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