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In Flight
Forced Smiles
Happy Oblivion
Ducking Destiny
Chance of Showers
Chance Encounters
The Thinking Dog
The Race
Flight of the Ostrich
Monster Under My Bed
The Rose Garden
Window Shopping
Dramatic Romances
Musings on Nature
A Day at School
The Holy Light
A Rainy Night


The Roller Coaster
The Purse
Sammy's Lesson
The Legend of the Hungry Dragon
Spirits in the Night


My Philosophy of Life
Five Scholarship Questions
Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois
Prophets for God
My Service Project (1999-2000)
My Service Project (1997-1998)
The Beauty of the Forest
Reaching Beyond

The Pastry Menace
A College Just for You!
The Rights of Plants

Literary Analyses
Saving Harry:  Clearing the Controversy Over Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Essays on Wuthering Heights
The Creature in Frankenstein and the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Edna's Decision in The Awakening
Character Comparison in Kate Chopin's The Awakening
Why The Chosen?

Research Papers
Race, Norms, and the Sidewalk
Analytical Exercise
The Validity of Comparing Governments
The British System: Legal-Rational Or Traditional?
The Importance of Framing
Madison on Factions
Spirituality and the Brain
Sea Water and Conductivity

Clinic Violence: A "Moral" Way to Bring About Change?
Graduation Speech
The Call to Relationship
Mark Twain Speaks Again (original version)
Mark Twain Speaks Again (shortened version)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Year 2000
Hunting for Sport?

Mercury Spill Exercise
Chocolate Feature Exercise
Character Sketch
Reaction Story
Aspiring Actress Profile
"Shark Attack" Exercise
Villa Maria Academy Hosts Diversity Panel

Coastal Vacation


Race, Norms, and the Sidewalk

In his book Sidewalk, Mitchell Duneier describes the society created by street people on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village. Having lived among and studied sidewalk vendors for several years, he provides insight into their complex social fabric. The society he presents is plagued by the effects of racism but has grown beyond those disadvantages to form a separate community with its own norms and social order.

Race does not inherently lead to problems, but when society creates racial stereotypes, race can limit a person's life opportunities. A race is best defined as a group with unique, ge-netically inherited physical characteristics. People of the same race thus have similar appear-ances, sharing skin color, hair type, and nose and eye shape. While there are no significant, substantive differences between races, people may harbor prejudices, or negative attitudes toward other groups that often stem from stereotypes. The combination of race and prejudice leads to the ideology that one race is superior to another, known as racism. Racism takes two main forms: individual racism and institutional racism. Individual racism is overt, intentional discriminatory behavior by a person or group, but institutional racism is subtle, unintentional dis-crimination built into the system governing society.

Sidewalk presents several examples of racism that ultimately limits the opportunities of street people and causes them to become a part of the sidewalk society, having been rejected from general society. Hakim Hasan, the African-American book vendor on Sixth Avenue who is Mitchell Duneier's first contact on the sidewalk, recounts his experience with employment discrimination, a form of individual racism. Although he attended college, wrote for university and national publications and is extremely well read, Hasan could not secure a job in publishing, his field of choice, and instead worked in a series of corporate proofreading jobs. Before becoming a vendor, he was fired from his last proofreading job at a law firm for alleged incompetence. However, Hasan writes in the book's afterword that the director of administrative services who fired him could not have observed his night-shift work directly and that he had had a good relationship with his supervisor, a woman who had never given any indication that his work was unsatisfactory. Hasan therefore attributes his termination to racism.

Institutional racism has led many more people to sidewalk society. More than a third of the homeless men Duneier spoke to on Sixth Avenue had served time in prison for drug law vio-lations, most involving crack cocaine. Because crack cocaine is cheaper than powdered cocaine, the poor population, made up mostly of minorities, favors it. Federal sentencing guidelines give for crack cocaine violations punishments five times harsher than those for powdered cocaine violations. Duneier notes another inequality in the system of prosecuting drug violations: "In some cases, if these men had been using drugs in private, as many middle-class people do, rather than on the streets, it is less likely that they would have been caught and become subject to the harsh drug penalties that are in effect in New York State." In total, 88.3 percent of those sentenced for crack cocaine in a recent year were black. These inequalities lead to a population of disenfranchised African-Americans, turned out onto the street after harsh prison terms with no drug counseling and no help in making the transition to work. Many then end up on the streets, poor, homeless and still addicted.

Institutional racism is also apparent in New York City's Local Law 45, enacted as the 1993 mayoral elections approached. This law affects written-matter vendors, forcing them out of certain areas of the city and requiring that they maintain a minimum twelve-foot-wide pedestrian path around their tables. In Greenwich Village, it effectively halved the space allowed to the vendors, creating great stress within the sidewalk community as vendors fought each other for space and the chance to earn their livelihood. Most of the sidewalk vendors are underclass African-Americans, unlike the privileged midtown property owners represented in the Business Improvement Districts that lobbied for the law. The law therefore puts one race at an economic disadvantage, a clear example of a systemic bias.

Andrew Manshel, an attorney representing two BIDs benefiting from Local Law 45, dis-misses claims that vending books and magazines on the sidewalks is a respectable business. "Is it a legitimate lifestyle choice to operate your business in the public way? My own view ... is that it's an antisocial act. They have chosen to defy certain social norms, such as working in the formal economy." A norm is a shared rule or guideline that all people fol-low and that makes other people's behavior predictable. Norms are only noticeable when they are broken. However, while some members of the sidewalk society may break certain laws, such as drug laws, street people have created their own set of folkways to maintain an informal order. For example, the vendors created an unofficial system to regulate who got what space on the sidewalk each day. The norm was that each vendor would respect the other vendors' regular spaces. The vendors honored this system despite the fact that the law states that whoever arrives first has claim to any given spot on the sidewalk. If a vendor broke this norm, the sidewalk soci-ety also had an unofficial way of solving the dispute without involving the police. There-fore, while the street people may not conform to the norms of the greater society, they have created their own social order.

Sidewalk presents a complex view of the society created by street people. The book shows that these people have surprising depth and demonstrates that no segment of society can be easily defined or fairly stereotyped. Although the people this book focuses on have been af-fected by individual and institutional racism, they have proven resilient and built their own society on Sixth Avenue.

Copyright © 2002 Colleen Fischer | Last updated October 7, 2002