Interviews August 1999

Street Life

Elijah Anderson talks about his new book, Code of the Street, and the importance of looking honestly at life in the inner city

Street LifeLast month President Clinton launched the "New Markets Initiative," a collection of programs aimed at revitalizing those areas—from Appalachia to South Central Los Angeles—that have not shared in the nation's general prosperity. Historically, efforts to eradicate poverty through comprehensive legislation—the War on Poverty of the 1960s, for example—have failed, or produced unanticipated, ambiguous results. Developing and implementing successful anti-poverty policies, it seems, may depend on first cultivating a sensitive understanding of the communities those policies will affect.

Much of the work of Elijah Anderson, a professor of social sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, is devoted to gaining such in-depth understanding of inner-city communities. His latest book, Code of the Street (which originated as The Atlantic's May, 1994, cover story), is the outcome of four years of ethnographic research in inner-city Philadelphia, where Anderson conducted interviews, observed a variety of social settings, and became personally involved in the lives of people he studied. The book's focus is the culture of inner-city youth violence—a significant factor in alienating inner-city communities from mainstream society. Anderson delineates the complex code of rules governing inner-city violence, and shows (through anecdotes, interview transcripts, and impressionistic observations) how that code arises in a context of thwarted ambitions and impinges on nearly every aspect of a community's life.

Anderson's two previous books, Streetwise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community (1990) and A Place on the Corner (1981), similarly document and interpret aspects of inner-city behavior—illuminating parts of American society that are too often only dimly understood as violent, blighted areas to be avoided.

Anderson spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Sage Stossel.

Witold Rybczynski
Elijah Anderson

In observing and writing about the situation of African-Americans in Philadelphia, you are literally following in the footsteps of W.E.B. DuBois (whose The Philadelphia Negro was published exactly one hundred years ago). Do you consider Code of the Street to be in some sense a sequel to DuBois's work?

What I'm doing is looking at how people are dealing with life in inner-city communities as great numbers of people fail to adjust effectively to the transition from a manufacturing economy to a service and high-tech economy. DuBois was concerned with how blacks were dealing with the advent of industrialism, and why black people were not participating in the system to the same extent that Europeans were. So it's not literally a sequel. But it is true that my book addresses some of the same issues that his work addressed. And I'm very happy to be following in his footsteps in some sense.

To what extent are the dynamics of inner-city life in Philadelphia representative of inner-city life throughout the nation?

Wherever there are pockets of poverty and alienation—whether you're talking about Chicago or New York, Rio or Johannesburg—you have the code of the street. As a social scientist I am trying to represent this reality as accurately as I can because I think it's very important to get the real story out. My concern in this work is to develop a model that allows for an understanding of Philadelphia that has implications for understanding similar places. To the extent that there are similar problems, there may be similar solutions.

In his 1986 Atlantic Monthly article "The Origins of the Underclass," Nicholas Lemann asserted that "a tradition has grown up of not discussing within the hearing of whites issues like out-of-wedlock childbirth, poor educational achievement, and crime" for fear that "public discussions of ghetto problems would affect the way [middle-class blacks] were treated, or at least thought of, by whites." Have you been aware of any resistance to your work as too frank an airing of certain problems?

Certainly some people have been concerned that white people who read this could get the wrong message, or could use the reality to hurt black people. Feathers sometimes get ruffled, because people may be ashamed or may not want to have the word get out. But the idea is to represent these places as accurately as I can. I believe it's very important to tell the truth so we can deal with these issues forthrightly.

In conducting your research, to what extent did you yourself feel compelled to adopt the code of the street?

Like most black Americans, I'm capable of code-switching to some extent—of understanding different ways of dealing with people—and this was useful to me in my fieldwork. Also, I come from a working-class background, so the orientation of the people I studied was not brand-new to me. It helped, too, that I'm able to get along with people, so I wasn't seen as a threat. I treated them with respect, and they treated me in kind. And a lot of them appreciated my taking an interest in their lives.

In their recent book, The Future of the Race, Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West argue that highly successful blacks should bring their influence and resources to bear on the problems of underprivileged black Americans. What's your take on what the most successful black Americans owe to the least successful? Does the "Talented Tenth," to use DuBois's phrase, have a special responsibility?

This is an age-old question—not just for black Americans, but for Americans of various ethnic groups. Of course, it is a saw of the black community—especially among the middle class—that you shouldn't forget where you come from. In other words, even if you do become successful, you're still black, and it's important to give people a hand and act as a role model. I think this is what DuBois had in mind as well. He felt that the "Talented Tenth" had some obligation to the race—to serve as leaders, and even to correct people in their grammar and in the way they dressed.

For myself, anyway, I feel that it is important to give something back, so I'm involved in various community projects above and beyond simply doing research. I teach kids to play baseball and help start Brownie and Boy Scout troops, and I'm involved with some of the leaders in the community who are trying to rebuild the human capital that has been lost.

In recent years significantly lower rates of violent crime have been reported across the nation. As a thoughtful observer of the inner city over the past several years, how do you interpret these crime statistics?

I think that the booming economy is very important. This boom, while not felt by everyone, has given many people hope for the future. And when there's hope for the future, crime and violence decrease because people are less frustrated about their lives.

On the other hand, there's quite a bit of jealousy among people in some of the most marginalized, impoverished situations. And when there is jealousy and competition for scarce social goods, you have disputes. I attribute a lot of the fighting that goes on in schools, playgrounds, and elsewhere in the community to that kind of competition.

Do you think that the decline in crack use is related to the greater sense of hopefulness?

I think it's related, but you have to understand, too, that crack in the inner cities is old. By that I mean that people in the community have gone through a social learning process: people see what happens to crack users. The person on crack has become a symbol of decline. People get on crack and their households completely change. They lose their jobs; they lose their livelihood; they lose their families. People are literally dying on crack. Crack has been devastating for the black community. And when people see this, the word gets around that you don't want to smoke crack.

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Sage Stossel is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." She is author/illustrator of the graphic novel Starling, and of the children's books  On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC. More

On Election Day in 1996, launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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