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Tucson Weekly Crack Shot

A study of poverty in East Harlem yields "Vial" truths.

By Gregory McNamee

APRIL 27, 1998: 

In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, by Philippe Bourgois (Cambridge University Press). Paper, $14.95.

PHILIPPE BOURGOIS, A San Francisco State University anthropologist, spent five years in a Puerto Rican barrio in East Harlem studying the culture of crack cocaine as another anthropologist would an exotic tribe. He had originally come to study poverty and ethnic segregation, "the political economy of inner-street city culture," but found himself mired in a world conditioned by pervasive, killing drugs--a world on which the literature is surprisingly small.

The people who inhabit his newfound world--men and women with names like Benzie, Little Pete, Gigi, Candy, Primo, and Caesar--are sympathetic for all their flaws. Most are hopeless addicts; most work at jobs where they're paid in vials of crack instead of cash for their labors; most see no escape, and by the end of his book many of Bourgois' informants have died of overdoses, violence, AIDS. None asks for pity, however:

"Man, I don't blame where I'm at right now on nobody but myself," remarks one of Bourgois' main subjects. Another, scanning a section of his manuscript, jokes, "Ooh, Felipe! You make us sound like such sensitive crack dealers!"

Bourgois' thoughts on the theory and practice of anthropological investigation, which often run counter to the received wisdom of voters and policy makers, are also of interest. "Suffering," he writes, "is usually hideous; it is a solvent of human integrity, and ethnographers never want to make the people they study look ugly. This imperative to sanitize the vulnerable is particularly strong in the United States, where survival-of-the-fittest, blame-the-victim theories of individual action constitute a popular 'common sense'." He proposes a different common sense, in which poverty and hopelessness play key roles, all the while giving suffering the hideous face it deserves. Bourgois is also strong on identifying cultural continuities, and he draws parallels between latter-day crackhouses and the speakeasies of the Prohibition Era, which serve much the same function in a marginalized sub-economy. "In the 1930s," he writes, "instead of coke freaks, crackheads, and heroin junkies parading in front of the local library, it was alcoholics who were harassing patrons."

Often harrowing, his book is a manual for would-be social reformers and students of current events alike.

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