Dalton Conley

Life gave Dalton Conley lemons, but he made lemonade from them. In his memoirs, the author presents a situation which is hard to imagine being real. His impoverished middle-class white family lived in a poor black and Puerto Rican neighborhood. The boy’s personal experiences and observations of race, class, and ethnic inequality led to deep contemplations and resulted in the great scientific career. Dalton Conley is a prominent American sociologist famous for the perfect connection of field and personal readings in his books. There is no doubt, that the institutions he studied in and his encounters with race and class interactions influenced his personality and life interests much. To prove this, the current essay will consider the social structures he lived in, the educational institutions he attended, and the personal practice of race and class dynamics in America he gained.

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Black and white race structure was the first Conley met in his life. Anyway, initially, he did not realize it in full. Being two and a half years old he wanted to have a baby sister so much that he stole a baby-girl from their black neighbors, although his parents were both white (Conley, 2000, loc.68, ch.1). Therefore, he proved with this that there is no race difference for young children but it is artificially created by adults and instilled in their older offsprings. Being at school Conley soon assumed that teachers often made his skin color an issue because all black children of the neighborhood in class got corporal punishment except white Conley. The reason was that “a black teacher would never cross the racial line to strike a white student” (Conley, 2000, loc. 437, ch 4). As a result, the boy was so oppressed by the attitude that he was afraid to piss at school (“they will cut off your pee-pee” (Conley, 2000, loc. 442, ch 4)) and often had his trousers wet. Mother asked the administration to change the class, although among Chinese pupils, Dalton felt not much different. The circumstances were almost the same: one white boy among the Chinese. Anyway, as the author realized, it was not a matter of racial but ethnical diversity. Thus, he later became the part of the student community without efforts. That year he understood that the ethnic structure did not bring as many problems and conflicts as the racial one did. A year later his parents (mother in particular) sneaked him into a progressive school for white high-middle-class citizens. Conley had to get there by bus from another part of New York every day. Nevertheless, this journey was like a travel between countries, not different parts of the city. There the boy noticed class inequality for the first time. He associated poor district of his family with graffiti, the Con Edison plant, slum buildings, while his high-middle-class associations were the whiteness, little litter, political posters, and no graffiti (Conley, 2000, loc. 1956, Epilogue). However, all these associations were more visual. The inner experiencing of the class structure diversity came with the rejection of his personality by white colleagues at the Bronx High School of Science. They characterized him as “socially awkward” (Conley, 2000, loc. 1912, ch. 17). Moreover, since his father was afraid to move from the dangerous area they lived in to the middle-classed one saying that “I’m not going to be trapped in a white ghetto”, the difference became even more striking for young Conley (Conley, 2000, loc. 1836, ch. 17).

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In the epilogue to his autobiographical book “Honky” Dalton Conley assumes that “I was fed, housed, and clothed by two academic institutions while writing this book: the University of California and Yale University” (Conley, 2000, loc. 2032, Epilogue). Nevertheless, his educational path started from less prestigious institutions. The black class with a teacher, who wrote more letters on the board than pupils knew, was the start and first-grade. Next, illogical for the middle-class but usual for minority practice of passing to the lower, kindergarten, level of the Chinese class followed. With the help of cultural and social connections, however, his mother Ellen proved able to get a place for Conley in the second best New York school, Stuyvesant High School. She used her friend’s address to get it, and it became the stepping stone in Conley’s further education. The important turn was that he, as a middle-class white, this way had his ticket to the better life. Some of the rich Greenwich Village kids commuted hours longer than he to get an education (Conley, 2000, loc. 1956, Epilogue). Of course, contrastingly, the majority of his poor neighborhood friends had to be satisfied with that primitive vision of the school for black, Puerto Ricans and Chinese children. Maybe, this realization of being lucky made him appreciate and use his chance in full. Berkeley University was the next stage of Conley’s education. There he notices that “I had never seen so much whiteness in one place” (Conley, 2000, loc. 1969, Epilogue), which confirms that a good education, scientific success, and white race often go together. Another lucky ticket the Conley’s family got was the housing for artists of all kinds. The cultural level helped them to move to a safer place 9 minutes away from the son’s Alma Mater. After graduating from another prestigious institution, Columbia University, Conley got a teaching position at Yale and was involved in NYU’s social science practice, but he chose to live with his wife, son, and daughter near the area, where he grew up, instead of the far more fashionable neighborhood he could afford now. It took him two hours to get to his job, but they were the hours of travel between classes and races of the USA, the treasure hours for the sociologist, which he later described in the end of his book “Honky”.

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During all his life Dalton Conley commuted between races, classes, and individualities. This practice shaped his personality and influenced the choice of his profession. Within this “commute” he was accustomed to behaving like a chameleon. He could speak Yiddish-like English with the unique accent as all the boys in his street did, and pure English as his parents and high school teachers spoke. He played baseball just with whites after the glove fight story. However, as he concluded afterwards, he encountered not much hardship in the position of a honky, as a black boy would suffer much more among the whites. He also experienced the privilege of being white in omitting punishment even when he was guilty (the fire in Raphael’s apartment) and understood that a person can be crippled without reasons (Jerome’s shot story) when he/she lives among poor blacks. He defined that race matters if someone can belong to the certain group. It was when he, together with his sister Alexandra, was rejected by other pupils in nursery school. In the contrary case, when he, helped by his black friend Marcus, joined the black camp, which was the minority in the competition with the white, and lost the game, Conley realized that there was no matter what your race or class was. The crucial aspect for feeling secure and protected was to belong to the majority. Conley inferred that as the majority was white, it was modish to be white because even in nursery school all boys and girls would be more satisfied with a half of white Barbie than with the whole black. However, there were always exceptions. His sister, for instance, wanted cornrows so badly. Since early childhood, Conley knew from his mother how to behave in dangerous situations. He visited karate lessons, carried money in his shoes to ensure his safety and stayed at home during holidays and in the evening. Anyway, the shot of his karate teacher demonstrated that there was no guarantee while living in the area without rules.

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Dalton is a little bit critical to his mother’s paranoia of safety but, admittedly, thanks to it, he did not stick to the bottom of the society and moved forward. For his family reputation in the society meant much more than the financial conditions. Thus, even when they lost money, they still possessed the proper cultural level and social connections. To hold these up they traveled to Pennsylvania each summer. Conley writes that it was “a part of a status game” (Conley, 2000, loc. 1020, ch. 9), as they lived in a tent or a small cottage of their uncle but nobody knew it. This game eventually helped the boy to get the best education without close attention to the fake address and the fact that he almost did not attend school for seven years in his low-income neighborhood. Dalton Conley’s mother was a class-rebelling civil rights activist (Conley, 2000, loc.279, ch. 3). It was her outlook, social position and struggle for her children’s social status that had the effect not only on Conley’s personality but his destiny in general. The boy learned how much the family background mattered in a Greenwich Village school during the votes for Carter and Ford and felt the influence of the cultural level of his family throughout his life path.

In conclusion, Dalton Conley’s environment, family culture, and status formed his personality and developed his professional potential. Without his personal experience of the dynamics of class and race in America, he would not be able to learn the unwritten rules of the society, which he studies and teaches at top USA universities. Each academic institution he attended and each social structure he had practice in became the inestimable foundation for his successful sociologist career.

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