CODE OF THE STREET
Decency, Violence and the
Moral Life of the Inner City
By Elijah Anderson
Norton. 352 pp. $25.95
Elijah Anderson, who teaches social sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, has written an informative, clear-headed and sobering book about the "informal rules governing interpersonal public behavior, particularly violence," that control the streets of America's inner-city neighborhoods. These are rules for which there is ample precedent in "Roman times or the world of the shogun warriors or the early American Old South," and in "working-class Scotch-Irish or Italian or Hispanic communities," but Anderson is writing about the black Americans who inhabit the most desperate and alienated areas of our cities:
"In this social context of persistent poverty and deprivation, alienation from broader society's institutions, notably that of criminal justice, is widespread. The code of the street emerges where the influence of the police ends and personal responsibility for one's safety is felt to begin, resulting in a kind of `people's law,' based on `street justice.' This code involves a quite primitive form of social exchange that holds would-be perpetrators accountable by promising an `eye for an eye,' or a certain `payback' for transgressions. In service to this ethic, repeated displays of `nerve' and `heart' build or reinforce a credible reputation for vengeance that works to deter aggression and disrespect, which are sources of great anxiety on the inner-city street."
As that extract suggests, Anderson's prose suffers at times from the clumsiness to which sociologists are prone, but his analyses are acute. For one thing, he understands that the inner city is a far more complex place than most of us who do not live there (both white and black) realize. It has, as his subtitle says, a "moral life," and though some aspects of it will seem wholly alien to those of us on the outside, this exists to maintain order and equilibrium in forms appropriate to, and workable in, that environment. The inner city also has -- and this is absolutely central to Anderson's argument -- far clearer lines of social demarcation than outsiders can see.
The basic distinction is between "decent" people and "street" people. The former may be poor and disadvantaged, but they have "a real concern with and a certain amount of hope for the future," and in rearing their children "decent parents strive to maintain a positive mental attitude and a spirit of cooperation." Though some such families are headed by single women, many work to stay together: "Two parents, together with the extended network of cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, nieces and nephews, can form a durable team, a viable support group engaged to fight in a committed manner the problems confronting inner-city teenagers, including street violence, drugs, crime, pregnancy and poverty."
But "street parents, unlike decent ones, often show a lack of consideration for other people and have a rather superficial sense of family and community." Their lives "are often marked by disorganization," which is compounded by "deep-seated bitterness and anger" about "the lack of well-paying jobs and the persistence of racial discrimination." The "first lesson of the streets" is that "you cannot take survival itself, let alone respect, for granted; you have to fight for your place in the world," with the result that "anger, verbal disputes, physical aggression, even mayhem," are commonplace. Kindness is associated with weakness, violence produces respect; youths become "inured to violence and, perhaps, death itself," violent death being a daily and highly visible reality.
The great problem is that the line between decent and street can be exceedingly thin and the pressures to move across it in a downward, or streetward, direction can be intense. Anderson, who is a realist and therefore no optimist, understands that the decent people live under strains few outsiders can comprehend:
"The fact that the decent people, as a rule civilly disposed, socially conscious and self-reliant men and women, share the neighborhood streets and other public places with those associated with the street, the inconsiderate, the ignorant and the desperate, places the `good' people at special risk. In order to live and function in the community, they must adapt to a street reality that is often dominated by people who at best are suffering severely in some way and who are apt to resort quickly to violence to settle disputes. This process of adapting means learning and observing the code of the street. Decent people may readily defer to people, especially strangers, who seem at all to be street-oriented. When they encounter such people at theaters and other public places talking loudly or making excessive noise, they are reluctant to correct them for fear of verbal abuse that could lead to violence. Similarly, they will often avoid confrontations over a parking space or traffic error for fear of a verbal or physical altercation."
No one is under more excruciating pressure to fall into the culture of the street than the young. Anderson believes that the "cumulative interactions with the street ultimately determine every child's life chances," and that the insecurities of adolescence are multiplied many times over by the "volatile environment" that includes not merely the streets but the inner-city schools into which the street culture so forcibly intrudes. Education is seen on the streets as pointless, and those who seek it are belittled for "acting white"; youngsters, ever conscious of the good opinion not merely of their peers but of their most violent and daunting peers, therefore find it ever harder to resist the culture that is pushed in the streets, that of drugs generally and crack cocaine specifically.
"Crack is special and leaves in its wake great numbers of casualties," Anderson writes. "Seen only indirectly by most other people, victims of crack in inner-city poor communities suffer acutely." He goes on: "The primary victim of the present situation is the poor black family, which is experiencing a profound crisis. The crisis spreads as the young are drawn to the underground economy. The metaphor of a raging fire or a cancer comes to mind. Crack leads to illness, death, the proliferation of homeless children, crack babies, teenage pregnancy, violence, high rates of incarceration, and other social problems." His prognosis is bleak:
"A vicious cycle has . . . been formed. The hopelessness many young inner-city black men and women feel, largely as a result of endemic joblessness and alienation, fuels the violence they engage in. This violence then serves to confirm the negative feelings many whites and some middle-class blacks harbor toward the ghetto poor, further legitimating the oppositional culture and the code of the street for many young blacks. Unless . . . the cycle is broken, attitudes on both sides will become increasingly hardened, and alienation and violence, which claims victims black and white, poor and affluent, will likely worsen."
Anderson does find shreds of hope in the heroic role still played by black grandmothers, though he cannot deny that "even the strongest of these indefatigable women sometimes despair of what the future holds for those they are trying desperately to save"; he cites as "the heroes of this story" the "old heads" embodied in the "decent daddy" who is all "grit and backbone" but who may be replaced by "a new role model" wrought in the flashy, violent forge of the drug culture; he even is able to cite an example or two of people who are struggling -- it is an uphill battle every step of the way -- to move from street to decent.
But this is grasping at straws, which Anderson surely knows more clearly than anyone else. Himself black -- it is almost impossible to imagine that inner-city people would have opened themselves to a white, as those of Philadelphia did to him -- he has a heavy investment in the future of the inner city. There is little in this unsparing and important book to suggest that it will pay off.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.