details in the book - I mean, there's drug sales. There's arms dealers. There's sex work. But it's really a story about the dramas of teenage life, isn't it? I mean, it's boys trying to become men, trying to show off in front of their friends, figuring out who they are in this life.

VENKATESH: Yeah. The way I like to think about this is that the gun, the shooting is actually just the start of the conversation that we should be having. Yes, we should be thinking about gun availability and how easy it is for guns to get into the hands of kids, but then we should be looking at the motivations. Why do these kids think that getting a gun and using a gun is a legitimate way of solving a problem, of dealing with conflict? And that's a very different kind of story. That's a historical story, in part.

When you talk to Marshal and you ask him, you know, why did you think that buying a gun would be the way to get back at Frankie? He says, it's what you do to be a man around here. And it's what my dad did. And I had the same conversation with his dad, and he said, it's what you do to be a man. It's what my uncle did.

DAVIS: I mean, you paint this very detailed portrait of these kids, of those parents, of the pastors that are around them, the people trying to make ends meet in the neighborhood by selling groceries or weapons. But there's also clearly structural, systemic issues at play in these neighborhoods - access to education and health care. I mean, you know, the list, it goes on. Did you intentionally keep those forces in the background of the story?

VENKATESH: I think I did, because I wanted to just slow things down a little bit. You know, one thing we might notice in the conversation that's unfolding in the last few months around guns and gun violence and gun availability is the voices of children, of young people are kind of absent. And they're an important part because they're not only being affected, but if we're going to have any real impact, they're going to have to own and embrace that story. And so I wanted to just leave the data alone for a second and just focus on why these two young men thought that this is a legitimate way of handling their situation and what it's like to just be challenged by your friends and in the neighborhood where everything that's important is local.

DAVIS: This is a snapshot in time, but it's also still everyday life in Chicago. Just last weekend, police say more than 60 people were shot. Ten were killed. There's a controversial weekend nighttime curfew right now for the city's kids. Have you learned anything in writing this that might provide some kind of roadmap or ideas about how to stop what seems like sort of an endless cycle of violence?

VENKATESH: I think a couple of things that I take away are - proceed from this basic premise that if you don't involve the kids and if you don't think about the peer dynamics of what it means to grow up in this community, you're going to impose policies upon them, and there may not be a lot of buy in. Think of the success we've had over the last few decades with drunk driving. Friends don't let friends, dot, dot, dot. You need to have that sort of embrace by young people of the idea that, hey, it's OK to be angry. Sometimes you're going to fight. But picking up a gun, hey, that's something different. So I think as we move forward with policies, I think we want to remember that it's the 12-year-old to 20 to 25s - those are the ones that are going to have to own it and really bring that policy in the context of their daily life. So let's reach out to them, and let's start listening.

DAVIS: Do you feel more optimistic or pessimistic about the Marshals and the Frankies right now?

VENKATESH: Well, this is probably not going to sound too optimistic to people, but here I'll put on my sociological hat again. In a given month in the community that Marshal and Frankie live in, and there's roughly 50 to 60 incidents of gun violence or the use of guns. Think about that. That is a community saturated with guns. Why would I find any optimism? Because there's a very specific script. Almost three quarters of those are tied to some kind of economic grievance. It's people making money. So there's an issue of poverty. Hey, let's work on that. There's an issue, as I talk about in my book, of a kid who's trying to figure out what's the right way to be an adult, to be autonomous, independent? So let's provide the supports there so that they can think about it outside the context of buying a gun. I think when we break down the data, we can see points of intervention. But I think what we have to do is really focus and be very specific and not let the there's just too many guns in the neighborhood frame cloud all the other great work we can do.

DAVIS: Sudhir Venkatesh - his new book is "The Tomorrow Game." Thanks so much for speaking with us.

VENKATESH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.