Analysis Of “In Search Of Horatio Alger”

Philippe Bourgois’ 1989 article “In Search of Horatio Alger” takes a fairly sympathetic but nonetheless alarming look at the underground crack economy thriving in inner-city America. While he does not approve crack dealing or the violence it encourages, he demonstrates a solid grasp of why urban youth sometimes opt for this illegal trade, and he elaborates credibly on the “culture of poverty” idea scholars have debated for decades. After using a series of vignettes he gathered while observing the crack trade in New York’s Spanish Harlem, Bourgois segues into his analysis, which treats the crack economy like a business.

He presents a context of socioeconomic change, in which well-paying manufacturing work has disappeared and been replaced by low-paying, poorly-regarding service-sector jobs. While many accept these, along with their exploitive conditions and low pay, others seek alternatives that seem less demeaning. Bourgois (1989, p. 626) writes, “These pariahs of urban industrial society seek their income, and subsequently their identity and the meaning in their life, through what they perceive to be high-powered careers ‘on the street.

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’” Though the crack trade is illegal and excluded from the mainstream economy, it nonetheless functions very much like a business and is indeed a sort of parallel. Not only does it provide sellers with income, but it also depends on control of designated territories (claimed and enforced through violence), has a clearly-defined hierarchy with bosses who collect receipts from workers on assigned shifts (and maintain discipline), competes for customers (also violently at times), and has an overriding concern for bottom lines.
The chief difference, though, is the participants’ ethnicity (often black or Latino), their lack of education, and the heavy use of violence. Bourgois points out (1989, p. 632) that while legitimate businesses consider violence irrational and aberrant, within the crack world it “can be interpreted, according to the logic of the underground economy, as a judicious case of public relations, advertising, rapport building, and . . . ‘human capital development.
’” Legitimate businesses use professional behavior, protocol, and nonviolent means of cultivating personal relations and enforcing their standards because violence deviates from their norms; in impoverished inner-city neighborhoods, though, violence is the norm and is highly effective. For these people, crack dealing represents a legitimate career not only because it is easy to enter, but mainly because it seems a viable alternative to the racial and social subordination inherent to service jobs.
Bourgois rejects the notion that the urban poor are simply passive victims of a changing economy; instead, he argues that it is an active, advertent effort by the inner-city poor to create an economy that supports them and, perhaps more importantly, gives them prestige, albeit on their own terms. They see no dignity in service-sector work and find independence, flexibility, and a respite from racism in this alternative economy. In addition, inner-city youth often encounter negative attitudes and have discouraging experiences in the legal economy, thus making crack dealing seem a viable alternative.
Using the Puerto Ricans he met in Spanish Harlem as an example, Bourgois (1989, p. 626) writes that the urban poor are deemed “unemployable” and trapped in a culture of poverty, the existence of which has not been disproved after decades of scholarly debate. He adds (1989, p. 626) that “the media and a large portion of the inner-city residents themselves continue to subscribe to [the] culture-of-poverty concept. ” Excluded by institutional racism, poor education, and troubled family lives, the urban poor are also beset by a changing economy that allows them to hold only menial, poor-paying jobs that offer little or no advancement (1989, p.
627). In fact, those who favor the crack trade view legitimate jobs with disdain, rejecting the system in ways that they believe it has rejected them. Bourgois (1989, p. 629) claims that because they are trained for subordinate roles by the educational system and offered only low-status jobs, such people sometimes react by developing a kind of “structurally induced cultural resistance” fed by deep frustration and anger. As he asserts (1989, p. 630), “The underground economy .
. . is the ultimate ‘equal opportunity employer’ for inner-city youth. ” Bourgois also implies that such feelings are understandable, especially given the fact that many in the crack economy had negative experiences in legal jobs, though he also concedes that not all of the working poor are automatically driven to illegal livelihoods. To his credit, though, Bourgois does not condemn the poor or claim that the socioeconomic system automatically drives them into lives of crime.
Though the crack trade appears to some a viable alternative to jobs that earn little money or respect, Bourgois does not romanticize the crack dealer as a noble figure or excuse the crack economy in general. Instead, he condemns the effects crack has on inner-city neighborhoods; though a lucrative business, it is a destructive force because of the addictions it creates and the violence by which dealers create and maintain reputations. In his field work, Bourgois pays particular attention to the dealers’ machismo and alludes to the especially negative effects crack has on women.
Though Bourgois claims (1989, p. 644) that poor women of color are actually more emancipated in recent years, since they work outside the home more than in past decades and are not as homebound as in previous generations. However, the crack economy puts women into an ugly paradox; those who attach themselves to the crack trade are usually hangers-on, attracted by the prospect of money and drugs, and they often allow themselves to be treated more as objects than as people. Also, addiction forces some to turn to prostitution in order to support their habits, at the expense of their families.
Few are allowed to become dealers; though Bourgois (1989, pp. 623-625) mentions one in his field observations, many are barred from street dealing because of their vulnerability to physical violence and, in a parallel with the legitimate economy, are barred from rising very far in this street economy. Women’s involvement is encouraged, but limited by the dynamics of machismo and the reality of physical violence as a means of building and maintaining reputations; they are as subordinate in this economy as they are in the legitimate one, albeit with vastly more damaging consequences in the former. As Bourgois explains (1989, p.
645), “[The] proves of emancipation that has enabled women to demand equal participation in street culture and to carve out an expanded niche for themselves in the underground economy has led to a greater depreciation of women. . . .” Bourgois presents a credible explanation of why some of the urban poor are drawn to the underground crack economy. Their ambitions and energies, frustrated by social, educational, and economic conditions, are sometimes channeled into the violent, risky, but intensely lucrative crack trade because it represents, he claims, a sort of Horatio Alger “rags to riches” story for the post-industrial age.
He does not demonize the poor as a whole, or even those who gravitate toward crack dealing, since he conveys an understanding of why they see few viable alternatives. On the other hand, he does not laud their participation in the underground economy; while he indicates the participants’ sense of rebellion and resistance against discrimination, he depicts the crack economy as a symptom of the much larger social problem of poverty without apparent escape or alternatives.
The article also offers proof that a culture of poverty exists – the examples he uses paint a sordid picture in which the poor feel rejected by the establishment and thus create their own system, which is even more disastrous to their communities and lives. Bourgois, P 1989, “In search of Horatio Alger: culture and ideology in the crack economy,” Contemporary Drug Pr

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