The Stickup Kids: Race, Drugs, Violence, and the American Dream

The Stickup Kids: Race, Drugs, Violence, and the American Dream

Author: Randol Contreras
Publisher: Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012. 296p.
Reviewer: Mercer L. Sullivan | January 2015

This ethnographic study is at once a sensational, detailed, stomach-churning account of extreme violence and a sober, solid piece of social science research that makes a number of important contributions to our understanding of how violence is situated in structural, cultural, historical, and, especially, situational context. Balancing these two potentially conflicting modes of presentation was apparently no easy task, one that impeded publication for some time. Yet, the outcome vindicates the struggle. The author’s intense personal involvement in the social world he portrays comes through unrepressed and in constructive tension with his equally intense determination to situate and interpret his material in the frames of classic and current sociological theory and research.

The setting for the research is Dominican neighborhoods of New York City in the late 1990s and 2000s, as the crack epidemic, and its attendant lucrative opportunities for criminal enterprise, waned. The author watched, hung out, and, as he became an aspiring sociologist, systematically recorded the activities and personal situations of personal friends he had known growing up. These young men reacted to the shrinking opportunities for fast money from crack-dealing by moving into a closely related field of criminal enterprise, robbing drug dealers; where violence was the core rather than an occasional hazard of the enterprise. There is an existing literature on violence within criminal enterprise, to which this study makes frequent and appropriate reference, but very little that deals in this detail with such extreme and systematic forms of brutality. The stick-up kids practiced not just garden-variety robbery of drug dealers, but premeditated torture, with a fully developed and self-conscious set of physical and psychological techniques. The reader learns that there are specific ways that even the most hardened criminals can be coerced into divulging how to access their drugs and cash. The accounts recorded by the author are graphic, detailed, and sickening — as convincing examples of human depravity as can be found in academic, journalistic, or historical sources.

The author is aware of and discusses with passion and intelligence two dilemmas in dealing with this kind of material as a social scientist, one of ethics and the other of representation. The ethical problem is whether he was complicit in any way in the brutality so freely described to him by his study participants. Although he reports that he “mostly” (his term, page 15) conformed to accepted norms for protection of human subjects by avoiding knowledge of specific details of place and time, he also discusses one specific incident in which his own interviewing may have caused harm by triggering an episode of intimate partner abuse. In any event, his academic sponsors and publisher appear to have found his work ethically acceptable, and his candor about the problems involved and how he dealt with them is admirable. It is difficult to imagine how important work of this kind could be accomplished without taking risks along these lines. How the researcher responds to problems as they arise is a crucial consideration.

The representational issues here were more difficult to recognize and frame. The discussion of these problems in existential and methodological terms is an early highlight of the work. The author describes being caught between two kinds of challenge to his credibility: either adopt the neutral, distanced tone of conventional academic discourse and betray his living roots or sail too close to the social world he is describing and risk being categorized as a “cowboy ethnographer,” one who flaunts his immersion in that world at the expense of scientific objectivity. The interesting thing about this dilemma is that this extreme example constitutes an outlier that casts light on a spectrum on which everyone has a position. It has been there from Max Weber’s discussion of science as a vocation through Robert Merton’s discussion of insiders and outsiders, Howard Becker’s challenge to face which side we are on, and forward. There is of course no one correct solution to this problem, only an awareness of one’s own and others’ perceptions of credibility and authenticity and case by case treatment at points of concern. This book brings this awareness to what one hopes will increasingly be a social science of marginality in which those who have experienced marginalization become full participants.

Making its way through the shoals of ethical and representational dilemmas, what then does the book accomplish in terms of additions to knowledge? First, there are the substantive findings, including the way these patterns of extreme violence were embedded in time and place, and, especially, the situational analyses of the social logic of this type of torture. The unflinching analysis of how torture comes about and how it is enacted and the systematic comparison to political torture are finely wrought, first class social science, the principal scientific achievement of the book.

This analysis extends previous work on more routine forms of robbery, including more “ordinary” robbery of drug dealers, to this more specialized and brutal type of robbery. In so doing, the author also makes some interesting advances in the current theoretical standoff between the rational choice and cultural perspectives, showing how rational calculations, for example, are deeply embedded in cultural constructions of gender roles.

In further challenging the rational choice perspective, this book, in my opinion, wins some points and loses others. This comes to a head in the discussions of what drives some men to this brutal form of crime. The losses are straightforward, in passages that suggest that their structural circumstances leave them little choice. These assertions are easy prey for those who distinguish between the background factors shared by many who never engage in such acts and the foreground factors that distinguish those who do. The author openly acknowledges this argument at several points and then seems to forget at others.

The win on this same point, however, is substantial. The background/foreground arguments are derived from cross-sectional interview data that easily establish that those interviewed are high-rate offenders who have done this many times. This finding then leads reasonably to the implication that they are unlikely to respond to any silver-bullet interventions involving either specific deterrence or social support. What the cross-sectional interview data lack, however, and what this study has in abundance, is a longer-term life-history perspective. This book traces an arc defined by both life course and historical change from entry into extreme brutality to exit from it. These offenders do not fit the image of hard-core, intractable persistence. Indeed, their decline by the end is dramatic, not tragic but deeply, humanly pathetic. The author’s portrayal of this in terms of the subjects’ desperate efforts to find moral ground to sustain their sanity, in the wider sociological and phenomenological sense of the concept of morality, is profound.

Another directly related substantive finding also counts as a notable win. Not all these individuals fit the stereotype of “easy come, easy go” lifestyles of conspicuous consumption. He divides them into the “high lifers,” who do fit that stereotype, and the “venturers” who do not, who do invest for the future, however insecurely, in an organized crime tradition described long ago by Daniel Bell as “crime as an American way of life.” The detailed case studies provide cogent evidence for the existence of both patterns.

The book’s give and take with existing theory and research is admirable, if incomplete. The references and analyses make strong use of prior work to situate these findings and their interpretation. As discussed above, the book also breaks substantial new ground. There are some dimensions of the book, however, that provide openings for giving back to theory that could be further explored. The substantive descriptions of how the behaviors portrayed here were embedded in a specific time and place are important on their own, but they also have implications beyond this study for the need for more of this kind of specific historical contextualization generally. Scholarship on the great crime drop of the 1990’s, for example, has seen rather little of the kind of direct connections between phenomenology and local history found here. Similarly, the substantive portrayals of changes over the life course could be expanded to address more general concerns about persistence, desistance, structural constraints, and human agency. One hopes that this will happen, both through future work from this scholar and from others who will undoubtedly draw on this work to inform such efforts.

Mercer L. Sullivan – Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University

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