Elijah Anderson (May 1994). “The Code of the Streets.” The Atlantic.
Elijah Anderson was a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania for years. His urban research in Philadelphia during that time produced this article and a following book, Code of the Street. He is now a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Yale University and director of their Urban Ethnography Project.
This article may be the best analysis of urban violence available. It describes the unwritten laws of streets in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods—the mores, or norms, of those whose lives and destinies are played out on urban streets.
Anderson begins the article saying:
Of all the problems besetting the poor inner-city black community, none is more pressing than that of interpersonal violence and aggression. It wreaks havoc daily with the lives of community residents and increasingly spills over into downtown and residential middle-class areas. Muggings, burglaries, carjackings, and drug-related shootings, all of which may leave their victims or innocent bystanders dead, are now common enough to concern all urban and many suburban residents. The inclination to violence springs from the circumstances of life among the ghetto poor—the lack of jobs that pay a living wage, the stigma of race, the fallout from rampant drug use and drug trafficking, and the resulting alienation and lack of hope for the future.
This, in short, cuts to the often-neglected reason for urban violence: “alienation and lack of hope.” Though created by antisocial elements, this code affects all residents of a neighborhood.
… the street culture has evolved what may be called a code of the streets, which amounts to a set of informal rules governing interpersonal public behavior, including violence. The rules prescribe both a proper comportment and a proper way to respond if challenged. They regulate the use of violence and so allow those who are inclined to aggression to precipitate violent encounters in an approved way.
Simply living in such an environment places young people at special risk of falling victim to aggressive behavior. The article paints most inner city families as “… strong, loving, ‘decent’ (as inner city residents put it).” Although a majority of residents in any troubled neighborhood aspire and strive toward middle-class American values, they still are at risk of neighborhood violence and trauma.
Simply living in such an environment places young people at special risk of falling victim to aggressive behavior. Young people from law abiding and hard working families must navigate their way to school understanding the “code of the street,” along with their own code of decent values. These astute youth must hide their academic efforts and plans while learning successful means to avoid aggressive moves by those who control the street and enforce its code.
But why such violence? “At the heart of the code is the issue of respect—loosely defined as being treated “right,” or granted the deference one deserves.”
The urban exodus to the suburbs, the loss of meaningful jobs, transportation difficulties, the decline of urban education, increasing poverty have led to the creation of alternative means of employment. Philippe Bourgeois, as a research anthropologist, spent some years in Spanish or East Harlem. Living with crack dealers, he traces the strong alternative economy of many inner cities—both barter and illegal in his book, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995).
In “The Code of the Streets” Anderson goes on to describe the formation of the code among those who experience “a profound sense of alienation from mainstream society and its institutions, who see no positive place for themselves in dominant culture, yet sense a need for dignity on some grounds, some clear sense of personal ‘respect.’” It is important to read all of Anderson’s article because it explains clearly the struggle faced by inner city families seeking appropriate employment and success in contrast to a “street-orientated mother (who) may simply leave her young children alone and unattended while she goes out.” Children from such homes and vulnerable children of “good” families are both susceptible to the call or demands of the streets.
When decent and street kids come together, a kind of social shuffle occurs in which children have a chance to choose either way. Tension builds as a child comes to realize he must choose an orientation. The kind of home he comes from influences but does not determine the way he will ultimately turn out.
In the street, through their play, children pour their individual life experiences into a common knowledge pool, affirming, confirming, and elaborating on what they have observed in the home and matching their skills against those of others. And they learn to fight. Even small children test one another, pushing and shoving, and are ready to hit other children over circumstances not to their liking…. The child in effect is initiated into a system that is really a way of campaigning for respect.
So far, we’ve seen the context and background for violence (described also by Geoffrey Canada’s Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun: a personal history of violence in America, Beacon Press, 1995). And we’ve watched the internalization of a special code from home through childhood. But how does the code actually work?
Anderson explains how anyone stepping outside the door of such a challenging neighborhood “must adopt a code—a kind of shield, really—to prevent others from ‘messing with’ him. In these circumstances it is easy for people to think they are being tried or tested by others even when this is not the case.”
What is being tested, street guys feel, is their very “manhood.”
Central to the issue of manhood is the widespread belief that one of the most effective ways of gaining respect is to manifest “nerve.” Nerve is shown when one takes another person’s possessions (the more valuable the better), “messes with” someone’s woman, throws the first punch, “gets in someone’s face,” or pulls a trigger. Its proper display helps, on the spot, to check others who would violate one’s person and also helps to build a reputation that works to prevent future challenges.
The product of successful behaviors of nerve is “juice” or street power. It is the reward of the zero sum game.
One of the most striking explanations of this article involves realizing most of us leave the house each day with some degree of confidence, some social and personal capital in our pocket. In contrast, those who make their way onto these streets, leave home with zero sum confidence and capital. The Free Dictionary defines the zero sum game as “A situation in which a gain by one person or side must be matched by a loss by another person or side” (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Zero+sum+game). The street kid or street gang can only maintain their respect by a respective loss to another individual or opposing gang.
There is much more in this article: “Boys and Girls,” “Going for Bad,” why bad becomes good or valued, and how it’s important to think of the street code as an oppositional culture. The article’s continued existence on the Internet begs thought and application.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. How many people in our country base their knowledge of inner city life on sensationalistic shots on the evening news or morning paper articles? Does such mistaking the part for the whole and stereotyping explain the subtle fears of Blacks among many Whites, Asians and others?
2. How familiar are you with street culture, and how have you gained such knowledge? If you are from California, how does gang culture differ from the street culture of Midwestern or Eastern cities?
3. How would you criticize this review and its original article by sociologist, Elijah Anderson? Or what questions does it raise in your mind?
4. Since this article was written about and from the East Coast in the 1990s, how are things different where you live, or how have things changed over the past two decades?
5. Does this article challenge us to move from knowledge of the streets to wisdom? How so or how not?
6. Take a little time to consider what this means to those living in neglected inner cities: parents, public school teachers, police, social service workers, pastors and youth ministers, and young people themselves. What strikes you as important application of this article?
7. Finally, what does it mean to you?
1. Elijah Anderson’s article and books join many other works describing the adversity faced by many of those we should call neighbors. Their challenge should form the basis for a national discussion that might pull us past our present social and political polarizations.
2. There must be an evaluation of attempts to counter this violence and taker of, often innocent, lives. We are allowing this violence to leave not only individuals but whole neighborhoods with post-traumatic stress. Viewing inner city programs we see too many adjacent silos—programs paralleling other positive programs, competing for limited funding and overlapping strategies of prevention.
3. An overall national strategy is needed to bring opportunities, adequate education and training, with respect to neglected parts of our society.
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