Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the
Inner City, Dr. Elijah Anderson, the Charles and William L. Day Professor
of the Social Sciences and professor of sociology, offers both a clear-eyed
analysis of the destructive forces acting from within and outside our nations
inner cities and a compassionate portrayal of those who, despite poverty,
crime and racism, struggle to make decent lives for themselves and their
In some of the most economically depressed and
drug- and crime-ridden pockets of the city, the rules of civil law have
been severely weakened, and in their stead a code of the street
often holds sway," Anderson writes in the preface. "At the heart
of the 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 respectand the credible threat
of vengeanceis highly valued for shielding the ordinary person from
the interpersonal violence of the street."
Anderson examines the workings of the code and
its corrosive effects on ghetto life from a variety of anglesdeconstructing
the power relationships involved in a stickup, a teenagers campaign
for respect after moving to a new neighborhood, relations between the sexes
and across generations. The books themes come together in the concluding
chapter in the person of Robert, a former drug dealer who, following a prison
sentence for the aggravated assault of a rival dealer, determines to make
an honest living in his old neighborhood.
After convincing a longtime community activist
named Herman Wrice of their sincerity, Robert and some friends enlist his
help in becoming entrepreneurs. Their first effort is operating a fruit
stand, and Robert later adds a hot-dog cart. Anderson vividly depicts the
delicate balance required of Robert as he navigates his way among the neighborhoods
"street" and "decent" elements, his own criminal past
and the bureaucratic intricacies and racial prejudices of the mainstream
system. In the following excerpt, Robert expands his business activities
by leasing space in a local deliand comes into direct conflict with
the drug dealers operating on the same corner.
the street, in his old life as a drug dealer, a person like Robert could,
and did, demand that others "make way" for him. In his street
world he had a particular reputation, or name, and a history of resorting
to violence to make sure that they did. He carried a gun. In giving all
that up, he has stepped into a world where he has no particular status.
And because he carries no gun, his old friends on the street do not need
to make way for him either. He has thus entered a kind of limbo with regard
to his status and the rules that govern the management and outcome of
conflicts involving him.
Over the months since his release from jail,
Robert has been tested a number of times, from both sides of the fence.
A probation officer recently placed him in handcuffs, only to let him
go and apologize. Robert was provoked and very disturbed, for he could
see no reason for such treatment, and later the officer could not give
a good reason for it either. But the incident allowed Robert to see just
how vulnerable he now was to the whims of individuals charged with upholding
More recently, Robert has been forced to confront
the tension between the street and the decent world even more directly.
He has accepted a business proposition from a woman in the neighborhood,
Ms. Newbill. For many years Ms. Newbill has been operating a carryout
restaurant on the corner across from Roberts fruit stand. Lately,
however, drug dealers have taken to hanging around, intercepting Ms. Newbills
customers. Part of what makes the carryout attractive for the drug dealers
is that people hang out there: it is busy with traffic, and the dealers
can blend in with the young people who are simply standing on the corner,
and even sell drugs to some of them.
While Ms. Newbill was there alone, this is what
they did. Police driving by couldnt always distinguish between the
drug dealers and the kids just hanging out. In fact, adapting to the code,
otherwise law-abiding and decent youths at times develop an interest in
being confused with those who are hard-core street, because such a posture
makes them feel strong and affords them an aura of protection, even allowing
them to "go for bad"or pretend they too are tough.
Because of the presence of drug dealers, Ms.
Newbills business declined, since few people wanted to run an obstacle
course to buy sodas and hamburgers. When she complained about this to
the dealers, their response was to rob her store at gunpoint. They also
vandalized her automobile, which she parked outside the store. Wanting
no further trouble, she had an inspiration. She offered to lease the deli
section of the business to Robert for $800 per month in the hope that
his presence, as a person with respect and props, could deter the drug
dealers. Robert has accepted the challenge. He feels its a good
deal, just the opportunity hes been looking for to become a legitimate
businessman and not just a street vendor. On his first day he made $91.
If he can maintain that level of profit, he thinks, he can make a go of
This involvement has given Robert an even bigger
stake in the corner the store occupies, across the street from the fruit
stand. He, Ms. Newbill, and the drug dealers all know this. One of the
many ironies here is that in his previous life Robert established himself
as a drug dealer on this very corner and, to this day, feels he can claim
some "ownership" rights to it. In fact, he introduced to the
drug trade the young dealers with whom he is now competing for the corner.
And, invoking his "rights," he has told them that they must
take their drugs off his corner, because they harm his legitimate business,
that by continuing to sell, they are disrespecting him, or dissing him.
Yet they still want to sell drugs on the corner and say they are entitled
to do so because "this is where [they] grew up." Robert answers
that they must be responsible young men and not defile their neighborhood.
He also points out to them that such "defilement" hurts his
own business, and thus must cease.
Before Robert was incarcerated, his was a big
name in the neighborhood. He was an enforcer for a drug-dealing gang.
This role gave him great props on the street, indicating that he was not
to be messed with. But now, as was pointed out above, he can be only a
shadow of his former self, because such displays of violent behavior could
get him arrested and reincarcerated. Having publicly come out as a "little
Herman"the neighborhood term for those who follow the lead
of activist Herman Wriceand a legitimate businessperson, he finds
himself in a dilemma: Does he revert to his street self in pursuit of
Setting the Record Straight: An Interview with Elijah Anderson