The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances / Edition 1

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While we hear much about the "culture of poverty" that keeps poor black men poor, we know little about how such men understand their social position and relationship to the American dream. Moving beyond stereotypes, this book examines how twenty-six poverty-stricken African American men from Chicago view their prospects for getting ahead. It documents their definitions of good jobs and the good life—and their beliefs about whether and how these can be attained. In its pages, we meet men who think seriously about work, family, and community and whose differing experiences shape their views of their social world.

Based on intensive interviews, the book reveals how these men have experienced varying degrees of exposure to more-privileged Americans—differences that ground their understandings of how racism and socioeconomic inequality determine their life chances. The poorest and most socially isolated are, perhaps surprisingly, most likely to believe that individuals can improve their own lot. By contrast, men who regularly leave their neighborhood tend to have a wider range of opportunities but also have met with more racism, hostility, and institutional obstacles—making them less likely to believe in the American Dream.

Demonstrating how these men interpret their social world, this book seeks to de-pathologize them without ignoring their experiences with chronic unemployment, prison, and substance abuse. It shows how the men draw upon such experiences as they make meaning of the complex circumstances in which they strive to succeed.

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What People Are Saying

Michele Lamont
This is a book that has stayed with me. It profoundly enriches the reader's understanding of the world inhabited by marginalized black men. Al Young succeeds in moving well beyond common assumptions about the underclass and the often-decried 'culture of poverty' argument to discover how young poor black men understand their social position, the determinants of social mobility (and immobility), and their relationship with the American dream.
Michele Lamont, Harvard University, author of "The Dignity of Working Men"
Terry Williams
There are few studies written with such power of voice and ethnographic and theoretical verisimilitude. Young has captured the essence of these men. His elegant and erudite book will add immeasurably to the debate on urban poverty, race, representation, and the ethnography of so-called hard-to-reach populations.
Terry Williams, The New School
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691127002
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 1/16/2006
  • Series: Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,039,520
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Alford A. Young, Jr., is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and in the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan.

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Read an Excerpt

The Minds of Marginalized Black Men

Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances
By Alford A. Young, Jr.

Princeton University Press

Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-12700-X



LARRY: I'd like to get away from around the projects. I'd have my own apartment man, you know, my own place jack. I'd come home and just relax man. I'd like to have something like that, a little car ... Man, if I could just move out them projects, man, and get my own spot, get a nice paying job man ... I mean what more can I ask for man? I mean I'd be satisfied with that right there, you know ... I could talk about it but I know it ain't going to come true, man Seems like every time I try to get away I end up back there. And that just kills me jack. It seems like something just keeps pulling me back. DEVIN: The main thing I want to be is a good father to my kids and to my wife ... I'm leaving out of Chicago and start over in Mississippi It's better down there for me. I don't have to hear that confusion that's going on now and I ain't got to gangbang. It's a country part where I could build like I want to live and do what I want to do. CASEY: Regardless of my situation I know exactly who I am ... So if you have a lot more material things that you manufactured-that you made sure that you can only have-doesn't make me nodifference. I got life. I got a family now that I love. I'm a real person. I feel like I have emotions and I'm not scared to say it. I'm a black man in a white man's world. I don't have that fear, you know. And it's their world, believe me.

These are the words of young black men who were born into urban poverty. The men were living in the Near West Side of Chicago, one of the most destitute urban regions in the United States. They were born and reared in the Henry Horner Homes, one of the Near West Side's most infamous public housing developments. They continued to reside in or nearby the development. These men shared a common ground of a life without much material comfort and in the midst of despair and violence. Yet, in significant ways their personal histories are strikingly different. Larry, age 24 in 1994, had never held a full-time job for more than a month or two at a time. He and his siblings (three brothers and one sister) grew up with both parents at home (a rare occurrence for the men discussed in the following pages). He still resided with his parents because he had not yet been able to create a secure and independent life for himself. Although he had little luck at finding work, he had never seen the inside of a jail cell, nor associated much with men who often did. Unfortunately, staying out of trouble did not mean that Larry ever came close to staying employed.

Devin, age 21, was an active gang member, on parole after serving time for possession of narcotics. He spoke his words in 1994, less than two months after surviving a hit-and-run attempt by rival gang members. This was by far the most severe of several life-threatening encounters that he experienced in nearly ten years of gangbanging. Devin's involvement with gangs began early in his adolescence. Since then, he had been shot at, had fired upon other people, sold drugs, fenced stolen goods, and had spent nearly the same amount of time in jail or on parole as he had attending high school. Although he claimed to have a more notorious reputation in the neighborhood than any of his close peers, he said that their lifestyles were similar to his own. Devin had never had any formal employment in his life.

Casey, a twenty-five-year-old ex-convict, stands somewhere between Larry and Devin in terms of participating in the illicit activities associated with the Near West Side. When he first spoke to me in 1993, he had recently completed a drug rehabilitation program that helped him to curb his addiction for the first time since he began using drugs as a teenager. His work history consisted of packing bags in supermarkets. The rest of his income came from hustling and drug dealing. Casey had an older brother who was a neighborhood gang leader until he was killed in the early 1990s during a gang-related conflict. Although his brother was heavily involved in gang activity, Casey managed to avoid that life. Casey's ability to avoid the gang life was largely due to his brother's reputation in the community, which created a protective shield for the rest of the family. Being a sibling of a high-profile gang member meant that Casey did not have to gangbang in order to reap its most esteemed social benefits: status and deference in the neighborhood. Casey still got into some trouble of his own, combining a small-scale career in drug dealing with a great deal of personal drug use. After serving a few years in jail and a few months in rehabilitation, he was back on the streets of the Near West Side and, as he said, eager to begin pulling himself together.

To the outside world these men represent the underclass. Their accounts reflect an all-too-familiar depiction of poor black men as some of the most disenfranchised and despair-ridden people on the urban landscape. It may not surprise anyone that such men are upset about many aspects of their lives, and would prefer to be free of their present situations if possible. Without a more nuanced exploration into their lives and worldviews, these men would seem to reflect little more than the views and attitudes of the ultra-marginal, socially disconnected people that urban poverty scholars have been studying for the past two decades. There is no doubt that the lives of these men have been deeply affected by facets of urban life such as chronic unemployment, violence, and crime. Yet, these same men do more than merely stand either as passive reactors to such potentially debilitating outside social and economic forces, or as violent-prone individuals who mindlessly lash out at the world with hostility and aggression. Men such as Larry, Devin, and Casey are also men who critically react to the conditions in which they live, and who create a range of worldviews that help them to assign meaning to the social world around them. Unfortunately, their beliefs and thoughts-the material that comprises worldviews-have been given too little analytical attention by scholars of urban poverty.

This oversight in the field of urban poverty stems in large part from a lack of dialogue between two arenas of sociological inquiry. One, the sociology of urban poverty, offers a long-standing and rich tradition of cultural analysis concerning poor black men. Yet that tradition has focused upon the presumed values and norms adopted by these men while reducing investigations of beliefs to the notion that the men think that their path to a better life is obstructed by their entrenchment in the turbulent and pernicious social world of the inner city. Values and norms have been emphasized in this tradition because they are viewed as the causal factors for behavior, and because beliefs were taken to be relatively easy to grasp and consistent over time. As we will explore a bit later, the concepts of values and norms continue to function as core terms in urban poverty research, even as debate has unfolded over the ramifications of using these terms. Unfortunately, that debate has not involved critical assessments of the historical use of other cultural attibutes, such as belief systems or worldviews.

The second arena of sociological inquiry is the more recently established field of cultural sociology. Here cultural analysis has extended far beyond a mid-twentieth-century preoccupation with norms and values in order to explore the social and political implications concerning the construction of meaning systems in everyday life. A large part of the research agenda here is to explore how it is that patterns of thought become "common sense" for certain kinds of people, yet unfamiliar or odd ways of thinking for others. In the sociology of culture, questions and issues about meaning have exploded across research agendas, yet far too little of this agenda has seriously incorporated the case of poor black men. Drawing on the tools of cultural sociology, the central goal of this book is to combine these two perspectives in order to develop a richer and more textured portrait of how poor black men make sense of their lives-how they think creatively about their lives and their future prospects-given the structural conditions that they face.

The stories told here reveal aspects of the lives of poor black men that have been neglected in the scholarship. In order to counter the traditional, often troublingly simplistic pictures of these men as either extremely passive or overly aggressive respondents to the external forces of urban poverty, The Minds of Marginalized Black Men employs the men's own words. These words reveal the extent to which the men function as more complex creative actors in response to those forces, weighing various possibilities for their futures and making conscious choices. The remarks by Larry, Devin, and Casey quoted above provide a unique entry into the worldviews of poor black men that lie hidden beneath the standard images of them as angry, hostile, and alienated. That entry necessitates constructing a new cultural lens on these men. I interviewed twenty-six men between the ages of twenty and twenty-five in two of Chicago's best known housing projects in the Near West Side, the Henry Horner Homes and the ABLA housing development. After introducing the setting for this initiative, we will return to a more complete presentation of the objectives for this investigation.

The Setting

The Near West Side of Chicago is the kind of place where one easily finds young black men such as Larry, Devin, and Casey, who seem to be completely left out of the flow of American social and economic mobility. The region is geographically and socially isolated from downtown Chicago and the opulent western suburbs, and resembles a holding pen for the economically immobile. It is surely one of the most difficult urban communities in which to grow up. While empty lots are quite visible, so are many large-scale public housing units. In the early 1990s public housing comprised approximately 20 percent of the total housing as well as a large portion of the residential space for the African American population of Chicago's Near West Side. Except for the Congress Expressway-a major thoroughfare that runs through the west side of Chicago-about a mile of small houses and abandoned lots separates the Henry Horner Homes from the ABLA Homes. Not surprisingly, low-income and working-class African Americans reside in the units that divide the two housing developments. Little of this neighborhood is noticeable to the suburban commuters who come into downtown Chicago on the expressway in the morning and head back to the suburbs in the evening.

The Governor Henry Horner Homes were built in the 1950s and are just about a mile west of downtown Chicago. The development is comprised of 19 buildings with 1,774 units, almost all of which are occupied by African Americans. According to early 1990s statistics, over 85 percent of the households receive public assistance, and only 8 percent of the households are supported solely by the employment of a member of the household (Chicago Housing Authority 1992). The United Center, the home of the Chicago Bulls of the National Basketball Association and the Blackhawks of the National Hockey League, stands across the street from the eastern edge of Henry Horner. This arena replaced Chicago Stadium in 1994 and is the only part of the community regularly ventured into by people other than poor black Americans. Nearby parking facilities and a large coterie of police officers keep the Center crowd from having much to do with Horner residents. In There Ain't No Children Here (1991), journalist Alex Kotlowitz tells of the intermittent interaction between two brothers from Henry Horner, the central characters in his book, and fans in need of parking for Bulls' games. The men I interviewed spoke very little of this interaction. Except for a few cases in which some got lucky and found short-term jobs, the stadium area remained a foreign country to these men. The same can be said of interaction with West Town, a community located about a half mile north of Henry Horner that is home to a vibrant Latino community, but is also a place of gentrification. Increasingly, white-collar professionals can be seen driving and walking around the area they have made their home.

I conducted interviews with the young black men from the Henry Horner Homes at the 28th Ward alderman's field office, which sits on the western edge of Henry Horner on Western Avenue. Running from one end of Chicago to the other, Western Avenue is a major north-south thoroughfare that forms the western boundary of the Near West Side (and the divider between Horner and Rockwell Gardens, another large public housing project that has a similar statistical profile and quality of life for its residents). The alderman's office has a storefront structure with a near-floor-to-ceiling window in the front. A row of hard plastic and metal chairs sit with their backs against the window. Two desks make up the only other furniture in the front room. Denise, who was the only staff member present every day that I conducted my interviews, occupied one of the two desks. It was her job to greet anyone who entered the office, answer questions, and try to solve basic problems. Whatever Denise could not handle resulted in a scheduled appointment with Diane, the office coordinator who sat in a small office on the other side of the wall behind the front area. Diane was my contact for fieldwork around Henry Horner. A large, affable, woman-I would guess in her mid-forties-she acted like a mother figure to many of the men who came to see me. Diane spread the word around the housing development that I was interested in speaking to young men, and it was thanks to her that the first wave of men came to the office to see me. I later found out from some of the men that she had also asked them to look out for me while I was doing my project, thus giving me some measure of protection for my time at the site.

I conducted interviews in a corner of the large room behind the wall separating the front area from the rest of the office. That room was also the space for the monthly community meeting and other large gatherings. Diane's office at the south end of the large room was actually a space carved out of the larger room and enclosed with drywall and a door. Although she closed her door whenever she came in and saw that I was already at work, her voice, full of the boisterousness that one might find in dialogue among friends at the beauty parlor or barbershop, would always seep through the wall and spill over onto my tape recordings. I'll never forget her "Hey baby! How you feel?!" that came through her opened office door whenever I entered the office after she had already got to her desk. It could be heard out on the street corner. Her overall cheeriness was a stark contrast to the bleak moods and words expressed by the men in the course of the interviews.


Excerpted from The Minds of Marginalized Black Men by Alford A. Young, Jr. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Preface xiii

Making New Sense of Poor Black Men in Crisis 3
Chapter One
The Past and Future of the Cultural Analysis of Black Men 16

Chapter Two
Time, Space, and Everyday Living 37
Chapter Three
Coming Up Poor 65

Chapter Four
Framing Social Reality: Stratification and Inequality 107
Chapter Five
Framing Individual Mobility and Attainment 137
Chapter Six
Looking Up from Below: Framing Personal Reality 156
Chapter Seven
Getting There: Navigating Personal Mobility 180
Chapter Eight
Recasting the Crisis of Poor Black Men 199

Appendix 207
Notes 211
References 247
Index 263

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