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Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

As an historian of the Crack Era, I am more often than not engaging the work of sociologists, anthropologists and criminologists that have treated the drug trade and the hyper-policed urban communities I study. While young graduate students and early career PhD’s are poised to properly historicize the period in years to come, those looking to teach the period right now need to be both creative and interdisciplinary. In the main, my own work and teaching often draws a great deal from ethnographies of the drug trade. This got me thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of said work, and a bit frustrated at the paucity of interdisciplinary and collaborative work on the subject. In many respects, the work of ethnographers and historians are inherently complimentary. Students and scholars benefit from cross-pollination in this vein as it provides a more nuanced, holistic, and humanized treatment of a long-standing, highly complicated, vexing social problem.

The first drug ethnography ever handed to me was In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio by Philippe Bourgois.

in search of respect

Ethnography provides qualitative insights that are often hard to replicate in strictly historical work beyond the exception of oral histories. Productive discussions followed in my own class on the Crack Era after a student asked why police repeatedly assumed Bourgois was an out-of-towner looking to cop. His apparent white skin and learned affect provided a window into the shortcuts police take when perusing districts disproportionately effected by the drug trade. Moreover, the disparate treatment of Bourgois and other subjects by police highlighted the ways in which race, class, and place all effect policing tactics and the likelihood of arrest and prosecution.

Chronicling the repeated attempts of young men to acquire and maintain legitimate employment also unpacks a host of complicated realities for the urban poor pertaining to deindustrialization and the rise of the service sector. In delicate detail, Bourgois explains the daily humiliation and cultural confusion of many young men and women entering office settings for the first time. Primo, a young man, finds himself in a subordinate position to a female supervisor that while well intentioned, makes life on the job increasingly untenable. Primo and others are repeatedly questioned or self-conscious about their choice—or lack thereof—in office attire, and struggle to navigate social life on the job. In a telling exchange, Primo is asked to refrain from answering the phone at the office.

Bourgois also offers a clear counter to the remarkably enduring culture of poverty thesis. Rather than blame culture or black mothers, Bourgois situates the urban crisis within the context of deindustrialization, dislocation, and policy. The net result is what he dubs a “crisis in patriarchy.” Rather than voyeuristically obsessing over the deviant behavior of young black men, Bourgois explains how this crisis in patriarchy has much to do with the collapse of the urban economy, spatial and cultural dislocation, and a new insecurity surrounding masculinity and how to demonstrate traditional markers of masculinity. In the absence of jobs available to be a traditional breadwinner, some turn to the drug economy, violence, promiscuity, and substance abuse. Throughout the work several subjects have periods of success—albeit fleeting—marked by stability, an attempt to recuperate or establish family life, and general feelings of contentment. In each case, this period aligns with when each subject was lucky enough to land a legitimate job.

cocaine kids. williams

Even the economics majors perked up when our class discussed the ways in which


Williams also addresses the undertreated role and experiences of females that are directly and indirectly involved in the drug trade. Much like the work of Nancy Campbell and Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Williams helps explain the co-morbidity of trauma, mental illness, and drug use. He also chronicles the ways in which some women of the period blurred gender lines becoming dealers themselves, and in some cases, violently disciplining or threatening their underlings in the process. Undoubtedly, more work is needed with respect to the role of women within and without the drug trade in communities most adversely effected.

Most recently Alice Goffman’s work, On The Run, has received a good bit of attention both positive and negative. Despite a few questionable choices, Goffman’s work is useful as a contemporary companion piece to works like Williams and Bourgois. In effect, Goffman shows what policy responses to the Crack Era wrought in today’s inner-city. While Bourgois

on the run.

Ethnography offers opportunities that are often hard to come by in traditional history. In one succinct anecdote, Goffman is able to convey just how entrenched and normalized the effects of the carceral state have become in poor urban communities. Watching children of five and seven play a game of chase proved telling. “Cowboys and Indians” of yore undoubtedly had its problems but is and was instructive. So too is the game Goffman witnessed repeatedly. One boy assumed the role of cop, the other on the run from the po-lice. The “cop” pushed the boy down and cuffed him with imaginary handcuffs. He then patted down the other child, searched his pockets, and asked if he was carrying any drugs, weapons or had any outstanding warrants. During the search, the child took a quarter out of the other’s pocket and yelled, “I’m seizing that!” In other cases children stopped running and mimicked what they see too often, assuming the position against a car, a wall, or flat on the ground. In another instance an overzealous officer in training pulled the other boys pants down to perform a cavity search.

To do our jobs well, many historians must heed attention to structures and institutions. To borrow from Bourgois, this practice “often obscures the fact that humans are active agents of their own history, rather than passive victims.” While scores of poor nonwhite urbanites are victims of the carceral state, it is an egregious mistake to assume said citizens have passively accepted their circumstances. From my perspective, ethnographies are an invaluable tool for historians of drugs and alcohol seeking to move beyond structures. The work of history provides evidence to broaden and enhance the reach and significance of ethnographies. Why aren’t we working together more often? Discussions and comments below the fold are encouraged. Reading recommendations welcomed.


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