IN SEARCH OF RESPECT: Selling Crack in El Barrio by Philippe Bourgois

IN SEARCH OF RESPECT: Selling Crack in El Barrio

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An oddly moving study of lives brutalized by drug addiction, poverty, crime, and ineluctable violence. First-time author Bourgois (Anthropology/San Francisco State Univ.) 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-city street culture,"" but found himself mired in a world conditioned by pervasive, killing drugs, a world on which the literature is surprisingly sparse. The people who inhabit it--men and women with names like Benzie, Little Pete, Gigi, Candy, Primo, and Caesar--are 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; most see no escape; and by the end of his book, many of Bourgois's 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's main subjects, while another, scanning a section of his manuscript, jokes, ""Ooh, Felipe! You make us sound like such sensitive crack dealers!"" Of interest to professional readers, but probably not to nonspecialists, are Bourgois's thoughts on the theory and practice of anthropological investigation. ""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.' ""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. Vigorous and often harrowing, this book is an eye-opener.

Pub Date: Nov. 9th, 1995
ISBN: 0521017114
Page count: 315pp
Publisher: Cambridge Univ.