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Hanging Out

Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men

by Elliot Liebow
Little, Brown, 260 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Almost daily, Newt Gingrich claims that one book or another has inspired his campaign against government welfare, but the most reliable guide to what is happening in Washington now is Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, published in 1984. While Murray’s more recent The Bell Curve has attracted much attention, his earlier book has had far more practical impact. Murray’s argument—that welfare programs helped to create the underclass and so should, on the whole, be abolished—seemed dangerously radical at the time; today, it is hard to find a politician of either party who would disagree with it. The movement for “welfare reform” (a sanitized phrase that Orwell would have appreciated) can be traced back in no small part to Murray’s book. Ever since it appeared, liberals have been on the intellectual defensive.

In a sense, their predicament dates back to 1965, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued his famous report citing the breakdown of the black family as the principal cause of poverty in America. Since then, liberals have tried to counter right-wing rhetoric about illegitimacy, single parenthood, and “family values,” but without much success. When Dan Quayle criticized Murphy Brown for promoting unwed motherhood, for example, liberals rushed to ridicule him, but in the end many conceded that—as an Atlantic Monthly cover line put it—“Dan Quayle Was Right.”

With the Republicans preparing to abolish what remains of the Great Society, the Democrats might consider re-examining a text about the actual condition of poor people that was published twenty-eight years ago. Among works of sociology, Elliot Liebow’s Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men is considered one of the classics of American urban literature, but outside the university the book today is rarely mentioned. Reading it recently for the first time, I was struck by the originality of its analysis, the vigor of its argument, and—even today—the freshness of its insights into the roots of poverty in the United States. The book offers a sharp counterpoint to the punitive ideas now circulating in Washington.

One reason Tally’s Corner is not better remembered is that it has been overshadowed by that other classic of the 1960s, Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States. Published in 1962, The Other America has remained fixed in the public mind as the book that helped to launch the War on Poverty. As an exposé of the persistence and pervasiveness of poverty in the United States, The Other America was indeed important. As an analysis of the causes of poverty, however, the book was less successful. Harrington put it together from notes he made during hurried trips around the country, and in retrospect, his field techniques seem almost comic. “While I was doing research for this book in Harlem,” he writes,

I was walking around with a notebook. I stopped on Lenox Avenue to take down some prices in the window of a barbecue joint. When I looked up, everyone was watching me. I knew what they thought, and turned to the two men nearest me and said, “I’m not a cop.” When I walked over and started to tell them that I was a writer, one accepted the story. The other listened for a moment, and then said, “I still think he’s from the police.” Then they were gone.

As a result of such mistrust, Harrington had to rely on secondhand sources. A welfare worker in Los Angeles, for instance, informed him that blacks were better able to survive on welfare than whites. “The Negroes,” Harrington observes, “as members of the hereditary poor, have a much more balanced diet of cheap food, even if it is fat back and greens. The result is that the whites are much more prone to the classic health problems of poverty (overweight, anemia, and cardiac) than the Negroes.” Not only is this factually wrong—blacks suffer more from heart disease and related ailments than almost any other group—but the passage reeks of the sort of stereotyping one does not expect to find in a sophisticated social observer.

More generally, Harrington subscribed to the view of the anthropologist Oscar Lewis that poverty was a depressed way of life ingrained in poor people and passed on, as the “culture of poverty,” from one generation to the next. Though Lewis had done most of his research in Mexico, he asserted—without much evidence—that his findings could be applied to poor people throughout the world. Harrington accepted this. The United States, he wrote,

contains an underdeveloped nation, a culture of poverty. Its inhabitants do not suffer the extreme privation of the peasants of Asia or the tribesmen of Africa, yet the mechanism of the misery is similar. They are beyond history, beyond progress, sunk in a paralyzing, maiming routine.

On the face of it, this is an absurd statement. The “mechanism of misery” at work in, say, China, with its billion inhabitants, backward technology, and despotic political system, or the Sudan, with its harsh climate, nomadic population, and semi-feudal society, is completely different from the situation in the United States, where a racial minority has failed to share in the general prosperity of an advanced nation.

The Other America sold just a few thousand copies when it first appeared. It was only after Dwight Macdonald gave it a lengthy and laudatory review in The New Yorker that the book caught the attention of President Kennedy and found a broader audience. Since then, The Other America has sold more than a million copies. Today, it is worth reading mainly for what it says about the period in which it was written.

In the same year that The Other America appeared, Elliot Liebow began working with a team of researchers studying the child-rearing practices of low-income families in the District of Columbia. Supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, the project collected data through interviews with residents of the ghetto. Most of the interviews were with women and children, a group far easier to reach than inner-city men. Liebow was hired to talk with the latter.

A thirty-seven-year-old doctoral student, Liebow was the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and had been born and raised in the black neighborhoods in Washington where his father ran a grocery store. It was only after Liebow dropped out of high school and joined the Marines that he moved in a mostly white world. He earned a high-school diploma through correspondence courses during the war and took a degree after the war in English literature from George Washington University. He was studying for a doctorate in anthropology when he joined the research project on poor families in Washington.

Trying to make his way in the world of inner-city males, Liebow began hanging out on a street corner in downtown Washington, within walking distance of the White House. On his second day, he met Tally, a black thirty-one-year-old construction worker who had never attended school. The two went to a coffee shop across the street, where they talked for four hours, becoming fast friends. The shop, which sold mainly hamburgers and coffee and had a jukebox and a pinball machine, was a favorite meeting place for men in the neighborhood, and Tally introduced Liebow around. During the next eighteen months, he got to know about two dozen of them, ranging in age from the early twenties to mid-forties. The men were construction workers, truck drivers, janitors, dishwashers, and clerks, some of them unemployed. They allowed Liebow into their lives, letting him drop by their apartments whenever he wanted. On weekends, he would attend their parties, go out drinking with them, listen to their music. With new people constantly moving into the neighborhood, Liebow soon found himself being viewed as an old-timer, the only white man accepted in an otherwise completely black world.

Liebow turned his research into a doctoral dissertation and sent the manuscript to Little, Brown, which decided to publish it. It originally sold barely three thousand copies, but when it appeared in paperback, word about it quickly spread, especially on college campuses, and by now it has sold more than 700,000 copies.

Only 260 pages long, Tally’s Corner is a quietly eloquent book, with Liebow patiently guiding the reader through an unfamiliar and at times mystifying world. His iconoclasm is apparent from the book’s opening pages, in which he explains why it’s important to study “streetcorner men.” “Much of what we know of Negro families in poverty,” Liebow writes, has been “biased by an emphasis on women and children and a corresponding neglect of adult males.” One result, he adds,

is that family studies among low-income urban groups tend to deal with “female-centered” house-holds, so that one comes away with a picture of the low-income urban world as one peopled mainly with women and children. The adult male, if not simply characterized as “absent,” is depicted as a somewhat shadowy figure who drifts in and out of the lives of the family members.

Liebow writes that he wanted to look at these men “in much the same way they look at themselves,” as breadwinners, fathers, husbands, lovers, and friends.

In his chapter “Men and Jobs,” Liebow examines how the men he came to know view work. He describes a pickup truck driving slowly down the street on a weekday morning, its white driver asking the men who are standing around if they want a day’s work. On the coffee shop’s corner, five men debate the question briefly, then shake their heads no; others nearby refuse as well. Before disappearing down the street the driver has managed to recruit only two men. Liebow imagines what is going through the driver’s mind. “Singly or in groups,” he writes, “belly-empty or belly-full, sullen or gregarious, drunk or sober, they confirm what he has read, heard and knows from his own experience: these men wouldn’t take a job if it were handed to them on a platter.”

But the reality is more complicated, Liebow suggests. First, many of the men on the street do have jobs—they just happen to work at night or later in the day, or have the day off. Some, like Tally, have already come back from construction sites because the weather is too damp or too cold to allow work to continue. Others are physically or mentally disabled. Still, Liebow notes, there remains a number of able-bodied men who “have no visible means of support, legal or illegal, who neither have jobs nor want them.” More generally, Liebow writes, at any given moment a job “may occupy a relatively low position on the streetcorner scale of real values.”

There are many reasons for this, he notes. Some have to do with the nature of the work itself. In 1962, menial jobs such as stock clerk and delivery boy typically paid a dollar an hour, or $35 to $50 a week—a paltry sum, even by the standards of the 1960s. Construction work paid somewhat better—$1.50 to $2.60 an hour—but had its own disadvantages. For one thing, construction work is seasonal, beginning early in the spring and tapering off as winter begins. Even during the good months, bad weather frequently causes interruptions. As a construction project moves from one phase to another, laborers are frequently laid off, usually without warning. Getting the job itself is often highly competitive, with unions making it difficult for a nonunion member to get many lowlevel jobs. For many, the digging, lifting, and lugging involved in construction work is too strenuous. At the same time, conveyer belts, mechanized forklifts, and other technological innovations have eliminated many unskilled jobs.

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