Lone Pursuit

Lone Pursuit: Distrust and Defensive Individualism Among the Black Poor

Sandra Susan Smith
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Lone Pursuit
    Book Description:

    Unemployment among black Americans is twice that of whites. Myriad theories have been put forward to explain the persistent employment gap between blacks and whites in the U.S. Structural theorists point to factors such as employer discrimination and the decline of urban manufacturing. Other researchers argue that African-American residents living in urban neighborhoods of concentrated poverty lack social networks that can connect them to employers. Still others believe that African-American culture fosters attitudes of defeatism and resistance to work. In Lone Pursuit, sociologist Sandra Susan Smith cuts through this thicket of competing explanations to examine the actual process of job searching in depth. Lone Pursuit reveals that unemployed African Americans living in the inner city are being let down by jobholding peers and government agencies who could help them find work, but choose not to. Lone Pursuit is a pioneering ethnographic study of the experiences of low-skilled, black urban residents in Michigan as both jobseekers and jobholders. Smith surveyed 105 African-American men and women between the ages of 20 and 40, each of whom had no more than a high school diploma. She finds that mutual distrust thwarts cooperation between jobseekers and jobholders. Jobseekers do not lack social capital per se, but are often unable to make use of the network ties they have. Most jobholders express reluctance about referring their friends and relatives for jobs, fearful of jeopardizing their own reputations with employers. Rather than finding a culture of dependency, Smith discovered that her underprivileged subjects engage in a discourse of individualism. To justify denying assistance to their friends and relatives, jobholders characterize their unemployed peers as lacking in motivation and stress the importance of individual responsibility. As a result, many jobseekers, wary of being demeaned for their needy condition, hesitate to seek referrals from their peers. In a low-skill labor market where employers rely heavily on personal referrals, this go-it-alone approach is profoundly self-defeating. In her observations of a state job center, Smith finds similar distrust and non-cooperation between jobseekers and center staff members, who assume that young black men are unwilling to make an effort to find work. As private contractors hired by the state, the job center also seeks to meet performance quotas by screening out the riskiest prospects—black male and female jobseekers who face the biggest obstacles to employment and thus need the most help. The problem of chronic black joblessness has resisted both the concerted efforts of policymakers and the proliferation of theories offered by researchers. By examining the roots of the African-American unemployment crisis from the vantage point of the everyday job-searching experiences of the urban poor, Lone Pursuit provides a novel answer to this decades-old puzzle.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-507-8
    Subjects: Business, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. About the Author
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Chapter 1 Explaining Persistent Black Joblessness
    (pp. 1-26)

    Forty-two weeks after losing the only steady job he had ever held, Anthony Redmond, a thirty-six-year-old high school dropout and convicted felon, remained jobless and became increasingly frustrated. He had gone to great lengths to find work, submitting numerous applications daily in the hopes of securing at least one interview in which he would tell the employer, “I’m a hard worker. I do whatever you want me to do the way you want me to do it. I can start now if you want me to.” These pronouncements, he thought, would allay employers’ concerns about his competence, pliability, and work...

  6. Chapter 2 Pervasive Distrust and Noncooperation Among the Black Poor
    (pp. 27-55)

    In her highly influential ethnography,All Our Kin(1974), Carol Stack studied the coping strategies that families in one poor black community employed to survive persistent poverty and racism. In this three-year participant-observation of The Flats, the poorest section of a black community in fictitiously named “Jackson Harbor,” Stack discovered that residents survived poverty by developing extensive networks of relationships with kin and nonkin alike and that these relationships were built on and characterized by ongoing obligations of typically generalized exchange. Within these networks, residents regularly gave to and received goods, services, and resources from family members and friends. They...

  7. Chapter 3 The Job-Holder: Espousing American Individualism
    (pp. 56-96)

    After years spent in a series of low-wage jobs, Diana Ellsworth, a twenty-nine-year-old single mother of one, hit the proverbial jackpot, landing a job as a meter reader for the water company, a position that paid $19 per hour, offered great benefits, and included union membership. Because of her work history and current employment status, Diana would be a great social resource for job information and influence, and she knew this.¹ Indeed, when asked how important it was to use friends, relatives, and acquaintances to find out about job opportunities, Diana indicated that it was very important and that she...

  8. Chapter 4 The Job-Seeker: Embracing Individualism Defensively
    (pp. 97-137)

    Job-holders’ calls for personal responsibility and self-sufficiency were not without consequence. Instead, they had a profound effect on the job search strategies deployed by job-seekers.¹ Consider the words of Robert Randolph, a thirty-two-year-old unemployed father of three. When asked how important it was to use friends and relatives to find out about jobs, Robert responded:

    It’s very important. I mean, ’cause if you use all the options that you have, it’s always good to go to somebody you know [and say,] “Well, you know, what’s going on? You know anything that’s open?” You know. But sometimes you have to be...

  9. Chapter 5 The Job Center: Barriers to Employment and the (Im)Mobilization of Institutional Social Capital
    (pp. 138-165)

    Southeast County’s job center is housed in what appears at first glance to be a strip mall, a fairly narrow building the length of one city block. The building, which stands one story high, is constructed of light tan cement blocks that occupy the lower two-thirds of the building’s facade. The top third has wood siding and is slightly lighter in color than the cement blocks. Though simple, the building is well kept. The back of the building faces a main thoroughfare, Central Avenue, which runs east and west. Although windows extend the length of the building, they are sun-screened...

  10. Chapter 6 Conclusion
    (pp. 166-174)

    Engage most urban poverty scholars about the persistent joblessness of the black poor, and depending on who you talk to, you are likely to hear one or more of the following explanations: because of the changing structure of urban economies, there has been a dramatic loss of good-paying jobs for lesser-skilled workers, and this loss has had a disproportionately negative effect on black, inner-city workers; despite claims to the contrary, race is still one of the most important factors affecting blacks’ life chances, as evidence from audit studies on employer discrimination has shown, and this effect is most profound for...

  11. Appendix A: Sample, Data, and Data Collection Strategies
    (pp. 175-178)
  12. Appendix B: In-Depth Interview Protocol
    (pp. 179-184)
  13. Appendix C: Survey Instrument
    (pp. 185-194)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 195-224)
  15. References
    (pp. 225-240)
  16. Index
    (pp. 241-248)