IN 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 nation’s inner cities and a compassionate portrayal of those who, despite poverty, crime and racism, struggle to make decent lives for themselves and their neighbors.
    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 respect—and the credible threat of vengeance—is 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 angles—deconstructing the power relationships involved in a stickup, a teenager’s campaign for respect after moving to a new neighborhood, relations between the sexes and across generations. The book’s 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 neighborhood’s "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 deli—and comes into direct conflict with the drug dealers operating on the same corner.

On 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 the system.
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 Robert’s fruit stand. Lately, however, drug dealers have taken to hanging around, intercepting Ms. Newbill’s 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 couldn’t 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. Newbill’s 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 it’s a good deal, just the opportunity he’s 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 the business.
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 Wrice—and a legitimate businessperson, he finds himself in a dilemma: Does he revert to his street self in pursuit of decent goals?

Setting the Record Straight: An Interview with Elijah Anderson

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