In search of respect – a book review

Phillipe Bourgois is an anthropologist who conducted field work in East Harlem’s El Barrio which is situated only twenty blocks from Manhattan’s Upper East Side in New York. His ethnography is centred on his life in the ghettos of El Barrio and explains a beneficial yet intricate and intimate relationship to his main source of information in this book, Primo, a crack dealer and user.

The main purpose of his research was to give a valid picture of the experience of poverty and ethnic segregation in this community. However due to the abundance of the drug economy, Bourgois found himself specifically looking at crack cocaine abuse and its implications. The underground economy, which included the drug sector, is focused on as a means of coping for many of El Barrio’s residents with problems such as racism and economic marginalisation. This book review will outline my views on what Bourgois emphasises as his key arguments and will endeavour to provide a critical analysis of this work.

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It can be seen that Bourgois’s approach to this ethnography is somewhat complex to analyse as he does not take an immediate stance on who, in his opinion, is to blame for the social problems surrounding substance abuse in El Barrio.

One could argue that his mention of the state plays a major role in shaping his views of the system, notably that is fails to tackle most problems of the ethnic impoverished groups in El Barrio. This can be seen by the basic problem of the concentration of socially marginalised populations in one area. In Bourgois’s words, this creation by the state leads to “inner-city enclaves of racism and economic deprivation”, which is at the heart of this book’s debate.

This can also be argued in the UK, where council estates, according to many right-wing politicians, are “breeding grounds for the reproduction of anti-social behaviour”. At the same time, however, the politics behind this idea is contradictory. I think the state is responsible for marginalising this group in the first place with current housing policies that allow for cultures of poverty, crime and exclusion to be formed which can also be applied to El Barrio.

The importance of the underground economy must be acknowledged due to scope of substance abuse in the book. This untaxed economy that accounts for a hidden multi-billion dollar industry proves detrimental to the lives of El Barrio residents who are involved in drug dealing and off-the-books work (babysitting, cleaning, and curb-side repairs) as they are in essence keeping this illegal trade going by contributing to it. However, one could relate this back to the state; if social welfare were adequate and at least allowed for subsistence, then such an economy may not be so successful.

When one takes into account that the likes of Primo and Caesar state on several occasions that they are unhappy of operating illegitimately, this implies that they do not willingly lead dangerous lives; rather they believe they have no other alternative and welfare alone is insufficient to meet their family’s subsistence needs.

On the other hand, if the underground economy were not to exist, people would not be able to survive as they already live below the poverty line.

Puerto Rican culture also provides a key debate as it provokes many controversies in this book. When immigration from Puerto Rico to the United States came into movement, many of the immigrants were from small plantations and had little qualifications and no command of the English language that made them perfect candidates for factory jobs with poor job security, no long-term prospects and minimum wage pay. During this period, many Puerto Ricans were employed by this sector. As these immigrants were of working class backgrounds, little emphasis was placed on the importance of education so at the minimum school-leaving age, the newer generation were encouraged to face the same life as their parents.

The influence of economics cannot be overstated as one of the key arguments in this book as an explanation of the economic hardship and social marginalisation faced by the Puerto Rican community, arguably causing the culture of dependency on public assistance. Bourgois states in his ethnography, that he sees the Puerto Rican community as victims of this structural change that caused this mass-scale unemployment. He implies that rather than blaming this industrial change, the Puerto Rican community is oblivious to it and see it as a defect in themselves as a people. When mass Mexican immigration commenced, indeed they were faced with the same predicament, yet worked hard and gained respect as an ethnic group that aided them in their employment prospects.

Another aspect of the Puerto Rican culture that should be mentioned is the preservation of traditional gender roles which arguably hindered the male Puerto Rican workforce from progressing with society into the transition of service sector employment. An example to demonstrate this is when Primo tells of his experiences in legal employment and under the supervision of his female boss Gloria, whom he had no respect for. His remarks often were of a sexist and misogynist nature. He could not deal effectively with criticism which often uncovered inferiority insecurities within himself. Ultimately the subordination he felt during this period overrode any desire to succeed in legal employment and cost him his position.

One could argue that this “chip on the shoulder” mentality stems back from colonialism. Divide and rule tactics employed by the US ensured segregation from other ethnic groups that essentially lead to racism later on. In conclusion a variety of factors contribute to the debate of “blame the victim” versus “blame the system”.

There is no right or wrong answer and Bourgois’s conclusion collates my opinion on the matter. The strong presence of crack felt throughout the ethnography was merely a by-product of bigger social and economic problems that stem from the above mentioned points. It would be wrong to place a great amount of emphasis on it as the purpose of the book was to gage the reader’s attention at the massive social and economic inequality that is evident in the most industrialised, richest nation in the world.

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