CODE OF THE STREET.
SINCE MOST VOTERS ARE FEELING prosperous right now, the presidential candidates are indulging in a lot of talk about helping the disadvantaged. Bill Bradley is the most voluble of all. He wants to make helping poor children "the North Star of our society."
If he makes it to the White House, Bradley could start by making every member of his administration read Code of the Street, Elijah Anderson's wrenching and riveting road-map of life in inner-city Philadelphia. There they'll meet, in ways no campaign visit could ever reveal, the cross-pressured teenagers, embattled parents, and world-weary elderly residents who face a dangerous daily struggle to juggle the values of the larger society with the requirements of life in a community where some neighbors share those values and others reject them altogether. Through extensive interviews, some transcribed at length to let subjects speak in their own voices, Anderson peels back many layers of the onion here. He has produced an important advance on the work of Nicholas Lemann in The Promised Land and William Julius Wilson in The Truly Disadvantaged in helping illuminate what remains the greatest challenge facing American society.
Anderson is a University of Pennsylvania sociologist whose earlier work has explored the sexual mores of inner-city youth. Here he considers the role of violence in everyday life, with results both inspiring and heartbreaking. Inspiring, because of the resilience and determination demonstrated by parents and children who try to hew to the standards of "decent families" while resisting the magnetic pull of a "street" culture that mocks and threatens their aspirations. Heartbreaking, because that attraction is often powerful enough to upend that balance and sink their dreams.
The story of a 15-year-old named Tyree shows how the simplest daily errand can turn into a minefield. One Saturday, his grandmother sends him to the store for bread and milk. On the way over, in a neighborhood he has just moved into, he encounters the teenage "bols" who run the neighborhood. They "roll on" the unfamiliar intruder, knocking him to the ground. Momentarily frightened but not seriously hurt, Tyree feels impelled to respond. He heads home to clean up (without the groceries, of course), then returns and punches out one of the "bols" in a process Anderson calls "campaigning for respect" Later he's obliged to participate in a full-scale brawl.
"This is the code of the street," Anderson writes. "It is as old as the world, going back to Roman times, or the world of the Shogun warriors or the early American Old South" What's different is the level of disconnection from mainstream values, the ready accessibility of guns, and the low threshold for using violence to set and enforce the code.
The distinction between those with "decent" and those with "street" values is often lost on outsiders at schools, shops, and workplaces; sometimes residents blur the distinction themselves to cope with neighbors or outsiders seen as hostile forces, including the police. The result strengthens the grip of what Anderson calls an "oppositional culture" that inhibits the ability of anyone to break free in the education system or the work force.
Anderson devotes long passages to community archetypes pushing back against these forces. One is the black grandmother, a dominant presence in the extended family from the time of slavery. Her role ebbed early in this century as the industrial economy provided middle-class incomes to rising numbers of black men; now it's resurgent in the inner cities, where male breadwinners are a dwindling presence since so many middle class families have departed. "But she is now apt to feel tired and demoralized," Anderson writes, by the prevalence of crack, unemployment, and social disintegration.
Anderson also describes the "decent Daddy," who must compete with hoods and drug dealers to set community standards, and faces serious physical risks by regulating the conduct and associations of his children. Yet fewer and fewer young men attempt to assume the role, and those who do often don't succeed. The number of "old heads" to set an example is also shrinking. With each successive generation, the community's supply of social capital is drawn down.
It's no surprise, in research of this type, that Anderson becomes personally involved in the lives of some subjects. John Turner is an intelligent, athletic 21-year-old when the author meets him. He lives with his mother and two siblings, and has fathered four children by three different mothers. Mr. Turner had gotten into trouble by venturing into unfamiliar territory to visit a girlfriend. When she complained that neighborhood youths were bothering her, he came over and brought a gun, which he tossed away when he saw police in the street. He thought he was simply helping his girlfriend, and responded honestly when police asked him about the gun. He was arrested for illegal possession of a firearm, fined, and placed on probation by a judge who labeled him a criminal.
That sets off a long spiral of events from which Turner is unable or unwilling to extricate himself. He lams a well-paying job, but dissipates it on girlfriends and becomes lax about his probationary obligations, alienating his probation officer. He goes to jail and loses his job. He lands another, well-paying one and falls behind on payment of his fine. Impressed by Turner's ambition, Anderson connects him with a lawyer and helps him land a union job with good wages and benefits by vouching for him to a union steward at a local hospital. But the job doesn't work out--John feels humiliated by the older, "decent" men on the job--and he lands in jail once again for missing fine payments. In the end, as he confesses to an exasperated Anderson, he turns to drug dealing.
The author closes the book with a happier story. Rob, a former drug dealer, joins a few friends in deciding to turn their lives around with help and advice from an "old head" who helped them open a fruit stand. Their quest to stake out a spot and conduct business is a success, but a tenuous one.
Still, tales like Turner's leave the reader skeptical when Anderson points to economic remedies as the top priority for those working on inner-city problems. "Above all," he says, what's needed "is the development of jobs that pay a living wage" But John Turner had such a job, more than once; he simply proved unable to transcend the vicious cycle that, as we see from Anderson's brilliant description, the code of the street imposes. "What has formed," he says, "is a kind of institutionalized oppositional culture" that makes participation in mainstream institutions "problematic if not impossible for many."
It's hard to know what innovation of public policy or private charity can shatter this dispiriting equation. In recent years some students of the so-called "underclass" have suggested that the best way to handle their problems is to essentially break up the inner-city neighborhoods they live in. Public housing policy has already shifted in that direction, eschewing concentrated developments in favor of a "scattered site" approach mixing low-income families with working and middle-class residents.
What will our next president have to say about all this? Republican candidates, to greater or lesser degrees, promote private school vouchers to rescue inner-city children. Texas Gov. George W. Bush wants a tax cut tilted toward those "on the edge of poverty" Among Democrats, Al Gore and Bill Bradley want to expand access to health care and improved public education.
All that, and a booming economy, would help. Lately there are signs that the benefits of the seven-year boom are beginning to lift those at the lower reaches of the income distribution, increasing opportunity and diminishing inequality. Anderson gives us plenty of reason to be pessimistic that those advances will be adequate to overcome the problems of today's most troubled inner-city neighborhoods. But he deserves enormous credit for having made plain just how daunting that task is.
JOHN HARWOOD is a political editor at The Wall Street Journal.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1999|
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