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A primary issue for urban sociologists is the disproportionate poverty in ghettoes, defined as parts of American cities that are composed of mostly poor African Americans. These economically and socially alienated communities often suffer from high rates of unemployment, crime, and drug use, creating images of these areas and their occupants that mask differences among residents and the structural conditions that affect them. Several studies have attempted to disentangle these issues by identifying systematic inequalities and the ways inner-city residents respond to them. Many note the integral role of street cultures in such neighborhoods, which help disadvantaged residents to cope with inner-city life by offering alternative methods for attaining social order.
In his 1999 ethnography, Code of the Street, Elijah Anderson argued that the problems of poor, inner-city black communities are exacerbated by deindustrialization, the outsourcing of jobs, the flight of the middle class, an ineffective law enforcement system, and a prominent underground economy. Anderson argued that these structural changes and the alienation they breed promote an oppositional culture whereby inner-city residents rely on the code of the street, or “a set of informal rules governing interpersonal public behavior, particularly violence” (p. 33) to distribute respect and ensure order. While this code provides residents with a mechanism to organize the community, its success relies on the use of violence to gain social status, creating a culture where the paths to money and respect reflect deviant lifestyles.
Anderson argued that within these neighborhoods, knowledge of the code becomes necessary for all individuals to maintain respect and ensure survival. Familiarity with the code holds whether individuals self-identify as decent individuals, or those who tend to hold mainstream values, or street individuals, or those who embrace and enforce the code and its use of violence. This requires decent people who do not fully embrace the code to be streetwise, or to engage the code to gain respect and to prevent challenges to their person or status. This may require individuals to challenge someone else’s power by taking that person’s belongings or through physical attack or to display material possessions, which suggests that they not only have money but also that they are willing to defend it. Such issues are particularly salient for adolescents who must negotiate their identities within public spaces, making them vulnerable to stereotyping by people who live outside these neighborhoods and who are unable to distinguish between residents who engage the code only when necessary and those who always live by it.
As an oppositional culture, the code of the street also has implications for cultural forms created in urban spaces such as hip-hop and rap music. As Mark Anthony Neal suggested in his 2004 article, “Up from Hustling: Power, Plantations, and the Hip-Hop Mogul,” in its onset, hip-hop and rap music offered a critical voice capable of accurately portraying the black urban experience and affecting social change within these impoverished neighborhoods. Over time, however, these musical forms have been transformed into a mainstream and stylized version of black culture that no longer resembles the ghetto public it sought to represent. Neal suggested that, “what is bought and sold in the open market of commodified blackness is anything but authentic, but rather stylized perceptions of black life, packaged for mass consumption” (p. 166). This hip-hop image, which glorifies excessive consumerism, the underground drug economy, and misogynistic practices, fails to affect social change in the ways originally envisioned by hip-hop artists. Instead, these images influence public policies aimed at monitoring black urban youth, providing justifications for further discrimination against impoverished inner-city residents and legitimizing the oppositional culture posed by the code.
While previous works, such as Elliot Liebow’s 1967 ethnography, Tally’s Corner, have reached similar conclusions to Anderson’s thesis regarding the role of the street corner in redefining limited life chances, they have also been critiqued for their emphasis on oppositional culture, which suggests that in certain ways, poor, inner-city blacks contribute to their own blocked mobility. Many urban researchers have reached alternative conclusions in studies of inner-city black communities, suggesting instead that street cultures are integral resources used by disadvantaged residents to enhance their abilities to achieve middle-class status. For instance, in his 1980 book, Alley Life in Washington, James Borchert wrote that, following the Civil War (1861-1865), alley residents developed invaluable community networks that allowed them to survive through periods of intense urbanization and institutionalized racism. These ideas have also been noted in international works such as Steve Hall, Simon Winlow, and Craig Ancrum’s 2005 article, “Radgies, Gangstas, and Mugs: Imaginary Criminal Identities in the Twilight of the Pseudo-Pacification Process.” In their study of British, lower-class males, they found that these individuals do not engage in violence and criminality to resist normalization, but instead, to enhance their life chances. Studies such as these suggest that while street cultures have formed in various times and spaces, they do not always exhibit subcultural or oppositional characteristics, providing opportunities for further research that delineates the structural, spatial, and individual relations between street cultures and mainstream values.
- Anderson, Elijah. 1999. Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. New York: W. W. Norton.
- Borchert, James. 1980. Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion, and Folklife in the City, 1850–1970. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
- Hall, Steve, Simon Winlow, and Craig Ancrum. 2005. Radgies, Gangstas, and Mugs: Imaginary Criminal Identities in the Twilight of the Pseudo-Pacification Process. Social Justice 32 (1): 100–112.
- Liebow, Elliot. 1967. Tally’s Corner. Boston: Little, Brown. Neal, Mark Anthony. 2004. Up From Hustling: Power, Plantations, and the Hip-Hop Mogul. Socialism and Democracy 18 (2): 157–182.
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