A cultural anthropology professor’s intriguing story of the six years he spent observing the daily lives of poor blacks in a Midwestern ghetto.
In 1995, Fleisher (Applied Social Sciences/Case Western Reserve Univ.; Dead End Kids: Gang Girls and the Boys They Know, 2000, etc.), a white Jewish man, was approached by a colleague at the University of Chicago to help with a project that involved finding and interviewing adolescent gang members in the North End district of Champaign, Illinois. He accepted the job knowing that his biggest challenge would be locating an intermediary who could give him access to the black neighborhoods where he could collect his data. A chance call from a university TV station that learned of Fleisher’s project put him into contact with a respected community activist and ex-convict/street hustler named Pastor Burpee. The two entered into a complex relationship “primed with cash payments to secure interview subjects.” After North End residents found out that Fleisher was under Burpee’s “protection,” they knew he was a “white man folks could trust.” The professor's position as privileged observer showed him that while racial discrimination and poverty may have created the ghetto, residents were committed to living in ways that emphasized what he called “harm-reduction.” A friendship he struck up with one North End family, the Washingtons, demonstrated how relatives and friends looked after each other, especially during hard times. From a young age, parents taught children that they were responsible for the choices they made. At the same time, they also suspended judgment on teenage pregnancy, early departure from school, and criminal activity. Fleisher’s conclusion—that the poor black people of the North End were actually quite resilient, morally sound, and self-sufficient in the face of privation—goes against the common notion that American ghettos are broken places. As the author makes clear, what is in need of repair is the larger system that creates ghettos in the first place.
A brief, accessible academic study suitable for a general readership.