Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men (1967), by the American anthropologist Elliot Liebow (1925–1994), represented a breakthrough for its time in studies dealing with poverty and race. Tally’s Corner was originally written as Liebow’s PhD dissertation in anthropology for the Catholic University of America.
For twelve months in 1962 and 1963, Liebow and a group of researchers studied the behavior of a group of young black men who lived near and frequently hung around a street corner in a poor black neighborhood in downtown Washington, D.C. Liebow’s participant observation revealed the numerous obstacles facing black men on a day-to-day basis, including the structural and individual levels of racial discrimination propagated by whites in society.
Liebow’s observations about young black men in the ghetto, a complex system comprised of an overabundance of liquor stores, pool halls, and pawnshops, directly parallel similar research by notable scholars, such as William Foote Whyte (1914–2000) in Street Corner Society (1943). In this respect, Tally’s Corner represents one of the first ethnographic attempts at understanding how groups navigate extreme poverty in the inner cities. The book shares some similarities with W. E. B. Du Bois’s (1868–1963) The Philadelphia Negro (1899) in that throughout Tally’s Corner, Liebow elaborates on the cultural deficiencies of blacks in the ghetto and is quick to attribute these deficiencies as the root cause of their perpetual poverty. Unlike Du Bois, however, Liebow fails to factor in the effects of racial discrimination against blacks in the employment sector and in access to quality education and how these structural elements affect the lives of black people living in the ghetto.
Nevertheless, Tally’s Corner is unique in how it looks at not only poverty and its effects on inner-city people but specifically on the systemic and long-term effects of poverty on black men and black families. In the five main chapters that make up Tally’s Corner, Liebow discusses how black men deal, on a daily basis, with issues of work, their relationships, their children, and their friends and networks. His portrait of how inner-city blacks navigate the racial waters of their neighborhoods is both gloomy and sad, revealing a number of examples of how whites are apathetic and often discriminatory toward black workers. Black men’s constant struggle to succeed and their frequent failures translate for Liebow into a self-perpetuating cycle of doubt, where blacks become tired of trying to beat white society at its own game and thus accept failure as a way of life.
The sociologist and ethnographer Elijah Anderson, following Liebow’s tradition of urban ethnographic research into black lives in the inner city, has spent a lifetime studying race and class issues in urban communities. An explicit example of the continuity of Liebow’s work is in Anderson’s Code of the Street (1999), an ethnographic study examining morality, teen pregnancy, the search for respect, and other issues central to people living in the inner city.
Although Liebow’s study offers valuable insight into the lives of young and poor black men in the early 1960s, his analysis caters to what the psychologist William Ryan (1923–2002) labeled a “blaming-the-victim” mentality or what the anthropologist Oscar Lewis (1914–1970) referred to as a “culture of poverty,” whereby the structural inequalities in society are not questioned. Rather, blame for persistent social ills is placed directly onto the victims themselves. A clear example of the use of a blaming-the-victim argument is in the 1965 Moynihan Report, which argued that unemployment and a lack of educational success among black Americans could be traced to dysfunctional black families. Hence the burden of misfortune is shifted directly onto black Americans.
In a similar vein, Liebow argued that the relentless patterns of racial discrimination by whites had left black men with low self-esteem and thus a desire to remain uneducated and unattached to their children or families. The problem with this argument is that it fails to account for the real and pervasive racial dilemmas faced by blacks in the United States. For example, Liebow argued that as long as black Americans failed to become educated, they would remain ignorant of the opportunities provided many whites. Thus education is a key, for Liebow, in lifting black men out of poverty. However, what is left out of Liebow’s equation is that the racial discrimination that occurs in the school system is real and that for blacks education may not necessarily equal opportunities for success. As Joe Feagin, Amanda Lewis, Judith Blau, and many other researchers have noted, the American education system is a racialized institution that fundamentally caters to middle-class whites while routinely denying blacks and other nonwhites equal opportunities for learning and advancement. Likewise, Liebow ignores the impact of racial discrimination in employment as a major factor affecting blacks’ opportunities for upward social and economic mobility. Thus for blacks living in the ghetto, the racial structure of society is such that even should they succeed in navigating the educational obstacle course, they will continue to suffer penalties in rewards vis-à-vis comparably educated whites. This fact not only affects the social and economic mobility of black Americans, it also has an adverse impact on the motivation of blacks living in the ghetto to follow through on their education.
Numerous studies have criticized Tally’s Corner for its failure to consider the impact of institutional and systemic racism on the lives of blacks in the United States. For example, Steven Gregory’s Black Corona (1998) argues against the idea that the black ghetto is dysfunctional and socially disorganized. Rather, like Kenneth B. Clark (1914–2005) in Dark Ghetto (1965), Gregory maintains that the black community has been rendered powerless by urban political processes, even as black Americans continue to organize and fight for social justice. A more direct critique of Tally’s Corner is in James Borchert’s Alley Life in Washington (1980). Borchert finds order and stability in his examination of alley housing in Washington, D.C., and he directly rejects the view of lower-class black life as pathological.
Anderson, Elijah. 1999. Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. New York: Norton.
Blau, Judith R. 2003. Race in the Schools: Perpetuating White Dominance? Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
Borchert, James. 1980. Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion, and Folklife in the City, 1850–1970. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Clark, Kenneth B. 1965. Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power. New York: Harper and Row.
Du Bois, W. E. B. 1899. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. New York: Lippincott.
Gregory, Steven. 1998. Black Corona: Race and the Politics of Place in an Urban Community. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Lewis, Amanda E. 2003. Race in the Schoolyard: Negotiating the Color Line in Classrooms and Communities. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Lewis, Oscar. 1959. Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty. New York: Basic Books.
Liebow, Elliot. 1967. Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men. Boston: Little, Brown.
Ryan, William. 1971. Blaming the Victim. New York: Pantheon.
Van Ausdale, Debra, and Joe R. Feagin. 2001. The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Whyte, William Foote.  1993. Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum. 4th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
David G. Embrick