'Code of the Street' -- casting blame for violence

August 22, 1999|By Gregory Kane | Gregory Kane,Sun Staff

"Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City," by Elijah Anderson. Norton. 345 pages. $23.95.

Military folks tend to disdain excuses because, no matter how good they sound, they all stink.

Excuses are particularly malodorous when they come in the form of 345-page tomes like Elijah Anderson's "Code of the Street." Ostensibly a dissertation on how "decent" inner-city blacks clash with those committed to the "street life" and its code of violence, respect, retribution and dysfunction, the book reads more like an excuse for why America's black underclass is the way it is.

Anderson trots out the usual list of suspects -- white racists and callous businessmen -- and lays the blame at their feet for all ills afflicting urban blacks. These blacks thus become "alienated" and adopt an "oppositional culture" -- one that drives young black men to street crime and creates in young blacks of both sexes the notion that education, academic excellence and mainstream success are somehow white things.

Anderson, a University of Pennsylvania social sciences professor, pretends to relate his tales of urban black suffering with a sociologist's detachment and objectivity. But his liberal instincts get the better of him. He starts off nicely, writing an excellent introduction in which he takes the reader down Philadelphia's Germantown Avenue, describing in detail its upper middle class, integrated sections down to the nearly all-black and poor lower end. He wraps up the book with the story of a street hood named Robert and his attempts to break free of the criminal lifestyle, an engrossing chapter that perhaps should have followed the introduction.

In between, Anderson stumbles miserably. In one section he boldly asserts to readers that inner-city blacks turn to crime because of a lack of jobs. In another, he tells of how some "decent" blacks work two or three jobs. How they are able to do this if there are no jobs available, Anderson never explains.

At one point Anderson quotes a young man who asked him "Why is it so hard for me to get a job and so easy for me to sell drugs?" Anderson, as a representative of the "decent" blacks he extols throughout the book, may have told the young man that worthwhile things are always hard to achieve while useless, destructive things -- like drug dealing and addiction -- always come easy. But the reader never peruses those words.

Instead, Anderson follows the youth's idiotic question with the enlightening comment that "(i)n destitute inner-city communities, it is in fact becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish poverty from drug involvement." Oh, the hell you say.

The good professor's greatest gaffe comes near the book's end, well after he has subjected readers to unwarranted suffering. We can't blame inner-city blacks who adopt the street life for their conduct, Anderson lectures us. The problem is the socioeconomic structure. Corporations and businesses, Anderson implies, need to return to the inner city.

Corporations and businesses will be lured to those places with an educated work force. Several businesses, for example, have already refused to move to Baltimore because of its poor public education system. Asking employers to invest in a community that Anderson admits holds education in disdain is akin to asking them to shoot themselves in the feet.

And good business folks, I have a hunch, tend to like their feet.

Gregory Kane, a columnist for The Sun, was half of a reporting team that in June 1996 bought two slaves in Africa, freed them and then wrote a series of articles demonstrating that slavery is still practiced.

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