From selling crack to sociology

A failed dealer used his insider status to research drugs, violence and the American Dream

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When I read the transcripts of my interviews, the stories would jump off the page. Sometimes, I couldn’t believe these people were my friends

“Yo, we gonna get paid! We gonna make crazy dollars, bro! Ha-ha!” Sitting in front of a mound of crack cocaine destined for the streets of New York’s South Bronx, Randol Contreras had never felt so confident of success. He was going to be rich.

His confidence, however, was misplaced: Contreras, now assistant professor of sociology at California State University, Fullerton, turned out to be a lousy drug dealer.

His product was “garbage”, according to the local crack users who tried free samples, and no one was willing to sell it for him. One eventually agreed to deal it if he could take $2 for every $5 sale – twice the normal cut – but he often turned up late, leaving the 20-year-old Contreras and his friends to undertake risky hand-to-hand sales. After weeks of slow business, unable to pay “rent” to the dealers who controlled the sidewalk, he was forced out of the drug game, frustrated and broke.

Luckily, a friend in the neighbourhood had filled out a community college application for him. Contreras may have been “a repeat drug market failure”, but with strong encouragement from a community college professor he excelled in sociology, later becoming a graduate student at the City University of New York.

Far from losing touch with his South Bronx roots, however, he would return to the area as a PhD student to explore the lives of his childhood friends who had continued in the drug world. Hanging out on the “stoops” and corners with other young men, he listened to how early success in dealing crack – living the high life, spending money on cars, clothes, jewellery and women – had abruptly ended for many as the ready cash available during the 1980s “crack epidemic” dried up.

To remain part of the drug world, some of Contreras’ acquaintances had turned to an even more brutal way of life: conducting drug robberies – holding up drug dealers and torturing them to obtain information on where their drugs and money were stashed.

“I came into the market at the tail end of the [peak] crack era, which is partly why it was so hard to make any money,” he says. “I wanted to understand why my friends had now turned to drug robberies. I was never arrested or got a criminal record, but I could have easily gone down the same road as them.”

Contreras knew his “insider” status within the Dominican-American community – many of the so-called “stickup kids” were close friends – could secure him access to a violent underworld out of reach to even the best investigative journalists or academic ethnographers.

The son of poor Dominican immigrants, Contreras grew up in a single-parent home in the decaying New York suburb – a background, he believed, that would inform a different approach to sociological analysis.

“When I read the literature about robberies, it stressed the emotional thrill of violence or looked more broadly at social factors,” he says, leaving him frustrated that many studies failed to marry the two.

His aim was to combine “macroeconomic reasons for this phenomenon” with “the most micro of micro-reasons: emotions”. This would allow him to produce “a much more complete model of analysis that looked at deprivation and larger economic forces that explained why markets – including markets in drugs – rise and fall, but tying that to the emotions involved in these criminal enterprises”.

Ultimately, his research would lead to a book, published by the University of California Press, The Stickup Kids: Race, Drugs, Violence, and the American Dream (2013).

One of the best-known recent explorations of drug dealing in the US is The Wire, the Baltimore-set police television drama that connects the actions of City Hall, police chiefs and legislators to the fortunes of the most downtrodden crack addicts seeking their next hit in the boarded-up row houses of once-prosperous suburbs.

Creator David Simon’s acclaimed drama was first screened in 2002, several years after Contreras began to tape the testimony of various drug robbers, a dangerous pursuit that he undertook most nights over a period of more than five years.

While Contreras admires the series, commending its ambition, scope and realism, he disagrees with aspects of Simon’s vision – in particular, the noble, shotgun-toting drug robber Omar Little. A lone wolf living by his own honour code (“I ain’t never put my gun on no citizen”) and his own rules (he is masculine, feared and openly gay), Omar is entirely a “fantasy character”, Contreras says, held in awe in a way that would never happen in reality.

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