Heart of Darkness

Anthropologist Philippe Bourgois went deeper into America's crack culture than anyone before him.Too deep.

Published December 2, 1995 8:00PM (EST)

America's moral wars grow harsh and increasingly cartoonlike. On the right, resentful moralists, oblivious to the shaping power of history, demand that individuals be held absolutely responsible for their actions. On what's left of the left, pious academics, oblivious to the fact that individuals also choose their fates, insist that societal oppression excuses criminality.

Shocking images from the inner city -- pregnant women smoking crack, murderous dealers flaunting their Mercedes, teenagers gunned down for a pair of shoes -- are constantly invoked by conservatives as evidence of moral pathology. Now an academic named Philippe Bourgois has decided to reclaim that terrain for the left, by going far more deeply into the brutal reality of the ghetto than his ideological opponents ever have. His "In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio" is a stunning piece of reporting that overturns the dogmas of left and right alike -- including, disconcertingly, those clung to by Bourgois himself.

Bourgois, an anthropologist at San Francisco State University, lived among Puerto Rican crack dealers in New York City's East Harlem for five years. He immersed himself utterly in his subject's lives, hanging with them in crackhouses, partying with them, grieving with them, celebrating with them, dodging the cops with them, earning their complete trust. From thousands of hours of taped conversations, Bourgois constructs a densely-textured documentary that affords unparalleled insights into the culture of the street.

There are terrible revelations here, offered casually in project staircases over snorts of coke and heroin; there are brief moments of joy and banal cruelty and boredom. Few passages in contemporary literature are as heartbreakingly pathetic as the scene in which one of Bourgois' main informants, Primo, talks about his son, whom he has largely abandoned. Such passages, almost cinematically vivid, give human faces to a demonized group, revealing the shallowness of the moral judgments we are so quick to pass. And by demonstrating how structural economic changes -- the disappearance of factory jobs and the concomitant growth of the service economy -- have slammed the door on the dreams of young males in the underclass, Bourgois demolishes the conservative myth that opportunity is equal for all Americans. He convincingly demonstrates that crack dealing is indeed a "rational career choice" for many ghetto youths.

But Bourgois is not content to simply present the brutal and brutalized lives of his subjects and allow us to draw our own conclusions about how they got that way. He insists on constantly leaning over our shoulder to tell us, in the sententious, often jargon-ridden language of academic social science, why a specific act of degradation, violence, or self-destruction is the result of societal oppression. If his own reporting were not so honest, deep and textured, this voiceover might be more convincing. But the reality Bourgois depicts is so messy and complicated, so funny, tragic, horrifying, depraved and monotonous, that his attempts to draw pious meanings from it become, at times, almost ludicrous.

"In Search of Respect" is a strange amalgam of brilliant reporting and orthodox leftist academic theorizing. Bourgois tries to link the most intimate details of the often horrific lives of his subjects to larger societal structures -- poverty, racism, cultural antagonism.
The problem is that the two simply don't fit: they operate at different levels of descriptive validity.

It's not that larger historical factors don't matter. From 30,000 feet above the ground (which is, after all, where policy decisions should be made, not at street level being sputtered on by some choleric citizen who just had his car radio stolen), the primacy of structural factors is undeniable. If El Barrio were not the desperate wasteland that it is, Bourgois' informant Caesar might not have burned down classrooms and smashed teachers with chairs, nor his informant Ray have fathered nine children without providing for them. No task facing America is more urgent than a commitment to take the necessary steps -- doubtless difficult and expensive ones -- to rectify the dreadful conditions of the inner city. The bootstrap exhortations of William Bennett et al, while not without merit, remain empty without such a commitment. As Bourgois notes, "No society is propelled by 'values' alone."

But Bourgois, fearing that his book might give ammunition to conservatives, falls into the opposite error: he dismisses individual responsibility, absolving those who embrace the pathologies of street culture from all blame. He does this, as the title of his book indicates, by romanticizing that culture as an "oppositional" one that exists to create "respect" for people who get none from mainstream society, with its "middle-class," "Anglo" values. Once the debate is framed in these deterministic terms (the legacy of Marxist thinking is plain here), the inhabitants of El Barrio have a blank check: whatever they do, oppressive society made them do.

But neither street culture nor an individual's choices are simply "oppositional." As Oscar Lewis argued in "La Vida," his classic 1965 study of an extended Puerto Rican family in New York and Puerto Rico, what he calls the "culture of poverty" exists not merely as a form of resistance to oppression, but becomes an autonomous tradition, with its own independent codes and values. Moreover, individuals are not stuck in their culture like flies in glue: far more than Bourgois wants to admit, they are capable of separating themselves from aspects of their culture. Which leads to a difficult, but unavoidable, question: Why has this particular version of the "culture of poverty" continued to exist for decades, when other formerly impoverished groups have joined the economic and social mainstream? Is racism and injustice the only answer? Or can some responsibility be placed on the "victims" themselves, or the cultural values some of them embrace?

There are no easy answers to this question, but Bourgois doesn't even address it. His discussion of the difficulties his subjects have with holding down white-collar jobs, where they feel "dissed" by female supervisors, is instructive. He tendentiously subtitles that chapter "Disrespect and resistance," but the "disrespect" seems to just be standard boss behavior, and as for "resistance," it looks a lot less like revolutionary rage than it does like petty theft, incompetence, and general bad attitude. How is the public sector, which Bourgois constantly indicts for its failure to help the inhabitants of El Barrio, supposed to deal with a street-cultural ethos that celebrates hustling, violence, and scamming? It is difficult to escape the conclusion that there are some areas where society simply cannot do everything, where family, community and the individual must step forward.

At bottom, structural explanations and individual responsibility are not mutually exclusive. Bourgois pays lip service to this idea, but when the chips are down he always points the finger at oppressive structures. To do otherwise, he argues, would be to "blame the victim." But victimhood is not an eternal state, or no one would ever make it out of El Barrio.

Bourgois' subject requires a delicate moral calculus, one capable of sorting through the intricate dialectic of overdetermination and responsibility. Instead, Bourgois offers mechanical exculpations, which reach their nadir in his assertion that "pregnant crack addicts can be de-essentialized from the monstrous image of the cruel, unfeeling mother, and be reconstructed as self-destructive rebels" who, "desperately seeking meaning in their lives," refuse "to sacrifice themselves to the impossible task of raising healthy children in the inner city."

In the end, Bourgois' ideological approach, however compassionate, denies human agency. Ironically, his subjects are more aware of this than he is. As Primo says, "Felipe it's not only the white man...that makes it harder for us. We're poor, that's true, but we're supposed to struggle and make something of ourselves. It's just a harder struggle 'cause we're poor."

The weaknesses of Bourgois' approach derive, in part, from what we might call the "anthropological fallacy" -- the fieldworker's methodological suspension of judgment, combined with the posture of hands-off cultural relativism that is de rigueur in the contemporary academy. "In Search of Respect" oddly inverts the pattern described by Janet Malcolm, replacing the treachery of the journalist with the loyalty of the bien-pensant social scientist.

Neither approach, in the end, is adequate to capture a life. Bourgois succeeds remarkably in evoking the raw, intimate stuff of life, the place where actions emerge, catalyze, from an unknowable soup of emotions, history, and desires. His work, in the end, is less a social scientific tract than field notes towards a tragedy -- with the full weight of moral ambiguity carried by that word. Perhaps it would have taken a writer of the literary gifts of Piri Thomas, author of the brilliant 1967 East Harlem autobiography "Down These Mean Streets," to capture the thousand facets and meanings of the world that Bourgois has so courageously revealed.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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