'Decent' People and 'Street' People

September 15, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

PHILADELPHIA. — All at once Sherman was aware of the figure approaching him on the sidewalk. . . . It was the deep worry that lives in the base of the skull of every resident of Park Avenue south of 96th street, a black youth, tall, rangy, wearing white sneakers.

-- ''The Bonfire of the Vanities,'' Tom Wolfe

Philadelphia.

But in real life the black youth probably would be worried more often than Sherman McCoy. In inner cities, where life is a slow-motion riot, young black men live worried, which is one reason why they often live briefly. Elijah Anderson understands why they worry.

Mr. Anderson, a black professor of urban sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, and a superb reporter of real life, says the inner-city black community is divided, socially, between two orientations, ''decent'' and ''street.'' The street code is a quest for ''respect'' by people who are apt to have thin skins and short fuses because they feel constantly buffeted by forces beyond their control. Writing on ''The Code of the Street'' in the Atlantic Monthly, Mr. Anderson says respect in the streets is hard won and easily lost, and losing it leaves the individual nTC naked to the aggression of others seeking to acquire or preserve respect.

Amid the congenial academic clutter of an office overlooking the campus, itself an island of calm in urban turmoil, Mr. Anderson says lack of confidence in the police and criminal-justice system produces a defensive demeanor of aggression. This demeanor expresses a proclivity for violent self-help in a menacing environment. A readiness to resort to violence is communicated by ''facial expression, gait and verbal expressions -- all of which are geared mainly to deterring aggression'' and to discouraging strangers ''from even thinking about testing their manhood.''

Inner-city youths are apt to construct identities based precariously on possessions -- sneakers, jackets, jewelry, girlfriends. The taking and defense of them is part of a tense and sometimes lethal ritual. It has, Mr. Anderson says, a ''zero-sum quality'' because raising oneself requires putting someone down. Hence the low threshold of violence among people who feel they have no way of gaining or keeping status other than through physical displays.

The street is the alternative source of self-esteem because work experiences are so often unsatisfactory, partly because of demeanors and behaviors acquired in the streets. A prickly sensitivity about ''respect'' causes many black youths to resent entry-level jobs as demeaning. And, Mr. Anderson says, employers, black as well as white, react with distrust to a young black man ''with his sneakers, 'gangster cap,' chain necklace and portable radio at his side.''

For such a person, work becomes a horizontal experience of movement from one entry-level job to another. And the young person's ''oppositional culture'' is reinforced by the lure of the underground economy of drugs. Furthermore, says Mr. Anderson, some young people develop ''an elaborate ideology in order to justify their criminal adaptation'' to their situation, an ideology ''portraying 'getting by' without working as virtuous.''

Mr. Anderson's father brought his family north from Arkansas to do war work in the Studebaker plant in South Bend, Indiana, (making fighter planes that anticipated the look of post-war Studebaker cars) and by 1948 was making $5,500 a year, equivalent to more than $30,000 today. Such jobs are scarce now in cities, even for youths who have not adopted the demeanor, or succumbed to the temptations, of the street.

Mr. Anderson says many inner-city parents who love their children nevertheless parent harshly to prepare their children for the harsh world beyond the front stoop. A child who comes home from a losing fight may be sent out to re-fight it, and parents yell at and strike their children for small infractions of rules. Thus, the professor says, children ''learn that to solve any kind of interpersonal problem one must quickly resort to hitting or other violent behavior.''

He is not censorious of the black middle class which could have leavened the ghetto with role models and encouragement, but which instead has produced what Mr. Anderson calls ''a kind of diaspora.'' Living where gunfire occasionally disturbs his family's sleep, he has various family experiences with the violent possibilities of urban life.

During the 1992 rioting in South Central Los Angeles, his brother's restaurant was burned down because it was sandwiched between two Korean shops targeted by black rioters. Elijah Anderson and his brother both know that the fictional worries of Sherman McCoy are as nothing next to the real-life worries the decent black majority has about the minority that lives by the code of the streets.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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