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The story revolves around Phillippe’s experience of poverty and ethnic segregation in New York City, one of the most expensive cities in the world. Phillippe is a University professor who sets out for the El Barrio neighborhood in East Harlem in order to research and write a book on his experience of poverty and racial segregation hence the birth of the book titled “In Search of Respect.” His aim is to make the mainstream society comprehend the inner-city problems. The book mainly revolves around crack dealer’s daily activities in the El Barrio neighborhood. Phillippe specifies that the book is not about crack or drugs but rather states that drugs in the inner city are a “symptom” of social marginalization and alienation. The social and economic challenges that the people of El Barrio face are not only a product of their actions but also of a greater set of events and structural framework of which they are a part. In fact, Phillippe asserts that selling drugs and involvement of the locals in underground economic activities enabled them to access the essentials the poor people would not be able to access were it not for these crimes. On arrival in El Barrio in 1985, Phillippe notes that there was no crack cocaine in the area but as time progressed the method of cooking up the drug was embraced by the locals. In the book Phillippe mainly focuses on the underground economy which is the most popular technique that the locals use to earn a living. From the conversations with the drug dealers, it is clear that most of these individuals resorted to selling and abusing drugs after being frustrated from achieving their dreams using legal means. Resorting to peddling and using drugs could be due to lack of education or legal papers which one requires in order to run a legal business. The immigrants started working in factories from the low ages such as twelve years old.
Since the 1950s through the 1980s the Puerto Ricans were trapped in the most vulnerable niche of factory-based economy that was rapidly replaced by service industries. This led to the decrease in factory jobs and the people who were working in these factories had to find a way to survive. The story is fascinating as we get to journey into the minds of drug dealers, explore the dynamics of street culture, get a firsthand insight into racism, violence, economic marginalization, police brutality, lack of cultural capital and stereotypes that revolve around life in ghettos such as El Barrio. These themes help us familiarize with the life in El Barrio and comprehend the struggles that the locals deal with on a day to day basis thus explaining urban poverty. Themes Violence is highly observed from one scene to another in this text. According to Primo (manager of the Game Room crack house) and Caesar (Primo’s lookout), it is important to be mean or perform acts that could be viewed as self-destructive in order to keep the locals from “testing” you. Respect and loyalty are reinforced by fear in that once the community fears you, there is a better chance that one will encounter lesser problems while going about their daily activities. Ray, the owner of a network of crack houses uses violence to prevent his employees or business partners from ripping him off. In Phillippe’s words, “upward mobility requires systematic and effective use of violence against just about anyone including self.” For instance, Ray publicly threatens the professor for exposing his weakness of being illiterate in one of their initial interactions. The professor did not know that Ray could not read and he did not intend to embarrass Ray in front of his employees and the consequence of this action was him being banned from being seen in any of the crack houses for several months.
The term “juice” is used to refer to the street respect and Ray had a lot of it in order to successfully run his operations. According to Primo, Ray and Luis allegedly beat up an old man and raped him. From one perspective one would think the act reflected homosexuality on Ray’s part but from another perspective, rape is about giving power and in this case it could mean Ray’s overall masculinity. On a separate incident in the text we observe that Ray was contemplating hiring killers for Luis instead of paying his attorney despite the fact that it would cost him the same amount of money that the attorney was asking for; $ 3,000. The police are also not off the hook when it comes to dealing with the residents of El Barrio. The author describes some of his interactions with the police. On some instances he tried to be honest and polite when talking to the police but this resulted in public humiliation, verbal assault and receiving threats. He quickly learned to carry his ID around and including “sir-officer” in his short replies in order to manage the situations smoothly. In his stay in El Barrio, the author witnessed several acts of violence including shootings, firebombing, fights, mugging and police brutality. Phillippe realized that people in the neighborhood interacted depending mainly on racial profiling and stereotypes so he had to play along with people’s assumptions as it was hard to convince them the truth. Most characters in the book appear racist and this is evident as at first Phillippe had a hard time creating contact with the drug dealers. Since he was white, most people assumed he was an undercover police and the police assumed that he was a crack addict based on his emaciated body.
From the text we understand that African American interactions with the Puerto Ricans was often hostile as the two racial groups hated each other. Caesar utters some extremely racist words when talking about black people because a black person murdered his sister. Caesar admits that at some point in his life he wanted to be black mainly because they were cool, and most of the underground economy is influenced by the culture of black people but he later came to despise them and claims that he would kill them. He also tells Phillippe that he hated white people too and that he would kill them as well. The only reason why he wouldn’t kill the author was because he was cool and because he interacted with the drug dealers well. Phillippe reports that people who saw him in the neighborhood thought he was lost and some advised him to move to areas like Queens which was more suitable for people of his race. Phillippe’s friends advised him to leave El Barrio, some even accusing him of dragging his family into the area. The author reports that he lost some friends in the mainstream society after moving into the Puerto Rican neighborhood as they thought he was being reckless.
Another theme of the book is the lack of cultural capital. Cultural capital refers to the social assets that an individual possesses. The assets include intellect, education, as well as style of dressing and speech which collectively contribute to the upward mobility of an individual in a stratified society. In the text we observe that most immigrant Puerto Ricans worked in factories from a young age which prevented them from going to school. The fact that they were immigrants or descendants of immigrants translates to lack of proper papers hence making it difficult to operate in the corporate world. A good example is Ray. Despite him being a successful drug dealer, Ray tries to establish a “legit” business but due to his illiteracy and naivety when it comes to bureaucratic procedures his efforts are frustrated. At the beginning of the text the author notes that his relationship with the drug boss was problematic due to the fact that Ray could not trust him but towards the end of his investigation, their relationship was problematic once again as Ray trusted the author too much. Ray was trying to push Phillippe into helping him set up a legitimate business as well as help him launder his money. This meant that outside East Harlem Ray was helpless as his skill set was only useful in his territory and social structure.Generally, the lack of cultural capital locked the people of El Barrio in the state of poverty as they could not fit into the mainstream society and grow in it.
Racial stratification simply refers to a system of inequality in which access to scarce and needed resources is based on ethnic group membership. The society assumes that hard-working immigrants will earn entrée into the labor market and society at large. Another common assumption is that these hard-working immigrants will be integrated into the larger community of a state’s citizens. However, this is not usually the case as in the end even the hard-working immigrants face a lot of challenges in their efforts of trying to fit in the new society. Looking at the community in El Barrio, it is clear to see that the struggles that the immigrants faced in their attempt to settle in America at the same level as other citizens. After being frustrated consistently, the community turned to the underground economy in order to make ends meet. Racial stratification contributes immensely to poverty in the inner-city as the locals are locked out from opportunities that would lead to financial stability legally. All the drug dealers in the book look forward to going “legit” at some point in their lives but that future looks bleak based on circumstances that are beyond their control.
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