Acceptable Social and Cultural Capital in an Unfair Society

Small crimes and acts of resistance are often survival skills used by underprivileged youth denied the social and cultural capital necessary to succeed professionally.

| September/October 2012

  • Graffiti Respect
    In feeling excluded from a network of positive credentials, education, and employment opportunities, young people develop creative responses that provide them with the necessary tools to survive. Some, like the boys I studied, develop practices that seem to embrace criminality as a means of contesting a system that sees them as criminals.
  • Graffiti Face
    Watching interactions between the boys and authority figures was often like watching a life-sized game of chess, with a rook strategically moving in response to a queen’s movement. A police officer would get out of his car, the boys would posture; an officer would grab a young man, his friends would prepare to run; an officer would humiliate one of the boys, and the boys would respond by not cooperating or cursing back.

  • Graffiti Respect
  • Graffiti Face

Ronny was called in for a job interview at Carrows, a chain restaurant that served $9.99 sirloin steak and shrimp. He called me up, asking for help. I loaned him a crisp white dress shirt, which I had purchased at a discount store when I worked as a server at a steak house during my undergraduate years. I convinced Ronny to wear fitted khakis, rather than his customary baggy jeans. He agreed, on the condition that he would wear his white Nike Air Force Ones. These shoes had been in and out of style since the early 1980s. By 2002, a famous rapper, Nelly, created a popular song named “Air Force Ones,” and famous basketball players such as Kobe Bryant wore these shoes during games. Black and Latino youths in Oakland sometimes even wore them to more formal events such as high school proms, quinceañeras, and weddings. I asked Ronny why he insisted on wearing these shoes in a professional setting. He replied, “Because professionals wear them.”

Many of the boys I worked with in my research believed they had a clear sense of what courteous, professional, and “good” behavior was. Despite their attempts to present themselves with good manners and good morals, their idea of professional behavior did not match mainstream ideas. When the boys displayed a genuine interest in “going legit,” getting a job, or doing well in school, adults often could not recognize their positive attempts and therefore criminalized them.

The boys had grown up in an environment which had deprived them of the social and cultural capital they needed to progress in school and the labor market. Therefore, they developed their own. Despite being well-intentioned, though, these efforts were often not well received by mainstream institutions.

I continued to prepare Ronny for his interview, helping him develop “acceptable” social and cultural capital. The day of the interview, I walked into the restaurant separately from Ronny. He looked sharp: a professionally dressed, athletically built, charismatic, tall, African American young man with a charming dimple every time he smiled. I was certain he would get the job. I sat down for lunch at a booth, in an attempt to observe Ronny being interviewed.

Ronny tried to use his charisma to connect with the manager, but she kept her distance and did not look at Ronny, seemingly uninterested in what he had to say. At the end of the interview, Ronny stood abruptly and walked away, with no handshake or smile. I ordered my burger to go, paid my bill, and met him in the parking lot. As I headed to the door, I turned to look in the manager’s direction, and she was greeting a white male youth. She smiled, gave him her hand, and offered him a place to sit. Ronny’s first contact with her was not this friendly.

Ronny told me that he had a good feeling and that the manager seemed to like him. I asked him to walk me through the interview. “Why didn’t you shake her hand when you left?” I asked. “Because it was a white lady. You not supposed to shake a white lady’s hand. They be scared of a nigga. They think I’ma try to take their shit or fuck ‘em. I just said thanks and walked out.” Ronny did not get the job.

Bob Bennett
9/5/2012 2:36:29 PM

Thank you for identifying one of the many problems youth in America face. At the time of my first arrest - in Los Angeles more than 20 years ago - I went from working for a small computer company to a series of arrests, and was appalled by the cover-ups and denials that permeate the criminal justice system. A short video about some of the other problems - as well as pointing at some solutions can be found at: The Plea Bargain System - An Evil Destroying America ?

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