Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street takes an in-depth look into the world of crime based upon the conditions in which people find themselves, like poverty, unemployment, and drug use, and illustrates that the behaviors are definable under a “code of the street,” in which even people who strive to get good jobs and move into better homes fall victim to their situations. It is the code itself that is responsible, leading people to less desirable situations and behaviors.
To fully understand the code of the street, a look will be taken into the John Turner case study which will demonstrate how informal social control, or the circumstances of a youth’s environment, only serves to perpetuate violence and self-destruction. Before writing his book, Elijah Anderson wrote for The Atlantic Monthly magazine, positing his theory for his peers. His project began with the desperation brought on by attempting to understand the driving force behind the rampant violence among, specifically, young African-American men.
He cites that 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 . ” This thesis, nearly exactly that of the focus for his book, illustrates his belief that people are bound by their circumstances, and, despite their drive for success, Anderson believes that such circumstances make it nearly impossible, if not entirely so, for people to improve their lives and progress out of the ghetto.
Moreover, “simply living in such an environment places young people at special risk of falling victim to aggressive behavior…above all, this environment 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 . ” Anderson is making the assumption that the environment in which a youth is brought up, especially an African-American black male, will determine how they perceive and interact with life.
Mostly, this means that because the circumstances are bad and violent in the ghetto, so too, will be the attitude and interactions of the young black male. Indeed, if they can’t handle themselves in a violent and powerful manner, they will be a failure; they will not be the man that they believe they need to be, and simply, they will not survive. Anderson comes to the theory that the code of the streets comes down to one essential issue: that of respect. He writes that “at the heart of the code is the issue of respect—loosely defined as being treated ‘right,’ or granted the deference one deserves.
However, in the troublesome public environment of the inner city, as people increasingly feel buffeted by forces beyond their control, what one deserves in the way of respect becomes more and more problematic and uncertain . ” Undeniably, and the rising crime rates can attest to this, something is driving up the violence in urban cities. Thus, it can certainly be said that with the need to compete with one’s environment, young black males are taking greater strides in their acts of violence, simply to survive.
But it is the never-ending cycle as this environment “further opens the issue of respect to sometimes intense interpersonal negotiation. In the street culture, especially among young people, respect is viewed as almost an external entity that is hard-won but easily lost, and so must constantly be guarded . ” Respect, especially in a gang-type environment, is the means in which young men find their worth, and it must be fought for at all costs. Violence is, essentially, the easiest way to respect, and thus, their environment has led them to continue the pattern of violence.
But, it’s a vicious circle. To have respect, one must be willing to take the appropriate actions, usually violent and terrible ones, and that furthers the crime rate. But, without respect, a young black male does not, according to Anderson, at least, have value in his life, and that too will drive him to violence, acting out against his unfair circumstances. With his article written and published, Anderson eventually gathered enough research and ethnography to publish his book, Code of the Streets.
In his book, one case in particular stands out; that of John Turner. Anderson personally met with John Turner, who, he writes, “had a mental image of the upstanding man and father figure he often longed for and even wished to be. His attempts to enact the role were continually compromised, however, by the lack of an effective [role] model, but also by the unrelenting pull of the street . ” Anderson’s image of Turner was that of the effected youth, brought to violence and trouble by his circumstances alone.
Anderson writes that John Turner was an African-American who worked in a local diner. One day, Turner came directly up to Anderson, and in desperation, asked for help. As the story unfolds, Anderson discovered that Turner was a twenty-one year old football star, high school graduate, with four children (two more arrived by the time Anderson wrote his book), and is proud of his circumstances—being a virile manly-man for his procreation success. He still lived at home with his parents and was in so much trouble with the law that he was considering running away.
Anderson writes that “John understood the code of the street very well…he had made a name for himself running his own neighborhood with the help of his own boys…as proof of his gang activities, he proudly showed [off his numerous and terrible scars]…all of them indicating incidents of street violence to which he had been a willing or unwilling party . ” Indeed, Turner’s life was one of intense crime and violence, and he seemed proud to have been party to it—telling his tales with the air of self-importance for his actions.
But then things turned ugly for Turner, as he was caught with an unregistered pistol and arrested. As the proceedings went, Turner felt wronged by his public defender and the judge, insisting that his dealings with the law were unfair. Of course, Turner gets fired from work and eventually gets a new job where he also feels the victim, telling Anderson that his coworkers treated him in a prejudiced manner. Turner later explains that he is a man and doesn’t mind going to jail, but he fears that his family won’t be able to make ends meet.
At the end of the story, Anderson contacts an attorney for Turner and while waiting for the court proceedings to begin, Anderson began to feel as if the attorney his friend sent over already held a prejudice against Turner. But Anderson fully believed that Turner was “a confused young black man in trouble, whose circumstances were complicated by his ignorance, by his limited finances, by who he was, and by the implications [of his current trouble] . ” Then, the judge gives Turner a monthly fine of $100 and a new probation officer.
Eventually, Anderson even gets Turner a new job, but when Turner is expected to go to work, the news comes that he is in jail for beating up his girlfriend. He is ultimately let out and attends work, and is a good employee until the news drops that he hasn’t paid his court fine and is again sent to jail. Anderson reflects that “people like John –low income, urban black males in trouble—generally have very low status in the minds of those staffing the system . ” But their relationship begins to deteriorate when Turner begins to ask for money, asking for a new job, and coming to Anderson’s home with different girlfriends.
Anderson eventually finds himself frustrated with being Turner’s constant caregiver and their relationship is ended. Even so, Anderson “did not lose hope for John Turner…nor would he tolerate placing all responsibility for their problems on the youth themselves . ” Moreover, John’s interactions with the world could be seen as arrogant behavior and “his proclivity to violence in reaction to shaming or being dismissed, however ultimately pathological, remains in his world also normative and sustaining .
” While some blame must be placed upon Turner for his actions, so too, can blame be placed upon his situations. Ultimately, however, there must be some turning point with any youth—an understanding of right from wrong. Being brought up with violence does not make it a normal part of life and it certainly does not make it rationale behavior to any situation—despite what Anderson seems to believe. Essentially, with the John Turner case, Anderson went into it with the assumption that Turner was a man tormented by his circumstance, and no matter what came his way, he was always treated unfairly and with prejudice.
Anderson knew that the “code of the streets” was strong, especially in African-American men, and that made it even more difficult for a man like Turner to make anything of himself except that which society expected of him. Anderson found, however, that it may not be simple circumstance that holds a man back from success—and while he finds it against his thesis to illustrate fully, he does mark this point when he ends his relationship with Turner. Anderson insinuates “that ‘street’ and ‘decent’ values are in tension within a neighborhood.
Moreover, those who work in or study inner-city communities know that this tension can exist within the same individual . ” Basically, a youth can know right from wrong but feel torn between his choices based upon the circumstances set in his path. With all of his research, Anderson maintains that “a vicious cycle has thus been formed. The hopelessness and alienation many young inner-city black men and women feel, largely as a result of endemic joblessness and persistent racism, fuels the violence they engage in .
” Because of their circumstances, they are practically forced to feel helplessness for themselves and their situations—and this, Anderson believes, is what incites further violence. And it is this violence that “serves to confirm the negative feelings many whites and some middle-class blacks harbor toward the ghetto poor, further legitimating the oppositional culture and the code of the streets in the eyes of many poor young blacks.
Unless this cycle is broken, attitudes on both sides will become increasingly entrenched, and the violence, which claims victims black and white, poor and affluent, will only escalate . ” But, in acknowledging this circle, Anderson almost brings more credence to it. Indeed, racism has been a battle fought for more years than can be counted in American history, however, there must come a time when the past is forgotten, or forgiven, and people can move on. Perhaps it will always exist, but the ideal that it exists because it has to is just as wrong as expressing racism in the first place.
What Anderson has failed to understand is that the cycle cannot be broken until people decide it will be. People must decide for themselves that violence is not the answer, that violence does not breed respect, and that violence is not the only method for survival. It doesn’t matter who they are, or what color their skin, or even where they live—only that, as human beings, they have the option to make the choice between right and wrong. Only then can this code of the streets be broken.
Overall, Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street represents a new ideal that the young African-American male is, essentially, going to fall into trouble and violence because that is what his circumstances offer. There is no chance to rise from his situations because he will always be treated unfairly and will always have setbacks. In looking at how informal social control, or the conditions of an environment, affect the reactions of John Turner, Anderson discovers that Turner is, ultimately, a man of circumstance.
While Anderson maintains that it isn’t Turner’s fault that he finds himself in serious trouble over and over again, it can be said that Anderson came to his own silent truth that there might be something to say about a youth’s ability to choose between right and wrong—despite his circumstances. And while Anderson never literally makes this presumption, a reader is led to understand that there is a tension between young African-American youths that drives them, inexplicably, to violence, and makes them unable to make the right choices because they are never given the chance.
Anderson, Elijah. (2000). Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. Anderson, Elijah. (1994). The Code of the Streets. The Atlantic Monthly, Vol 273 (5), 80+. Dykstra, Robert. (1997). Counseling Troubled Youth. London: Westminster John Knox Press. Forman, James. (2004). Community Policing and Youth as Assets. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol 95 (1), 1+.
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