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Rock Street, San Francisco

Midterm: Part B

            Throughout the first half of the semester, we have been reading the book Streetwise by Elijah Anderson.  In order to understand the theories that Anderson is developing on a micro level, we have also been examining Joe R. Feagin’s textbook Social Problems: A Critical Power-Conflict Perspective which gives us a broader perspective of social problems.  In this paper, I will provide a chapter by chapter account of Anderson’s work and will providing excerpts that demonstrate and support his thesis.  I will also be discussing how Anderson’s work fits into Feagin’s definition of social problems.  Finally, I will examine whether or not the use of Anderson’s book is effective for others who want to learn about social problems and the inner city life and culture.

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In the book Streetwise, Elijah Anderson takes a look at a specific town and its two neighborhoods.  Both neighborhoods are part of a large city where many folks live.  The first town is referred to as “Northton,” it’s a working and lower class area that is quickly becoming extremely poor. Northton contains a university, and is populated by mostly African Americans. The town adjacent is referred to as the “Village”.  The Village houses mainly middle to upper class white people and also has a university.  There is no denying that both places are extremely different, but to make the city work, the people from the two towns must come face to face on in public spaces on a daily basis.

In the preface, Anderson lays out his purpose for the research.  He wants to know how such diverse people “get it on”.  He is trying to find out what makes interactions between the two neighborhoods possible.  Anderson spends a total of fourteen years, from 1975-1989 (Anderson p. ix) studying, researching, living, and interviewing in both towns. He saw firsthand the way the towns had changed over the years.  Not only that, but he also had a chance to talk to those who have lived in the area all their lives.  As he researched, he got to see the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  Anderson also got to see the effects of gentrification, renovations, and the quickly changing ideals of the youth.

Chapter one of the Streetwise begins to examine the past of the two towns.  Feagin states in his work that one must understand the history or a particular place or issue before he or she can understand the current situation (Feagin p. 13).  In the chapter of Anderson, we find out that the areas have always been split. Sometimes, the separation between the Village and Northton could lead to violence.  Both towns have been experiencing rapid changes in the composition of races and classes over the years.  In the 1800s and the 1900s, when the Germans and the Irish came to the area, they were discriminated against.  The people who already lived there saw the new folks as intruders and did everything in their power to stop them from settling in the area.  Eventually, this split among the cultures turned from white versus white, to what it is today, white versus black.  The lines were drawn in the towns and there was no way to get out of them

During the Korean War, things started to take a drastic turn.  A group calling themselves the Village Friends decided to take on a new cause in the Village area.  They built communes and invited blacks to stay there. (Anderson p. 7)  The influx of African-Americans in the town outraged many people, but the Village Friends were not about to give up.  Many of the conservative Irish had already fled and there wasn’t much more of a white population making its way in.  As years go on, more efforts are made to bridge the gap between the classes.  No matter how much is done, there isn’t much progress.  It seems that history has been repeating itself since the towns were settled.  Many people make small efforts to alleviate the poor conditions in the Northton area especially, but the crime rates are still soaring regardless.  It seems as if the Village Friends are taking a Durkheimian approach to the situation (Feagin p. 15).  They see the social problem, the blacks who are maladjusted to the area, and are trying to fix it by building more residences for them.

In general, chapter two is about a variety of different issues that arose in Northton.  Anderson discusses the lack of role models in the community and the effect it has on the citizens.  He also describes arrival of Asians in the community, the way older members of society view the issue, and how Type A discrimination evolves in the area.  Finally, Anderson talks about a staple of the black community, the relationship between old heads and young boys and Mamas and young boys and girls.

When role models move out of communities, bad things can happen.  When people like Mr. Willis and Dr. Davis, two higher class citizens who were looked up to by younger generations leave, society begins to go downhill. Mr. and Mrs. Jones, the owners of the local store, who also serve as parents for many children leave, there really isn’t much structure left for the young children.  When people do get out of the area, it’s usually to further their education.  Those who have a degree tend not to come back to the Northton area.  While young folk may hear about the success stories, the results may not seem tangible.  As a black minister stated “they [black children] need them [business people] right around them who will guide and show them how to take hold of life.” (Anderson p.60)

Blacks in the Northton community are used to being discriminated against because of their race.  However, they are the ones who are dishing out the prejudice now.  There was a recent influx of Asians coming to town.  They began purchasing businesses and doing well financially. This really made the members of the community angry. When a group feels threatened that they will have to compete for jobs, the prejudice is bound to happen.  This is called Type A or Isolate discrimination (Feagin 126) and it’s common in areas where there is a large number of a race.  However, it should also be pointed out that not all blacks are opposed to new people entering their community.  As an older black fellow pointed out, he welcomes the new people.  He talks about how he sees the Asians getting their money honestly.  He has no problem with that.  What he does have a problem with is the fact that he sees young black men breaking into cars and stealing things in order to make some money. All this man can see is corruption in the youth and that thoroughly upsets him. (Anderson p.62)

Also discussed in this chapter is perhaps the most important aspect of the black community, the relationships between “old heads” and young boys.  Old heads are older men in the community who are devoted to living a clean lifestyle- they go to church, raise a family, and make an honest living. The young boys are usually at least ten years of age.  Their relationship with one another is simple yet affective.  The old head, who was anywhere between two to forty years older than the young boy, would act a as a mentor. Old heads encourage the boys to do good things with their lives like becoming skilled in a trade and to avoid a life of crime.  Boys would go to the old heads and ask for advice; some boys even looked up to these men as fathers. As highlighted in an interview with a twenty-nine year old head, the man will talk about these boys as if they were his own children.  He loans them money and speaks every fondly of the things they’re doing with their lives.  As the saying goes, “all good things must come to an end” and that’s just what happened with the old head/ young boy relationship.  As things drastically change in the neighborhood, the impact of an old head is slowly losing ground.  The boys tend to lose respect for the men who were once valued as strong mentors.  Older men weren’t the only role models in the community.  Older women, often times called some form of “Mama” also had a large impact on the younger generation.  Mama could not only dish out advice, but she could also dish out corporal punishment.  Mama acted as a surrogate mother or grandma for those in need (Anderson p. 73).  Many of these women are known in the society and are respected.

Chapter three describes the infamous drug dealers.  In this chapter, a former drug dealer gives us a glimpse into how the dealing system works.  He explains that there are top dogs- those who are making the most money, they distribute the drugs, middle dogs- the ones who do the selling for the top dogs, and then there are the low dogs- the ones who buy from the middle dogs and make the least amount of money (Anderson p. 84).  Anderson also begins to describe the distinct features of a crack house.  How there can be people lying on the floor, with needles sticking out of their bodies. There are women who willingly go to the house with full intentions of selling their body for a fix.  The details of the house are quite horrifying, and they aren’t too uncommon in the area.  People in the community can go around and point out the various crack houses.

Several old heads talked about how they don’t meant anything to the young boys and girls anymore.  When old heads try to offer advice they could get “cursed out” or ‘cut up” (Anderson p. 102).  Many are not willing to take chances like that.  It seems that they are deeply upset to be watching these young people throw their lives down the drain.  An example of this is a girl who had a degree in teaching and ended up on crack.  Now the girl has absolutely nothing and she sells her body to get a fix.  The old heads tend to give up after so many discouraging encounters.

Anderson also described how the community becomes very tired of the drugs.  They do all they can to help lessen the number of children who are exposed to the risks associated with the fast life.  After school programs are implemented, but sometimes, that doesn’t even work.  Tyrone Pitts shared a story about the football and baseball teams he coached.  He was utterly shocked when he found out that some of his best players became addicted to drugs.  One boy even showed up under the influence before a championship game.  Not all efforts are lost however.  Pitts was also part of a very diverse group of people who put their efforts together to make a difference.  They began contacting police officers and public officials to work with them.  Soon enough, they were slowly shutting down crack houses and putting drug dealers in jail.

Chapter four describes the role that sex plays in the Northton community.  Young men and women seem to play a “game”, and sex is a tool that gets them good standing.  In general, girls are looking for a knight in shining armor (Anderson p. 117).  They want to find a man who will give them a family, a home, and a steady life.  The boys that they are chasing often times pretend that they are shooting for the same goal in life, when in reality all they’re trying to do is gain bragging rights with their friends.  Pregnancy eventually becomes an issue, some women feel that carrying a man’s baby gives her power and will force the guy to settle down and become her partner for life.  Also included in having a baby is a financial boost, women are able to collect checks for Welfare.  However, power and money are not the only reasons that pregnancy becomes a problem, the fact that there is little to no sexual education provided by schools and their family is a big issue for young teens.  Many of the girls don’t learn about pregnancy prevention until after their first child (Anderson p.136).

Chapter five describes the arrival of new people to the Village and Northton areas.  There are several different people who arrive in the town being naïve about what they have gotten themselves into.   A lot of the newcomers end up with their vehicles and house broken into, and quickly decide to split. One of the top issues is whether or not a newcomer can handle issues of race.  While some turn their head the other way and pretend that they “can’t see” color, most are consciously making racist decisions.  A prime example of this is a father who has a son in an integrated school.  His son’s friend, who is a young black male from the Northton community, came over one morning to visit.  Before the father opened the door, he was having second thoughts- he began thinking about the repercussions of allowing the boy into the home, giving him breakfast, or even being pleasant with him.  Thoughts about the future rushed into the man’s head- would this young boy show up in ten years to pull a fast one on the family, or would this boy introduce drugs to his son?   (Anderson p. 148)  The main issue Anderson is outlining is the interactions between the blacks and whites in the Village community.  Not only do the residents of the area have to be on watch of one another, but the police have to know what’s going on as well.  Life is not easy for a middle class black family living in the Village because many of the white inhabitants don’t think that they’re actually residents of the area.  This often times is an issue with the police.

The issue of the anonymous black male is often times a red flag for white folks in the Northton community.  Chapter six discusses the factors that people look at when they are accessing a black man they see walking down the street.  Even if the man is a middle class family guy, the public in most cases, cannot get passed his maleness or his blackness.  White women will go out of their way to avoid the man who is in a “street uniform” (Anderson 167) or who is traveling with a group of young men.  This defense system is a part of being streetwise.

Chapter seven of Anderson describes the relationship between the black male and the police.  He starts out by sharing a story of his own run-in with the police. He had his car stolen and needed to take the appropriate steps in order to find it.  As he sat in the back of the police car looking for his vehicle, he felt as if people automatically assumed that he was in some kind of trouble.  When the police officer first arrived, he was a bit skeptical of Anderson, but quickly made nice with him after Anderson told that he was a professor.  Anderson had the opportunity to informally interview the officer as they were driving around town.  In this chapter Anderson also describes the potential for police brutality, a growing problem in the urban area.  This is not only a problem in Northton, according to Feagin, nearly 80 percent of black respondents said that the police did not treat the black residents as fairly as the white residents (Feagin p. 140).

Chapter eight of Anderson begins to describe street etiquette and wisdom.  Anderson begins describing how there is a “we/they” mentality used between whites and blacks (Anderson p.207).  Each race is pegged with defining traits, the white race receiving the more flattering adjectives, while blacks get negative connotations.  He describes how white have little protection on the streets because they do not have as many opportunities to become streetwise.  Blacks may not mug other blacks because there is a higher probability they could be identified by the victim and there is a better chance that the person may take matters into their own hands and retaliate.  In the Village community, whites and middle class blacks are more prone to take the defense of avoidance.  This usually helps most of them from dodging confrontation, but it draws a line between the races which can cause more problems.

Walking down seems like it would be something easy to do, but not in the Village community.  People have developed this “ballet” down to a science (Anderson 218).  It’s all about merging, crossing the street, picking up the pace, slowing down a little bit, and knowing what sidewalks to avoid.  This silent communication between the races helps to put everyone at ease.  Another factor is eye contact.  One cannot let their eyes linger for too long on another person on the street, it may make people feel insecure or even threatened.  Anderson suggests that one of the most important issues to watch is in the money category.  One should not allow others to see just how much cash they have on them, so when they are at the checkout counter, they should only get out enough money to pay for their total and not flash the rest of their cash (Anderson p. 221).

Anderson calls for many changes in the community at the end of his book.  He recognizes the fact that better educational opportunities are needed for you people to gain an advantage. He also thinks that more jobs should be implemented in the area.  More industry will bring more people, more jobs, and more livelihood to the area.  Factors such as education and employment work hand in hand for developing a greater society with minimal social problems.

Overall, the central thesis that Anderson is examining is how a specific group of people “get it on”.  All of the chapters in the book are dedicated to gaining an understanding of how classes and races come together to create a working society.  Sociology is defined as a systematic study of group interactions and how larger forces at play effect behavior, and that is just what Anderson is dissecting.  He’s finding out the history, he’s finding out about the politics and the government in the area, he’s getting to know the people and the town as a whole, and he’s also becoming streetwise.  To examine the social problems, Anderson is mainly using the critical power-conflict perspective.  The power-conflict perspective is seemingly a combination of all the perspectives rolled into one.  It looks at race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and government in order to gain knowledge.

Discrimination is a primary factor in the Northton and Village communities.  Folks from the Northton community are not only judged and analyzed when they’re walking down the street, but also when they are applying for jobs or housing.  When an employer is looking to hire someone new, and a person who is dressed in the “street uniform” walks in, the employer may automatically think that the person could be involved with things of the streets such as drugs, drug dealing, and other crimes.  Also, police officers treat the residents differently just because of the color of their skin.  It isn’t unusual for black males to be stopped and harassed by the police because they often run into Type discrimination.  The discrimination doesn’t stop with just races.  There are also judgments being passed about males and females.  An example of this is a woman having to pay more for an apartment because she is not seen as being “stable” since she doesn’t have a man in her life.

To look at sociology from one of the traditional perspectives is quite absurd.  Sociology is more than this or that, black or white, here or there.  One must observe all aspects of a culture in order to be able to examine true social problems.  If Anderson were to just look at the troubles that the Northton community’s situation today, he might end up inaccurately judging the citizens.  One of the most important things about sociology is gaining the entire perspective and realizing that issues are more than just economically deep- they’re racially deep, they’re historically deep, and they’re personally deep.  For example, the French sociologist Emilie Durkheim failed to observe factors of racism, sexism, or class conflict (Feagin p. 14).  When he points out the fact that people who stray away from the social norm are “deviates” he is missing the whole reason why those people became labeled as “deviants”.  Anderson explains the reasons why these people got to the places they are today some reasons include the immigration of Asians to the neighborhoods- they took away jobs and housing for the working class blacks, another example is the people who lost their 9-5 and who have turned to selling drugs in order to support their families.

Feagin outlines A. W. Phillips’ idea about unemployment in the United States.  Phillips believed that when unemployment was high, the government should tax less and spend more money, and when the unemployment rate was low, the government should tax more and spend less.  He also states that higher employment rates cause more inflation, so that means that a 5.5% unemployment rate is necessary (Feagin p.88).   If this idea is put into effect, the communities that Anderson describes, specifically Northton would be in deep trouble.  Northton and similar urban areas would undoubtedly make up a large portion of that unemployment rate.  Unemployed people are not in a position to make a change or make a positive impression on their community; therefore, the urban area would suffer.  Not many people would be living there because there are no jobs and poor educational facilities, inflation would be on the rise, and these people would still have no way out.

The United States has a two part market system, there’s the primary labor market, and the secondary labor market.  The primary labor market can be classified as the jobs with substantial wages and good benefits and there is minimal unemployment.  Most of the employees are white males (Feagin p. 95).  The secondary labor market is composed of low wages, high turnover rates, and unemployment- it’s basically the opposite of the primary labor market, yet it is the market that most of the population’s job falls in.  The Village would typically have more residents who are working in the primary market, while the Northton community would have residents falling into the secondary labor market.  Northton has far more people who are working below the poverty line and who are unemployed.  The livelihood of both of these markets greatly impacts the economy of the community because money is always an issue, whether it is for the education system, developments of new companies, or even for the individual being able to provide food for their family.  Times when the economy is bad are the times when residents of the Northton community turn to activities such as selling drugs and stealing property.

Anderson’s work provides a distinct look at an urban community. He is very affective in pointing out specific examples about being streetwise.  The fact that Anderson took several years out of his life to put himself in a less than secure situation for the sake of sociology is very honorable.  He lived the life as a resident of the community.  He frequented the places that folks “got it on” and became accepted in the society.  His methods for collecting data and information could have potentially put him in harm’s way.  Anderson rode around in police cars, talked to the crack-cocaine whore, spoke with the addicts, sat down with the “old heads”, and put himself on a resident’s level.  His work was not only on the sociological realm, but also gives him a strong journalistic reporting reputation.  For me, it would be very difficult to use the tactics that Anderson did in order to do the research.  Since I am a white female, I don’t think that blending into the Northton community would be an easy task for me, I would need to figure out the codes of the street very quickly in order to survive.  Even if I would gain the street wisdom that I need, I don’t think that the study would be as successful.

From reading this book, I learned many things.  Over the years, I’ve had some substantial interactions in urban areas.  I developed a bit of my own streetwise, but there were just some situations I couldn’t understand. Each year, I go to Harlem for a weekend with a group of predominately white high school kids and we stay at a local Salvation Army.  When we pull up to Malcolm X Blvd, the people in the streets stop and stare because they’re not used to seeing so many white people at one time- some of the residents even joke that it’s “snowing” in Harlem when we arrive.  This year, I took a group of younger high school kids down the street to a Starbucks.  Walking a few yards in front of us was a middle aged gentleman who was pretending to talk on his cell phone, well not just talk, he was screaming into the device as he blared Beyonce from his boom box.  When I was in the situation, I had very little idea what was going on, but now that I have read Streetwise, I have gained a world understanding.  I now know the intimidation factor that all residents must present on a daily basis and how it is so critical to their survival.  When I walk down the street and I see the drug addict begging for money, I now have a small glimpse into how he could have arrived in the situation he is currently facing and from reading Feagin; I also have an idea of the statistics which haunt the urban areas.

There is no doubt in my mind that someone who is interested in learning more about the social problems of an urban area should read Anderson’s book.  The language that he uses is a level that is understandable, yet elegant at the same time.  His dedication to the project is something that can be greatly admired and respected.  By reading Feagin side by side, students can understand that the work Anderson has done is very legit and can be looked at as a valuable resource.

 

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