Righteous Dopefiend

by Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg

Drug Consumption as Racialized Habitus

Heroin injectors often brag about the size of their habit, exaggerating how many “grams of dope” they inject per day. Like many of the identity and micropower relations among the Edgewater Boulevard, competition over who had the bigger heroin habit often became racialized:

Felix: Man, none of these niggers is real dopefiends. They’re crackheads. These guys can’t shoot dope like I do. I don’t have their kind of habit. They ain’t even in my league. Give ’em a half a gram … and they’ll die. Carter would die for sure.

Polydrug preferences also followed ethnic patterns. The whites, for example, referred to crack as “a nigger drug” even though most of them also smoked crack themselves. With the notable exception of Al, however, they were ashamed to admit it. Even those whites who smoked large quantities of crack would pretend shamefacedly, as they lit their pipes, that they only smoked opportunistically: “I never buy it. But if someone has it – sure I’ll take a hit.” A few of the whites, such as Nickie and Max, never smoked crack, even when it was offered to them, claiming that it ruined their heroin highs. Everyone on Edgewater Boulevard, black and white, agreed that “crack makes you sicker quicker.” Virtually all the African-Americans devoted significant effort to raising money to buy crack once they had satisfied their daily physical need for heroin. When successful they often stayed up all night on binges. The whites generally hustled less money than the African-Americans, and when they did obtain a sudden windfall, they usually purchased fortified wine or extra heroin rather than more crack. As a result, many of the whites had larger heroin habits and tended to fall asleep at sunset, unless they were dopesick or belligerently drunk.

Photo of book sleeve: Righteous Dopefiend

Righteous Dopefiend

Philippe Bourgois (Author)
Jeff Schonberg (Author)

University of California Press 2009
392 pages
9.4 x 6.9 x 0.9 inches

On special occasions, the African-Americans injected speedballs to propel themselves onto a roller-coaster high and mesh the sedative effects of heroin with the wide-awake exhilaration of cocaine. They would sometimes celebrate their speedball sessions by “booting-and-jacking” their injections-that is, repeatedly flushing blood in and out of their syringes to provide multiple rushes of pleasure. When we were filming a speedball session on one occasion, Sonny chuckled, “Lady in red give daddy some head,” as a plume of red blood flooded into the barrel of his syringe, indicating that his needle tip was safely inside a vein. He then pushed the plunger halfway into the barrel, only to follow it with, “Come back, Little Sheba,” as he pulled the plunger back to reflood the barrel with blood. On the final flush, he sang, “Hit the road, Jack, and don’t come back,” All of the whites dismissed booting-and-jacking as a “nigger thing.” In all our years on Edgewater Boulevard, Al was the only white we saw inject a speedball on purpose.

The whole crack package – the rapid spending, the celebratory binges, and the stimulating physiological effect – meshed with the racialized late-twentieth-century persona of the enterprising black “outlaw,” which, on Edgewater Boulevard, was mobilized in opposition to the persona of the broken-down-white “bum.” Most of the homeless in the scene, of course, fell somewhere in between these two stereotyped ways of being in the world, but the African-Americans in our social network strove more consistently to maintain the public appearance of being in control of their lives and having fun. In sustaining a sense of self-worth they embraced an ecstatic commitment to getting high. Most of the whites, in contrast, considered themselves to be depressed and, indeed, most of the time looked and acted dejected. Furthermore, even though we often observed Frank, Hank, Hogan, Max, Petey, and Scotty nodding after they injected, they usually claimed with stoic boredom that they no longer enjoyed shooting and that they were merely staying off withdrawal symptoms: “I get well. I don’t nod no more.” Most of the whites considered themselves to be depressed …

Everyone in our scene had severely scarred the veins in their arms as a consequence of long careers of injection. It was difficult for them to “direct deposit” heroin into a vein. By the midpoint of our fieldwork, most of the whites had given up searching for operable veins and skin-popped. They sank their needles perfunctorily, often through their clothing, into their fatty tissue.

In contrast, the African-Americans, even in the final years of our fieldwork, rarely skin-popped their injections. Instead, they often spent up to forty-five minutes searching for a functional vein. This could become a bloody process as they made a half dozen or more punctures, pulling back on the plunger each time in order to register a vein. An intravenous injection, though difficult, provides an instantaneous rush of pleasure. Rejecting the aura of failure and depression associated with the whites, even the oldest African-Americans continued to pursue this kind of exhilarating high. They also expressed their pleasure openly in public sessions of deep nodding immediately after injecting. Some individuals, such as Carter, Sonny, and Vernon, performed their highs dramatically, collapsing into full-bodied relaxation and moaning with pleasure or jumping hyperenergetically to their feet. The white addicts, however, usually tried to nod discreetly, their chins slowly dipping onto their chests as if they were merely cat-napping. When energized, they might, at most, talk enthusiastically, scratch their noses compulsively, or clean up their camp.

These distinct injection methods and manners of experiencing and expressing the heroin high become physically inscribed on the body. The whites, for example, suffered from more abscesses, because skin-popping traps impurities in the soft tissue under the skin (picked up from dirty fingers, cookers, water, lint, or whatever adheres to a needle point when it is pushed through filthy clothing and unwashed skin) (Bourgois et al. 2006; Ciccarone et al. 2001). In an intravenous injection, these same impurities are usually safely filtered out by the body’s vascular system. The disadvantage of an intravenous injection, however, is that it increases the risks of fatal overdose and also of hepatitis C and HIV infection because of the greater potential for blood-to-blood contact when syringes are shared (Rich et al. 1998). Significantly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented that the rate of AIDS in the United States in 2005 was ten times higher among African-Americans than among whites (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2007).

The HIV prevention mandate that was part of our National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding motivated us to document hundreds of injection episodes in our fieldnotes. The ethnic differences became evident when we began coding these detailed (and often repetitive) descriptions of the ostensibly trivial acts of preparing, injecting, and savoring heroin. The following excerpt from Jeff’s notes is merely one of hundreds of descriptions that reveal ethnically patterned contrasts.

Jeff’s fieldnotes

Felix opens the door of Franks van when I knock. They are in the midst of fixing. Felix pulls down his pants and with a polite “Excuse my ass” pushes the needle of his syringe three-quarters of the way into his right butt cheek.

The radio is tuned as usual to an AM talk show. The right-wing host is attacking President Bill Clinton over the war in Kosovo. While debating the pros and cons of deploying US troops in the Balkans, Felix pushes forcefully on the plunger: It barely moves, however because it has struck scar tissue. He leaves the syringe hanging unattended from his rear for a few minutes to let the liquid heroin seep around the brittle tissue. When he pushes on the plunger again, it slides forward a few millimeters but starts to bend under the pressure, so he leaves it dangling again for a few more minutes to allow more liquid to seep out. He repeats this push-and-dangle sequence five or six more times until the syringe is finally empty arguing the whole time with Frank about the war in the Balkans. While debating the pros and cons of deploying US troops in the Balkans, Felix pushes forcefully on the plunger …

Frank meanwhile has jabbed his needle directly through his filthy t-shirt into the flesh of his upper arm, just over his right shoulder. He flushes his heroin solution in one rapid motion. I offer him an alcohol wipe, but he politely declines. Within a few minutes he starts to nod. He periodically tries to lift his chin and open his eyes to pretend that he is listening intently to Felix’s commentary but his chin keeps dropping back down, his eyes fluttering in evident relaxation.

I walk to where Sonny is currently “staying” inside the Discount Grocery’s garbage storage shed. He is with Carter and they too are about to fix, Carter taps with his fingertips along the left side of Sonny’s neck to increase blood flow while Sonny sucks on his thumb to swell his jugular. Grimacing anxiously Sonny looks uncharacteristically passive and vulnerable, like an overgrown toddler sucking his thumb. Carter completes the injection into Sonny’s jugular smoothly and pats him on the back “You’ll be feelin’ better real soon.”

Sonny smiles. “That’s my doctor.” Carter begins to explain to me that it takes longer for heroin to affect you when you are dopesick and “have nothing for it to piggyback onto.” Sonny’s dope, however takes immediate effect. His eyes clear up; his voice drops an octave and becomes gravely. He drapes his arm affectionately over Carter’s shoulder to keep from slumping over.

Carter turns his back on Sonny and probes his needle into his own biceps holding his breath as he concentrates on finding a vein. Unable to register blood after half a dozen attempts, he jerks the syringe out of his arm, cursing.

He plunges the needle deeper into his biceps several more times reaching almost under his armpit and changing the angle each time while wiggling the point. He tugs the skin in all directions as he repeatedly pulls back on his plunger to check for blood. Suddenly he starts jabbing violently as if trying to spear a miniature fish in his bloodstream. Unsuccessful he yanks the syringe out again.

He sits back and holds the syringe chamber in the window light with the needle pointing up. Air bubbles marble into the mixture of red blood and black heroin in the chamber He mutters another curse and with several abrupt chops of his wrist forces the air bubbles to the top of the chamber He then slowly pushes the plunger upward until the bubbles surface one by one through the point of the needle. He licks it so as not to waste a drop.

He pokes again into the same awkwardly located biceps muscle in his armpit. After fifteen more minutes of jabbing, poking, and pulling, he finally manages to register a vein and quickly flushes the heroin directly into his bloodstream. He drops the used needle on the ground and I can see visible traces of blood inside the empty syringe. I suggest that he rinse it but he is already nodding and moaning with pleasure.

Carter tries to give Sonny a cigarette but nods abruptly in the middle of handing it to him and mumbles, “Love you brother … hmmm … done my good deed for the day … hmmm.” Sonny, who is also nodding, lets the precious cigarette fall to the ground in mid-grab. The conversation comes to an abrupt halt; they have both suddenly fallen into heavy nods.

I open the door of the garbage shed to leave, and the noise snaps both of them out of their postinjection heroin bliss. They immediately stand up to follow me – energetic and ready to go, as if their deep nodding moments earlier had occurred hours ago. Carter pops the cotton lying in the bottom of the cooker into his mouth and we walk out.

Techniques of the Body

Bourdieu, following Mauss, would have called these distinct ways of injecting and experiencing heroin “techniques of the body” (Bourdieu 2002:110-126; Mauss 1936). They are complex, historically grounded sets of innumerable cultural practices that contribute to the perception of radical ethnic difference. Countless other routine interactions and markers naturalize such ethnic distinctions into an everyday “common sense” that casts them as genetico-cultural differences infused with moral judgment. In the very same encampment or on the same streetcorner, the African-Americans were usually dressed stylishly in the latest hip-hop fashions, while the whites often wore ripped t-shirts, dirty jeans, and disintegrating sneakers: Frank would never tilt his baseball hat cockily to the side.

Patterns of cultural diversity are a banal fact of social organization and are not necessarily significant in and of themselves. What is significant about the ethnic distinctions in behaviors that we describe among the homeless is that they are “misrecognized” by most people as the “natural order of things” (Bourdieu 1990, 2004). Most dramatically, as seen in the injection process, ethnic distinctions become inscribed onto bodies as scars and infections and are acted out in postures that become associated with racial characteristics. For example, after we made a presentation on ethnic patterns in injection techniques and abscess prevalence at the medical school where we worked, a laboratory-based scientist expressed his interest in obtaining a grant for research to discover the “black gene” for resilient veins.

The down-and-out way of being in the world common to most of the whites was reinforced by the absence of a culturally celebrated model for performing outlaw masculinity on the street among middle-aged white men. The white street culture – the leather-clad biker riding a Harley Davidson and sporting a graying ponytail, or the prison-based Aryan Brotherhood gang member – did not carry mass appeal. In contrast, fashionable hip-hop youth culture in the 1990s and 2000s had created a positively inflected linguistic term for over-forty-year – olds, O.G. (Original Gangsta), with which African-American and Latino homeless injectors could self-identify. Whites, however, could not pass as streetwise hustlers or former gang members even when they tried. (See Jackson’s [2001:201-205] discussion of reactions to the aging white movie director Quentin Tarantino staking a claim to “blackness” through childhood association with “underclass” African-American men.)

The middle-aged whites sought to mitigate their pariah status as public masculine failures by presenting themselves as traumatized Vietnam veterans. This identity was predicated on their victimization and the pity they elicited for suffering from a psychiatric disability labeled posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When Hogan’s multiple abscesses made him limp, he blamed it on “that round in my hip from ’Nam.” He reminisced about “Hamburger Hill 84 in the Aishon Valley, south of Bon Son, Pol Point, not too far from Dan Lok,” where he received “three Silvers, two Bronzes, an MOH [Medal of Honor] … and two Purples.” When drunk and angry, he would call out for “my baby,” the name he gave to the M-16 that he claimed to have buried in the brush by the freeway. Similarly, Hank spoke in detail of how he had been demoted from captain to sergeant for “conduct unbecoming an officer.” He claimed that “two black soldiers” in his squad reported him when he commandeered a helicopter to rescue wounded comrades trapped in a firefight. During our first year, when Felix was still an honorary white, he told us about “stuffing body bags with body parts” in Vietnam as a “phlebotomist-medic.”

Some of the blacks also claimed to be Vietnam veterans. Almost immediately after we met him, Carter spoke with visible trauma of being sent on a covert mission deep inside the Mekong Delta:

There was no honoring of the Geneva Conventions or nothin’. That shit about cutting off penises and sewing the mouths and de-legging and de-heading people was true. My partner, Hughes, his brains was splattered all over my neck and on the side of my face … [shaking at the memory] “Oh, my mother! Please don’t let me die over here!”

We obtained everyone’s military records and found that only Vernon, Carter, and Petey had actually been in the military. None of the three was sent to Southeast Asia; in fact, both Carter and Petey had served after the end of the Vietnam War. According to Hank’s sister, “Hank was classified 4F, unfit for military duty. He didn’t want to go in the army. He fixed into both his hands right before going in for the interview… They looked like balloons.” Nevertheless, thirty years later, Hank regularly evoked full-blown Vietnam War PTSD symptoms: “I lived and died in ’Nam. I wanna live and die here, on the street, too.” Like Hogan and Carter, Hank interrupted his gory stories with bouts of sobbing and shaking – sometimes even ducking for cover when cars backfired. Arguably, these men did in fact suffer from what could be diagnosed as PTSD, but it had been induced by the continuum of violence in the gray zones of their childhood homes and of their ongoing lives on the street.


  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990 The Logic of Practice Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • ———. 2002 Le bal des célibataires: Crise de la société paysanne en Béarn. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.
  • ———. “The peasant and his body.” Ethnography 5(4):579–600.
  • Bourgois, Philippe, Alexis Martinez, Alex Kral, Brian R. Edlin, Jeff Schonberg, and Dan Ciccarone. 2006 “Reinterpreting ethnic patterns among White and African American men who inject heroin: A social science medicine approach.” PLoS Medicine 3(10):1805–1815. Online here (accessed October 24, 2007).
  • Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2007. “Racial/ethnic disparities in diagnosis of HIV/AIDS: 33 States, 2001–2005.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 56(9):189–193.
  • Ciccarone, Dan, Josh Bamberger, Alex Kral, Brian Edlin, Chris Hobart, A. Moon, E.L. Murphy, Philippe Bourgois, Hobart W. Harris, and D.M. Young. 2001 “Soft tissue infections among injection drug users: San Francisco, California, 1996–2000.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 50(19):381–384.
  • Jackson, John L. Jr. 2001 Harlemworld: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Mauss, Marcel. 1936 “Les techniques du corps.” Journal de psychologie 32(3–4):365–386.
  • Rich, Josiah D., Brian P. Dickinson, John M. Carney, Alvan Fisher, and Robert Heimer. 1998 “Detecion of HIV-I nucleic acid and HIV-I antibodies in needles and syringes used for non-intravenous injection.” AIDS 12(17):2345–2350.
  • American Ethnography Quasimonthly is published by the Intercontinental Institute for Awesome Anthropology and Ethnographic Excellence
  • © 2010, 2011, 2012