I have been sitting on this for a while and the timing seemed ideal...
The role of social networks and social capital has been looming large over many of the conversations we have had as of late here on We Are Respectable Negroes. For example, much of the literature on black political thought and public opinion suggests that black conservatives who kiss the ring of white folks and shine their shoes for a living--the Herman Cain, Clarence Thomas, Juan Williams, et al. of the world--are products of a weakness (or even lack) in connection to the cultural, social, and political institutions of the African American community.
No great riddle of the Sphinx needs to be deciphered in order to explain their political loyalties. There is no feeling of linked fate for these garbage pail kids of American politics because they have no sense of shared struggle in union with other black folks in mass. Ultimately, there is no contradiction to resolve between their split loyalties to the well-being of black folks and the common good, and black conservatives' bended knee, boot licking loyalty to the worst sort of white populism as offered by the Tea Party GOP.
The ghetto ign't Burger King Bikini Brawler is also a product of a different type of social network, one in which her socially maladapted behavior is rewarded as virtuous and normal--the mark of a "strong black woman"--as opposed to deviant acting out with no purchase beyond her local 'hood. And of course as we try to navigate the Great Recession, one of the greatest determinants of access to job opportunities is one's connection to folks who already are employed. Thus, those with wealth, money, access, and jobs tend to know other folk in a like position. Those without said resources tend to have truncated job opportunities because they are part of a network where other people also lack work. Given that Horatio Alger is long dead, once more it isn't what you know, it is who you know--or your name--that determines if you get a foot in the door.
To point, sociologist Mario Small's work is broad and deep. His research on social networks and young people in Chicago's schools resonates because it is one more example of how race, class, and networks matter for both our life chances in the present, as well as future life trajectories.
In reading his work on social networks and urban youth I must ask the following: Are things truly this dire? Are the lives of our young people destined to be such that they live a Hobbesian existence that is nasty, brutish, and short? What will come of these young boys and girls as they enter adult life as citizens, employees, leaders, community members, and parents?
Some choice bits of wisdom from Professor Small's interview with the American Academy of Social and Political Sciences:
...We interviewed about forty to forty-five students in each school. We interviewed some of the mothers, fathers, teachers, staff; almost no difference. The reason? In both schools, the students did not trust anybody. The students expressed a great deal of reluctance to admitting that they had best friends. Many said, “I don’t have friends, I have associates,” and the reason had to do with the extraordinarily high levels of violence in both neighborhoods.Damn. How did we stoop so far to Gomorrah? What can be done to recover?
If you look at how sociologists typically study networks, there is no finding more universal than the idea that homophily, similarity determines everything. So people tend to have friends who resemble them. So if I am eleven, you like soccer, I like soccer, we become friends because we both like soccer, this kind of a thing. There was almost none of that. Instead, the children were extremely strategic and instrumental in how they thought about their friendships.
One, they thought about friendships who could protect them if there was a problem, and this was the boys and the girls. Second, they were strategic about even forming friends. So one eleven or twelve-year-old boy, for example, said, “You know, before I decide to be friends with somebody, I watch them. I just watch them for months and months and months to see what they are like. Because I want to see if there is a problem if they are going to come in and have my back.” An extremely strategic and really disturbing way of thinking about friendship. Now these are ten, eleven, twelve-year-old children. This is the time in your life when you learn how to form friendships with others. You learn trust, you learn effective social relations.What can we expect of these children when they are twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, forming romantic relationships, trying to form effective relationships in the workplace?
It is going to be extremely difficult because, my hypothesis is that the high levels of distrust developed early on in response to violence are going to have an impact in their later lives. Now there is no way to think about this question without thinking about some aspects of what is called culture. Now, again, notice it is not culture about values, I mean that is just the wrong way to think about it. It is really a cultural response to a violent environment. Anybody in that same kind of environment would develop this sort of bunker mentality, that you have to protect yourself first.