Elijah Anderson

Seated comfortably on a sofa in his somewhat disheveled office in the labyrinthine McNeil Building, Elijah Anderson has a soft, gruff voice and scholarly demeanor that belie the disturbing content of his latest work. A native of South Bend, Ind., the Charles and William L. Day Professor of the Social Sciences vividly chronicles the roughest of urban neighborhoods in his just-released ethnography, “Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City.”

The social scientist explored Philadelphia’s toughest streets, looking for the moral underpinnings of a ruthless counterculture that arose following economic decline.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Following in the footsteps of his famous forbears at the University of Chicago, where he studied — and of W.E.B. DuBois’ groundbreaking “The Philadelphia Negro” — Anderson did extensive field work in what he terms “ground zero” Philadelphia neighborhoods: black communities that are pockets of poverty and alienation. “What I’m doing is in that great tradition of American sociology,” he said, referring to the Chicago School of sociology, whose members established sociology as a discipline in the United States.

His book argues that because of deindustrialization and job losses, an entire class of people feels alienated and abandoned by the larger society. In these impoverished inner-city neighborhoods, the code of the street now rules, and even decent people have to know the code in order to survive.

Q. When you were interviewing people for your book, did you feel you had to adopt a “street” persona?

A. It wasn’t a matter of adopting a street persona, but a matter of treating them as human beings. But I was sensitive to that environment, and the environment I came up in was not vastly different from the one I studied. Like many black Americans who become upwardly mobile, I am capable of code switching, that is, speaking the language of the community and the language of the wider society. I guess that’s part of what it means to be an educated person regardless of what group you come from. Some who are brought up in strictly upper-middle-class situations are unable to code switch effectively, but I think most of us can.

Most of us, I think, try to communicate as best we can, and that means to some degree adapting to the situation. I think all of us as human beings do that.

Q. In collecting your data, it seems you sometimes became personally involved in people’s stories. Did you ever fear that that would affect your work?

A. Not really. Ethnography is the systematic description of culture, which should be as objective as possible. But it presupposes a certain amount of understanding of the culture. So in order to understand this culture, you have to get close to the people. So there’s a certain amount of subjectivity involved that is its strength, because ethnographers must be able to interpret and define and ultimately understand the culture.

Q. Your view has been characterized in the press as being pessimistic, that the street culture has triumphed over decent culture. Is that a fair summary of your view?

A. No, I wouldn’t make that broad a statement about it. In the book I talk about pockets of poverty. Pockets of isolation, ground zero in the inner city. And in those places, things are pretty bad. But most people in the inner city, in the poor black community, are decent and trying to be decent. That means valuing work, going to church; that means trying to treat other people with respect, trying to be considerate of other people’s rights and property — people looking for upward mobility, looking forward to the future. “Street” to these people is like an epithet. But many of these same people realize that in order to get on with the community, it may be important to “get street,” to “act street” in order to deal with life.

Q. Just to get by.

A. Just to get by. And that’s the story of this book. That you’ve got people in the community who are trying to be decent but are under pressure, trying to prevail. But because of the abdication of the wider system — the police and the criminal justice system — people feel they’re on their own. This contributes to alienation and it contributes to violence, both indirectly and directly sometimes.

Q. I think it’s Chris Rock who jokes about how black people don’t like to air their dirty laundry in front of white people. Do you ever get that kind of criticism?

A. I’ve had phone calls about the book and people say, “Keep up the good work. You’re telling the truth. This is the way it is.” And I’ve been interviewed on black-oriented radio stations about this book and the response is very, very positive.

It’s true that some people feel that white people, especially conservatives — but liberals too, for that matter — could take my book the wrong way. Some people do feel that, but I’m a social scientist and my job as I see it is to tell the truth, to interpret, to represent the world accurately so that others might understand.

I’ve been in conversations with the president; I’ve testified before Congress; I’ve testified for major committees about these issues. So it’s up to me to tell the truth and hopefully the truth might help to guide an effective and intelligent public policy.

Q. In your personal rejection of street culture as a middle-class academic, do some people say you’re therefore rejecting black culture?

A. No, not really. There’s some confusion sometimes between “the street” and so-called black culture. I don’t think there’s confusion in the minds of many middle-class people about the street. Basically, middle-class people tend to try to hold the street at bay. And they don’t confuse that with black culture or African American culture. “Street” is an epithet to most people. Decent people don’t want to be called street.

Q. Is the code of the street a peculiarly Philadelphian or American phenomenon?

A. It’s not just Philadelphia, it’s not just this country. Even if you go to Rio or Johannesburg or New York you can see the same thing: Where you have profound alienation and disenfranchisement and poverty, you see the rise of the code of the street. It helps organize the community that has lost faith in the law. It becomes a people’s law, street justice, you see.

Q. What do you think should be done for these ground zero areas?

A. One of the things I think should be done in these areas is raising the levels of human capital. By that I mean skills, education, job training. We also need social capital, people in the wider society who are more receptive in some sense, or even people helping other people.

But really what these areas need is major investment. People need jobs and they need opportunity. Everything possible should be done to bring them into the system.

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Originally published on September 2, 1999