Review: A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto

In a sense this is a companion review to my review of How to Catch and Kill a Crackhead.(check it out for disclaimers/full disclosure). You can get Ed Latimore’s A Not So Friendly Guide to The Ghetto in a bundle with How to Catch and Kill a Crackhead for $9.97 (at the time of this writing) here.

A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto is an interesting book. Of course, I suspect I would find anything Ed writes interesting, so that’s not really saying anything which distinguishes it from his other books. However, unlike Ed’s other books, I’m not sure how to review this one. It seems to be one part travel guide, one part ethnography, and eight parts social commentary. The social commentary is about a community I’m not now, nor have ever been, a part of, so I don’t really have anything to say about it. It’s interesting to read because Ed is a thoughtful guy, but that’s about it, for me specifically.

The travel guide aspect of the book can be summarized very briefly: don’t go there. That’s also nearly a direct quote.

The ethnography aspect of A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto is probably the most interesting part to an outsider like me, or at the very least the most accessible part. And it does not paint a pretty picture. The most noticeable characteristics described in the ghetto is the presence of extremely violent people who make life difficult and dangerous for everyone else. They are violent on a very high level precisely because they don’t lead long-term sustainable lives. Ed mentions that many of these violent people have a life expectancy of about 23. He doesn’t say so explicitly, but one gets the sense it’s that long in part because such people spend most of their time after the age of about 16 in prison where they don’t get to shoot or stab each other (nearly so often).

This reminds me of the Coolio song, Gangsta’s Paradise. All of it is an interesting song, but I’m especially reminded of the lyric, “I’m 23 now will I live to see 24 the way things is going I don’t know.”

Where this hyper-violence comes from is an interesting question. Ed doesn’t give answers, but he seems to (implicitly) reject the cycle-of-violence answer which a lot of people like. I don’t mean that he suggests it’s causeless, but rather he doesn’t seem—and this is my read of him, not anything he said explicitly—to believe that the violence is an unavoidable trap that those trapped by it can do nothing to escape. Some of the social critique may be relevant here, and can be more broadly applicable than just to the specific community being directly discussed by considering what behaviors and trends in the reader’s community—whatever community that might be—might lead to similar encouragements to violence in the least stable members of that community.

And while the book is certainly an interesting one, it is not without flaws. In the copy I bought the typography changed in chapter 7 and from then on the chapters had two numbers, both their correct number and a number starting over from 1. I asked Ed and he said that he would probably fix this going forward. It also feels like chapter eight might have originally been meant as the first chapter, in that it reads like an introduction that was not re-written when it was moved. I found that a bit jarring. It is also a short book—distributed in PDF format it has 35 pages, and would have fewer if the last third wasn’t double-spaced. And while I’ve certainly read enough business books to be appreciative of  an author not padding them out in order to justify a higher price, there were things I wish that Ed had covered. For example, he discussed in some detail how little money many of the bad-decision-makers he talks about come into possession of each year, but he never explains how they make it work. A person who takes in $5000 per year and has to pay $250 per month in rent has only $166 per month left over to afford food. If they make further bad decisions such as buying $2000 rims for their aged lexus, it’s unclear how they can survive since they now have $-0.67 per month for food and can’t photosynthesize. (Further, even if they could photosynthesize, the year-round uniform of sweatshirt, jeans, and timberland boots Ed describes would prevent sufficient light from reaching their skin.) Some explanation of how this actually works out in practice would have been very interesting.

Another fascinating question which gets no treatment here is why the normal human tendency in chaotic situations towards organization by a warlord doesn’t operate here. This of course is the problem with anarcho-capitalism, or really any form of anarchism. The moment you have anarchy, you will get government emerging in the form of weak people supporting the best warlord around, making him strong enough to subdue the other war-lords or keep them at bay so that the important parts of life which require stability (growing food, raising children) can happen. After a generation or two, the warlords will provide enough functions of government as to be indistinguishable from government. After a few more generations, they will simply be government.

The suggestion that no one in the hood has a job (which I take to be painting with a very broad brush) may account for not needing peace to grow food, but however critical Ed is of the parenting which goes on in the hood, parenting does go on, which means that a fair number of people have a huge incentive to support whoever will bring enough peace to let that parenting happen. So why doesn’t this work? Does the presence of police from outside the hood remove the preferable warlords inside the hood? Do the skills required to be such a warlord also enable one to just ditch the whole problem, leaving behind only those incapable of such organization? This last possibility has some resonance with Ed’s advice on how to deal with loud bad-decision-makers in a movie theater: go to a different movie theater. I think it would be grossly unfair to demand Ed have all the answers to why things are they way they are, but some speculation on the subject would have been very welcome since he’d probably have come at the problem from an interesting angle.

It would also have been interesting had there been a section on how people who don’t make exclusively bad decisions but who nevertheless grow up in the hood—people like Ed himself—navigate the violent environment they can’t escape from until later in their lives.

Before I conclude, the modern world being what it is, there is a warning I should probably give about A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto. A good introduction to that warning is the disclaimer found at the beginning of the book:

Please note that the use of the term “nigga”, “nigger”, and other close synonyms are in reference to uneducated, unemployed, unmotivated, ignorant black individuals, not the African American race as a whole.

On the plus side, if this bothers you, I can report that according to my calculations the word “nigga” only makes up 2.5% of the words used (by contrast, 3.8% are “the”). That’s slightly misleading in that I didn’t count usages of variants such as “niggernomics” or “nig worth”, but it gives you a rough idea, I think. Basically, this is not a book for people with delicate eyes. (Nor delicate ears, if you tend to sound words out to yourself, I suppose, but in that case you could probably put your fingers in your ears when you see the words you dislike coming up.)

And all joking aside, it did make me uncomfortable. I’m not used to language like this and it is jarring to hear it used frequently. If you can’t guess, I’m a white guy who grew up in the suburbs where most everyone over the age of 14 got along with each other well enough that for the most part that the only thing the police did was give people traffic tickets. This fortunate circumstance does come with some limitations of experience, and in my relatively sheltered youth it would have been less shocking to hear someone declare their fealty to their lord Satan than it would have been to hear somebody sincerely use racial epithets as a criticism. However incomplete—or if you prefer, unrealistic—a view of the world this gave me as a child, it should speak to how weird it felt to me to read a book where at least 2.5% of the words were some variant of “nigger”. On the other hand I’m confident that Ed is not a racist and I was willing to trust him that there were good reasons for his choices. And having finished the book, I think that there were. I’d say it kept it real, but I don’t know if that would be using the phrase correctly. So instead let me quote the movie A Man for All Seasons, where Will Roper asked Sir Thomas More for permission to marry More’s daughter:

More: Roper, the answer is no and will be no as long as you’re a heretic.

Roper: Now that’s a word I don’t like, sir Thomas.

More: It’s not a likable word; it’s not a likable thing.

Ultimately, so long as people know what words mean, unlikable things will be described by unlikable words. So there’s some value in using unlikable words; it keeps one from getting too complacent in the mere sound of speech and forgetting what is really meant. Ed is describing the sort of people who have attacked him throughout his childhood and nearly killed him more than once. That’s not something one should be comfortable with. Plus, as Ed said later in his disclaimer:

Besides, I’m black. I think that means I can get away with it.

In summary, though it is a book with some production issues which is ultimately disappointing in its brevity, I recommend A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto. Half of $9.97 is not much money to get a perspective on a part of America which (statistically) most of us have never experienced, written by someone who’s read Aristotle extensively. Unless you’re a superhero of thrift, you will probably have often spent more money to get less value. If you’re interested in following my advice and buying the bundle, instructions are here.

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