Q&A with Professor Waverly Duck

Issue Date: 
January 19, 2016

Sociology professor Waverly Duck is widely regarded as an expert on poverty, race and gender relations, community order, and the drug trade. He has served as an expert witness in a federal trial, researching a drug dealer’s life and environment—neighborhood, church, and schools—to buttress an argument for mitigating circumstances. “What I saw in this community immediately challenged notions of drug dealing as an agent of disorder, and I felt compelled to figure out what was going on,” he says. This led to the ethnographic study that became No Way Out: Precarious Living in the Shadow of Poverty and Drug Dealing (University of Chicago Press, 2015). 

Waverly Duck (Photo by Jim Judkis)Your book examines an area where drug dealing had become the principal occupation for young men. What did you find were the reasons for that?

No Way Out illuminates how these residents, who are part of what was formerly called “the underclass,” navigate poverty and an embedded drug scene in a community with few rewarding economic prospects. I believe what’s happening in many poor communities of color that are segregated, isolated, and dislocated from economic and social networks and resources is concentrated, racialized poverty. As a result, many of the young men viewed the underground economy as their only viable means of survival, especially when access to mainstream employment is restricted. Sadly, the drug trade is situated along a path that rarely ends well. 

How did you gain the trust of community members, including drug dealers, who let you into their homes and opened up about these difficult issues?

Honesty, sincerity, and having a cultural sensibility about struggles with regard to race and the economy were key. One important factor was that I listened and empathized with the residents; moreover, I opened myself up to being scrutinized just as much as the people I studied. They knew just as much about me as I knew about them. I was also active in the community—over a seven-year period, I volunteered in the neighborhood, at two day camps, an after-school program, and a community outreach program. I also worked as a community organizer at a neighborhood center.

In the book, you mentioned growing up in a similar neighborhood. What forces influenced your life’s career path?

In addition to being a well-read and informed ethnographer, I also shared a similar history as a Black American, along with recognizable stories about art, music, and culture. Growing up in a predominately Black American neighborhood that oscillated between being poor and working class provided me with a particular perspective on the challenges these neighborhoods faced. Unfortunately, despite our shared background, my academic career was exceptional in the extreme compared to my peers. What saddens me the most is that I possess neither greater skill nor talent than the common person in urban poverty—the difference is I had a series of mentors who provided me with invaluable guidance and access to opportunities. My career was shaped by prominent social theorists who, coming out of the Civil Rights Movement, were sensitive to the issues I faced and valued both my perspective and commitment to racial and social justice.

Why did some people feel especially safe in the area you studied?

Residents are knit together by long-term ties of kinship and friendship, amid familiar problems of failing schools, chronic unemployment, punitive law enforcement, and high rates of incarceration. Their interactions are based on reciprocity, which involves a profound sense of fairness and accountability. The drug dealers are not outsiders; they are residents and established insiders who are well integrated into the community.

You said you were moved by the love, support, and solidarity that existed within the neighborhood—any particularly poignant examples of this?

One incident occurred when I was volunteering with a group of kids whose ages ranged from 4 to 12. I was a vegetarian, and I am also lactose intolerant. I was sitting with the kids while they were having ham sandwiches and milk for lunch, and I didn’t have anything to eat. I briefly left to go to the bathroom, and when I returned these kids had cobbled together food for me—someone volunteered an apple, juice, a few random carrots and a cookie. This story may seem mundane, but here is a group of kids that, despite having very little, worked together to make sure I had something to eat. I witnessed that sort of kindness, solidarity, and love not only from kids, but also their parents, on a daily basis.

You propose that social decline resulted from shifts in public policy—what kind of shifts? 

First, let’s think about the rising costs of food, housing, and energy—now couple these with policy-related changes that have hit the poor especially hard—the decline of manufacturing to low-wage service sector jobs; welfare reform; the prison boom, which resulted in the mass incarceration of racial minorities; the dismantling, privatizing, and closing of public housing to the Section 8 voucher system; limited access to mental health services; and the privatization of public schools, all in an increasingly global economy. The effects of these changes are evident in the stories I collected from families being evicted because they couldn’t afford housing; men with graduate degrees unemployed because of criminal records; children expelled from school; residents fined simply for going to work; and men who owed more in child support than they could ever earn.

What policy changes do you hope to see that might alleviate issues facing communities like these?

Being realistic, I envision something like the Marshall Plan that was enacted to rebuild Europe during World War II; or the New Deal that helped America out of the Great Depression. In particular, we need to rebuild infrastructure in our nation’s precarious neighborhoods, as well as provide livable wages, sustainable school funding, restorative justice, and opportunities for home ownership. We need to completely rethink policies pertaining to labor and livable wages.

Finally, who is your favorite author and why?

I absolutely love authors who provide deep insights into the human condition: George Orwell, Friedrich Engels, August Wilson, James Baldwin, bell hooks, Charles Bukowski, Audre Lorde, and Amiri Baraka, to name a few. And, perhaps because my parents grew up in Mississippi, Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners is a favorite. Without a doubt, though, the most influential writer/scholar that I have heavily relied upon is W.E.B. Du Bois.