understood is very important to Dr. Elijah Anderson, the Charles and
William L. Day Professor of the Social Sciences and author, most recently,
of Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the
Inner City. He worries at a question, speaking slowly and thoughtfully,
and there is a fairly regular contest in his answers between the concerned
individuals urge toward blanket statement and the responsible
scholars need to qualify. At the end of a two-and-a-half hour
lunch- cum-interview, he says in parting, "Feel free to
call me back, because I want to answer every question that you have
fully," and the same afternoon he offers to fax over additional
material. It is not hard to imagine, as he implies, his publisher practically
having to wrest the manuscript of his new book from his arms to get
him to stop working on it and have it published.
the page, Andersons concern with getting it right translates into
a powerful analysis of his subjectone convincing enough to draw
book-jacket praise from readers as diverse as the conservative columnist
George F. Will and Childrens Defense Fund President Marian Wright
Edelman. Anderson sees himself operating in a century-old tradition
of ethnography, practiced by W.E.B. DuBois in his book The Philadelphia
Negro and associated most closely with the "Chicago School"
of sociology at the University of Chicago, where Anderson did his graduate
work. "A lot of the classics of sociology were written in this
wayby people going out and talking to real people," he says.
"I was trained in that tradition and continue it in my work, looking
at communities and trying to represent them accurately so that policymakers
might be better informed to hopefully do the right thing."JP
Where did you do the research for Code of the Street? The book
opens with a description of Germantown Avenue, from affluent Chestnut
Hill to its end near the Delaware River, where, as you say in the book,
"the elevated interstate highway
allows motorists to drive
over North Philadelphia rather than through it thereby ignoring
its street life, its inhabitants, and its problems."
Anderson: The book is about a lot of different
spaces in Philadelphia. Coming down Germantown Avenue was a way to move
from a well-to-do community and show the code of civility that you see
there and how that gives way to the point that you have the problem
of how to get along in public when the police and other agencies of
the city government have abdicated their responsibilities to the communityat
least, if you feel that way, then what do you do? Thats the essence
of the code of the street. You feel that youre on your own, so
that means taking matters of personal defense, say, into your own hands,
and this is where the decent people put their bodies and their images
in the gap, so to speak.
I call these communities ground zero. Ground
zero is the extreme community8th and Butler, 13th and Fitzwater,
58th and Willows and other areas, too, these pockets of poverty. There
is a relationship between the code of the street and persistent urban
poverty, especially with this idea that the wider system has abdicated
responsibility, which produces a kind of alienation among people.
Gazette: How does the research process work?
How do you find the people you talk to and write about?
Anderson: I spent about a year or more at
13th and Fitzwater, and I did focus groups with a lot of the young men
who live in the housing projects there and hung out there and went to
stores there. I befriended people and got to know them, and became something
of a fixture there, looking and talking. Another place I studied was
Simon Gratz High School. I did focus groups there with students, parents
and teachers to really get an understanding of what the world meant
to them. But I also spent a lot of time walking the streets, Germantown
Avenue and various places, and writing field notes. Im an ethnographer,
which basically is defined as the systematic study of culture, and this
is what Im interested in as an ethnographer, so this is what I
try to do there.
Do you ever wish you studied something wildly different from yourself?
Do you get tired of being asked about your relationship, as a black
man, to your subject?
Anderson: As I was coming up, coming of age
and [going to] undergraduate school and all that, I wanted to become
a sociologist and part of the reason wasfor good or badto
try to set the record straight, to contribute to the discussion of the
day with respect to race and poverty. In a sense, my whole academic
life has been involved in studying this issue and trying to representin
a rather accurate way, I like to thinkwhats going on.
I feel that Ive got to tell the story. In a
sense, its my own story, because I come from the working class.
My father was a factory worker. My mother was a domestic. My father
worked at Studebaker, which was a car manufacturer in those days. I
was born in the Mississippi Delta, and my family was part of the Great
Migration from the South to the North during and after World War II.
We settled in South Bend, Indiana, when I was just a baby. I grew up
there and attended the public schools, and from there went to Indiana
University in Bloomington as an undergraduate. Ive always been
curious about things and sociology just fit right into that. And speaking
about the black experience is important to me, so thats what I
Gazette: Can you talk about the differences
between the kind of environment you grew up in and the neighborhoods
you write about in the book?
Anderson: It was a stable situation for uschurch,
the work ethic, a lot of those things were important for my family.
But also, in the 1950s, my dad was making $5,000-6,000 a year, and he
had a fourth-grade education. In todays money, thats like
$38,000-39,000 a year. How many young black men with no education or
even a high-school or college degree can get those kinds of jobs making
that much money? It was really the heyday for the American working class,
of which we were a part. While there was racial caste, it wasnt
a big problem for blacks to feel a part of something and part of the
community. This is what my family certainly felt when we were living
It was a much more stable situation compared to what
we see today. In the late-1970s and early-1980s, you have the beginnings
of deindustrialization, which basically meant that the global economy
is coming in, that jobs are leaving these places and becoming more complicated,
becoming high tech, becoming automated. The result was that great numbers
of black men became marginalized with respect to the working-class economy.
In Philadelphia, so many of the inner-city poor communities
used to have people like my father and my mother living there and working.
Today, if you go to the same neighborhoods, you dont find people
like my father living there. You find a young man named Marvin, who
Ive interviewed extensively. Marvin works at a car wash. He has
a daughter who is seven years of age. [The mother] gave him the baby
because she had three others, and she was on welfare. Marvin lives with
his mother and his sister, who help him raise this child. He plaits
her hair, he fixes her lunch, he picks her up from school. But Marvin
has a checkered past: Marvin was a drug dealer. Marvin works at the
car wash sporadically. Marvin is really a poor imitation of my father,
so to speak.
A lot of this, people can argue about whose fault
it was"personal responsibility," what have youbut
its easier to have personal responsibility when youve got
manufacturing jobs available. Marvin doesnt have that. Plus he
didnt have the role models that people like myself had. What we
are talking about really is ground zero, and this is where the persistent
urban poverty is really seengrinding poverty, Im talking
about, where the alienation is so thorough that the code of the street
is the only way that you go about dealing with life. Its important
to see the distinctions between the communities Im talking about
and ones that exist not very far away where you have more [role models],
people that I like to call Mr. Johnson.
Gazette: Has the improved economy made its
way at all into these places?
Anderson: It has and it hasnt. A lot
of people are working now, but theyre not out of povertyand
thats the rub. It is kind of calming things down. I think the
crime rates gone down maybe partly because people are preoccupied
with working, and thats a good thing, but the drug trade is still
there. It operates in a way that people dont always appreciate
because it doesnt make the news, but its still there as
a way for people who are looking for some other way to make it.
I think what we need is more in the way of jobs that
will give people a leg up and a way out. These jobs are not the kind
of jobs that are lifting people out of poverty but a kind of holding
action it seems for the time being, and theres something to be
said for that, but it isnt the panacea that a lot of people are
a book like this have an impact? The descriptions of people and analysis
of their behavior are extremely vivid, but some of the prescriptions
for what should be done are the sort of things that have been said before,
and its fairly clear that theyre not going to get done.
Anderson: I dont
want to see this problem as intractableI resist thatbut
at the same time its important to appreciate the fact that since
Reagan, I think, there has been a real diminution of support for the
idea of the welfare state. What that means, in a large way, is in doing
anything about any of our problems, whether health care or welfare,
were on our own more and more. I think that really the answer
has to do with structural kinds of solutions. We need more investment
in Philadelphia and cities all over this country. We need to invest
in these areaspeople who need jobs and need human capital. We
need to be building that up. The whole solution isnt simply to
build up human capital; we need a helping hand from the structure, as
well, to bring people in. Its really a matter of incorporating
black people into the system. Simply to provide jobs and opportunity
is not going to erase all the other problems that have come about because
of this problem, but we have to keep on it and we have to keep making
the society better, keep on trying to improve.