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The Underclass Up Close

The Code of the Street: Decency, Violence
and the Moral Life of the Inner City
by Elijah Anderson
William W. Norton & Co. , Inc. , 1999 , 352 pages , $25.
Reviewed by Kevin R. Kosar

lijah Anderson s latest sociological trea- cial behavior. Though some families and people
tise offers a first person yet analytical ac- have life nurturing cooperative lifestyles , Ander-
count of life in the inner city. What son finds that most inner-city dwellers do not.
Anderson describes is disturbing- it's a world They rob , they dope up, they brutalize. Young
wracked by violence and a general lack of de- men father children and then disappear , preg-
cency. Like Thomas Hobbes ' state of nature nant girls drop out of schools and have child
Anderson s inner city is a place where life is poor after child , but spend their days watching televi-
nasty, brutish , and short. sion and getting high instead of being attentive
The book begins with a stroll on mothers. Armed young men with hair trigger
Germantown Avenue. Chestnut Hill , located on temperments rule the streets.
the northwest edge of Philadelphia , is a mostly One might wonder just how this self-
white area ,with boutiques , clean streets , and destructive environment perpetuates itself. If
polite people. Life has a happy buzz here; foul people who live in the inner-city are so self- de-
language , rude behavior , and violence are very structive , why don t they all simply die off?
rare. Anderson then walks readers further down Obviously some residents bear children , but these
Germantown Avenue toward the heart of Phila- children are not born drug dealers and crooks.
delphia. Slowly but surely the scene changes. The Anderson explains that the ghetto regener-
number of Whites decreases , the number of ates itself through " the code of the street " The
Blacks increases. Check cashing joints and liquor code is a hierarchy of values that exalts impu-
stores multiply; pricey brick townhouses give way dence , machismo , and regular displays of vio-
to unkept , dilapidated buildings with barred win- lence while it denigrates manners , responsibility,
dows. Graffiti tags are everywhere and trash and compassion. Children born in or brought
blows about the streets. to the inner-city face the inescapable " dilemma
The walk ends in the North Philadelphia of the decent child" ; either be a good kid like
ghetto , where crack zombies and drug-addicted your parents and teachers tell you and get beat
prostitutes stagger the streets , children run amok up by other kids , or start behaving like a thug or
and unsupervised , and people drink alcohol and gangsta. " Understandably, a great many youths
smoke dope openly on the street. There s not a choose the latter path. Thus the " hood" lives
white man to be found. It's a great introduction , transcending individuals and sucking in more
to the book , for it shows the reader a spectrum and more children into criminal behavior , de-
of American life- from the 1990s white , wealthy, spite the best efforts of some parents.
well-ordered , and urbane to the black , impov- Anderson devotes whole chapters to topics
erished , chaotic , and inner city. like drugs and violence the mating game the
Most of the remaining 300 plus pages are decent daddy, " the increasing number of black
devoted to describing life in this particular ghetto. inner-city grandmothers having to raise their
In sum , a great number of inner-city residents children s children , and other facets of inner-city
appear to Anderson to be wholly uncivilized by life. Though a few chapters come off as a little
engaging in obviously self- destructive , anti-so- longer than necessary, on the whole , Anderson
SPRING 2000 141

sharply chronicles the bad , the ugly, and what Recall , Anderson says the ghetto is filled with
little good is to be found. folks who are living perverse , unhealthy lives-
Occasionally, his writing slips and the reader they break the law, they drink too much , do dope
becomes painfully aware that Anderson has been and are hostile toward work and responsibility.
in the academy many years. The effect can be . Yes , creating jobs may help the decent individu-
comical , as his stiff descriptions bring to mind als who have not gone bad- but how will this
the image of an egghead in a pith helmet wan- help those who are bad? Does Anderson think
dering the mean streets and writing feverishly in that the gangstas he saw will drop their blunts
his notebook: and forties , pick up a lunchbox , and march off
to the 9 to 5 world?
(TJhe staging area is also a densely populated This solution doesn t fly because
pb:e where young people hang out and look treats the pathologies as the outcome of a ratio-
to meet members of the opposite sex. Here nal choice by individuals: they choose to behave
young men and women out to be "with it
as they do because the costs to behaving well
or " hip " smoke cigarettes or drink " forties

or other alcoholic beverages , or perhaps they

are prohibitively low or the payoffs of behav-
are there to get high on " blunts " (drug- laced ing badly are so high. Considering that welfare
cigars). (p. 78) reform has driven large numbers of the for-
merly nonworking poor into the workforce , one
Though Black like his subjects , Anderson , a might well argue that disfunction and nonwork-
renowned professor of social studies and soci- ing is not so much a matter of a lack of oppor-
ology at the University of Pennsylvania with a tunity, but of the permissiveness of government
slew of publications to his name , clearly isn aid programs (Mead , 1986).
quite one of the people he is studying. Terms Worse , creating jobs would appear to offer
like " blunts " and " forties " appear to strike him assistance only to those few who are willing to
as exotic , but they are common parlance among forgo the temptations of the street. Everyone
American teenagers- one need only turn on MTV else , presumably, would be free to continue liv-
or grab a copy of Spin or any other pop music ing as they had- committing crimes , poisoning
magazme. themselves with alcohol and drugs , and menac-
Thrmgh Anderson greatly adds to the ing those who try to live straight. So the very
stock of research about the urban mechanism that perpetuates the misery, the code
underclass , he doesn t offer a serious dis- of the street , will live on.
cussion on the origins of the Black ghetto. Elijah Anderson has offered a richly de-
He appears to subscribe to William Julius scriptive text on life in the inner-city that
Wilson s theory (Wilson , 1996) that the should become canonical for those study-
ghetto is the result of the disappearance ing the ghetto and pondering ways to bet-
of heavy manufacturing jobs and racism ter it. He has painted in vivid colors this troubled
though he does not engage the subject world and the dangerous persons who rule it
and conspicuously ignores Lawrence M. and the code of the streets which perpetuates it.
Mead' s research (1992) that indicates that jobs The ghetto will not disappear until the code of
are available but the poor often don t care to the street is broken. Thanks to Anderson
take them. Thus , Anderson , in an unsatisfying policymakers may better understand the chal-
three- page policy prescription at the end of the lenge they face. 1YYBI
book , asserts that government can remedy the
problem by creating " living-wage jobs. " His logic References
is simple: healthy inner-cities minus jobs made Mead , L. M. (1992). The Nell) Politics of Poverty: TINNon
for ghettos; thus , ghettos plus jobs will make JPorki17g Poor i17 AtJJelica. New York: Basic Books.
Mead, L. M. (1986). Beyond Entitlement, The Social Obligations of
for healthy inner-cities.
Citizenship. New York Free Press.
This policy prescription does not comport Wilson , W J. (1996). When WO1k Disappears: The World of
with Anderson s description of the inner-city. the NelP Urban POOl: New York: Knopf.


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