Elijah Anderson’s Code Of The Street

Elijah Anderson is one of America’s most distinguished sociologists, the Sterling Professor of Sociology at Yale University and director of the Urban Ethnography Project, a Yale-based initiative founded to study and disseminate knowledge about America’s inner cities. His 1999 book Code of the Street has justifiably become a classic of ethnographic research, focused primarily on America’s inner cities, though the research for the book – conducted over four years – took place almost entirely in Philadelphia. Anderson’s aim was to bring to light the moral code that operates in America’s high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods, giving rise to social pathologies that do capture the wider society’s attention. His method was both observational – countless hours spent embedding himself in neighborhoods and their institutions, conducting casual conversations with their residents – and interrogative, with in-depth interviews conducted over prolonged periods of time, all aimed to answer a basic set of questions: “How do the people of the setting perceive their situation? What assumptions do they bring to their decision making? What behavioral patterns result from these actions? What are the social implications and consequences of these behaviors?” The answers to these questions coalesce into a kind of culture, with its own standards of conduct and methods of enforcement, which Anderson calls the “code of the street.” It “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.'” While only a minority of inner city residents actively participate in this street code, all are aware of – and impacted by – its existence.

Anderson begins, rather cleverly, by giving his reader a walking tour of Philadelphia, beginning in the affluent neighborhood of Chestnut Hill, where book stores, jewelry shops, coffee vendors and upscale clothing boutiques abound. The people of this neighborhood carry themselves in a certain way:

You see many different kinds of people – old and young, black and white, affluent, middle class, and working class. Women push babies in carriages. Couples stroll hand in hand. Everyone is polite and seems relaxed. When people pass one another on the sidewalk, they may make eye contact. People stand about nonchalantly on the sidewalk, sometimes with their backs to the street. You don’t get the feeling that there is any hostility or that people are on guard against the possibility of being compromised or insulted or robbed. A pleasant ambiance prevails – an air of civility.

If you look a little more closely, with the eyes of a trained sociologist, you may distinguish more subtle differences. The neighborhood, though integrated, is nonetheless replete with status markers, and some of these are racially charged. “In their clothing and cars, the people who make up the black middle class choose styles and colors that are noticeably expensive: they are expressive in laying claim to middle-class status. The white middle-class people are likely to be driving older cars or wearing worn clothes.” Still, this is a functioning, calm neighborhood, Anderson tells us. “There is no racial tension here; comity and good will are dominant themes… [R]ace and ethnicity are played down, and social harmony is a rather common theme.”

Continuing our tour, however, we arrive at Mount Airy, a mostly black middle-class neighborhood.

A sign that we are in a different social setting is that exterior bars begin to appear on the store windows and riot gates show up on the doors – at first on businesses such as the state-run liquor store. Pizza parlors, karate shops, takeout stores that sell beer, and storefront organizations such as neighborhood health care centers appear – establishments not present in Chestnut Hill.

The Mount Airy neighborhood, in Anderson’s telling, is a kind of liminal place, neither rich nor poor, neither fully protected by America’s formal legal code nor fully in thrall to the code of the streets. Here, black teenagers deliberately adopt the clothing styles, speech patterns and mannerisms of the black lower class, because in this liminal place, it is preferable to be seen as “hard” and street-wise, a perpetrator rather than a victim. “Here it is prudent to be wary – not everyone on the street recognizes and respects the rule of law, the law that is encoded in the criminal statutes and enforced by the police.” After Mount Airy, we arrive at Germantown: “check-cashing agencies and beeper stores, as well as more small takeout stores appear, selling beer, cheesecakes, and other snack food. More of the windows are boarded up, and riot gates and exterior bars become the norm, evoking in the user of the street a certain wariness.” The people, too, behave differently: they’re less likely to smile or make eye contact with passersby. “It isn’t that they are worried every moment that somebody might violate them, but people are more aware of others who are sharing the space with them, some of whom may be looking for an easy target to rob or just intimidate.” It is in Germantown that Anderson introduces the idea of the “staging area,” typically a public park or abandoned lot, where drugs are sold, alcohol is openly consumed, and people congregate to socialize. “People ‘profile’ here, ‘representing’ the image of themselves by which they would like to be known: who they are and how they stand in relation to whom.” In neighborhoods where the formal legal code no longer pertains, an informal code arises, one based on reputation. For the mostly male participants in the drug trade, who handle a valuable, easily-stolen product, and carry large amounts of cash on their persons, reputation becomes quite literally a matter of life and death, for someone reputed to be tough, vicious or easily provoked is far less likely to be cheated, stolen from or assaulted than someone seen to be weak, compassionate or easily intimidated.

Other telling details about Germantown emerge. During the morning and daylight hours, women and small children are most conspicuous, and dominate the kinship networks in their capacity as mothers, grandmothers, older sisters and female cousins. Men have a much more limited role. “When visible at all, men appear most often in the roles of nephew, cousin, father, uncle, boyfriend, and son, but seldom husband.” One of the most salient divides in these neighborhoods is in family composition: whether or not there is a father in the home, and how actively he involves himself in raising his children. The universal sense of despair at the material and spiritual impoverishment of their neighborhood and the limited opportunities it offers has helped give rise to the “oppositional culture” of the street, where most of America’s middle-class values are flouted: passivity gives way to violence, thrift gives way to conspicuous consumption and the flaunting of material wealth (especially status-enhancing items like expensive clothes and sneakers), and loving relationships based upon trust and mutual obligation are foregone in favor of loose commitments and sexual gratification. Residents will themselves distinguish between “street” families, oriented towards the oppositional culture, and “decent” families, where the parents (and here there are almost always two) strive to inculcate the more traditional, aspirational values of the wider middle class.

Much of the murder and mayhem of the inner city is perpetrated by the products of these “street” families, but Anderson is unequivocally sympathetic towards them, not because of their nihilistic, combative worldview, but because of the circumstances that gave rise to it. I quote him at length:

At the extreme of the street-oriented group are those who make up the criminal element. People in this class are profound casualties of the social and economic system, and they tend to embrace the street code wholeheartedly. They tend to lack not only a decent education – though some are highly intelligent – but also an outlook that would allow them to see far beyond their immediate circumstances. Rather, many pride themselves on living the “thug life,” actively defying not simply the wider social conventions but the law itself. They sometimes model themselves after successful local drug dealers and rap artists like Tupac Shakur and Snoop Doggy Dogg, and they take heart from professional athletes who confront the system and stand up for themselves. In their view, policemen, public officials, and corporate heads are unworthy of respect and hold little moral authority. Highly alienated and embittered, they exude generalized contempt for the wider scheme of things and for a system they are sure has nothing but contempt for them.

It isn’t merely or even particularly their outlook on life that is limiting and tragic, but their approach to personal interactions. Having been conditioned from the youngest age to be wary of people, they adopt a cynical posture of mistrust towards their fellow men and women.

Members of this group are among the most desperate and most alienated people of the inner city. For them, people and situations are best approached both as objects of exploitation and as challenges possibly “having a trick to them,” and in most situations their goal is to avoid being “caught up in the trick bag.” Theirs is a cynical outlook, and trust of others is severely lacking, even trust of those they are close to. Consistently, they tend to approach all persons and situations as part of life’s obstacles, as things to subdue or to “get over.” To get over, individuals develop an effective “hustle” or “game plan,” setting themselves up in a position to prevail by being “slick” and outsmarting others. In line with this, one must always be wary of one’s counterparts, to assume that they are involved with you only for what they can get out of the situation.

This indeed is a pitiable outlook, one almost guaranteed to result in hostile and untrusting personal relationships, and much of the incredible violence of the inner city is a manifestation of the collision of two such world views.

The street code draws its power from the threat of violence, forcing even those inner city residents who deplore its values to participate in its logic. Again and again, Anderson will detail the plight of young boys eager to please their parents, do well in school, and avoid the easy profits of the drug game, but who are nonetheless forced to adopt the postures and attitudes of street-wise kids, if only to avoid being robbed or beaten up or denigrated for their ambitions. That might mean using certain slang, deliberately mispronouncing words, donning the hoodie-and-sneaker uniform of the street, or not declining the offer of a joint or cigarette in company. Anderson uses the phrase “code switching” to describe a phenomenon I have myself both witnessed and participated in: the subtle but significant changes in idiom that men and women can employ to fit in with various groups of people. A student, in casually conversing with his teacher after class, might speak with the grammar and elocution befitting his level of education, and then, upon meeting his neighborhood friends outside of school, effortlessly employ the inflections and jargons of the street, thereby “passing” in both worlds and minimizing the friction attendant upon standing out.

Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street is a powerful, often painful exposition of the culture of the inner city and its antagonistic stance towards the values of the wider society. It elucidates the motivations not only of the people desperate to escape the clutches of the street, but of the willing participants in its violence and crime, demonstrating that both groups operate under the heavy burden of despair and disempowerment. Anderson is unflinching in his portrayal of their plight, and his scrupulous reporting has helped to keep this book relevant more than 20 years after its initial publication. If it is ever to become an anachronism, the burden of making it so belongs to us.