The Toronto Star recently published a feature article discussing Professor Randol Contreras’ research and its connections to his own life. Professor Contreras is an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, Mississauga with a specialization in crime and gangs. His Book, The Stickup Kids: Race, Drugs, Violence, and the American Dream, has been highly acclaimed and has won a number of awards. The Toronto Star piece was published on October 2, 2016 and is available online in its entirety. The following is an except of the longer article:
From failed Bronx drug dealer to U of T sociologist
Randol Contreras grew up in the South Bronx, dropping out of school to sell cocaine. So how did he end up as a published author, PhD and professor at the University of Toronto?
By Sandro Contenta
Randol Contreras has been looking frail ever since gastritis started eating at his gut. Sitting at his desk, at the University of Toronto’s sociology department, nothing about him suggests the hard streets. He looks like he might fade into the bare walls of his office.
He grew up in a poor Dominican enclave of the South Bronx in New York City. It was the height of the crack cocaine market and local drug dealers were swimming in cash, splashing it on convertibles, flashy clothes and hot women.
For many in Contreras’s marginalized neighbourhood, the dealers had achieved the only version of the American dream available. “These men were kings,” he says. Some were his relatives, some his close friends. He wanted to be them.
“I failed miserably,” he says, laughing. “I was a really bad drug dealer.”
The experience wasn’t a complete loss. It made him intimately qualified, after joining U of T in the fall of 2014, to teach a sociology course on “drugs in the city.” This fall, at the age of 45, he launches another on street gangs, informed by extensive field research he’s conducting with aging members of the Maravillas, the Mexican neighbourhood gangs of East Los Angeles.
He’s being applauded as a rare voice in academia, making waves in a discipline where ethnographic studies of poor urban communities have “mostly been written by senior white men,” notes U of T sociologist Jooyoung Lee.
He burst onto the sociological scene in 2013 with an astonishing insider’s account of his old neighbourhood. His acclaimed book, The Stickup Kids: Race, Drugs, Violence, and the American Dream, follows the violent path of several South Bronx drug dealers — most of them his childhood friends.
He describes their metamorphosis from simple dealers to gruesome torturers between 1999 and 2004, a fate Contreras narrowly escaped. It is not a portrait of sociopaths. They appear like shockingly brutal pragmatists navigating the social, economic and political pressures bearing down on them.