Search for Respect
In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio was published in 1995. It is a straight forward, insiders look at life in the East Harlem neighborhood known as, El Barrio. Philippe Bourgois moved his family into El Barrio in 1985 to study the impact of imposed racial segregation and economic marginalzation, on the inner city Puerto Rican population (intro pg.1).
He first went there to look at the entire (untaxed) underground economy, from baby sitting, off-track betting, to drug dealing, as these were the means which most of the families living in El Barrio were able to survive. By the end of the first year of living there, Philippe realized in one way or another, that crack had infiltrated everyone s life in El Barrio . Crack had consumed the underground economy of East Harlem and changed it, and therefore he changed the focus of his book. He was now going to look at how crack played apart in everyone s lives. With this new variable running rampant in their community, he now wanted to look at their daily struggles for subsistence and dignity at the poverty line, (intro pg. 2) with in this new context.
He asks, in studying the street culture, how does growing up in an environment like that affect one in their ability to function productively in mainstream society? He goes back and looks at the history of Puerto Ricans, from Puerto Rico to New York City, and puts in to perspective, how that helps shape their culture in El Barrio.
Bourgois conducts his research for this book by putting himself in direct daily contact with the subjects of this book. Though participant observation, he was able to delve deep into the personal lives of the crack dealers, addicts, and people effected by the epidemic. He also attended holidays and family function in order to get a more humanistic and holistic view of this society.
Imagine trying to make a better life for one s self, and constantly running into barriers and obstacles that diminish one s self worth, or ability to succeed. Well that is what the Nuyoricans that live East Harlem have to face on a daily basis. The culture that defines them is the exact thing that inhibits them from success (ch. 4 pg.142), and just returns them to street in search of other means to make a living.
The only jobs that provided enough money for the Harlemites to survive on, with out having to engage in some other illegal activity, are high risk construction jobs, which were ran by racist mafia backed unions (ch. 4 pg. 162), or entry level jobs in the F.I.R.E. (finance, insurance, or real estate) sector (ch. 4 pg.142), where the impoverished Puerto Ricans did not have enough cultural capital or the proper ethnic background to survive in the positions being offered.
When ever they did get a job in one of these areas things wouldn t go very well. For example, in the construction jobs, they would either be cheated out of wages and overtime (ch. 4 pg. 165), or when they got a job in the F.I.R.E. sector, they would have to put aside their values and norms and go against everything they were taught through their culture. They would have to be subordinate to women barking orders at them, and they would have to deal with racist stereotypes. Anytime they came into contact with mainstream society it would be a demeaning, humiliating, and negative experience. Thus, these types of experiences would future alienate them from mainstream society and drive them into the underground economy of crack, the only place where they can go to make money, and regain a certain sence of dignity and respect.
To survive financially outside of mainstream society, one must manipulate all of ones available resources to make a livable income. So, in the underground economy this can mean any thing, from taking advantage of the welfare office, to selling drugs, or robbing people, all of which were employed by most of the subjects in this book.
Although the world of the underground economy is very chaotic, it all seems to revolve around one thing, crack. Everyone s daily life, that is anyone who is not a member of the poor legal working class, is organized around crack, whether one is fighting rival crews for a spot to sell, or just hanging out at the local crackhouse waiting for a handout. It is prevalent on both the violent and non-violent spectrums of the culture. Obviously, the dealers had the most respect of everyone, and were looked up at by youngsters.
What caught the eye of the youngsters were their nice shoes and the respect everyone had for the dealer. So at the earliest time possible, the young kids would try and emulate what they have seen as an acceptable, and viable way to get money and respect. Selling drugs, being violent, and robbing people, all were skills that they learned at school (ch.4pg.194). This is just one of the many way that kids, because of lacking schools with insufficient funds, and no real guidance, are pushed into the underground economy.
With the money for selling drugs or robbing innocent victims, these people would now have the ability to obtain forms of material culture. Designer clothes, new shoes, jewelry, and guns were all highly sought after. Juice, is a form of non-material culture that is very important to the safety of one who is selling drugs. It is a form of respect that can only be obtained through public displays of violence.
As noted earlier, the ones who hung out at the crackhouse waiting for a handout also severed a functional purpose. They would act as a barrier between the dealers, Police, and would be stick up artist. They would also be the eyes on the street as to who had the purest dope and also the changing trends in usage (ch.3 pg.107).
Since violence was always present in the streets of El Barrio , as all through out the book s narrations were noted as having the ability to hear gunshots in the background, it was with in the cultures norm to accept acts of unsolicited violence and rape (ch.5 pg.205) against innocent victims.
The only act that stood out to me, as being a ritual was the act of getting high. While getting high served two fold, it served as a method to deal with the reality of not being able to be in control of any part of one s life, and it severed as a way of opening up the lines for communication, as most of all the testimonials occurred over liquor and some sort of drug.
The street culture is a very harsh one, and to one who is not from it, it could be hard not to be shocked by it. While doing the research for this book Philippe was having trouble in deciding if he should leave some of the more graphic depictions out, such as the rapes of a male transient (ch.1 pg. 23) and the gang rape of a young girl. He was afraid that these seemingly barbaric acts would take away any possibility of the studied culture to retain a human face in the eyes of mainstream society (intro pg.11)
The book seems to have been written for collage students and anthropologist, as it talks about the different schools of theory when applying what was recorded. It tackles many interesting issues that would help in understanding and correcting their societal ills.
Over all this was a very thought provoking book that lead to many heated discussions between my girlfriend d and I. It gives a look at the other side of life that most suburbanites don t care to know it exists, but if any of the factors that lead to this kind of creation of street culture were happening on any scale in their community, it would most assuredly become a problem worth understanding and solving.
I do highly recommend this book to any one who wants to know why things are the way they are, and why do these people act with no remorse. I also recommend it to the ones it is about and any one coming from a situation like that. I think it will give an account from a perspective they don t normally see and it could be very beneficial to them in understanding them and correcting them selves.