Weekly Wire
Tucson Weekly Crack Shot

The academic literature on selling crack just increased exponentially.

By Gregory McNamee

JUNE 1, 1998: 

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

FOR GENERATIONS, anthropologists scattered across the globe to study so-called primitive peoples--the cattle-ranching nomads of the northern Sudan, say, or the hunting-and-gathering groups of the upper Amazon. They returned full of tales of wonder about the "pre-scientific" types they met, people who believed that human babies came from an ocelot's glance or that a great snake swallowed the sun at the end of each day.

Anthropologists still pursue such peoples, who grow fewer each day. But, just as often, they study the forgotten people at the fringes of the first and second worlds. Sometimes they find big stories, as when anthropologist-turned-journalist Ted Conover rode the Mexican border with illegal immigrants and turned in a fine work of ethnography, entitled Coyotes.

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," the standard stuff of doctoral research. Instead, he soon found himself mired in a world conditioned by pervasive, killing drugs, a world on which the academic literature is small.

The people who inhabit his newfound world--men and women with names like Benzie, Little Pete, Gigi, Candy, Primo, and Caesar--are, in Bourgois's eyes, sympathetic for all their flaws. Most of them are hopeless addicts. Most work at jobs where they are paid in vials of crack instead of cash for their labors. And most see no hope of escape. By the end of his book many of Bourgois' informants have died of overdoses, violence, AIDS. None asks for pity, however, which in any event is in short supply in el barrio. "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 policymakers, 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 kind of common sense, one 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 subeconomy. "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." The more things change, it seems, the more they remain the same. Although, of course, the alcoholics still ply their trade, in East Harlem as in Tucson.

Often harrowing, Bourgois' book is a manual for would-be social engineers and students of current events alike. By naming poverty as a disease just as disabling as addiction, it presses a case for real reform--and close to home.

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