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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

August 18, 1999

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.

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From The Atlantic:

"The Code of the Streets," by Elijah Anderson (May 1994)
A prominent black sociologist traces the origins of a powerful inner-city psychology of respect which creates a perverse etiquette of violence -- and holds even "decent" youths in its grip.


From Atlantic Unbound:

Roundtable: Race in America (November 1997)
If the problem of the twentieth century has been "the problem of the color line," will the same hold true for the next century? An Atlantic Unbound Roundtable featuring Glenn C. Loury, Christopher Edley Jr., Dinesh D'Souza, and Nicholas Lemann.

Interview: Speaking of Race (May 14, 1998)
Patricia Williams, the author of Seeing a Color-Blind Future, suggests that when it comes to the trauma of racism Americans have not yet learned how to speak.

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.

Do you think that an increased police presence would improve the quality of life?

Well, it's not just the police presence, it's also the quality of policing that's very important. When people call the police, the police don't always come. Or when they do come, they come late. Even if this is not always true, people have a strong sense that it is. They have the sense, too, that if the police do come they will sometimes harass the people calling. The police are most often viewed among blacks as looking out for the interests of white society. In fact, black people often feel that if a black person is raped or killed it is somehow not as important in the eyes of society as it would be if it were a white person. And it is believed, rightly or wrongly, that if a black man harms another black person, it may not be that well investigated. Most black males have been harassed by the police at some point in their lives. And this reality undermines police authority. I mean, from the Rodney King case in Los Angeles to the Louima case in New York to the Dawson case here in Philadelphia, these are people who were really mistreated by the police. And these kinds of stories pervade the community.

What do you make of the fact that most of the stable, non-street-oriented families that you encountered in your research seem to have been sustained by strong religious faith?

For the black community, religious faith has always been very important, even if people are not practicing actively. This influence is important because it has given people hope where there's been little reason to have any. In some sense this has been very good for black people as they think about the future -- especially for youths.

There's also a very strong belief in fate -- the notion that you've got a limited amount of time on this earth, and when your time comes, that's it. This can encourage some people to be forthright and hopeful in their personal lives, or it can encourage the kind of carelessness that can lead to violence or teen pregnancy.

Do you think, then, that religion is something that should be capitalized on -- or at least taken into account -- in developing community-improvement programs?

Faith-based organizations are becoming more and more prevalent -- "faith-based" in the sense of being church-related or having a minister support them. And these become community organizations that help people develop human capital and social capital -- the kind of things that DuBois himself would have liked. The idea is people helping people -- the leaders of the community (the so-called "Talented Tenth") reaching down to help people who are less fortunate. Faith-based organizations can and do increasingly provide that kind of leadership in the community.

How well do you think the media covers the inner cities?

There's definitely room for improvement. When a white person is murdered it makes the front page of the newspaper. When a black person in the inner city is murdered the story may be reported in just a few lines on the second page of the metro section. This kind of positioning is very meaningful to people, maybe more so than many editors believe. People do comment about the difference between how black life and white life is valued by the wider society, and how that's really shown by the way things are written up in the newspaper.

Some of the newspapers do a good job. In Philadelphia, anyway, they do present black achievements and positive things in general about black people. I think that's very important for giving black people a sense of inclusion. It also helps white people to see black people in worthwhile positions, doing things that are not menial.

Do you think there are ways to put pressure on publications?

I think one of the most effective ways to deal with this might be to have more black and minority reporters and writers -- more diversity so that the communities from which these people come will be better represented. It's not to say that men can't represent women, or that black people can't represent whites, and vice versa, but sometimes the sensitivity's not there. I do think we're moving in the right direction. I can see a difference from, say, ten years ago to the present. But still, I'm picking up the paper right now and I can see that on page two of the metro section two black people were killed and there are about ten lines and that's it.

In the book's final chapter ("The Remaking of a Role Model") you recount the story of Robert, a young man who renounced a lucrative career selling drugs to try his hand at making an honest living selling fruit and managing a deli. Do you see this kind of entrepreneurship increasing?

I can't say that I see it increasing in a clear way. It would be good if more people became entrepreneurs, but it's not easy. People who might possess the capital -- both economic and human -- to become such business people are usually already otherwise engaged. It must be understood that many black people who have moved recently to the middle classes don't want to operate a corner store or a laundromat or something like that. And few of those left behind in the ghetto have the skills or the inclination.

Your study makes clear that many of the inner city's chronic problems stem from a lack of legitimate opportunities for advancement. Clinton's New Markets Initiative seems, on paper anyway, like a dose of exactly what's needed. Do you agree? How promising do you consider these plans?

His initiatives are just what I would suggest -- anything to try to build human capital in the ghetto. You know, I was once asked by a Congressman -- Lee Hamilton -- as I was testifying before the Joint Economic Committee: "Why should we do anything about these people?" I don't think he really meant it that way -- I think he was just trying to get me to give reasons why Congress should be involved. And I was provoked by the question. I told him that we should do something because, first of all, it's morally right to do something, and second of all, the country should do something out of enlightened self-interest. That's what I told him then, and I feel the same way right now. I mean, if we can go to Kosovo and rebuild it, then why can't we do the same thing for our own citizens right here in the United States? I think this is also Clinton's logic. But we should be doing a lot more than what he's proposing.

What kinds of things would you like to see taken further?

Well there's talk now about a Marshall Plan for the Balkans. I think we need a Marshall Plan for American cities.

How hopeful are you about the future of these communities?

Well, I'm not a pessimist -- although some of the things I write about are kind of grim and I can come off sounding pessimistic. But I do have hope. I think that if we can explain these things to people of goodwill and to people who are in a position to influence policy, then maybe something positive can be done.


Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More Atlantic Unbound interviews.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Sage Stossel is a senior editor of Atlantic Unbound.

Anderson photo © Peter Nichols.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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