Chapter 7: Conclusion (pp. 208-231)

Explain the crucial significance of Liebow’s assertion that ghetto related behavior is directly related to the specific socio-economic conditions of life in the neighborhood. 

This inside world does not appear as a self­-contained, self-generating, self-sustaining  system or even subsystem with clear boundaries marking it off from the larger world around it. It is in con­tinuous,  intimate  contact  with  the larger  society-- indeed, is an integral part of it-- and is no more impervious to the values, sentiments and beliefs of the larger society  than it  is to the blue welfare checks or to the agents of the larger society, such as the policeman, the police in­former, the case worker, the  landlord, the dope pusher, the Tupperware demonstrator, the num­bers backer or the anthropologist.

How does he defend his assertion that employment is of primary importance in altering ghetto related behavior?

One of  the major  points  of  articulation  between  the inside world  and  the larger society surrounding it is in the area of employment. The way in which the man makes a living and the kind of living he  makes  have  important  con­sequences for how the man sees himself  and is seen by others; and these, in turn, importantly shape  his  relationships  with  family  members, lovers, friends and neighbors.

Jobs are only intermittently available. They are almost always menial, sometimes hard, and never pay enough to support a family. In general, the menial job lies outside the job hierarchy and promises to offer no more tomorrow than it does today.

He has little vested interest in such a job  and learns to treat it  with  the  same  contempt held for it by the employer and society at large. From his point of view,  the  job  is  expendable;  from the employer's point of view, he is.

How do the corner and its shadow system of values provide a sanctuary for these men?

Increasingly he turns to the streetcor­ner where a shadow system of values constructed out of public fictions serves to accommodate just such men as he, permitting them to be men once again provided they do not look too closely at one another's credentials....

The streetcorner is, among other things, a sanc­tuary for those who can no longer endure the  experience  or  prospect  of  failure.  There,  on the streetcorner, public fictions  support  a system  of values which, together with the value system of society at large, make for a world of ambivalence, contradiction   and  paradox,  where  failures are rationalized  into  phantom  successes  and  weak­nesses magically  transformed  into strengths. 

Summarize the content of the corner culture’s attitudes toward

1.      Fatherhood and Marriage

He wants to  be  publicly,  legally  married,  to  support  a family and be the head of it, because this is what it is to be a man in our society, whether one lives in a room near the Carry-out or in an elegant house in the suburbs.

Although he wants to get married, he hedges on his commitment from the very beginning be­cause he is afraid, not of marriage itself, but of his own ability to carry out his responsibilities as husband and father. 

He carries job  failure home where his family life is undergoing a parallel deterioration. His wife's adult male models also failed as husbands and fathers and she expects no less from him. She hopes but does not expect him to be a good pro­vider, to make of them a family and be head of it, to be "the man of the house." But his failure to do these things does not make him easier to live with because it was expected. 

On the  streetcorner,  the man chooses to forget  he got married because he wanted to get married and assume  the duties, responsibilities  and  status of manhood;  instead,  he  sees  himself  as  the  "put­ upon" male who  got married because his girl was pregnant  or  because  he  was  tricked,  cajoled  or otherwise persuaded  into  doing  so. He  explains the failure of his marriage by the "theory of manly flaws." Conceding that to be head of a family and to support it is a principal measure of a man, he claims he was too much of a man to be a man.

Outside of marriage, he sees himself  as a ruth­less exploiter of women. Where women are con­cerned, he says, a man should take what he can get when he can get it. He claims not to under­stand  men  who  do  otherwise.

2.      Friendship

Friendships are precious relationships and of special importance to one's sense of physical and emotional security. Ideally, friendship is seen as a system of mutual aid in  which the movement of money, goods, services and emotional support flows freely out of loyalty and generosity and ac­cording to need rather than as a mutual exchange resting securely on a quidpro quo basis. But money, goods and the stuff of comfort are normally in short supply, obliging each man to keep careful if secret account of what he gives out and takes in. Moreover, each man knows that his own and his friends' resources are meager and that, unconditional pledges of mutual aid not­ withstanding, each will ultimately have to look to himself whenever he requires more than token assistance or aid of the kind that would materially deplete the resources of the giver. And he knows, too, that all friendships are vulnerable to the sudden clash of self-interest, especially where sex and money are concerned.

           3.   The Corner Culture itself

At the moment his streetcorner relationships take precedence over his wife and children he comes into his full inheritance bequeathed him by his parents, teachers, employers and society at large. This is the step into failure from which few if any return, and it is at this point that the rest of society can wring its hands or rejoice in the certain knowledge that he has ended up precisely as they had predicted he would.

Has Liebow successfully made a case that we should create programs that change the mechanism which produces these behaviors rather than programs which address the ‘immorality’ of the behaviors themselves?

Many similarities between the lower-class Negro father and son (or mother and daughter) do not result from "cultural transmission" but from the fact that the son goes out and independ­ently experiences the same failures, in the same areas, and for much the same reasons as his father. What appears as a dynamic, self-sustaining cultural process is, in part at least, a relatively simple piece of social machinery which turns out, in rather mechanical fashion, independently pro­duced look-alikes. The problem is how to change the conditions which, by guaranteeing failure, cause the son to be made in the image of the father.

[P]overty is, indeed, a proper target in the attempt to bring lower-class Negroes "into the mainstream of American life," and it supports the long line of social scientists, from E. Franklin Frazier and Gunnar Myrdal down through Kenneth Clark and Richard Cloward, in seeing the inability of the Negro man to earn a living and support his family as the central fact of lower-class Negro life. If there is to be a change in this way of life, this central fact must be changed; the Negro man, along with everyone else, must be given the skills to earn a living and an opportunity to put these skills to work.

No one pretends  that this is an easy matter, to be  accomplished at one fell stroke.  For  many Negro men, jobs alone are no longer enough. Be­fore he can earn a living, he must believe that he can do so, and his women and children must learn to believe this along with him. But he finds it diffi­cult to begin without their support, and they find it difficult  to  give their  support until he begins. The beginning, then, will doubtless be a slow one, but, once started, success will feed  on itself  just as failure has done. 9  

[There are those, for example, who say that what we want to do is eliminate poverty from our national life, but these same people throw their hands up in horror when it is suggested that a guaranteed annual wage would go a long way toward doing just that. ]

Appendix: A Field Study in Retrospect (232-256)

How had Liebow planned to conduct this study?

When I thought about just what I was going to do, I kept in mind the job Richard Slobodin had done for the Child Rearing Study in the summer of 1960.2 As part of the effort to get at community as well as family influences in child rearing,  the director had  assigned  Slobodin to "make like an anthropologist" in a one-block  enclave in north­ west Washington. It seemed to me that I could use his work as a model and, in the course of a year, produce  several  such  studies,  each  covering  a strategic part of the world of the low-income male. I  thought  of  doing  a neighborhood  study,  then moving on  say, to a construction laborers' union, then a bootleg joint,  and perhaps rounding these out with a series of genealogies and life histories.
Why did Liebow alter his initial plans for conducting this study?

In taking up the director's suggestion that this would be "a good place to get your feet wet," I went in so deep that I was completely submerged and my plan to do three or four separate studies, each with its
own neat, clean boundaries, dropped forever out of sight. My initial excursions into the street-- to poke around, get the feel of things, and to lay out the lines of my field work-- seldom carried me more than a block or two from the co ner where I started. From the very first weeks or even days, I found myself in the middle of things; the principle lines of my field work were laid out, almost without my being aware of it. For the next year or so, and intermittently thereafter, my base of operations was the corner Carry-out across the street from my starting point.

As Liebow entered into friendships with the people who were the subjects of his study, how was his objectivity threatened?

One mid-February day, I walked into the Carry­ out. Tally was having a cup of coffee. "Look here," he said. "Where is this place?" Tally took out a sheet of paper from an envelope and handed it to me. It was a summons to appear as a witness for the de­fense in the case of the United States versus Lonny Reginald Small. A faint stamp indicated that Tally was to report to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia at 3rd and Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest, at ten o'clock. this morning. I read off the address. It was then 9:40. I suggested that Tally take a cab, but when Tally said he didn't have the money I offered to drive him down. He quickly accepted. On the way, Tally explained that Lonny was a friend of his. Lonny was being tried for murdering his wife last summer. "Lonny is a nice guy," he said. "He's one hundred percent."
Thus began a three-week odyssey into the world of Lonny Small, a young man of twenty-six who, according to the jury' s subsequent verdict of "not guilty," had choked his wife to death accidentally. Upon his acquittal, Lonny was rearrested in the courthouse for a violation of probation (on a pre­vious grand larceny conviction) in another juris­diction. He waived extradition, was given a hear­ing, was released on an appearance bond,  and after another hearing he was again placed on pro­bation.

Almost imperceptibly, my association with Tally, and through him with Lonny, was project­ing me into the role of a principal actor in Lonny's life. By being with Tally through the trial, I found that first Tally, then Lonny, were looking to me for leadership and, as in the question of waiving extradition, for decision making. Court officials, apparently taking their cues from Lonny, began looking to me as his spokesman.

The follow-up of Lonny, which took most of my time for at least the next two weeks, carried me into dozens of places and into contact with scores of people. Throughout this period I stayed in close
touch with the project  director, getting clearance for and weighing the possible consequences of my growing involvement with the authorities. I went to three different jails during this  time, sat through one murder trial and two hearings in judges' chambers, testifying at one of them.  I went to bondsmen's offices, to the United States Employment Service, to the Blessed Martin de Porres Hostel (for homeless men ) and into sev­eral private homes. I met policemen, judges, law­yers, bondsmen, probation officers, and one of Lonny's former employers. I talked  with  his friends and at least one enemy, his mother-in-law, whose daughter he  had killed. I met in council several times with various members of his ex­tended family (who accepted me, through  Tally, as Lonny's friend, no questions asked ) in their houses, and drove around with them to the houses of other members of the family trying to raise money for Lonny's bond.

Meanwhile, back at the Carry-out, where Tally and I were meeting regularly at night and where I tried to stop in during the day whenever possi­ble, people I had never seen, or others I had seen but never spoken to, began coming up to me and asking, "Is Lonny out yet?" or "Did you raise his bail yet?" or
simply, "How's it going?" Bumdoodle, the numbers man, one of those who had not known Lonny, was especially solicitous of Lonny's welfare. He, too, began calling me by my first name and, although I kept no record of it, I think it was at this time that he dropped all subterfuge in taking numbers in my presence and soon began taking bets from me.

By the middle of March, Tally and I were close friends ("up tight") and I was to let hlm know if I wanted or needed "anything, anytime."

To what extent should the racial divide between the writer and his subjects affect our judgment of the conclusions which he draws about their lives?

Some things, however, are very clear. They saw, first of all, a white man. In my opinion, this brute fact of color, as they understood it in their experi­ence and as I understood it in mine, irrevocably and absolutely relegated me to the status of out­sider. I am not certain, but I have a hunch that they were more continuously aware of the color difference than I was.

Whenever the fact of my being white was openly introduced, it pointed up the distance be tween me and the other person, even when the in­tent of introducing it was, I believe, to narrow that distance

On the other side, what benefits does this human perspective bring to our understanding of the behavior of street corner men?

Is this type of study of poverty more valuable than a statistical study which seeks to eliminate the subjective bias of human feelings and intuitive insights?