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Code of the Street: Decency, Violence and the Moral Life of the Inner City

Code of the Street: Decency, Violence and the Moral Life of the Inner City

by Elijah Anderson


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Code of the Street: Decency, Violence and the Moral Life of the Inner City

Unsparing and important. . . . An informative, clearheaded and sobering book.—Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post (1999 Critic's Choice)
Inner-city black America is often stereotyped as a place of random violence, but in fact, violence in the inner city is regulated through an informal but well-known code of the street. This unwritten set of rules—based largely on an individual's ability to command respect—is a powerful and pervasive form of etiquette, governing the way in which people learn to negotiate public spaces. Elijah Anderson's incisive book delineates the code and examines it as a response to the lack of jobs that pay a living wage, to the stigma of race, to rampant drug use, to alienation and lack of hope.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393320787
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 09/28/2000
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 125,427
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Elijah Anderson holds the William K. Lanman, Jr. Professorship in Sociology at Yale University, where he teaches and directs the Urban Ethnography Project. His most prominent works include the award-winning books Code of the Street and Streetwise. He lives in New Haven and Philadelphia.

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Chapter One

Decent and Street Families

Almost everyone residing in poor inner-city neighborhoods is struggling financially and therefore feels a certain distance from the rest of America, but there are degrees of alienation, captured by the terms "decent" and "street" or "ghetto," suggesting social types. The decent family and the street family in a real sense represent two poles of value orientation, two contrasting conceptual categories. The labels "decent" and "street," which the residents themselves use, amount to evaluative judgments that confer status on local residents. The labeling is often the result of a social contest among individuals and families of the neighborhood. Individuals of either orientation may coexist in the same extended family. Moreover, decent residents may judge themselves to be so while judging others to be of the street, and street individuals often present themselves as decent, while drawing distinctions between themselves and still other people. There is also quite a bit of circumstantial behavior—that is, one person may at different times exhibit both decent and street orientations, depending on the circumstances. Although these designations result from much social jockeying, there do exist concrete features that define each conceptual category, forming a social typology.

    The resulting labels are used by residents of inner-city communities to characterize themselves and one another, and understanding them is part of understanding life in the inner-city neighborhood. Most residents are decent or are trying to be. The same family islikely to have members who are strongly oriented toward decency and civility, whereas other members are oriented toward the street—and to all that it implies. There is also a great deal of "code-switching": a person may behave according to either set of rules, depending on the situation. Decent people, especially young people, often put a premium on the ability to code-switch. They share many of the middle-class values of the wider white society but know that the open display of such values carries little weight on the street: it doesn't provide the emblems that say, "I can take care of myself." Hence such people develop a repertoire of behaviors that do provide that security. Those strongly associated with the street, who have less exposure to the wider society, may have difficulty code-switching; imbued with the code of the street, they either don't know the rules for decent behavior or may see little value in displaying such knowledge.

    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.

    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.

    Correspondingly, life in public often features an intense competition for scarce social goods in which "winners" totally dominate "losers" and in which losing can be a fate worse than death. So one must be on one's guard constantly. One is not always able to trust others fully, in part because so much is at stake socially, but also because everyone else is understood to be so deprived. In these circumstances, violence is quite prevalent—in families, in schools, and in the streets—becoming a way of public life that is effectively governed by the code of the street.

    Decent and street families deal with the code of the street in various ways. An understanding of the dynamics of these families is thus critical to an understanding of the dynamics of the code. It is important to understand here that the family one emerges from is distinct from the "family" one finds in the streets. For street-oriented people especially, the family outside competes with blood relatives for an individual's loyalties and commitments. Nevertheless, blood relatives always come first. The folklore of the street says, in effect, that if I will fight and "take up for" my friend, then you know what I will do for my own brother, cousin, nephew, aunt, sister, or mother—and vice versa. Blood is thicker than mud.


In decent families there is almost always a real concern with and a certain amount of hope for the future. Such attitudes are often expressed in a drive to work "to have something" or "to build a good life," while at the same time trying to "make do with what you have." This means working hard, saving money for material things, and raising children—any "child you touch"—to try to make something out of themselves. Decent families tend to accept mainstream values more fully than street families, and they attempt to instill them in their children. Probably the most meaningful description of the mission of the decent family, as seen by members and outsiders alike, is to instill "backbone" and a sense of responsibility in its younger members. In their efforts toward this goal, decent parents are much more able and willing than street-oriented ones to ally themselves with outside institutions such as schools and churches. They value hard work and self-reliance and are willing to sacrifice for their children: they harbor hopes for a better future for their children, if not for themselves. Rather than dwelling on the hardships and inequities facing them, many such decent people, particularly the increasing number of grandmothers raising grandchildren (see Chapter 6), often see their difficult situation as a test from God and derive great support from their faith and church community.

    The role of the "man of the house" is significant. Working-class black families have traditionally placed a high value on male authority. Generally, the man is seen as the "head of household," with the woman as his partner and the children as their subjects. His role includes protecting the family from threats, at times literally putting his body in the line of fire on the street. In return he expects to rule his household and to get respect from the other members, and he encourages his sons to grow up with the same expectations. Being a breadwinner or good provider is often a moral issue, and a man unable to provide for a family invites disrespect from his partner. Many young men who lack the resources to do so often say, "I can't play house," and opt out of forming a family, perhaps leaving the woman and any children to fend for themselves.

    Intact nuclear families, although in the minority in the impoverished inner city, provide powerful role models. Typically, husband and wife work at low-paying jobs, sometimes juggling more than one such job each. They may be aided financially by the contributions of a teenage child who works part-time. Such families, along with other such local families, are often vigilant in their desire to keep the children away from the streets.

    In public such an intact family makes a striking picture as the man may take pains to show he is in complete control—with the woman and the children following his lead. On the inner-city streets this appearance helps him play his role as protector, and he may exhibit exaggerated concern for his family, particularly when other males are near. His actions and words, including loud and deep-voiced assertions to get his small children in line, let strangers know: "This is my family, and I am in charge." He signals that he is capable of protecting them and that his family is not to be messed with.

    I witnessed such a display one Saturday afternoon at the Gallery, an indoor shopping mall with a primarily black, Hispanic, and working- to middle-class white clientele. Rasheed Taylor, his wife, Iisha, and their children, Rhonda, Jimmy, and Malika, wandered about the crowded food court looking for a place to sit down to eat. They finally found a table next to mine. Before sitting down, Mr. Taylor asked me if the seats were available, to which I replied they were. He then summoned his family, and they walked forward promptly and in an orderly way to take the seats. The three children sat on one side and the parents on the other. Mr. Taylor took food requests and with a stern look in his eye told the children to stay seated until he and his wife returned with the food. The children nodded attentively. After the adults left, the children seemed to relax, talking more freely and playing with one another. When the parents returned, the kids straightened up again, received their food, and began to eat, displaying quiet and gracious manners all the while. It was very clear to everybody looking on that Mr. Taylor was in charge of this family, with everyone showing him utter deference and respect.

    Extremely aware of the problematic and often dangerous environment in which they reside, decent parents tend to be strict in their child-rearing practices, encouraging children to respect authority and walk a straight moral line. They sometimes display an almost obsessive concern about trouble of any kind and encourage their children to avoid people and situations that might lead to it. But this is very difficult, since the decent and the street families live in such close proximity. Marge, a slight, forty-three-year-old, married, decent parent of five who resides in such a neighborhood, relates her experience:

    But you know what happens now? I have five children. Or I had five children—my oldest son got killed in a car accident. My children have always been different [decent]. And sometimes we have to act that way [street] that other people act to show them that you're not gonna be intimidated, that my child is gonna go to the store, they're gonna come out here and play, they're gonna go to school. You don't wanta do that, but you can't go to them and talk. 'Cause I've tried that. I've tried to go to people and say, "Listen. These are children. Let's try to make them get along." I remember years ago my sons had some expensive baseball mitts and bats that was given to them. I didn't buy them. They got them from Mr. Lee because he had the baseball team. And so he gave my sons some baseball bats and gloves. At that time the park at Twenty-seventh and Girard was Fred Jackson Stadium; they call it Ruth Bloom now. My sons played baseball there. So one little boy wanted to borrow some of the gloves and the bat. I told my children, "Don't let him hold [use] the gloves and the bat." But they let him hold them anyway. So he told them that when he finished with them he would put them on the porch. I told them they were never going to see them again, and they were never put on the porch. So I went to his mother, that was my neighbor, and I approached her very nicely and I said, "Johnny didn't bring Terry and Curtis's gloves and bat back." You know, she cursed me out! I was shocked. [She said,] "He doesn't have to take a so-and-so bat and a ball." And that woman really shocked me and hurt my feelings. I said, "Forget it. Just forget it." She was really ignorant. But I had to—even though I didn't get ignorant [get on her level] 'cause my son was there—but I had to say some negative things to her to let her know that I was just shocked. But I've been here [residing in this neighborhood] twenty-two years, and in twenty-two years I've had at least ten different, separate incidents that I had to go out and talk to somebody, to the point that I told my children, "No more." Somebody's gonna get hurt 'cause they don't know when to stop.

    OK, my daughter, Annette, she went to Germantown High. So she was in about the ninth grade, had never had a fight in her life. She came from the store one day, and she told me about this girl that kept pickin' on her. She came up on the porch, and she said, "Mommy, come to the door. I want to show you this girl that keeps picking on me." Of course. Anybody that bothered them, I always wanted to see who it was in case I had to go see their parents or whatever. So I came and looked over the railing on the porch, and me and my daughter were lookin' down the street in that direction, not really at her [which could have been taken as offensive]. The girl came up and said, "Who the fuck are you lookin' at?" I said to my daughter, "Don't say anything." So I said to the girl, "You better go home. You better take your little butt home." OK. So she did go home. That afternoon, my daughter was sitting on the steps of the porch and reading a book—now this is a child who never had a fight, gets good grades. I think I raised her extremely well. She's a biochemist now. She's sitting on the step, reading her little book, and the girl came up to her, said something to her. I wasn't even out there, and so by the time my sons came to get me, my daughter and her were fighting. That was the first fight that she ever had in her life, and she was in the ninth grade. So I went out there and separated them. The girl went around the corner. When she came back, she had twenty different people with her. But I knew what was gonna happen. So—those same baseball bats I told you about—I told my son to get the baseball bats from the hallway. I said, "We're not gonna get off the porch, but if we have to, if they come up here, we're gonna have to do something." So they came back, and I had to actually coax them off like I was a little tough, like I'm not gonna take it. And I said to my sons, "If they come up here, we're gonna pay they ass back," and all that kind of stuff. And that's how I got them off us. I mean, it was about twenty of them, friends, family, neighbors.

    As I indicated above, people who define themselves as decent tend themselves to be polite and considerate of others and teach their children to be the same way. But this is sometimes difficult, mainly because of the social environment in which they reside, and they often perceive a need to "get ignorant"—to act aggressively, even to threaten violence. For whether a certain child gets picked on may well depend not just on the reputation of the child but, equally important, on how "bad" the child's family is known to be. How many people the child can gather together for the purposes of defense or revenge often emerges as a critical issue. Thus social relations can become practical matters of personal defense. Violence can come at any time, and many persons feel a great need to be ready to defend themselves.

    At home, at work, and in church, decent parents strive to maintain a positive mental attitude and a spirit of cooperation. When disciplining their children, they tend to use corporal punishment, but unlike street parents, who can often be observed lashing out at their children, they may explain the reason for the spanking. These parents express their care and love for teenage children by guarding against the appearance of any kind of "loose" behavior (violence, drug use, staying out very late) that might be associated with the streets. In this regard, they are vigilant, observing children's peers as well and sometimes embarrassing their own children by voicing value judgments in front of friends.

    These same parents are aware, however, that the right material things as well as a certain amount of cash are essential to young people's survival on the street. So they may purchase expensive things for their children, even when money is tight, in order that the children will be less tempted to turn to the drug trade or other aspects of the underground economy for money.


A single mother with children—the majority of decent families in the impoverished sections of the inner city are of this type—must work even harder to neutralize the draw of the street, and she does so mainly by being strict and by instilling decent values in her children. She may live with her mother or other relatives and friends, or she may simply receive help with child care from her extended family. In raising her children, she often must press others to defer to her authority; but without a strong man of the house, a figure boys in particular are prepared to respect, she is at some disadvantage with regard not only to her own sons and daughters but also to the young men of the streets. These men may test her ability to control her household by attempting to date her daughters or to draw her sons into the streets. A mother on her own often feels she must be constantly on guard and exhibit a great deal of determination.

    Diane, a single mother of four sons, three of whom are grown, offers a case in point. Diane is forty-six years old, of average height, heavyset, and light-complexioned. One of her sons is a night watchman at the utility company, and another is a security guard at a downtown store. Diane herself works as an aide in a day care center. In describing her situation, she has this to say:

    It really is pretty bad around here. There's quite a few grandmothers taking care of kids. They mothers out here on crack. There's quite a few of 'em. The drugs are terrible. Now, I got a fifteen-year-old boy, and I do everything I can to keep him straight. 'Cause they [drug dealers and users] all on the corner. You can't say you not in it, 'cause we in a bad area. They be all on the corner. They be sittin' in front of apartments takin' the crack. And constantly, every day, I have to stay on 'em and make sure everything's OK. Which is real bad, I never seen it this bad. And I been around here since '81, and I never seen it this bad. At nights they be roamin' up and down the streets, and they be droppin' the caps [used crack vials] all in front of your door. And when the kids out there playin', you gotta like sweep 'em up. It's harder for me now to try to keep my fifteen-year-old under control. Right now, he likes to do auto mechanics, hook up radios in people's cars, and long as I keep 'im interested in that, I'm OK. But it's not a day that goes by that I'm not in fear. 'Cause right now he got friends that's sellin' it. They, you know, got a whole lot of money and stuff. And I get him to come and mop floors [she works part-time as a janitor], and I give him a few dollars. I say, "As long as you got a roof over yo' head, son, don't worry about nothin' else."

    It's just a constant struggle tryin' to raise yo' kids in this time. It's very hard. They [boys on the street] say to him, "Man, why you got to go in the house?" And they keep sittin' right on my stoop. If he go somewhere, I got to know where he's at and who he's with. And they be tellin' him [come with us]. He say, "No, man, I got to stay on these steps. I don't want no problem with my mama!" Now, I been a single parent for fifteen years. So far, I don't have any problems. I have four sons. I got just the one that's not grown, the fifteen-year-old. Everyone else is grown. My oldest is thirty-five. I'm tryin'. Not that easy. I got just one more, now. Then I'll be all right. If I need help, the older ones'll help me. Most of the time, I keep track myself. I told him I'll kill him if I catch him out here sellin'. And I know most of the drug dealers. He better not. I'm gon' hurt him. They better not give him nothin'. He better not do nothin' for them. I tell him, "I know some of your friends are dealers. [You can] speak to 'em, but don't let me catch you hangin' on the corner. I done struggled too hard to try to take care of you. I'm not gon' let you throw your life away."

    When me and my husband separated in '79, I figured I had to do it. He was out there drivin' trucks and never home. I had to teach my kids how to play ball and this and that. I said, "If I have to be a single parent, I'll do it." It used to be the gangs, and you fought 'em, and it was over. But now if you fight somebody, they may come back and kill you. It's a whole lot different now. You got to be street-smart to get along. My boy doesn't like to fight. I took him out of school, put him in a home course. The staff does what it wants to. [They] just work for a paycheck.

    You tell the kid, now you can't pick their friends, so you do what you can. I try to tell mine, "You gon' be out there with the bad [street kids], you can't do what they do. You got to use your own mind." Every day, if I don't get up and say a prayer, I can't make it. I can't make it. I watch him closely. If he go somewhere, I have to know where he at. And when I leave him, or if he go to them girlfriends' houses, I tell the parents, "If you not responsible, he can't stay." I'm not gon' have no teenager making no baby.

    These comments show how one decent inner-city parent makes sense of the breakdown in civility, order, and morality she sees occurring in her community and how she copes. When Diane was a child, and even when her older sons were growing up, gang fights were common, but they generally took the form of an air-clearing brawl. Today many community residents feel that if you run afoul of a gang or an individual, somebody may simply kill you. Note that the schools are included among the institutions seen to have abdicated their responsibilities, a widespread belief among many inner-city parents.


    So-called street parents, unlike decent ones, often show a lack of consideration for other people and have a rather superficial sense of family and community. They may love their children but frequently find it difficult both to cope with the physical and emotional demands of parenthood and to reconcile their needs with those of their children. Members of these families, who are more fully invested in the code of the street than the decent people are, may aggressively socialize their children into it in a normative way. They more fully believe in the code and judge themselves and others according to its values.

    In fact, the overwhelming majority of families in the inner-city community try to approximate the decent-family model, but many others clearly represent the decent families' worst fears. Not only are their financial resources extremely limited, but what little they have may easily be misused. The lives of the street-oriented are often marked by disorganization. In the most desperate circumstances, people frequently have a limited understanding of priorities and consequences, and so frustrations mount over bills, food, and, at times, liquor, cigarettes, and drugs. Some people tend toward self-destructive behavior; many street-oriented women are crack-addicted ("on the pipe"), alcoholic, or involved in complicated relationships with men who abuse them.

    In addition, the seeming intractability of their situation, caused in large part by the lack of well-paying jobs and the persistence of racial discrimination, has engendered deep-seated bitterness and anger in many of the most desperate and poorest blacks, especially young people. The need both to exercise a measure of control and to lash out at somebody is often reflected in the adults' relations with their children. At the very least, the frustrations associated with persistent poverty shorten the fuse in such people, contributing to a lack of patience with anyone—child or adult—who irritates them.

    People who fit the conception of street are often considered to be lowlife or "bad people," especially by the "decent people," and they are generally seen as incapable of being anything but a bad influence on the community and a bother to their neighbors. For example, on a relatively quiet block in West Oak Lane, on the edge of a racially integrated, predominantly middle-class neighborhood, there is a row of houses inhabited by impoverished people. One of them is Joe Dickens, a heavyset, thirty-two-year-old black man. Joe rents the house he lives in, and he shares it with his three children—two daughters (aged seven and five) and a three-year-old son. With patches on the brickwork, an irregular pillar holding up the porch roof, and an unpainted plywood front door, his house sticks out on the block. The front windows have bars; the small front yard is filled with trash and weeds; the garbage cans at the side of the house are continually overflowing.

    Even more obtrusive is the lifestyle of the household. Dickens's wife has disappeared from the scene. It is rumored that her crack habit got completely out of control, and she gravitated to the streets and became a prostitute to support her habit. Dickens could not accept this behavior and let her go; he took over running the house and caring for the children as best he could. And to the extent that the children are fed, clothed, and housed under his roof, he might be considered a responsible parent.

    But many of the neighbors do not view him as responsible. They see him yelling and cursing at the kids when he pays attention to them at all. Mostly, he allows them to "rip and run" unsupervised up and down the street at all hours, riding their Big Wheels and making a racket. They are joined by other neighborhood children playing on the streets and sidewalks without adult supervision. Dickens himself pays more attention to his buddies, who seem always to be hanging out at the house—on the porch in warm weather—playing loud rap music, drinking beer, and playing cards.

    Dickens generally begins his day at about 11 A.M., when he may go out for cheesesteaks and videos for his visitors. In fact, one gets the impression that the house is the scene of an ongoing party. The noise constantly disturbs the neighbors, sometimes prompting them to call the police. But the police rarely respond to the complaints, leaving the neighbors frustrated and demoralized. Dickens seems almost completely indifferent to his neighbors and inconsiderate of their concerns, a defining trait of street-oriented people.

    Dickens's decent neighbors are afraid to confront him because they fear getting into trouble with him and his buddies. They are sure that he believes in the principle that might makes right and that he is likely to try to harm anyone who annoys him. Furthermore, they suspect he is a crack dealer. The neighbors cannot confirm this, but some are convinced anyway, and activities around his house support this conclusion. People come and go at all hours of the day and night; they often leave their car engines running, dash into the house, and quickly emerge and drive off. Dickens's children, of course, see much of this activity. At times the children are made to stand outside on the porch while business is presumably being transacted inside. These children are learning by example the values of toughness and self-absorption: to be loud, boisterous, proudly crude, and uncouth—in short, street.

    Maxine's family is another example. On a block that has managed to retain a preponderance of decent households, one house had stood vacant for some time. One day the absentee landlord showed up and started making minor repairs, painting the porch railings, and carrying out trash bags. Sometime later, Maxine, a large brown-skinned woman, was spotted sweeping up in the backyard, helped out by a heavyset middle-aged black man. The block's residents took note. Had the home been sold? Had the landlord found new tenants? Who were they? What were they like? Finally, move-in day arrived. Maxine and her friend, along with her six children, appeared on the block with an old blue pickup truck loaded down with old furniture, including beds, tables, lamps, and black plastic bags full of stuff. Anxious neighbors watched while they unloaded the truck and moved the belongings into the house.

    After they moved in, Maxine's children were the first to make their presence felt on the block, spending a large part of the day playing noisily without supervision outside. Soon, however, a larger problem developed: a middle-aged male whose relationship to Maxine was unclear appeared to move in. After he did so, people began to notice a series of comings and goings at various times of the day and night. There were also exchanges on the front porch, on the sidewalk, and in the street. Though residents did not know the exact nature of these transactions, her neighbors assumed that they involved drugs, because everything else seemed to fit. In addition, at night those residing closest to Maxine could hear the sounds of a great commotion and the screams of her children. The block had become decidedly less peaceful—and dirtier. On trash-pickup day, Maxine's trash would often not be stored properly, and some of it would fall to the ground, where it would lie and fly around with the wind. She and her children would sometimes contribute to the litter by tossing empty bags and soda bottles from the porch as soon as they were done with them. This behavior further upset the neighbors.

    But most upsetting of all was the blatant drug dealing now going on at Maxine's house. All of this came to a head one Saturday in May at about 1 P.M. On this nice spring afternoon, the peace of the block was disturbed by a young man who was wailing and banging on Maxine's front door. A few residents were out and about doing chores, and small children played and rode their tricycles and bikes up and down the block. "Gimme my drugs, bitch! Where my drugs at?" the young man cried as he banged on the door. The neighbors who were out began to look at Maxine's house. After hearing this noise and assessing the situation, one woman ran to collect her small daughter, who was in front of the house on her tricycle. Suddenly, a beat-up brown windowless van careened around the corner and came to a screeching halt in front of Maxine's house. Out jumped two young black men, who headed for Maxine's front door. Without knocking, they entered, as though they had been summoned to deal with the other young man. But no sooner had they entered than they emerged, running out, ducking and hiding behind nearby trees and cars. It was clear that they were afraid of being hit by some flying object—or possibly of being shot at. By now the commotion had brought together a small crowd. And after a little while the police were summoned, and they came. They parked their police van on the street near the brown van and proceeded to the front door. They entered and in a few minutes emerged with the first young man and placed him in the van. At this point the man began to scream and yell at Maxine. "I'll get you, bitch! You won't get away with this. I'll get you," he cried. "As soon as I get out, I'll get you!" The police van drove away, leaving the neighbors with their worst fears confirmed: Maxine had established the street lifestyle on their previously quiet block.

    Street-oriented women tend to perform their motherly duties sporadically. The most irresponsible women can be found at local bars and crack houses, getting high and socializing with other adults. Reports of crack addicts abandoning their children have become common in drug-infested inner-city communities. Typically, neighbors or relatives discover the abandoned children, often hungry and distraught over the absence of their mother. After repeated absences a friend or relative, particularly a grandmother, will often step in to care for the children, sometimes petitioning the authorities to send her, as guardian of the children, the mother's welfare check, if she gets one. By this time, however, the children may well have learned the first lesson of the streets: you cannot take survival itself, let alone respect, for granted; you have to fight for your place in the world. Some of the children learn to fend for themselves, foraging for food and money any way they can. They are sometimes employed by drug dealers or become addicted themselves (see Chapter 3).

    These children of the street, growing up with little supervision, are said to "come up hard." They often learn to fight at an early age, using short-tempered adults around them as role models. The street-oriented home may be fraught with anger, verbal disputes, physical aggression, even mayhem. The children are victimized by these goings-on and quickly learn to hit those who cross them.

    The people who see themselves as decent refer to the general set of cultural deficits exhibited by people like Maxine and Joe Dickens—a fundamental lack of social polish and commitment to norms of civility—as "ignorance." In their view ignorance lies behind the propensity to violence that makes relatively minor social transgressions snowball into more serious disagreements, and they believe that the street-oriented are quick to resort to violence in almost any dispute.

    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 to be at all 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. But under their breaths they may mutter "street niggers" to a black companion, drawing a sharp cultural distinction between themselves and such individuals.

    There are also times when decent people try to approach the level of the ignorant ones by "getting ignorant" themselves, as Diane's story illustrates, making clear by their behavior that they too are entitled to respect and are not to be messed with. In these circumstances, they may appear more than ready to face down the ignorant ones, indicating they have reached their limit or threshold for violent confrontation. From such seemingly innocent encounters, actual fights can and do erupt, but often there is an underlying issue—typically involving money. Don Moses is a sixty-year-old gypsy taxi driver who has lived in various local black communities his entire life. Don has the reputation of being a decent man, attending church when he can and trying to treat everyone with respect. He knows the city "like the back of my hand." He related to me the following story of the levels of violence in his neighborhood:

    Somebody's mother, daughter, father, child got shot. I hear it all the time. Hardly a night goes by that I don't hear gunshots. Sometimes you hear live voices and gunshots. You get the paper the next day—I remember the other night I was in the bathroom, and somebody shot—boom!—between our yards. The next day, that shot I heard, it was somebody getting shot. He went to the door, this guy did this guy wrong, kicked the door open, bam!—shot the guy. I just had a feeling—sometimes you hear a shot and you say, "I wonder who went down behind that." Sure enough, somebody did go down. Could have been anything, the littlest thing. Could be somebody left the trash can with the lid off in front of his house. Anything.

    A good example of that is a neighbor. I got along—and I've always prided myself on being able to get along with everybody, especially neighbors. I say you have to take care with your neighbors and look out for them because who else is going to look out for your property if you're not there or your children. My neighbor and I, we got along very well. Last winter, my neighbor, who was a woman, her mother started an argument. She used to have this little bickering with me for no reason at all. She'd say something to me—I left the flashers on on my car once: "Why don't you turn the flashers off? The first thing you wanta do if your battery runs down is ask Johnnie"—that's the girl's name—"to give you a jump: she can't be doing this." And I would politely say, "Thank you for telling me. I'll try my best to keep my thinking cap on."

    It kept on until she finally found something to really jump on. Her son borrowed some money from me, and he didn't pay it back. Her daughter approached me and said, "Look, my brother hasn't paid you back the money. I feel responsible for him, I was there. I'm gonna give you the money." Now, if you tell me that, I'm gonna be looking for you. So when I would see her, and I'd see her a couple times, "I don't have it now." So one time I was walkin' in the house, she told me, "Look, you're gonna have to see my brother for that money." So, I said, "Sure, it's fine. I'll see. We'll cross each other's paths sometime." So as fate would have it, one day he shows up and he and I had a few words. And he didn't have it on him. Three or four times he said he was gonna have it, and he didn't have it. So then that led into the time I was home and her and her mother blowed up. Her mother lit into me: "I don't know why you keep harassin'"—I really hadn't said anything to her for about a month after she said her brother would take care of it, I'd have to see him—I'd say, "No problem. It wasn't your debt. It was your brother's debt. You just happened to be there. The transaction took place in your place." Jesus, her mother lit into me. Now, I know that she instigated that by tellin' her mother, "Every time I see Don, he's askin' me for the money." I knew that's what happened. I didn't wanta let her know that I knew. She knew it, and she was trying to hush her mother up and pull me aside and talk to me. I started to get real angry with her mother because her mother had already prodded and tried to get something started with me, so she finally succeeded. All I said to her was, "Look, it really wasn't any of your business. I don't have anything to say to you about this. I don't wanta hurt your feelings. I don't wanta be disrespectful to you 'cause you're older than I. I don't want anything negative to jump off, and I don't want any problems with your daughter or your son." He was on the porch, and he gets the attitude: "What are you doin' talkin to my mother?" I said, "I didn't say anything. I didn't use no profanity. I didn't raise my voice. I wasn't disrespectful to her. I think she was very disrespectful to me." So he jumps up off the porch and goes into the house. I walked back to say something to him. He jumps up and goes into the house. Now, he pulled a gun on several people and I was lookin' for him to come out with a gun, but he didn't. He didn't come out of the house. So after that—that's been a year ago—things kind of cooled off. We just started kind of talkin' to each other again. You don't wanta fight with your neighbor.

    As Don's account indicates, respect or props are very much an issue in the community, and if a person determines that he or she is not getting the proper deference, there can be trouble. In this case the man Don had lent money to had not paid up, so his sister intervened, perhaps very much aware that her brother could be viewed as disrespecting Don by not paying off the debt. Then, on the porch, the man "copped" an attitude with Don about the supposed way he was treating his mother, but things cooled off and violence was averted. Meanwhile, Don is still waiting for his money, but he is prepared to wait for the man who owes him to pay up voluntarily, mainly because the person is potentially violent—and street—and Don does not want to give him an excuse to feel he has been wronged enough to resort to violence. For the time being, Don knows that the "price" of repaying the debt owed to him may well be too high.

    The inner-city community is actually quite diverse economically; various people are doing fairly well, whereas others are very poor but decent and still others are utterly and profoundly suffering, alienated, and angry. Such is the social terrain the decent family must navigate and negotiate in order to remain whole as well as secure. This situation creates a major dilemma for decent families who are trying to raise their children to remain decent even though they must negotiate the streets. These parents want their children to value educations, jobs, and a future, but they also want them to get their fair share of respect and the props that go with it—and not to be dissed or attacked or shot.


Yvette is a young woman who grew up in a decent family in a drug-infested neighborhood. Her parents sheltered her from the public environment to such an extent that she was forbidden to go onto the street unless she had somewhere to go. Although they themselves were members of the working poor, the extended family was very poor and exhibited many of the characteristics decent people associate with the street. Yvette's parents thus sought to protect her from her own relatives. Their efforts, though extreme, seem to have paid off: today Yvette is a successful college student with plans to become a doctor. Her story brings into sharp focus many of the points discussed above.

    I'm twenty now, and I've lived in North Philly all my life—Twenty-fifth and Girard; it's a pretty rough neighborhood. When I was growing up, the area wasn't as crime-ridden as it is now. When I was smaller, it was more like a decent neighborhood. I live on a block with a lot of older people, so I saw a lot of people who had [decent] values around me because they stayed in the house, they sat on the porch. But that's gone now. I didn't have too many people to play with on the block, because there weren't that many kids on the block. And my mother kind of kept me in the house most of the time, because she didn't want me getting mixed up with the wrong crowd or whatever.

    I went to Valley Christian School, which is a private school. And she struggled to put me in that school, but she wanted to make it so that I wouldn't be in public schools, 'cause she thought that in public schools there is just a bad crowd there, and she didn't want me mixed up with that. So I went there, and at that point my whole family started thinking, "OK, there's a problem because Yvette is starting to think that she's better than everyone else because she's going to a private school." Whereas my cousins were going to public schools and getting in trouble, getting suspended, whatever. And I wasn't doing that, because I was in a private, Christian school. And I didn't even have to say anything. Just me being in that private school convinced my family, my aunts and uncles, that something was going on with me. I didn't have too many friends in the community, because, like I said, my mother kept me inside the house. I came home from school and I studied. When the studying was over, I had like ten minutes of phone time, watch a little TV, go to sleep. That was my daily regimen. I didn't really go outside.

    Most of my family's on welfare—welfare recipients. And the people who do work—my uncle works for UPS, the delivery company. And my other uncle, he worked in some factory of some sort. And my family that are janitors, maintenance people—basically everyone works in low-skill jobs. Education is not stressed in my family at all. Most of the people haven't even completed high school; my mother is one of the few. She's the only one out of her people who graduated high school.

    My mother's fifty-five, and now she owns her own home, but even that was a struggle. In doing that, my family criticized her as well. My family thinks my mother as well as me, we're both sellouts. Because my mother has a white-collar job. She's just an administrative assistant, it's not that prestigious, but compared to what they do, they think—they think that because they're blue-collar and she's white-collar, it's a different kind of work. A different kind of respect goes with that white collar. And they think that because she is white-collar, she kind of removes herself from them. I don't know how to say it right. And then when she went to buy a house—none of them own their own houses. So, "OK, she thinks she's better than us again." Just because she's making it, she's making something of her life, they think there's something wrong with that.

    One thing that really stands out in my mind, one of my aunts, the least thing that I would do, she would try to blame me with stuff—that any normal kid would do, but she'd blow it up to make like it was bigger, and then her and my mom would get into fights over nothing. Today they look back on the things and think, "Why did we fight? What was the problem?" Smart remarks. In church they talk about us. Just animosity comes out in a lot of ways. This aunt was on welfare for about ten years. Now she's a maintenance worker downtown. She has three kids and she's married, but her husband died. She's kind of well-off now because she had a couple of insurance policies on him, so she has a lot of money. She still has the same values even though she has a lot of money. She still has that same animosity towards me and my mother. She has a sixth-grade education, and she sees me going to college as something, "Why are you doing this? You trying to be better than me?" And presently now she's trying to use the fact that she has a job, a maintenance job, that pays twelve dollars an hour—that's a very good job—and that she has this money from the insurance policy, she's trying to use that to say, "OK, you might think that you're better than me in regards that you're going to college, you're trying to get this degree and want to be a doctor. But you're really not. You're really not anything." This is the mentality that comes out on a daily basis. I mean, we hear rumors of it. It's a lot of gossip.

    This summer there was an incident. I was tutoring her two children in math and science, just trying to help them out because they're kind of failing. One's at Simon Gratz High and one's at James Middle School. And I wanted to help them out. And she caught me one day when my mother wasn't there. She's like, "You know, Yvette, you make people hate you." And I'm like, "What are you talking about? What is the problem?" She was like, "You come around here. You think you're better than everybody else. Da-da-da." It's just a whole spiel that she goes on. But that just tells me—I didn't do anything, I tried to help her kids, and she saw me trying to help her kids as me thinking I'm better than her. Which is twisted. That's just wrong. So I don't really talk to this aunt anymore, because I've just had it, basically. I try to reach back and help, but it seems like it's just interpreted wrong.

    My other aunts all feel the same way, but not as strongly as her. My cousins, too. My cousins threatened to beat me up once just because [they said] I thought I was better than them. They're older than me, too. Right now one's twenty-six and one's twenty-three, but when we were in school—they were in high school, I was in middle school—and they dropped out, as usual, since no one in my family stresses education, and I was still going, and it was like, "We just wanta beat you up because you are just a nerd." They would just tell me that. 'Cause I'm a nerd. 'Cause I'm going to school. I'm trying to get good grades. I had a baby-sitter till I was about fourteen. And my aunts were my baby-sitters. So they'd see me come over there and study, and that's when they'd say I was a nerd, they'd get mad at me for studying. 'Cause they dropped out, they're not doing anything with their lives, and I'm sitting in their house and studying. They see me as the enemy.

    My mother kept me grounded, though. My religion keeps me grounded. I have a goal in life. I'm trying not to let anybody get in between that goal. So that's the only way I handle it. 'Cause I have a goal in mind, and I'm going to do this. People are going to try to get me down. I was told that—my mother told me, people will try to get in your way because they're going to think this and that about you. But you have to go on. So that's the only thing. That's all I have. My family is not a support for me at all.

    Another thing that distinguishes me is that it's just me. I don't have any brothers and sisters. My cousins are one of whatever—five, six. And it's just me. So I get all the attention. My biological father was—I didn't know him. From what I hear, he wasn't all that stable. I have brothers and sisters that I don't know about by other women. But they got divorced when I was about two or three months. And my mother didn't want me growing up without a father figure, so—this is gonna sound kind of weird—one of my uncles who's really a nice person, she kind of recruited him in to be a father figure in my life. I never ever knew that he was not my father until I was about thirteen or fourteen years old. It was just kept a secret. They lived in the same house—they weren't in the same bedroom or anything like that, but I didn't make anything of that. As far as I knew, I just had a mom and I had a dad and I had this nice little family. And I went to private school. You know, a nice cute little family. I didn't know. Until one of my nice cute little cousins wanted to spoil that, so they were like, "Yvette, you know that's not your father. That's your uncle. You don't have a father." And they did it in such a nasty way that I was just really upset. My mom was upset. My dad who was my uncle was extremely upset, and that caused a lot of animosity in the family for about a year or so. Just fighting, bickering. But I think I needed that foundation with both of them there because by thirteen I had my goals in life. I wanted to be a doctor. I was getting straight A's in school. I was set at that point. I don't think I would have gotten to that point without both of them there.

    My father's also one of the people who helped me just to realize, "Yvette, you've got to make something of yourself. You see your cousins. They're not doing anything." He used them as one of my motivating forces. I didn't stop thinking of him as my father after I found out. It was really too late. He had done so much and just been there. He was always Daddy. He did die about four years ago, and even in his obituary I'm listed as his daughter because that's just what I am. And all his friends recognize me as his daughter. It's just that my nice little family, with the animosity, faded. One of my aunts had three kids—the one who had the most animosity—her husband was an alcoholic, he wasn't really there. So these kids had a father, but he was there in name only. Every time my aunt had a baby, he wanted to say it wasn't his, even though it was his 'cause they all looked like him. He was always drunk all the time. So he was just a father in name only—unlike my father, he just did not put in the time, dedication, whatever. He was [just] a sperm donor to me. That's how I think of him. That's how I think of my biological father. That doesn't make a father to me. That seems to be—the father image in my family isn't strong as well. The responsibility just isn't there. They mostly put it on the women. So I guess my cousins got jealous that there was someone in my life who was actually paying my tuition to go to this school, who was actually picking me up from school every day, helping me do my homework. They didn't have it.

    In my neighborhood a lot of the older people have the mother and the father and the kids, but of the younger generation, no, I see all of the weight shifted on the mother. And the mother really has to be strong if she wants her kids to be something in society. It really takes a lot to do it by yourself. All the people on my block are [in their] sixties and seventies now. We have a changing rotation, but generally there are no young people on my block. From forties to seventies, that's it. We have a Section 8 [government subsidized] home across the street from me where there are lower-class welfare-recipient families, and there're just mothers and children. The mothers have no control over their kids whatsoever. You see babies just walking back and forth on the street. They're little, they're little kids. They need attention. And their mothers are hanging in the house, on the phone, whatever. We see a constant flow of cars go by. Guys get out. They go in the house for a minute, throw some Pampers in there, and leave. That's not productive for me. That's the closest thing on my block or around Germantown Avenue that I see to decentness: "OK, we'll give you some Pampers. Here you go. Live on that." What about the kid? What about the kid needing to see their father? What about the kid needing to see their mother? Their mother isn't even paying any attention. It's not fair, and it makes me mad.

    My mother is strong. She has a sense of humor, but she's serious about life. You have to have a goal in life, or else you're not going to go anywhere. She also had a horrible history. Her father was actually an alcoholic as well, and her mother had eight kids and wound up raising all of them basically by herself because my grandfather died and she was left with the kids. And when he was alive, he was always drunk. And then, when my mother was ten, her mother fell down the steps and died. So there was eight kids. They were left alone. They were spread out, raised by aunts, uncles, whatever. And she learned from her background; she said, "OK, it's not gonna be like this for my daughter." This is what she told me. So when she found that my biological father was no good, she was like, "OK, we've got to have some sort of stable environment for this girl because I don't want her to have to go through the things I did." So she's always instilled in me values first of all. And she's like, "You've got to have a goal." And I had a goal, I had values, I had the stable family, and that helped me to get where I'm at.

    And now she's still working towards her goal. There's never a point that she gets to that she's satisfied. She's in an all-white department in her job now. And there's a lot of discrimination going on in that department. And she's very strong because she has to go to work and put up with this every single day. And it's just a struggle for her because she comes home and she talks about it constantly. What should she do? But she's persevering, and I just have to give her much respect for that because it's really hard to do that.

    She's basically—it's a combination from both sides. They're basically cutting each other off. She's kind of isolated. She talks to one of her sisters. Out of seven other siblings, she only talks to one of her sisters because of the strong animosity in our family. Whatever she hears about her other brothers and sisters, it's through her aunt. We really don't get together that much because of the situation. And she's just accepted it. She's not gonna let them bring her down. So the best way to get away from it is just to cut them off. So that's exactly what she did. And I'm really kind of hurt because I want to have a family like everyone else, an extended family. But I can't, because there's just so much jealousy and animosity. We can't have a gathering without someone saying something. We [she and her mom] support each other. We have a strong relationship with God. God is our support. I don't know—it comes from within. We don't have too many supports. We just don't. They're not there.

    My mother's on the younger side of the people on the block. It ranges from forty to seventy, so she's fifty-five. We're trying to fight against what's going on across the street, but that's really not working too well. As far as the welfare mothers—it's like eight of them in one house with all their kids—I don't know what kind of house it is. It's got about four bedrooms. It's a city house, I'm sure of that at least. Because we have a politician that lives on the street, and she knows exactly what type of house it is and what they're doing. It's maybe homeless women with children. They get their checks, and they can build up their money and then go out and live in a house or something like that. But they're all together, and there's a lot of them. And this certain type of behavior that comes with them, that is just ridiculous. As a block, we're concerned about the kids, basically. 'Cause the kids are just not being paid any attention at all.

    My neighborhood is definitely drug-ridden. Violence too. I haven't exactly seen anyone get shot, but I always seem to get there just after something's happened. Last summer we just had three boys murdered on the corner of the block that I live on. They were all drug dealers. There was just some sort of fight over drug turf or whatever. Robbery—the pipers stole the flowerpot cemented onto our porch off the porch. I don't understand it, but they did it. Any car that doesn't move, in two or three days it's gone. We've had four cars stolen, and that's ridiculous. And if they can't steal the car, they'll lift the hood up and take the battery. Something. They steal everything. Mugging. Not too many fights break out. It's either you get shot or something gets stolen. That's basically it.

    My mother has fortified herself into our house. She's got iron doors in the front and the back. Steel windows. Bars on the windows. Our house looks like a little prison. But she calls this her security. She doesn't want to get up and move. Even though she can, she doesn't want to do it. She wants to stay in her community. She wants to try to fight back, just like all the rest of the neighbors. They want to fight back. They want to protect what's theirs. I mean, it's going to be a tough fight. It doesn't look like they're winning at this point, but they don't want to get up and leave what's theirs.

    It used to be more peaceful. The situation with the welfare house [Section 8] started about three years ago. And every year we have a different selection of women. They only stay there for a year, and then it's new people who come in. Somebody gives them a certain amount of time to build themselves up, and then they're out. The block isn't all that great, but that just adds to it. Other than that, we have the drugs—that's just all in our neighborhood.

    My situation was kind of strict. My mom and my dad kept me in the house. I did not have any friends on my block. So my situation was very severe. In some aspects I might be seen as abnormal because I wasn't allowed to play outside. The only playtime I had was in school, in the playground or whatever. So they really did control who were my friends. My friends were the people who were in that private school. I had white friends, Asian friends, I had everybody. It just wasn't all black friends. People would come off of neighboring streets like Culver Street to ask me, "Can I play?" 'Cause my whole family lives in the same area. So my cousins or their friends would come over—"Can Yvette come outside?" "No." I'd stay in the house. So I was bred to be a nerd, I guess. Until the time when my aunt started taking care of me, being my baby-sitter. Then I had a little more freedom. But the rule was I couldn't go off the porch there. I could go outside, but I couldn't go off the porch. I could sit on the steps or something. At my own house I stayed in the house. This is the aunt where her children threatened to beat me up. So she watched me for a while, and they got jealous. So then I had to leave.

    But I wasn't completely sheltered. I was thrown out of this sheltering environment when I went to high school. I went to Grant High School for Engineering and Science—a public magnet school. And that was different for me. The school had about six, seven hundred kids in it. Not really big compared to most public schools. It was about 60 percent black. I was used to maybe two hundred people in the whole school—that's what my other school was. And I was seen as a nerd there, too. When people would try to fight me, I did not know what to do, because I was so sheltered I just never had that situation, so I talked my way out of it most of the time. Just talking like, "This is not worth fighting over. This is something stupid." Just talk your way out of it. Kids would leave me alone because they would see I really had no interest in fighting over something that I thought was stupid. If they had hit me, I would've hit back of course 'cause you're taught to hit back, but I just never had that situation.

    My mother told me, somebody tries to get in your way, fight back, get them out of your way. You have a goal, you've got to get there. She tells me that to this day, 'cause I'm like, "Oh my God, college is so hard. I can't deal with the stress." She's like, "You have a goal. Get to it." The good thing about it, with my parents I had an open line of communication. And I don't think a lot of people have that. And we talked about everything—my mom, my dad, and me. As a family, we talked about it. And that really helped me. It really did. Instead of just keeping it to myself or fighting just to get over, I talked it over with my parents and they helped me to have some direction as to what to do in that situation. Like, people don't like me, they think I'm a nerd, they think I'm trying to be snotty. I don't know, I just talked to them about it.

    I had a small group of friends. Not everybody was a nerd. Not everybody was getting A's. But I did find a crowd. I think everyone finds the niche. Freshman year is always the worst because you don't know where you belong, if you belong. And my character is I'm never going to try to change myself to be what somebody else wants, so I didn't have a niche. I kind of made a niche for myself. And my small group of friends were just like me. That's it. I mean, everyone knew of me in the class, but I only had about seven or eight friends who I can really call friends. Most of them were from West Philly, and they had the same struggles as I did, so we had some common ground right there. And they were supportive to me as well because we talk about our situations and stuff. And if ever I got in a situation at school and they were there, they'd help me out.

    I had problems, but I talked all of it out. I'm a real communication person. That's just something that was instilled in me. Your parents are there as support. The only way they can help you is if they know what's going on. If you keep it to yourself, then they can't help you. And that's another way I think that I'm blessed, because if I didn't have parents, that would be just one less support that I would have.

    Yvette's account underscores the difficulties that the decent family encounters when trying to live among so many people who are committed to the street, not only neighbors but relatives as well. Increasingly, teenage girls, most often those associated with the street, become involved in group and individual fights. In many ways their fights are not unlike those of the boys. Their goal is often the same—to gain respect, to be recognized as capable of setting or maintaining a certain standard. They frequently try to achieve this end in ways that have been widely associated with young men, including posturing, abusive language, and the ready use of violence to settle disputes, but the issues for the girls are usually different. Although conflicts over turf and status exist among the girls, the majority of the disputes seem rooted in assessments of beauty (which girl in a group is "the cutest"), competition over boyfriends, and attempts to regulate other people's knowledge and opinions of a girl's behavior or that of someone close to her, including friends, siblings, and parents. Jealousy, as was shown in the case of Yvette, is often an issue, because it is extremely difficult for some young people existing in a sea of deprivation to "suffer" the advancement of someone assumed to be their social equal. Among many impoverished young people, any indication of an improvement in the person's status can be taken as a threat and cause for alarm, thus provoking a struggle at least to "stay even."

    In this context a major cause of conflicts among girls is "he say, she say," particularly those involving issues of personal attribution, or name-calling. This practice begins in the early school years and continues through high school. It occurs when people, especially girls, talk publicly about others, thus putting their "business in the streets." Usually, one girl will say something derogatory about another in the group, most often in public, "behind her back." The remark will get back to the girl; she may retaliate, or her friends may feel required to "take up for" her. In essence, this is a form of group gossiping in which individuals are negatively assessed and evaluated. As with much gossip, the things said may or may not be true, but the point is that such imputations can cast aspersions on a person's good name. The accused is required to defend herself against the slander, a process that can result in arguments and fights, often over little of real substance. Here again one sees the issue of low self-esteem, which encourages youngsters to be highly sensitive to slights and to be vulnerable to feeling easily "dissed."

    Because the street element so dominates the public spaces, even the decent people must show they are ready to meet the street ethic in order to survive unmolested. As a result, most decent parents encourage their children to hit back if challenged, particularly if the child is backed into a corner. It is difficult not to fight back, because status and esteem are often at issue. This makes the emphasis in Marge's family on talking one's way out of confrontations ("stuff") or walking away rather exceptional, but many young people try such a tack and engage in fighting only as a last resort. As one thirteen-year-old girl in a detention center for youths who have committed violent acts told me, "To get people to leave you alone, you gotta fight. Talking don't always get you out of stuff." In the case of Yvette, though her mother encouraged her to defend herself, sensibly, she was reluctant to fight.

    Since their efforts to achieve upward mobility tend to be viewed as "disrespecting" their own community, decent people, particularly children, must often struggle to advance themselves. In fact, as Yvette's account shows, street-oriented people can be said at times to mount a policing effort to keep their decent counterparts from "selling out" or "acting white," that is, from leaving the community for one of higher socioeconomic status. This retaliation, which can sometimes be violent, against the upwardly mobile points to the deep alienation present in parts of the inner-city community. Many residents therefore work to maintain the status quo, and so the individual who tries to excel usually has a great deal to overcome.

    The lengths to which Yvette's parents went to prevent her exposure to the street clearly show this dynamic at work. The account represents a general feeling among decent inner-city residents that the street is both dangerous and seductive—one misstep can cause a fatal fall—and so children, particularly those at an impressionable age, need to sheltered from it. However, as the story of Tyree in the next chapter will suggest, contact and involvement with the street is almost unavoidable, especially for young men.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Down Germantown Avenue15
Chapter 1Decent and Street Families35
Chapter 2Campaigning for Respect66
Chapter 3Drugs, Violence, and Street Crime107
Chapter 4The Mating Game142
Chapter 5The Decent Daddy179
Chapter 6The Black Inner-City Grandmother in Transition206
Chapter 7John Turner's Story237
Conclusion: The Conversion of a Role Model: Looking for Mr. Johnson290

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Code of the Street: Decency, Violence and the Moral Life of the Inner City 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
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Code goes inside inner city Philadelphia, some of the roughest sections and reveals some of the mystique of black urban poverty. In describing the battle between decent values, the mainstream dreams of a honest, productive life with or without a nuclear family, and the street values, mostly eschewing these same decent values and replacing them with street survival tactics, Anderson clearly defines the struggle the inner city poor face. While the reader gets a good sense of the struggle, how the elements of poverty, violence, lack of opportunity and role models come together to keep these residents entrenched in the cycle, I was disappointed that Anderson touched little on proposed solutions to the catch-22. He briefly talked about increasing job opportunities with mention of political support. Indirectly, he suggested that policing of these neighborhoods needed vast improvement, though it wasn't clear what impact he thought that would make on the crime-ridden environment. The book is definitely good in making the reader think about the history of inner city poverty and its culture and where it seems to be leading, but it is both scary and depressing in the same way. I walked away pretty certain that the situation is likely to get much worse before it gets better and that seemed to be exactly what Anderson was out to say. Though it probably wasn't his intention to provide solutions, I think Anderson, as a revered and knowledgeable academic, would do a great service to these communities to extrapolate on some bigger social changes (as he suggested with job opportunities and political influence) and how these changes could work to change the communities and on a larger scale, our country.