Shaping of inner-city African-American youth

It is recognized by ethnographers that place and history mean a great deal in the everyday experience that people have in their neighborhoods — villages, industrial towns, universities. The ways that we perceive the world and the patterns of action and reaction that we bring to it are profoundly shaped by the histories and practices of the communities in which we live. Current-day social reality is a path-dependent consequence of our pasts.

Elijah Anderson provides a striking exploration of this basic insight in Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City, his 1999 ethnographic reflection on inner-city Philadelphia. Anderson wants to understand the content of the “code of the street” — the values around which young inner-city men and women orient their actions and aspirations. And, in the urban world of the late 1990s in America, a lot of that code circles around violence and aggression. Anderson wants to know how inner-city youth think about violence, and he wants to understand why impoverished urban neighborhoods have become so much more violent than their counterparts were when W.E.B. Dubois studied them early in the twentieth century.

Here I take up more directly the theme of interpersonal violence, particularly between and among inner-city youths. While youth violence has become a problem of national scope, involving young people of various classes and races, in this book I am concerned with why it is that so many inner-city young people are inclined to commit aggression and violence toward one another. (preface)

Here is a strong description of the underculture of violence that Anderson identifies on Germantown Avenue:

The inclination to violence springs from the circumstances of life among the ghetto poor—the lack of jobs that pay a living wage, limited basic public services (police response in emergencies, building maintenance, trash pickup, lighting, and other services that middle-class neighborhoods take for granted), the stigma of race, the fallout from rampant drug use and drug trafficking, and the resulting alienation and absence of hope for the future. (kl 430)

Consistent with the basis ethnographic insight mentioned above, Anderson wants to understand two things: what is the “code of the street”; what are those norms of behavior and masculinity that come together in inner-city Philadelphia (or Detroit, Miami, or Chicago)? And second, what were the historical and social circumstances that shaped the emergence of this set of norms?

Here is Anderson’s preliminary answer to the first question:

At the heart of this code is a set of prescriptions and proscriptions, or informal rules, of behavior organized around a desperate search for respect that governs public social relations, especially violence, among so many residents, particularly young men and women. Possession of respect — and the credible threat of vengeance — is highly valued for shielding the ordinary person from the interpersonal violence of the street. (kl 74)

The answer to the second question is more complex. A part of Anderson’s answer has to do with widespread alienation among urban young people from the legitimacy of basic social institutions, including the criminal justice system. But the more general historical cause that he explores is the history of racial discrimination and impoverishment that American cities have almost always witnessed. Racism and almost insurmountable segregation have created a thoroughly disaffected underclass in American cities.

Anderson’s framing of his topic is very similar to the perspective argued above about situated knowledge. Here Anderson highlights the links that exist between social cognition, conceptual frames, and behavior:

How do the people of the setting perceive their situation? What assumptions do they bring to their decision making? What behavioral patterns result from these actions? What are the social implications and consequences of these behaviors? (kl 106)

A particularly powerful part of the book is Anderson’s extensive use of individual stories — decent people, crack addicts, young mothers, working poor, and others. The long story of John Turner, the final chapter in the book, is particularly powerful. These stories serve to document Anderson’s key lines of interpretation — the meaning of the street code, the way the violence of the street is experienced and accommodated, the ways that these men and women think about the world they inhabit. This use of detailed personal stories from field notes means that the reader has at least a degree of independence from Anderson’s narrative, since there is always the possibility of interpreting these vignettes differently from Anderson.

Here Anderson quotes an older man at the funeral of a young man from the neighborhood:

I knew the boy well. I always warned him about these drugs, but he couldn’t resist. He knew. I told him I’d come to his funeral. And this is what I’m doing. It is a shame. But you know, it is the system. It is the system. No jobs. No education. And the drugs are all about. You realize what amount of drugs come in here [the neighborhood]. That’s not us. It is them. The white people. They bring the drugs in here. They don’t want us to have nothing. But this is what they give us. All this death and destruction. I know a boy did shoot him, but it was really the system. The system. (kl 2276)

It is striking to compare the ethnography that Anderson constructs with that presented by Al Young in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances. The topics of violence, the drug trade, and a culture of fundamental disaffection are distinctly not the focus of Young’s research or his central findings. In conversation Young takes the view that these themes are over-emphasized in media presentations of urban problems, and often sensationalized. Instead, Young seeks to uncover the thought processes through which the young men he studies think about work and life aspiration. And yet the housing projects of Chicago are not very different from the lower reaches of Germantown Avenue. Are these ethnographers contradictory, or are they simply separate threads in the complex social and personal realities of inner-city American cities?

(Readers will note that there are many points of convergence between Anderson’s cultural sociology in this book and the intricate drama of the streets expressed in The Wire. Here is a nice piece by John Skrentny on culture and race that address some of the same issues; link.)


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