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Crossing the Racial Divide 

A college professor chronicles his childhood as a white kid growing up in the black and Puerto Rican housing projects of New York City

Wednesday, Oct 17 2001
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International politics may be top priority right now, but domestic issues deserve a little attention as well. Dalton Conley, a rising star of academia, shines a light on his own homeland security in his new memoir, Honky. A chronicle of his childhood as one of the only white kids in the black and Puerto Rican housing projects of Manhattan's Lower East Side, Honky challenges the belief that if you work hard enough, you, too, can achieve the American dream. Many minorities have long dismissed that belief as simplistic, if not outright false. Conley, a successful example of the equal opportunity theory -- he's now an associate professor of sociology and director of the Center for Advanced Social Science Research at New York University -- would also be the first to debunk it. Unlike many folks who rose to the top despite obstacles, the thirtysomething academic is reluctant to take all the credit for his success; instead, he admits that he was granted opportunities that might not have existed if his skin were a different color.

Suburban kids may long for a supposed ghetto life popularized by hip hop culture, but Conley's tale reveals the truth behind the P. Diddy videos. He's careful not to present his story as one of "poor boy makes good," but rather he sees his life as a "natural experiment" in the nature vs. nurture debate. His parents, a painter and a writer from "good" middle-class families, had eschewed their privileged status in favor of a bohemian lifestyle, but Conley recognizes that that freedom of choice separated his household from those of his neighbors. "It was this modicum of choice, not skin color per se, that ultimately distinguished us," he writes. His parents also had the "cultural capital" -- social networks, different expectations, a sense of entitlement -- to help Conley find his way out of the ghetto and onto the fast track. For example, his parents used a friend's cross-town address to enable him to attend progressive schools in Manhattan, which led to degrees from Berkeley and Columbia, while his childhood pals (including a best friend who was paralyzed in a shooting) were not so lucky.

The results of such advantages have not been lost on Conley, who has made the study of race the focus of his intellectual pursuits. In fact, his scholarly success lies in his ability to link theory with experience. As he notes in the preface to Honky, "I've studied whiteness the way I would a foreign language." But Honky isn't wonky; it's a worthwhile read and surprisingly jargon-free. Narrated from the perspective of a child, the book is peppered with touching anecdotes and a wisdom that comes from adult reflection. While the book gives insight into race relations, it is, above all, a captivating coming-of-age story about a likable boy who, despite his membership in the majority, still feels like an outsider.

About The Author

Lisa Hom

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