Ain't No Makin' It: Aspirations and Attainment in a Low-Income Neighborhood
Westview Press, Oxford
Described today as a bestselling classic, Jay MacLeod's work takes us into Clarendon Heights, a low-income American housing project. In an exploration of two resident groups of youths, MacLeod began this work as an undergraduate thesis. However, this is not an ethnographic account relevant only to those who know Clarendon Heights, as the reader may be able to identify in a local context, an area where youths similarly struggle with poverty, racial discrimination and issues of defeatism.
MacLeod begins the study by describing the youths: the first is a black minority group called The Brothers, and the second a group of white youths called the Hallway Hangers, so-called as they often 'hang out in the hallway'. MacLeod questions why, having experienced the same educational and living conditions, these two groups of youths have opposing aspirations of attainment, especially when America promises, with open arms, equal opportunity for everyone. He then examines the issue of 'hypocritical rhetoric' surrounding idealistic notions of America as the land of equal opportunity, which seems to cause difficulty for these youths to accept certain social structures. Linked with this are beliefs in the efficacy of schooling, which suggest that social inequality can be remedied by education. MacLeod asks: 'Is it that The Brothers belief the promises of equal opportunity, having only recently moved to the project?' Or is it that the Hallway Hangers are aware of their 'lot in life', in some cases being third generation project families and observing relatives and neighbours never achieve by attending school?'
Throughout his work, MacLeod examines every question he raises, presenting pleasingly critical and theoretical discussions interwoven with rich quotes from the youths. Therefore, not only considering the difficulty in minimising MacLeod's work to a few hundred words, to present his findings would be tantamount to saying 'the butler did it'. Enjoyment is gained through following MacLeod's arguments, weaving in and out of the raw dialogue, jumping into the middle of questions, climbing up the side of critical theorising and standing on the top of a well-argued analysis.
The youths' discussions involve drugs, sex, occupations, parents, poverty, race and crime, and MacLeod presents dialogue that is often candid, sometimes confronting, but always brought back to the theoretical. An obvious strength of this edition is that MacLeod returns eight years later to re-visit with the same youths, again exploring their aspirations, attainments and examining their life experiences. Reading this book would be time well spent for those interested in youths, subcultures, struggles between structure and culture, and social reproduction. 'Ain't no making it' is a rich and rewarding text, one that will continue to stand the test of time as a classic study of adolescents' struggle between structure and culture.
Melbourne University, Australia