Lousy Fathers

Malcolm Gladwell

  • In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio by Philippe Bourgois
    Cambridge, 391 pp, £24.95, March 1996, ISBN 0 521 43518 8

Once, three years ago, I had lunch in Harlem with a crack dealer. The date was set up by an anthropologist who was studying the inner-city drug trade. She promised me that after the three of us had eaten, the dealer would show me around his turf in central Harlem. At the time, I remember thinking that her promise sounded odd. I couldn’t imagine that a crack dealer – particularly someone who was as much of a big-timer as this man apparently was – could find room in his schedule for a leisurely stroll around the crack dens of upper Manhattan. Thinking back on all the cop shows and police movies about cocaine kingpins that I had seen, I imagined that he would have to run off for a big meeting with some Colombian importers, or perhaps not want to leave the security of his black, bullet-proof Mercedes or be looking for a way to launder another stack of $100 bills. But it wasn’t anything like that. My big-time dealer was a small dapper man, with close-cropped hair and a carefully trimmed moustache. He wore a pair of neatly pressed slacks and a polo shirt and he had a single, slender gold band on his hand. We talked for about an hour about the changing drug markets, about the difficulties of finding good employees and about marketing strategies (he didn’t have any of his street people sell to young girls, for example, because it ‘looked bad’). And afterwards, as we were walking through the streets of Harlem, it was almost as if I was being shown the site of a new housing development by an aspiring real estate developer.

There is an important lesson here about the illicit economy of the American inner city. The drug trade is commonly demonised in American life because it is assumed to be subversive in some way, to represent a kind of capitalism and a set of values that threaten and challenge the legal economy. But it struck me on that sunny spring day how, in fact, the reverse is true. The drug trade is not a challenge to the system so much as a painful, almost pathetic impersonation of it. My crack dealer wasn’t a crack dealer because he wanted to be a crack dealer. He was a crack dealer because he couldn’t be a real businessman, and he dealt with that frustration by playing and dressing and talking the part of the kind of entrepreneur whom he no doubt saw every day on his television or on his trips downtown.

In Search of Respect, Philippe Bourgois’s masterful study of the drug trade in upper Manhattan, takes this insight one step further. An anthropologist at San Francisco State University, Bourgois spent four years living and hanging out with a group of small-time crack dealers in East Harlem, taping hundreds of hours of conversation. The book is a chronicle of their childhood memories, their schooldays, their attempts to work in the legal economy, their families and love affairs. It is occasionally shocking. There are graphic accounts of gang rapes, for example, and seemingly endless accounts of husbands beating up wives and pregnant women taking crack. But in the informative detail of Bourgois’s description, and the between-the-lines of the people he quotes, there is nonetheless something strangely comforting. Even as they do vast quantities of heroin and cocaine – often sniffing and snorting even as they talk to Bourgois – and unspeakable things to each other, his subjects come across as normal. They don’t want to be doing drugs. They don’t make much money selling them. They want real jobs and, just as my crack dealer did, they mimic straight society even when they cannot participate in it.

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