In every neighborhood, the people there have an unwritten code of conduct. No one dictates what is expected of them, but a sixth sense determines what is right or wrong, what should be done when and why it should be done in that manner. Elijah Anderson, a professor of social science, at the University of Pennsylvania, ventured into Germantown Avenue to know what exactly happens in the inner-city, and how this environment shapes the upbringing of children and adolescents. In streets dominated by the Black community, there are “survival tactics” that every person in the area needs to know. There are numerous cases of muggings, drug trafficking, break-ins, and robberies. These people, therefore, either have to learn how to stay safe, yet remain part of the community without victimizing others. In these streets, there is an unwritten brotherhood code that does not allow betrayal or calling in the authorities. Defaulters of this rule are often viewed as enemies, even when they meant to protect their loved ones. It is not a comfortable place to live, yet the community spirit keeps the people of color united despite the challenges.
Parents are especially worried about bringing up their children in such settings since they are likely to become victims of violent behavior, or join gangs. Parents are often in trouble trying to protect their children, advising them to steer clear of trouble. But how easy is it for the Black community, especially the youth, to stay on the right side of the law? In this book, Elijah Anderson seeks to explain how the code of the streets shapes how young people view the outside world, whether they are more likely to be law-abiding citizens or end up in trouble with the police. This book review analyses some of the unwritten laws and how they influence the lifestyle of the Black community.
“There are no guarantees against challenges because there are always people around looking to fight to increase their share of respect.” (Anderson 18). Aggressive behavior in these streets is a measure of how tough one is. Anything is a potential target for those seeking this form of “respect.” It could be the beautiful necklace on a lady’s neck, the newly acquired tie, or merely the new bicycle a father just bought his child. Anything that has value and can be reused or sold in the black market is a potential target. In these streets, it is not stealing. It is a chance to prove how much courage one has. If the mission is successful, the executor is a hero who is cheered on by other members of the gang.
In such a case, fear in these neighborhoods is paramount. Inhabitants have to come home before a particular hour if they need to feel safe. On occasions that they happen to be late, they have to be escorted right into their houses. Despite these challenges, the Brotherhood must be kept. When caught up in a situation like this, one has to either survive through it or comply to avoid harm.
For this reason, young men opt to act tough (they often come home late) as a means of survival. It may be for protection at first, but it escalates fast in most cases and ends up getting out of hand in most cases. Parents who have been caught up in this mix and often opted to stay away from the matter since it is usually a journey of no return. The gangs are likened to “cartels” although they do not control any crucial issues. The nature of their environment and circumstances push young men into aggressive behavior. Despite families trying to instill the correct values according to society, the cultural wave is still strong, and in most cases, it is contrary to what the law of the land requires. Parents are, therefore, left to pray for the safety of their children and hope they will not be their next victim.
For those who prefer to remain behind the shadows, they have to act like they obey the street code while out in the streets but be the disciplined kids their parents want at home. This book shows tactics that help them stay out of trouble since those who do not seem to accept the street code are treated as snitches. The street code is, in most cases, is likely to draw trouble, so the gangs are always checking for law enforcers. The danger is pretending to be part of the crew when not in real sense is that they are likely to be harmed by the gangs. The police are the most common law enforcers and are seen as a failed unit since they have been unable to keep the Black community safe. That is why the people of color highly value self-defense mechanism and respect people who can protect themselves. Most youths live in a dilemma in these hoods.
The street also has a dress code, manner of walking, talking and general conduct. These are significant identifiers of who belongs to the inner city and who doesn’t. The street fashion is characterized by bling and shiny chains, jean, often rugged and often accompanied by tattoos. Slang is also commonly used in these streets, and those who can achieve all these are street heroes who deserve respect. These individuals are not to be teased, and their freedom is guaranteed. The people in these neighborhoods, therefore, have to adhere to these standards to remain “cool.” It is the prize they have to pay to have their freedom and sense of belonging. New styles like suits and ties are often unwelcome in these places and raise suspicion, which makes it easy to spot a visitor. These clothes are often associated with the whites, who are perceived as a threat to the inner-city inhabitants.
The author also notes the economic struggles of the Black community. Majority of the people in the inner city are struggling financially and are below the poverty line. Most families, as evidenced by Diane (one of the interviewees) leave on a hand to mouth basis. The mother of four is battling to keep her family stable, be a father figure and ensure her sons do not get into the thug life due to despair (Anderson 74). The economic conditions are hard, but Diane has to keep her hope alive by doing all sorts of jobs. Cases of grandparents raising children are also many, with the parents having disappeared, in prison or met their death in the streets, either in the hands of police or thugs. In such cases, the children are forced to work part-time to help their struggling and often aged guardians. In families where both parents are alive, the father is the head of the family and acts as a role model to his children. He is also the sole breadwinner of the family, and the mothers are supposed to assist. His job is vital since it supports the whole family, and loss of it means the family will starve. Despite the little pay, they have to keep working to feed their families and pay school fees in local public schools for their kids.
Drugs are one of the biggest struggles of this community. Every family has a member who is struggling with drugs, sells them or has a friend who does. Anderson explains how the trade is so rampant in the inner city that it does not seem illegal anymore. Cocaine and bhang are exchanged in full daylight. The peddlers have however given them other names, such that they hold conversations without suspicion. Maggie, a mother, and a recovering addict narrate how the drugs quickly change hands even in the presence of police. (Anderson 90). The suppliers of the these substances are thought to be influential people who can evade the authorities or pay their way past security checks. They thrive on the misery of desperate souls who use drugs to shun away from their troubles. Although the Black community does not like the White community, they still buy the drugs, although they claim the big fish in the business are the Whites.
The problem is deep-rooted, and the government has not been able to do much since the police fear to penetrate the dingy streets to catch the peddlers. The rate of insecurity scares the police themselves since firearms are readily available in the black market. A gun goes for as low as five dollars, which makes them affordable. This unlicensed are used to commit crimes and protect the perpetrators. Police are often killed in the inner city when sent on missions in the streets of the Black community. The author notes that as much as the community feels alienated, they have made the streets too dangerous for new people to visit. Contractors meant to improve water; sanitation and electricity in these areas have confessed that they felt insecure due to the glances they received. In some cases, they have had to abandon their activities due to insecurity or their equipment being vandalized or stolen altogether.
Life in the inner city is defined by survival for the fittest. The toughest, as defined by the street code, earn the highest level of respect. The society expectations model what the youth what to become. The culture of this society has made youth that being rough and aggressive (thug life) is necessary for survival. Those who wish to be different have to deal with strong influence and rise above the wave of peer pressure, which is very strong in this setting. Youth who decide to obey the law and earn a decent income for their families has risen from the inner city, and are often role models for those aspiring to be like them. This has brought some change to the areas, which has result in the considerable loosening of the street code over the last two decades.
Relation of the Book to Theories of Race and Ethnicity
Three major sociological theories of functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism are used to analyze race and ethnicity differences (LaRossa & Reitzes 135-166). For this book, the conflict and functionalism theories can best be used to explain the racism, and discrimination and societal norms of the community in the inner city and how it shapes the character of its members. According to the functionalism theory, inequalities must serve a purpose for them to be in existence in a particular society. Functionalism shapes and strengthens the bonds in-groups, which explains why the Black community has kept the brotherhood. All members are expected to adhere to the street code, which differentiates them from outsiders. The brotherhood demands that the community unites in cases where one of them is mistreated. They often come out as one large group, since they believe the strength of the weak and needy is in their numbers. The theory of conflict evaluates the struggles of ethnic minorities due to racial discrimination. The book takes note of the numerous ways in which the people of color feel the White community has discriminated them. Since the end of world war and slavery, the Blacks have complained of political oppression, often being left out in decision making, whose effect on their perception of the government. They feel that the government belongs to the Whites, and governance is not their responsibility. This negative attitude has created borders that breed hatred, which is a block to development in the inner city. Although the community may want to blame the government for poor sanitation and infrastructure, the people contribute significantly to the conditions by being harsh to government contractors (LaRossa & Reitzes 135-166).
Anderson, E. (1997). Violence and the inner-city street code. Violence and childhood in the inner city, 1-30.
LaRossa, R., & Reitzes, D. C. (2009). Symbolic interactionism and family studies. In Sourcebook of family theories and methods. Springer, Boston, MA., 135-166. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-85764-0_6