350 words Discussion boardWhat does Anderson mean by code of the street? Is Anderson’s characterization of life

350 words Discussion boardWhat does Anderson mean by code of the street? Is Anderson’s characterization of life in the inner-city accurate? Does it apply to other cities? To Phoenix?Please use attached files as sources first

The Code of the Streets
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.
Therefore, even though families with a decency orientation are usually opposed to the values of the
code, they often reluctantly encourage their children’s familiarity with it to enable them to negotiate
the inner-city environment.
f all the problems besetting the poor innercity 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
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. This in turn 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. The rules of the code in
fact provide a framework for negotiating respect.
The person whose very appearance—including his
clothing, demeanor, and way of moving—deters
transgressions feels that he possesses, and may be
considered by others to possess, a measure of
respect. With the right amount of respect, for
instance, he can avoid “being bothered” in public. If
he is bothered, not only may he be in physical danger but he has been disgraced or “dissed” (disrespected). Many of the forms that dissing can take
might seem petty to middle-class people (maintaining eye contact for too long, for example), but to
those invested in the street code, these actions
become serious indications of the other person’s
intentions. Consequently, such people become very
Simply living in such an environment places
young people at special risk 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
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 Code of the Streets,” by Elijah Anderson, reprinted from The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 273, No. 5, May 1994. Copyright ©
1994 by Elijah Anderson.
2 The Code of the Streets
sensitive to advances and slights, which could
well serve as warnings of imminent physical confrontation.
This hard reality can be traced to the profound
sense of alienation from mainstream society and its
institutions felt by many poor inner-city black people, particularly the young. The code of the streets
is actually a cultural adaptation to a profound lack
of faith in the police and the judicial system. The
police are most often seen as representing the dominant white society and not caring to protect innercity residents. When called, they may not respond,
which is one reason many residents feel they must
be prepared to take extraordinary measures to
defend themselves and their loved ones against
those who are inclined to aggression. Lack of police
accountability has in fact been incorporated into the
status system: the person who is believed capable of
“taking care of himself” is accorded a certain deference, which translates into a sense of physical and
psychological control. Thus the street code emerges
where the influence of the police ends and personal
responsibility for one’s safety is felt to begin.
Exacerbated by the proliferation of drugs and easy
access to guns, this volatile situation results in the
ability of the street-oriented minority (or those who
effectively “go for bad”) to dominate the public
Although almost everyone in poor inner-city
neighborhoods is struggling financially and therefore feels a certain distance from the rest of
America, the decent and the street family in a real
sense represent two poles of value orientation, two
contrasting conceptual categories. The labels
“decent” and “street,” which the residents themselves use, amount to evaluative judgments that
confer status on local residents. The labeling is
often the result of a social contest among the individuals and families of the neighborhood.
Individuals of the two orientations often coexist in
the same extended family. Decent residents judge
themselves to be so while judging others to be of the
street, and street individuals often present themselves as decent, drawing distinctions between
themselves and other people. In addition, there is
quite a bit of circumstantial behavior—that is, one
person may at different times exhibit both decent
and street orientations, depending on the circumstances. Although these designations result from so
much social jockeying, there do exist concrete features that define each conceptual category.
Generally, so-called decent families tend to
accept mainstream values more fully and attempt to
instill them in their children. Whether married couples with children or single-parent (usually female)
households, they are generally “working poor” and
so tend to be better off financially than their streetoriented neighbors. They value hard work and selfreliance and are willing to sacrifice for their children. Because they have a certain amount of faith in
mainstream society, they harbor hopes for a better
future for their children, if not for themselves. Many
of them go to church and take a strong interest in
their children’s schooling. Rather than dwelling on
the real hardships and inequities facing them, many
such decent people, particularly the increasing number of grandmothers raising grandchildren, see their
difficult situation as a test from God and derive
great support from their faith and from the church
Extremely aware of the problematic and often
dangerous environment in which they reside, decent
parents tend to be strict in their child-rearing practices, encouraging children to respect authority and
walk a straight moral line. They have an almost
obsessive concern about trouble of any kind and
remind their children to be on the lookout for people and situations that might lead to it. At the same
time, they are themselves polite and considerate of
others, and teach their children to be the same way.
At home, at work, and in church, they strive hard to
maintain a positive mental attitude and a spirit of
So-called street parents, in contrast, often show
a lack of consideration for other people and have a
rather superficial sense of family and community.
Though they may love their children, many of them
are unable to cope with the physical and emotional
demands of parenthood, and find it difficult to reconcile their needs with those of their children. These
families, who are more fully invested in the code of
the streets than the decent people are, may aggressively socialize their children into it in a normative
way. They believe in the code and judge themselves
and others according to its values.
In fact the overwhelming majority of families
in the inner-city community try to approximate the
The Code of the Streets 3
decent-family model, but there are many others who
clearly represent the worst fears of the decent family. Not only are their financial resources extremely
limited, but what little they have may easily be misused. The lives of the street-oriented are often
marked by disorganization. In the most desperate
circumstances people frequently have a limited
understanding of priorities and consequences, and
so frustrations mount over bills, food, and, at times,
drink, cigarettes, and drugs. Some tend toward selfdestructive behavior; many street-oriented women
are crack-addicted (“on the pipe”), alcoholic, or
involved in complicated relationships with men
who abuse them. In addition, the seeming
intractability of their situation, caused in large part
by the lack of well-paying jobs and the persistence
of racial discrimination, has engendered deep-seated bitterness and anger in many of the most desperate and poorest blacks, especially young people.
The need both to exercise a measure of control and
to lash out at somebody is often reflected in the
adults’ relations with their children. At the least, the
frustrations of persistent poverty shorten the fuse in
such people—contributing to a lack of patience with
anyone, child or adult, who irritates them.
In these circumstances a woman—or a man,
although men are less consistently present in children’s lives—can be quite aggressive with children,
yelling at and striking them for the least little in
fraction of the rules she has set down. Often little if
any serious explanation follows the verbal and
physical punishment. This response teaches children a particular lesson. They learn that to solve any
kind of interpersonal problem one must quickly
resort to hitting or other violent behavior. Actual
peace and quiet, and also the appearance of calm,
respectful children conveyed to her neighbors and
friends, are often what the young mother most
desires, but at times she will be very aggressive in
trying to get them. Thus she may be quick to beat
her children, especially if they defy her law, not
because she hates them but because this is the way
she knows to control them. In fact, many street-oriented women love their children dearly. Many
mothers in the community subscribe to the notion
that there is a “devil in the boy” that must be beaten
out of him or that socially “fast girls need to be
whupped.” Thus much of what borders on child
abuse in the view of social authorities is acceptable
parental punishment in the view of these mothers.
Many street-oriented women are sporadic
mothers whose children learn to fend for themselves
when necessary foraging for food and money any
way they can get it. The children are sometimes
employed by drug dealers or become addicted
themselves. These children of the street, growing up
with little supervision, are said to “come up hard.”
They often learn to fight at an early age, sometimes
using short-tempered adults around them as role
models. The street-oriented home may be fraught
with anger, verbal disputes, physical aggression,
and even mayhem. The children observe these
goings-on, learning the lesson that might makes
right. They quickly learn to hit those who cross
them, and the dog-eat-dog mentality prevails. In
order to survive, to protect oneself, it is necessary to
marshal inner resources and be ready to deal with
adversity in a hands-on way. In these circumstances
physical prowess takes on great significance.
In some of the most desperate cases, a streetoriented mother may simply leave her young children alone and unattended while she goes out. The
most irresponsible women can be found at local
bars and crack houses, getting high and socializing
with other adults. Sometimes a troubled woman will
leave very young children alone for days at a time.
Reports of crack addicts abandoning their children
have become common in drug-infested inner-city
communities. Neighbors or relatives discover the
abandoned children, often hungry and distraught
over the absence of their mother. After repeated
absences, a friend or relative, particularly a grandmother, will often step in to care for the young children, sometimes petitioning the authorities to send
her, as guardian of the children, the mother’s welfare check, if the mother gets one. By this time,
however, the children may well have learned the
first lesson of the streets survival itself, let alone
respect, cannot be taken for granted you have to
fight for your place in the world.
… When decent and street kids come together,
a kind of social shuffle occurs in which children
have a chance to go either way. Tension builds as a
child comes to realize that he must choose an orientation. The kind of home he comes from influences
but does not determine the way he will ultimately
turn out—although it is unlikely that a child from a
thoroughly street-oriented family will easily absorb
decent values on the streets. Youths who emerge
4 The Code of the Streets
from street-oriented families but develop a decency
orientation almost always learn those values in
another setting—in school, in a youth group, in
church. Often it is the result of their involvement
with a caring “old head” (adult role model).
In the street, through their play, children pour
their individual life experiences into a common
knowledge pool, affirming, confirming, and elaborating on what they have observed in the home and
matching their skills against those of others. And
they learn to fight. Even small children test one
another, pushing and shoving, and are ready to hit
other children over circumstances not to their liking. In turn, they are readily hit by other children,
and the child who is toughest prevails. Thus the violent resolution of disputes, the hitting and cursing,
gains social reinforcement. The child in effect is initiated into a system that is really a way of campaigning for respect.
In addition, younger children witness the disputes of older children, which are often resolved
through cursing and abusive talk, if not aggression
or outright violence. They see that one child succumbs to the greater physical and mental abilities of
the other. They are also alert and attentive witnesses to the verbal and physical fights of adults, after
which they compare notes and share their interpretations of the event. In almost every case the victor
is the person who physically won the altercation,
and this person often enjoys the esteem and respect
of onlookers. These experiences reinforce the lessons the children have learned at home: might
makes right, and toughness is a virtue, while humility is not. In effect they learn the social meaning of
fighting. When it is left virtually unchallenged, this
understanding becomes an ever more important part
of the child’s working conception of the world.
Over time the code of the streets becomes refined.
Those street-oriented adults with whom children come in contact—including mothers, fathers,
brothers, sisters, boyfriends, cousins, neighbors,
and friends—help them along in forming this understanding by verbalizing the messages they are getting through experience: “Watch your back.”
“Protect yourself.” “Don’t punk out.” “If somebody
messes with you, you got to pay them back.” “If
someone disses you, you got to straighten them
out.” Many parents actually impose sanctions if a
child is not sufficiently aggressive. For example, if
a child loses a fight and comes home upset, the parent might respond, “Don’t you come in here crying
that somebody beat you up; you better get back out
there and whup his ass. I didn’t raise no punks! Get
back out there and whup his ass. If you don’t whup
his ass, I’ll whup your ass when you come home.”
Thus the child obtains reinforcement for being
tough and showing nerve.…
By the time they are teenagers, most youths
have either internalized the code of the streets or at
least learned the need to comport themselves in
accordance with its rules, which chiefly have to do
with interpersonal communication. The code
revolves around the presentation of self. Its basic
requirement is the display of a certain predisposition to violence. Accordingly, one’s bearing must
send the unmistakable if sometimes subtle message
to “the next person” in public that one is capable of
violence and mayhem when the situation requires it,
that one can take care of oneself. The nature of this
communication is largely determined by the
demands of the circumstances but can include facial
expressions, gait, and verbal expressions—all of
which are geared mainly to deterring aggression.
Physical appearance, including clothes, jewelry and
grooming, also play’s an important part in how a
person is viewed; to be respected, it is important to
have the right look.
Even so, there are no guarantees against challenges, because there are always people around
looking for a fight to increase their share of
respect—or “juice,” as it is sometimes called on the
street. Moreover, if a person is assaulted, it is
important, not only in the eyes of his opponent but
also in the eyes of his “running buddies,” for him to
avenge himself. Otherwise he risks being “tried”
(challenged) or “moved on” by any number of others. To maintain his honor he must show he is not
someone to be “messed with” or “dissed.” In general, the person must “keep himself straight” by managing his position of respect among others; this
involves in part his self-image, which is shaped by
what he thinks others are thinking of him in relation
to his peers.
Objects play an important and complicated
role in establishing self-image. Jackets, sneakers,
gold jewelry, reflect not just a person’s taste, which
tends to be tightly regulated among adolescents of
The Code of the Streets 5
all social classes, but also a willingness to possess
things that may require defending. A boy wearing a
fashionable, expensive jacket, for example, is vulnerable to attack by another who covets the jacket
and either cannot afford to buy one or wants the
added satisfaction of depriving someone else of his.
However, if the boy forgoes the desirable jacket and
wears one that isn’t “hip,” he runs the risk of being
teased and possibly even assaulted as an unworthy
person. To be allowed to hang with certain prestigious crowds, a boy must wear a different set of
expensive clothes—sneakers and athletic suit—
every day. Not to be able to do so might make him
appear socially deficient. The youth comes to covet
such items—especially when he sees easy prey
wearing them.
In acquiring valued things, therefore, a person
shores up his identity—but since it is an identity
based on having things, it is highly precarious. This
very precariousness gives a heightened sense of
urgency to staying even with peers, with whom the
person is actually competing. Young men and
women who are able to command respect through
their presentation of self—by allowing their possessions and their body language to speak for them—
may not have to campaign for regard but may,
rather, gain it by the force of their manner. Those
who are unable to command respect in this way
must actively campaign for it—and are thus particularly alive to slights.
One way of campaigning for status is by taking
the possessions of others. In this context, seemingly
ordinary objects can become trophies imbued with
symbolic value that far exceeds their monetary
worth. Possession of the trophy can symbolize the
ability to violate somebody—to “get in his face,” to
take something of value from him, to “dis” him, and
thus to enhance one’s own worth by stealing someone else’s. The trophy does not have to be something material. It can be another person’s sense of
honor, snatched away with a derogatory remark. It
can be the outcome of a fight. It can be the imposition of a certain standard, such as a girl’s getting
herself recognized as the most beautiful. Material
things, however, fit easily into the pattern. Sneakers,
a pistol, even somebody else’s girlfriend, can
become a trophy. When a person can take something from another and then flaunt it, he gains a certain regard by being the owner, or the controller, of
that thing. But this display of ownership can then
provoke other people to challenge him. This game
of who controls what is thus constantly being
played out on inner-city streets, and the trophy—
extrinsic or intrinsic, tangible or intangible—identifies the current winner.
An important aspect of this often violent giveand-take is its zero-sum quality. That is, the extent
to which one person can raise himself up depends
on his ability to put another person down. This
underscores the alienation that permeates the innercity ghetto community. There is a generalized sense
that very little respect is to be had, and therefore
everyone competes to get what affirmation he can
of the little that is available. The craving for respect
that results gives people thin skins. Shows of deference by others can be highly soothing, contributing
to a sense of security, comfort, self-confidence, and
self-respect. Transgressions by others which go
unanswered diminish these feelings and are
believed to encourage further transgressions. Hence
one must be ever vigilant against the transgressions
of others or even appearing as if transgressions will
be tolerated. Among young people, whose sense of
self-esteem is particularly vulnerable, there is an
especially heightened concern with being disrespected. Many inner-city young men in particular
crave respect to such a degree that they will risk
their lives to attain and maintain it.
The issue of respect is thus closely tied to
whether a person has an inclination to be violent,
even as a victim. In the wider society people may
not feel required to retaliate physically after an
attack, even though they are aware that they have
been degraded or taken advantage of. They may feel
a great need to defend themselves during an attack,
or to behave in such a way as to deter aggression
(middle-class people certainly can and do become
victims of street-oriented youths), but they are
much more likely than street-oriented people to feel
that they can walk away from a possible altercation
with their self-esteem intact. Some people may even
have the strength of character to flee, without any
thought that their self-respect or esteem will be
In impoverished inner-city black communities,
however, particularly among young males and perhaps increasingly among females, such flight would
be extremely difficult. To run away would likely
leave one’s self-esteem in tatters. Hence people
often feel constrained not only to stand up and at
least attempt to resist during an assault but also to
“pay back”—to seek revenge—after a successful
assault on their person. This may include going to
6 The Code of the Streets
get a weapon or even getting relatives involved.
Their very identity and self-respect, their honor, is
often intricately tied up with the way they perform
on the streets during and after such encounters. This
outlook reflects the circumscribed opportunities of
the inner-city poor. Generally people outside the
ghetto have other ways of gaining status and regard,
and thus do not feel so dependent on such physical
On the street, among males these concerns
about things and identity have come to be expressed
in the concept of “manhood.” Manhood in the inner
city means taking the prerogatives of men with
respect to strangers, other men, and women—being
distinguished as a man. It implies physicality and a
certain ruthlessness. Regard and respect are associated with this concept in large part because of its
practical application: if others have little or no
regard for a person’s manhood, his very life and
those of his loved ones could be in jeopardy. But
there is a chicken-and-egg aspect to this situation:
one’s physical safety is more likely to be jeopardized in public because manhood is associated with
respect. In other words, an existential link has been
created between the idea of manhood and ones selfesteem, so that it has become hard to say which is
primary. For many inner-city youths, manhood and
respect are flip sides of the same coin physical and
psychological well-being are inseparable, and both
require a sense of control, of being in charge.
The operating assumption is that a man, especially a real man, knows what other men know—the
code of the streets. And if one is not a real man, one
is somehow diminished as a person, and there are
certain valued things one simply does not deserve.
There is thus believed to be a certain justice to the
code, since it is considered that everyone has the
opportunity to know it. Implicit in this is that everybody is held responsible for being familiar with the
code. If the victim of a mugging, for example, does
not know the code and so responds “wrong,” the
perpetrator may feel justified even in killing him
and may feel no remorse. He may think, “Too bad,
but it’s his fault. He should have known better.”…
Central to the issue of manhood is the widespread belief that one of the most effective ways of
gaining respect is to manifest “nerve.” Nerve is
shown when one takes another person’s possessions
(the more valuable the better), “messes with” someone’s woman, throws the first punch, “gets in someone’s face,” or pulls a trigger, Its proper display
helps on the spot to check others who would violate
one’s person and also helps to build a reputation that
works to prevent future challenges. But since such a
show of nerve is a forceful expression of disrespect
toward the person on the receiving end, the victim
may be greatly offended and seek to retaliate with
equal or greater force. A display of nerve, therefore,
can easily provoke a life-threatening response, and
the background knowledge of that possibility has
often been incorporated into the concept of nerve.…
Increasingly, teenage girls are mimicking the
boys and trying to have their own version of “manhood.” Their goal is the same—to get respect, to be
recognized as capable of setting or maintaining a
certain standard. They try to achieve this end in the
ways that have been established by the boys, inducting posturing, abusive language, and the use of violence to resolve disputes, but the issues for the girls
are different. Although conflicts over turf and status
exist among the girls, the majority of disputes seem
rooted in assessments of beauty (which girl in a
group is “the cutest”), competition over boyfriends,
and attempts to regulate other people’s knowledge
of and opinions about a girl’s behavior or that of
someone close to her, especially her mother.
A major cause of conflicts among girls is “he
say, she say” This practice begins in the early school
years and continues through high school. It occurs
when “people,” particularly girls, talk about others,
thus putting their “business in the streets.” Usually
one girl will say something negative about another
in the group, most often behind the persons back.
The remark will then get back to the person talked
about. She may retaliate or her friends may feel
required to “take up for” her. In essence this is a
form of group gossiping in which individuals are
negatively assessed and evaluated. As with much
gossip, the things said may or may not be true, but
the point is that such imputations can cast aspersions on a person’s good name. The accused is
required to defend herself against the slander, which
can result in arguments and fights, often over little
of real substance. Here again is the problem of low
self-esteem, which encourages youngsters to be
The Code of the Streets 7
highly sensitive to slights and to be vulnerable to
feeling easily “dissed.” To avenge the dissing, a
fight is usually necessary.
Because boys are believed to control violence,
girls tend to defer to them in situations of conflict.
Often if a girl is attacked or feels slighted, she will
get a brother, uncle, or cousin to do her fighting for
her. Increasingly, however, girls are doing their own
fighting and are even asking their male relatives to
teach them how to fight. Some girls form groups
that attack other girls or take things from them. A
hard-core segment of inner-city girls inclined
toward violence seems to be developing. As one
thirteen-year-old girl in a detention center for
youths who have committed violent acts told me,
“To get people to leave you alone, you gotta fight.
Talking don’t always get you out of stuff.” One
major difference between girls and boys: girls rarely
use guns. Their fights are therefore not life-or-death
struggles. Girls are not often willing to put their
lives on the line for “manhood.” The ultimate form
of respect on the male-dominated inner-city street is
thus reserved for men.
In the most fearsome youths such a cavalier
attitude toward death grows out of a very limited
view of life. Many are uncertain about how long
they are going to live and believe they could die
violently at any time. They accept this fate; they live
on the edge. Their manner conveys the message that
nothing intimidates them whatever turn the
encounter takes, they maintain their attack—rather
like a pit bull, whose spirit many such boys admire.
The demonstration of such tenacity “shows heart”
and earns their respect.
This fearlessness has implications for law
enforcement. Many street-oriented boys are much
more concerned about the threat of “justice” at the
hands of a peer than at the hands of the police.
Moreover, many feel not only that they have little to
lose by going to prison but that they have something
to gain. The toughening-up one experiences in
prison can actually enhance one’s reputation on the
streets. Hence the system loses influence over the
hard core who are without jobs, with little perceptible stake in the system. If mainstream society has
done nothing for them, they counter by making sure
it can do nothing to them.
At the same time, however, a competing view
maintains that true nerve consists in backing down,
walking away from a fight, and going on with one’s
business. One fights only in self-defense. This view
emerges from the decent philosophy that life is precious, and it is an important part of the socialization
process common in decent homes. It discourages
violence as the primary means of resolving disputes
and encourages youngsters to accept nonviolence
and talk as confrontational strategies.…
Although the nonviolent orientation rarely
overcomes the impulse to strike back in an
encounter, it does introduce a certain confusion and
so can prompt a measure of soul-searching, or even
profound ambivalence. Did the person back down
with his respect intact or did he back down only to
be judged a “punk”—a person lacking manhood?
Should he or she have acted? Should he or she have
hit the other person in the mouth? These questions
best many young men and women during public
confrontations. What is the right thing to do? In the
quest for honor, respect, and local status—which
few young people are uninterested in—common
sense most often prevails, which leads many to opt
for the tough approach, enacting their own particular versions of the display of nerve. The presentation of oneself as rough and tough is very often
quite acceptable until one is tested. And then that
presentation may help the person pass the test,
because it will cause fewer questions to be asked
about what he did and why. It is hard for a person to
explain why he lost the fight or why he backed
down. Hence many will strive to appear to “go for
bad,” while hoping they will never be tested. But
when they are tested, the outcome of the situation
may quickly be