Crack in Spanish Harlem

Crack in Spanish Harlem by Phillipe Bourgois

A summary


Marcia Helene Hewitt

University of Western Australia


Development of Social Thought

Anthropology 2214


August 2008




"put on every inner city radio show, ‘the white man wants you to smoke that crack.’

                         Bourgois, 2001



 Key words: neo-marxism, structuralism, gender politics, achievement gap,

resistance culture, culture of poverty, cultural reproduction.




Bourgois wrote about the drug trade in Harlem, New York City in the 1980s, where he lived as participant observer for over three years. He is a cultural anthropologist who was influenced by Bourdieu and Michael Foucault, and is a  professor at the university of Pennsylvania. (Haanstad, 1997). The influence of Bourdieu is clear in his writing, since Bourdieu linked economic forces with variables such as respect, disrespect and honour. (Buchanan, 2008).


To begin, Bourgois  differs from culture of poverty theorists who emphasise  that poor people are poor because they are socially conditioned to be poor through the type of culture that they belong to, and that they will continue to reproduce that culture./ For example, in Five Families (Lewis, 1959) Oscar Lewis depicts the culture  of poverty as a form of adaptation. Bourgois points out that in Harlem quite the opposite is true. The “Great American Dream” is only too obvious; crack dealers are “ambitious, energetic…attracted into the underground economy in order to try frantically to get their piece of the pie as fast as possible” (Bourgois, 1989, p. 9)


Further, Bourgois, in his characteristic ‘thick description’ (Geertz, 1973) illustrates that in addition to the American Dream, many crack dealers were part of a culture of resistance, a refusal to accept the institutionalized racism ,  classism and humiliation that came with ‘legal employment’.  Many of the dealers had been employed in jobs such as delivery boys or check out dudes in supermarkets, and simply felt that minimum wage employment was exploitative and eroded their self esteem.  Selling crack was a way to have  higher self esteem, drive a better car and possibly to buy a better house.  Selling crack gave many people the prestige that working in the “ASPCA cleaning out the gas chambers where stray dogs and cats were killed” did not. (Gato, 2002, In Search of Respect).


Bourgois also mentions cultural reproduction theory and  compares marginalisation

within the New York community to ethnographic studies  in Los Angeles. He refers to the studies of Bowles and Gintis (1977) which illustrate  the dynamic of ideological domination. These ethnographic studies document how students resist school, which marginalizes  them for the rest of their lives, or that ‘success’ for inner city African Americans requires a rejection of their ethnicity. (Fordham, 1988). Some of these studies are called the “achievement gap” where there is an observed disparity between groups of students, especially groups defined by gender, race/ethnicity or socioeconomic status. (Kozol, J. 1977) Bougois points out that cultural reproduction theories such as the above are flawed in this way;  that the crack economy created “successful” careers in underground economics and that dealers often make fun of friends who are still employed in factories or service jobs or general ‘shitwork’ (Bourgois.1985, p. 8). In other words, the crack economy isn’t really a form of marginalization, but a form of resistance culture:  Puerto Ricans in New York are a subculture and so behave like other subcultures and form their own economy. (Lewis, O. La Vida, 1965).


Feminism and capitalism take on a new dimension in Bourgois’ writing when he writes about  prostitution in Harlem. Because women  no longer want to stay home and look after children,  the ‘liberated woman’ sells her emaciated body for 5 dollars on the street corner or the basketball court. Women and young children are often seen at the crack houses socializing and pursuing careers in the underground economy seeking their identity through participation within street economy. Therefore the market is flooded with lower prices for sex, epidemics in venereal disease and greater degrees of abuse.

ie  addicted women are more vulnerable and allow men to humiliate and ridicule them. (Bourgois, 1989, p. 11).




Bourgois’ structuralism and Marxism ring loud and clear in this article.  He quickly paints a picture of racism and  cultural resistance of Puerto Ricans within the larger New York economy.  He emphasizes the humanity of the characters and their struggle to achieve dignity and status in the crack industry as compared to being delivery boys and baggers in supermarkets.  He denounces abusive, exploitative and often racist bosses and supervisors, and describes the culture of violence as an adaptive mechanism to being successful in selling crack, eg. “Gato had a reputation for being soft or pussy…he had been beaten with a baseball bat and kicked to the ground twice.” (Bourgois, p.8). He ends the article by mentioning the gender roles that women play within the crack industry, and how the new post modern woman who does not have to stay home and look after children is now “free” to be exploited for her body. She also needs the money to support her habit.

Traditional gender relations still govern women’s income strategies, including taking on more abuse and public degradation, reinforcing the ideological domination of women. The theme of institutionalized racism, gender violence and humiliation run throughout Bourgois’ analysis of drug culture in New York.



Footnote: the writer of this essay was a Volunteer for the Naltrexone programme run by Dr. George O’Neil and found that within drug addicts in Perth, much of what Bourgois says as true for Puerto Ricans in Harlem also holds true for teenage addicts here in Perth, ie, it is a way of being ‘cool’ or successful within the terms of their immediate community. (Hewitt, 2008)

























Bourdieu, P. Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris. Outline of a Theory of Practice.  Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.




Bourgois, Phillippe. 1989. Crack in Spanish Harlem. Article in Anthropology Today Vol. 5 No 4. August 1989.


Bourgois, Philippe. 2002. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio.

Cambridge University Press.  Cambridge.


Bourgois’ webpage (

[accessed 12 August 2008]



Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis. 1977. Schooling in Capitalist America. New York: Basic Books.


Buchanan, D. 2008. Personal communication via email. Dave Buchanan is a retired Professor of sociology.


Fordham, Signithia. 1988. Racelessness as a Factor in Black Students’ School Success: Pragmatic Strategy or Pyrrhic Victoria?” Harvard Educational Review 58: 1 : 54-84.


Geertz, C. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. Pp. 5-6, 9-10. New York. Basic Books.


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Guanipa, C. 1999. Self-esteem, Dept. of Counseling. School of Psychology. San Diego University. San Diego.


Haanstad, Eric.2001. “Being a Public Anthropologist: An Interview with Philippe Bourgois.” Graduate Journal. University of Wisconsin. Madison.



Hewitt, Marcia. 2008. Participant observation 1998-2003  of rehabilitating heroin users in houses in Coghlan Road Subiaco 2000-2003.


Kozol, Jonathan. 1970. Death at an Early Age. Plume. USA



Lareau, Annette. 2000. Home Advantage. Social Class & Parental Intervention. Rowan & Littlefield. New York.


Leacock, E. 2000. Interpreting the origins of gender inequality: Conceptual & Historical Problems. Mayfield. California. As sited in UWA Course Reader 2214, Semester 2, 2008..


Lewis, Oscar. 1965. La Vida. Random House. New York.


Lewis, Oscar.1959. Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty. Basic Books. New York.


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