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Anderson 1994 - The Code of the Streets 94.05...

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May 1994 The Code of the Streets In this essay in urban anthropology a social scientist takes us inside a world most of us only glimpse in grisly headlines--"Teen Killed in Drive By Shooting"--to show us how a desperate search for respect governs social relations among many African-American young men by Elijah Anderson O f all the problems besetting the poor inner-city black community, none is more pressing than that of interpersonal violence and aggression. It wreaks havoc daily with the lives of community residents and increasingly spills over into downtown and residential middle-class areas. Muggings, burglaries, carjackings, and drug-related shootings, all of which may leave their victims or innocent bystanders dead, are now common enough to concern all urban and many suburban residents. The inclination to violence springs from the circumstances of life among the ghetto poor--the lack of jobs that pay a living wage, the stigma of race, the fallout from rampant drug use and drug trafficking, and the resulting alienation and lack of hope for the future. Simply living in such an environment places young people at special risk of falling victim to aggressive behavior. Although there are often forces in the community which can counteract the negative influences, by far the most powerful being a strong, loving, "decent" (as inner-city residents put it) family committed to middle-class values, the despair is pervasive enough to have spawned an oppositional culture, that of "the streets," whose norms are often consciously opposed to those of mainstream society. These two orientations--decent and street--socially organize the community, and their coexistence has important consequences for residents, particularly children growing up in the inner city. Above all, this environment The Code of the Streets - 94.05 http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/race/streets.htm 1 of 19 8/21/09 10:39 PM
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means that even youngsters whose home lives reflect mainstream values--and the majority of homes in the community do-- must be able to handle themselves in a street-oriented environment. This is because the street culture has evolved what may be called a code of the streets, which amounts to a set of informal rules governing interpersonal public behavior, including violence. The rules prescribe both a proper comportment and a proper way to respond if challenged. They regulate the use of violence and so allow those who are inclined to aggression to precipitate violent encounters in an approved way. The rules have been established and are enforced mainly by the street-oriented, but on the streets the distinction between street and decent is often irrelevant; everybody knows that if the rules are violated, there are penalties. Knowledge of the code is thus largely defensive; it is literally necessary for operating in public.
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