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Anderson Code of the Street


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home, at work, in church, or in the presence of significant adults about whose opinions they care-display a commitment to decency, but they cannot always do so here. They are encouraged by the dom­inant youths here to switch codes and play by the rules of the street, or face sanctions at the hands of peers about whose opinions they also care.

And, as has been indicated, there is a practical reason for such a tack. To avoid being bothered, decent and street youths alike must say through behavior, words, and gestures, "If you mess with me, there will be a severe physical penalty-coming from me. And I'm man enough to make you pay." This message must be delivered loudly and clearly if a youth is to be left alone, and simply exhibiting a decent orientation does not do so forcefully enough. During the altercations between Tyree and his newfound friends, much of this was being worked out, and as a result Tyree got cool with the others, and they got cool with him. This outcome is essential for Tyree's well-being-and perhaps even for his physical survival.

T H R E E

Drugs, Viofence, and Street Crime

N 1899 w. E. B. Du Bois published The Phzladelphia Negro, which made a major contribution to Our under­standing of the social situation of African Americans in cities, although this was not appreciated at the time.

Like so much significant ethnography, this description has become part of the wider historical record, describing social life in the period under study.

In today's ghetto there appears to be much more crime and higher levels of violence and homicide than in the earlier period. In addi­tion, an ideology of alienation supporting an oppositional culture has developed; this can be seen with particular clarity in the rap music that encourages its young listeners to kill cops, to rape, and the like. Nowhere is this situation better highlighted than in the connection between drugs and violence, as young men involved in the drug trade often apply the ideology glorified in rap music to the problem of making a living and SUrvival in what has become an oppositional if not an outlaw culture.

Du Bois was concerned with the reasons why black Americans were poorly integrated into the mainstream system in the wake of their great migration from the rural South to the urban North after the abolition of slavery. The situation he discovered was one of race


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prejudice, ethnic competition, and a consequent black exclusion and inability to participate in mainstream society, all in the social context of white supremacy. This pattern of exclusion resulted in deep and debilitating social pathologies in the black community, the legacy of which persists to this day.

In making sense of the social organization of the black commu­nity, Du Bois developed a typology made up of four classes. The first were the well-to-do; the second, the hardworking, decent labor­ers who were getting by fairly well; the third, the "worthy poor," those who were working or trying to work but barely making ends meet; and the fourth, the "submerged tenth," those who were in effect beneath the surface of economic viability. Du Bois portrayed the submerged tenth as largely characterized by irresponsibility, drinking, violence, robbery, thievery, and alienation. But the situa­tion of the submerged tenth was not a prominent theme in his study as a whole. Today the counterpart of this class, the so-called ghetto underclass, appears much more entrenched and its pathologies more prevalent, but the outlines Du Bois provided in The Philadelphia Neg;ro can be clearly traced in the contemporary picture.

The growth and transformation of this underclass is in large part a result of the profound economic changes the counny-especially urban areas like Philadelphia-has undergone in the past twenty to thirty years. Deindustrialization and the growth of the global econ­omy have led to a steady loss of the unskilled and semiskilled man­ufacturing jobs that, with mixed results, had sustained the urban working class since the start of the industrial revolution. I At the same time "welfare reform" has led to a much weakened social safety net.' For the most desperate people, many of whom are not effec­tively adjusting to these changes-elements of today's submerged tenth-the underground economy of drugs and crime often emerges to pick up the slack.' To be sure, the active participants in this economy are at serious risk of violence, death, and incarceration. Equally important, those living near drug dealers and other hustlers are often victimized. Decent and law-abiding people at times become victims of random violence or are otherwise ensnared in the schemes of the underground economy's participants. Sometimes even those from decent families, particularly the young, become seduced by the ways of the street.

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In The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois pointed to the problem that kept young African American men from finding jobs: the lack of education, connections, social skills, and white skin color, as well as the adoption of a certain outlook, an unwillingness to work, and a lack of hope for the future. Today it is clear what that persistent state of affairs has led to.

The severe problem of racial discrimination Du Bois uncovered certainly persists in Philadelphia and other cities, but, as will be discussed below, it has been transformed and at times taken on a more practical form. More conventional people often seek to place much social distance between themselves and anonymous black peo­ple they encounter in public. And many young blacks sometimes in direct response find it difficult to take white people or even con­ventional black people seriously, and they actively live their lives in opposition to them and everything they are taken to represent. Lacking trust in mainstream institutions, many tq,rn to "hustling" in the underground economy. This has implications for middle-class blacks, many of whom have remained in Philadelphia and often work hard to defend themselves and their loved ones not only from those espousing oppositional values but also from the criminal ele­ment.

In many working-class and impoverished black communities today, particularly as faith in the criminal justice system erodes, social behavior in public is organized around the code of the streets. Feeling they cannot depend on the police and other civil authorities to protect them from danger, residents often take personal respon­sibility for their security. They may yield, but often they are pre­pared to let others know in no uncertain terms that there will be dire consequences if they are violated. And they tend to teach their children to stand up for themselves physically or to meet violence with violence. Growing up in such environments, young people are sometimes lured into the way of the street or become its prey. For too many of these youths, the drug trade seems to offer a ready niche, a viable way to "get by" or to enhance their wealth even if they are not full-time participants.

Because the drug trade is organized around a code of conduct approximating the code of the streets and employing violence as the basis for social control, the drug culture contributes significantly to


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the violence of inner-city neighborhoods. Furthermore, many inner­city boys admire drug dealers and emulate their style, making it difficult for outsiders to distinguish a dealer from a law-abiding teenager. Part of this style is to project a violent image, and boys who are only "playing tough" may find themselves challenged and honor bound to fight. In addition, the trappings of drug dealers (the Timberland boots, the gold chains) are expensive, encouraging those without drug profits or other financial resources simply to steal.

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THE CULTURAL ECONOMIC CONNECTION

As I indicated above, anyone who wants to understand the widespread social dislocation in the inner-city poor community must approach these problems-along with other urban ills-from a structural as well as a cultural standpoint.4 Liberals and conservatives alike today tend to stress values like individual responsibility when considering such issues as drugs, violence, teen pregnancy, family formation, and the work ethic. Some commentators readily blame "welfare" for pov­erty and find it hard to see how anyone, even the poor, would delib­erately deviate from the norms of the mainstream culture. But the profound changes our society is currently undergoing in the way it organizes work have enormous cultural implications for the ability of the populations most severely affected by these developments to

function in accordance with mainstream norms.

The United States has for some time been moving from manufac-

turing to a service and high-tech economy in which the well-being of workers, particularly those with low skills and little education, is subordinated to the bottom line. In cities like Philadelphia certain neighborhoods have been devastated by the effects of deindustriali­zation. Many jobs have become automated, been transferred to devel­oping countries, or moved to nearby cities like King of prussia. For those who cannot afford a car, travel requires two hours on public n'ansportation from the old city neighborhoods where concentrations of black people, Hispanics, and working-class whites live.'

With widespread joblessness, many inner-city people become

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stressed and their commurunes become distressed. Poor people adapt to these circumstances in the ways they know, meeting the exigencies of their situation as best they can. The kinds of prob­lems that trigger moral outrage begin to emerge: teen pregnancy, welfare dependency, and the underground economy. Its cottage industries of drugs, prostitution, welfare scams, and other rackets are there to pick up the economic slack. Quasi-legal hustling is part of it; people do odd jobs under the table and teach young people to follow their lead. Some people have a regular second or third job entirely off the books.

The drug trade is certainly illegal, but it is the most lucrative and most accessible element of the underground economy and has become a way of life in numerous inner-city communities. Many youngsters dream of leading the drug dealer's life, or at least their highly glamorized conceptions of this life. Of course, drugs have been around for a long time, but they have become deeply rooted in the inner-city black community, a situation largely tolerated by civic authorities and the police. As law-abiding residents witness this sit­uation, they become ever more cynical and alienated.

Here it is important to underscore the connections between jobs, drugs, and alienation. Many of the young blacks who have difficulty obtaining a job feel victimized by prejudice and discrimination. Such feelings of victimization may lead to a greater understanding, if not tolerance, of those who resort to dealing drugs to "survive." In these circumstances the drug trade, so dangerous and problematic for local communities and for society, becomes normal happenstance. In des­titute inner-city communities, it is in fact becoming increasingly dif­ficult to distinguish poverty from drug involvement. For example, many welfare mothers have become intimately connected with the drug trade, either as users or as what might be called support per­sonnel, by allowing drug-dealing boyfriends or male relatives to use their homes as crack houses or drug depots in exchange for money or favors.

In addition, the young man who sells drugs is often encouraged and motivated to create new markets, sometimes recruiting his own family members into the drug culture, thus at times leading to their drug dependency. Why? Because he has come to covet the material


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things he sees dangled before him, things that become important not simply as practical items but as status symbols among his peers. A particular brand of eyeglasses or shoes or pants can indicate a person's social standing, bestowing on him a certain amount of self-esteem. Timberland boots, for example, which support a roughneck or macho image, are now being worn by many drug dealers and have come to be considered hip. The owner of such items, through his exhibitions and displays, is thus able to gain deference from and status among his peers. Media images-television, movies, the consumer mental­ity-fuel these desires as well. And when the regular economy cannot provide the means for satisfying them, some of the most desperate people tum to the underground economy.

But the despair, the alienation, and the distress are still there, and this condition encourages the development and spread of me oppo­sitional culture. For those living according to the rules of that culture, it becomes important to be tough, to act as though one is beyond the reach of lawful authority-to go for bad. In this scenario, anything associated with conventional white society is seen as square; me hip things are at odds with it. The untied sneakers, the pants worn well below the waist, the hat turned backward-all have become a style. These unconventional symbols have been taken over by people who have made them into status symbols, but they are status symbols to the extent that they go against what is conventional.

Exacerbating the antagonism toward the conventional is the way residents of the ghetto become personally victimized by all this. Not only does their community get a bad reputation, but the people them­selves, particularly black males, become demonized. They are stere­otyped; everyone from that community who dresses and who looks that way is a priori seen as being at odds with conventional society. The anonymous law-abiding black male is often taken as a threat to it. Yet many ghetto males are caught in a bind because they are espousing their particular ways of dressing and acting simply to be self-respecting among their neighborhood peers. A boy may be com­pletely decent, but to the extent that he takes on the presentation of "badness" to enhance his local public image, even as a form of self­defense, he further alienates himself in the eyes of the wider society,

DRUGS, VIOLENCE, AND STREET CRIME I 113 which has denounced people like him as inclined to violate its norms, values, rules, and conventions_to threaten it.

Such cultural displays in turn make young people even less employ­able. Beset with negative stereotypes, employers sometimes discrim­inate against whole census tracts or zip codes where impoverished people live. The decent people are strongly associated with the inde­cent people, and the employers -often do not worry about making distinctions. They just want to avoid the whole troublesome situa­tion, selecting whites over blacks. Joleen Kirschenman and Kathryn

Neckerman conducted a study in Chicago to discover the extent to which employers discrin1inated against young black people." They found that discrimination was rife: many of the employers much pre­ferred white women and in1migrants to young black people.

Similarly, in Philadelphia, a great many black boys and girls, espe­cially the boys, are feared by employers. Even when they do get work, there is often a racial division of labor in the workplace. Inner-city black boys and girls tend to get stuck in entry-level jobs and are rarely promoted. One very clear example of this in present-day Philadelphia is the restaurant business, in which an obvious division ofIabor exists. In upscale and moderately priced restaurants, blacks are conspicu­ously absent from the wait staff but overrepresented among the kitchen help. In addition, if a problem with stealing or some other trouble on the job arises, they are prime suspects and are sometimes summarily dismissed.7 Such experiences, and the reports of them, contribute to their working conception of the world. Their resulting bitterness and alienation then nurture the oppositional culture. To be self-respecting, many young men and women must exhibit a cer­tain contempt for a system they are sure has contempt for them. When such factors are added to the consequences of deindustriali­zation, the result is an incendiary situation, as Du Bois appreciated. 8

The attraction of the violence-prone drug trade thus results from a combination of inadequate opportunity in the regular economy, on the one hand, and the imperatives of street life, on the other. The interplay between these two factors is powerfully at work in the social organization of the underground economy in inner-city neighbor­hoods.


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CLOCKING: THE DRUG TRADE AS A LIVING

The transition from the regular economy to the underground econ­omy, particularly to the drug trade, is not simple. Some young people are able to dabble in it for a while and then return to the regular economy, or they operate simultaneously in both. But the drug trade and the wages it pays sometimes become overwhelming and down­right addictive. People may manage to quit when a better opportunity appears or when they confront death or jail (for themselves or for loved ones or friends) and begin to have second thoughts. More likely, however, working in the drug trade becomes a regular occu­pation for the most desperate, who are then said to be "clocking."

The introduction of crack has exacerbated the problem. Because it is cheap and readily available, it can support many dealers. Boys can acquire the needed skills-"street knowledge" and the ability to act on it-just by growing up in the impoverished inner-city neigh­borhood. Whatever a boy's home life is like, growing up in the 'hood means learning to some degree the code of the streets, the prescrip­tions and proscriptions of public behavior. He must be able to handle himself in public, and his parents, no matter how decent they are, may strongly encourage him to learn the rules. And because of var­ious barriers he can often parlay that experience into a place in the drug trade much more easily than into a reasonable job. The relative ease of that transition speaks volumes about the life circumstances of

inner-city adolescents.

For many impoverished young black men of the inner city, the

opportunity for dealing drugs is literally just outside the door. By selling drugs, they have a chance to put more money into their pock­ets than they could get by legal means, and they can present them­selves to peers as hip, in sharp contrast to the square image of those who work in places like McDonald's and wear silly uniforms. In fact, the oppositional culture has dubbed opting to sell drugs "getting legal." Martin, the decent, law-abiding young man referred to earlier, was often accosted by his drug-dealing peers as he stepped outside his door and headed for his regular job with the remark "Hey, Martin. When you gon' get legal?" He would simply reply, "Later for that. Later for that." 9 When one needs money, which is always, this way

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of making it can seem like a godsend, and other boys encourage him to sell.

A common way of getting into the drug trade is to be part of a neighborhood peer group that begins to sell. A boy's social group can be easily transformed from a play group or a group that hangs around the corner listening to rap music or playing basketball-rel­atively innocuous activities-to a drug gang. The change requires a drug organizer to approach the group and consult the leader or "main man." The leader then begins to distribute opportunities to deal drugs-which is a kind of power-to various of his friends, his "boys." In time the small neighborhood group becomes a force to be reckoned with in the community, while taking an ever sharper inter­est in issues of turf and territory. The group then works to confuse concerns having to do with money and with protecting turf. The leader can paint an enticing picture for these boys, and he has an incentive to do so because the deed enhances his power. With "top dogs," "middle dogs," and "low dogs," the system resembles a pyra­mid scheme."

Youths who have strong family grounding-very decent folks, churchgoing families with a nuclear or quasi-nuclear structure and with love and concern for the younger people-are often the most resistant. But those who are drawn by the group, who get caught up with the responsibilities of breadwinning, with little opportunity to do so in the regular economy, sometimes resolve the tension by join­ing the drug trade. In tum, as they become serious dealers, these boys will often sell drugs to anybody who will buy them, including their own relatives; money and group loyalty become paramount issues. In this connection they may develop not only an excuse but a whole rap, a way of cajoling people to try crack just to get them hooked, because they know how quickly one can become addicted. For instance, they may approach someone as a friend and invite him or her to share some of their own supply, saying things like "It's not going to hurt you, it's not bad, you can handle it."

Strikingly, they may even become customers themselves-it is easy enough to become hooked by trying it once. Through the posturing required to prevail in the street life, many young people come to feel invincible, or they develop a profound need to show others they feel

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this way. And the power that accrues to dealers compounds the sense that they can control anything, even a crack cocaine high. In these circumstances they become "the man." Sometimes such a dealer does manage on crack off and on for a couple of years. Getting high now and then, he feels he is handling it, but, as the wiser dealers say, there is a fine line between handling it and having it handle you. At some inopportune moment he may be suddenly overcome with an insatia­ble need for the drug. Such a person is said to be "jonesing" for it; he is filled with such an intense desire for a high that he loses control of his actions. The predator becomes the prey-a common occur-

rence.

Like any marketing enterprise, the drug trade requires production

and distribution networks. I 1 Another requirement is social control. Among drug dealers that requirement is satisfied by the use and threat of violence. Violence is not always intended, but it occurs easily as a result of both the intense competition for customers and the general disorganization that marks the lives of so many young dealers. Misunderstandings easily arise, such as "messing up" somebody's money-not paying for drugs that one has been advanced, thus squandering the dealer's investment. The older and established deal­ers are obligated to "do in" the people who have messed up their money, because otherwise they would lose credibility and statuS on the streets. Attemped takeovers of the business of rival dealers are also common. Though there is room in the system for more people now than there was before crack, competition remains fierce, espe­cially as the belief that anyone can get rich dealing drugs becomes increasingly prevalent. The push to get in on the drug trade can in this sense be likened to the gold rush.

It is understood on the streets that the drug trade itself is unfor-

giving. To make a misstep is to risk getting roughed up, shot, or killed. When a seemingly senseless killing occurs, people in the com­munity immediately assume it is drug-related. Those who get into the trade realize they are playing with fire but, given the presumed financial stakes, may feel they have no choice or are up to the chal­lenge. Often the people who get hurt "deserved it," in terms of the code of the drug trade: they "crossed somebody big," or they "thought they were slick." People in the community understand this

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rationale, and it seems that the police acknowledge it too. Once a crime is drug-related, there often seems to be little interest and accountability in bringing the people who perpetrated it to justice.

Arguments over "business" are frequently settled on the spot, typ­ically on the basis of arbitrary considerations, unfounded assump­tions, or outright lies. There is also an ongoing fight for turf because of the large number of dealers, some connected with an organization, others freelancing. When a gang is set up in a particular area, its members know the streets and control the turf. As the trade becomes profitable, however, would-be dealers from outside the gang may want to do business in the same area or even take it over. A person who tries to muscle in, however, is threatening not just the current dealer's economic well-being but that part of the community as well. The connections of many of these boys go deep in the community through extended families, who may rely on the money. If a dealer is pushed out, he and a portion of the community can face financial disaster. As a result, some dealers are ready to fight to keep their turf, and people often get wounded or killed in the process.

There are major and minor turf wars. A major turf war often spawns smaller ones. In a major fight-whether the weapons are words, fists, or guns, but especially if they are guns-the dispute gets settled, at least for the time being. But everyone has an interpretation of what happened. The interpretations are exchanged in the various neighborhood institutions, including barbershops, taverns, and street corners, where people gather and talk, and an understanding of the original fight is negotiated. Since at least some of the people involved know the principal participants personally, they may take sides, becoming emotionally invested in having their version of the event prevail, and the discussions themselves can become heated and lead to violence.

Some boys simply crave the status associated with being a dealer.

They want to wear a beeper, to be seen to be "clocking," to be asso­ciated with something hip and lucrative, even though it is an under­ground enterprise. Drug dealers are living the fast life; they are living on the edge. Older people will give young dealers advice, telling them that they are "living too fast." But everyone knows that once a person gets into that world, it is very hard to get out. The dealer can get

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hooked on the money and the material things it can buy, just as someone can get hooked on the drug; the adventure, the thrill of danger, and the respect people give him are also addictive. Further­more, his associates in the trade may not let him out, because he knows too much and might pass information on to the wrong people, or they may want to make him an example. Much of his ability to maneuver depends on his identity and connections (his cousins, brothers, uncles, his other associates in the trade, his gang members, his boys) and on his status. Often the higher his status, the more leeway and independence he has-the more "juice" he has. The truly independent people, those who have achieved a high level of respect, may be able to get out in ways other people cannot, because they have established that they can be trusted. But often the only sure way

of getting out is to get out of town.

VIOLENT FALLOUT

Drug users also engage in violence. Many users start out as victims­when family members or boyfriends who deal drugs actively get them hooked in order to expand their markets-but they then become victimizers, robbing others to support their habits. Although some of the violence is focused and some is not, the result is a constant sense of uncertainty, a belief that anything can happen at any time. The successful dealer must be ever vigilant, but of course this makes him jittery and prone to react violently at the slightest perceived provocation. Furthermore, under the influence of drugs people's behavior may become unpredictable or truly dangerous. In these sit­uations innocent bystanders, sometimes small children, can be shot or killed. Since drug trafficking permeates so much of the inner-city community, all its residents, whether involved with drugs or not, are at risk of finding themselves the unintended target of a stray bullet. The awareness of this constant danger fosters anxiety and skittislmess even among the decent people, who therefore become more likely themselves to overreact in an uncertain encounter; these people may

move, if they can.

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Also fueling the violence that attends the drug trade is the prolif­eration of guns, which have become for many people easily accessible. Guns were in me community in the past, but mostly in the hands of adults. Today kids fourteen and younger have guns, or they know how and where to get them. In the inner-city community, one can often hear gunshots in the distance but no sirens afterward. The likelihood is that the shots are being fired by young boys playing with guns, at times just shooting them off for the fun of it, usually in the middle of the night. Guns can have personality and status attached to them; they even have records. The price of a used gun indicates its history. A gun mat "has a body on it" (was used to kill someone) is cheap because the person who is ultimately caught with it might be held responsible for murder. Moreover, in a society where so much economic inequality exists, for the severely alienated and des­perate a gun can become like a bank card-an equalizer. Such a boy­or, increasingly, girl-who desperately needs money may use a gun to stick somebody up without a second thought. In a peculiar way, however, the prevalence of and ready access to guns may keep certain strangers honest and more careful in how they approach others. In these circumstances a kind of Wild West mentality obtains in some of the more dangerous neighborhoods, in which the fear of getting shot can constrain people from violating others.

As a result of the general atmosphere of danger, even people with a nonviolent orientation buy guns for protection. In Philadelphia not long ago, a black minister and resident of an inner-city community shot and killed an intruder. The incident sparked a good deal of discussion, but me general reaction of his blacks neighbors was, "Well, he did what he had to do." In fact, such incidents do not occur just in the inner city. In the gentrified neighborhood adjacent to the minister's, a white doctor going to bed one night heard a rumbling downstairs. He came down with his gun and in the darkness announced, "I have a gun." The rumbling continued, so he fired, killing an intruder in his kitchen with a bullet to the back of the head. He and his wife went to the police station, returned home at two in the morning, and cleaned up the blood. It turned out that the intruder was apparently trying to steal the small kitchen television set to sell on the street, which could have brought a few dollars for crack. But

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this white doctor was so disturbed at having killed a young black man in those circumstances that he immediately moved out of his house and left the community. Thus the casualties of violence include peo­ple who simply get caught up in it-not just those who get shot but sometimes those who perpetrate the violence as well.

THE CRACK CULTURE: RATIONALE AND CONSEQUENCES

It must be continually underscored that much of this violence and drug activity is a reflection of the dislocations brought about by eco­nomic transformations, shifts that are occurring in the context of the new global economy. As was indicated above, where the wider econ­omy is not receptive to these dislocated people, the underground economy is. That does not mean that anyone without a job is sud­denly going to become a drug dealer; the process is not that simple. But the facts of race relations, unemployment, dislocation, and des­titution create alienation, and alienation allows for a certain recep­tivity to overtures made by people seeking youthful new recruits for

the drug trade.

Numerous inner-city black people continue to be locked out of

many working-class occupations. Lack of education and training are often at issue, but, as Du Bois noted long ago, so is the problem of employers' racial preferences and social connections with prospective co-workers. For example, the building trades-plumbing, carpentry, roofing, and so forth-are often organized around family connec­tions: fathers and uncles bring in their sons and nephews. To get a certificate to work in these trades, a young man requires a mentor, who not only teaches him skills but legitimizes him as a member of the trade. So the system perpetuates the dominance of ethnic groups that have been organized a long time. Now, the inner-city drug trade is composed of uncles and nephews too. From this perspective working-class Italians and Irish and others have their niche, and many severely alienated and desperate young blacks, at least those who are enterprising, can be said to have their niche too-in the drug trade.

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As Du Bois would have appreciated, such behavior, while not to be condoned, is understandable as a manifestation of racism and per­sistent poverty.

In the inner-city community, drug dealing thus becomes recog­nized as work, though it is an occupation that overwhelming numbers of residents surely despise. Yet there are Robin Hood types among the drug dealers, who distribute some of their profits in the com­munity, buying things for people, financially helping out their friends and relatives, as well as complete strangers. One drug dealer told me how bad he felt when he found out that a woman who had bought crack from one of his underlings had kids and had used all her welfare money for the drugs. He sought the woman out and gave her half her money back. His rationale was that business is business but that the kids shouldn't go hungry.

Crack's addictive quality has led to the rapid establishment of a crack culture and makes it easy to maintain a clientele.' ! The belief in the coriununity is that crack addiction is immediate and perma­nent. Once you try crack, it is said, you're always "chasing the ghost" -the high that you get the first time is so intense that you can never achieve it again, but the desire to do so is strong enough that you keep pursuing it. One drug dealer told me that he has never seen anybody walk away from crack permanently; even if a user gets off it for two years, he said, the right drug dealer can easily hook him again by talking to him in the right way. I said to this dealer, "Know­ing this, why do you sell crack? Isn't this like killing people, annihi­lating your own people?" He replied nonchalantly, "Well, ifI wasn't doing it, somebody else would." To many inner-city residents, crack has become a seemingly permanent fixture of life, and dealing is a way to earn a living-even, for a few, to become rich.

ALVIN AND JOYCE

When the young man obtains money, life can be very sweet. First, when it gets to be known in the neighborhood that he is clocking or "rolling," it is said that everyone wants to be his friend. Why?


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Because he has money, but also because he is a "pusher-man," a man wiili the drugs. In the impoverished and distressed community, rhese

two items are very powerful. They often signify the fast life, "what's happenin' "-the latest and hippest thing. And if he has charisma, the style, and the material things to go with this new statuS, such as

a new Jeep Cherokee or Bronco, or the right clothes, then many people want to be associated with him· As Don Moses said, "The kids are making the money off of the drugs-they're the only ones who have money. Everybody wants to be associated wiili somebody who has money, and they're the only ones who have the money to really show the girls a good time. A lot of the nice girls that are looking for something, you'll find a lot of times that they end up with the drug addicts, and the drug addicts are about turning rhern on to

that stuff. Then they move on to the next one. And it's sad, really

sad. All part of the streets. The street is like a vacuum."

The drug dealer style impresses many young women. It signifies

the fast life, but also the cafe life. These women may expect to be wined and dined, clothed, and showered with various material things. For many young women to have such a boyfriend is the next best thing to hitting the lottery; he competes very effectively with other young men who may possess much more decency but little cash.

Joyce was seventeen when she and Alvin began going together.

Alvin, twenty-six and handsome, was a "big-time drug dealer." Joyce lived with her mother and two sisters in one of the poorest com­munities in the city. joyce's mother, a hardworking woman whose husband had been killed in an automobile accident a few years earlier, was not on welfare. She worked as a cleaning woman in a downtown

office building.

When Joyce began seeing Alvin, her mother worried, for she knew

Alvin lived the fast life. He worked at a downtown hotel but seemed always to be around the neighborhood. There were rumors that he was "in the life," and he had the props and money to prove it. He

never denied it; he would just smile and walk away.

After rhey had been going out for about six weeks, Alvin announced

to joyce's mother, Johnnie, "You ain't got to worry about her. I'll take care of her. You ain't got to worry about her, hear." It was almost

DRUGS, VIOLENCE, AND STREET CRIME / 123


as though Alvin had bought himself a wife, although they had not married-but were "going to." Johnnie felt she could do nothing. Alvin was good to her daughter, and she did not want to jeopardize the relationship. He continued to shower Joyce with love and affec­tion and gave her almost anything she wanted. He moved her from her mother's house into their own apartment, although he was there only sporadically, because he divided. his time between this place and a place he needed for "space."

Alvin bought Joyce a brand-new white Nissan automobile for her birthday, and this made her very happy. It indicated his commitment to her, and she liked that. She needed to be reassured, for it was known that Alvin had "other ladies" he liked to see. But even though there were rumors, it was clear to many thar] oyce was Alvin's heart­the love of his life. She was a very attractive woman who knew how to dress and had style and a certain class that Alvin appreciated. He continued to dress her in expensive clothes and take her out to fancy downtown restaurants. The relationship was about two years old, the couple was much admired and the talk of the community, and every­one knew about Alvin's involvement in drugs.

One day Alvin brought home a large diamond engagement ring that blew Joyce's mind. She was beside herself with joy, she said. And they set an actual date to be married. But about a month afterward, Alvin was gUIU1ed down in a dispute over drugs. His death left Joyce embittered and sad, but with a car, some furs, and a diamond ring. To support herself, she sold or pawned everything and made out as best she could. Now she is reluctant to revisit their old haunts and places, not because she fears for herself but because the people there remind her of things she would rather put behind her.

In the impoverished neighborhood, many of the young women aspire to have such a man, at times thinking and hoping things will work out: it is to approach easy street, particularly if the woman can feel she has the love and the respect of the man. A streetwise young woman is likely to require that the man in her life "have something" before he "spends her time." He must be prepared to show his love by buying her material things, by paying for her to have her hair tracked (corn rows) or her nails done, and generally by being ready


124 / CODE OF THE STREET

to give something up for her. Hence many young men become strongly motivated to obtain "crazy" money, and legal means of doing

so may be toO slow or nonexistent.

Under these conditions law-abiding and decent youths will imitate

aspects of the fast life. In waging their campaigns for status and iden­tity, they pretend to have money, pretend to have freedom and inde­pendence, and pretend to be violent: they go for bad. Unfortunately, as has been noted often, prospective employers and decent law­abiding people, including white people and black middle-class people who live in adjacent communities, are easily confused about who is a drug dealer and who is not. Out of a perceived need for protection, they are reluctant to employ these youths, and they may try to avoid anyone who resembles them. Such responses in tum further alienate

inner-city young people.

It is worth noting that imitating the fast life is not peculiar to black

inner-city teenagers. White middle-class teenagers also emulate this style. Images of hip ness grounded in the inner-city subculture, which is so driven by the drug trade, move by cultural diffusion through the system into the 'middle class, white and black. But the middle­class versions are usually not so deadly. Middle-class youths have other forms of capital-more money and many more ways of effec­tively expressing themselves. When it comes to violence, such youth generally are much more willing to back down than to engage in a fight to the death. In situations involving the wrong mix of people and a large amount of posturing, there exists a slippery slope that can

quickly tum make-believe into the real rhing.

THE STICKUP

The stickup is a variation on the code of the street, and often at issue are two elements that give the code its meaning and resonance: respect and alienation. The common street mugging involves a pro­found degree of alienation, but also requires a certain commitment to criminality, nerve, cunning, and even what young men of the street call heart. As a victim, a person with "street knowledge" may have a

DRUGS, VIOLENCE, AND STREET CRIME I 125

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certain edge on one who lacks it. The edge here is simply the poten­tial ability to behave or act ad lib in accordance with the demands and emergent expectations of the stickup man. In effect, such knowl­edge may provide the victim with the background knowledge of "how to get robbed"; it may even allow him or her the presence of mind to assist the assailant in his task, thus defusing a dangerous situation.

Stickups are particularly feared by law-abiding people in the ghetto, decent or street. They may occur in one manner in areas of concentrated poverty but in another in middle-class or "changing" neighborhoods. Perhaps the crucial difference is whether the victim is willing and able to defer or is bound by his or her own socialization to respond in kind. It may be that a stickup between peers requires a model different from the one for a stickup between culturally dif­ferent parties. But wherever they occur, stickups have two major ele­ments in common. The first is a radical redefinition of the situation­of who has the power-for everyone concerned, especially if a gun is involved. A drawn gun is a blunt display of power. The victim immediately realizes that he must give something up or, as the corner boys say, "pay some dues," because otherwise the perpetrator will hurt him. The second is social exchange-"your money or your life."

The code holds that might makes right and that if qualified, a person who needs anything may be moved simply to take it by force or stealth. Only the strongest, the wiliest, the most streetwise will survive, and so when people see an opportunity, they go for it. A generalized belief in the inner-city ghetto is that perpetrators choose their victims according to certain known factors and that it is therefore up to the individual to avoid placing him or herself in a vulnerable position. There is some truth to this notion, although in reality many people often find themselves at the wrong end of a stickup no matter what precautions they take. But if inner-city resi­dents accepted the notion that assaults are utterly random, they would feel they had little control and would likely become too over­whelmed by fear to go out at all. So the belief that they can avoid stickups is an important defensive mechanism for people who are besieged by violence on a daily basis; this belief allows them to salvage a sense of freedom in a seemingly inexorable environment.

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This section attempts to delineate the social processes involved in the stickup-how the deed is done." These processes encompass

both choice of victim and the etiquette of the event itself. One view

is that if a streetwise person is foolish enough to allow himself to be robbed, he will understand that the assailant has power over him and

so will defer to that power. When both parties thoroughly understand

the situation, the stickup can resemble a ballet, in which each side smoothly performs a choreographed part. In such cases the victim's

life is usually safe. If one person is street-dumb, however, or loses his head, things can easily go amiss and the victim may pay with his life

or suffer a serious injury. e

Most often in the inner-city community, the perpetrator of the

crime and the victim are both black, so they have limited confidence in the agencies and agents of social control. The criminal transaction is often a matter for them to deal with on their own and on the spot. They must negotiate with each other, settling the score in the best

way they know.

The potential perpetrator's first consideration is the selection of

the right social setting and victim. He must assess the general sur­roundings, such as how secluded and dark the spot is and whether the potential victim appears able to handle himself. He may size up his prey. In the right circumstances a seemingly ordinary individual

can become a predator.

In the holdup a profound power transaction occurs. The holdup

man wants first to relieve the victim of his property. The victim often does not want to give it up, despite the holdup man's demands. Some stickup men use language calculated to override resistance. "Give it up," they say, "I got to have it." The streetwise victim fully cooperates with this command and may even help the perpetrator rob him. He knows the chances are good that the perpetrator is quite nervous about this whole transaction. In fact, the adrenaline is flowing strongly for both individuals, and so things can very easily go amiss. The wise victim knows this and so may seek to help the person attain

his objective.

So the victim says, "All right. There it is. Please don't hurt me."

In saying this, he is effectively submitting to the power of the holdup man and giving him his props. Such deferential behavior is itself often

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DRUGS, VIOLENCE, AND STREET CRIME I 127

a large part of what the stickup man wants. He wants the person "with something" to recognize him, to acknowledge his power resources and what he can do to the victim. The wise victim, rec­ognizing this, submits.

This submission is what the perpetrator wants, but it is also what he understands. After all, he has the power in these circumstances, a power that anyone should perceive. He has a gun and is pointing it at the victim, threatening to shoot. Or he may have a knife, threat­ening serious bodily harm. He further knows-as does the victim­that he is an anonymous stranger and more than likely will get away. Here the perpetrator often makes assumptions based on race and the concentrated poverty all around him. Also built into his act is the assumption that me police will not expend very much energy trying to bring him to justice, and he may assume that any thinking black person would assume the same thing. Therefore, he reasons, it is certainly easier for the person to give it up. The perpetrator's need to remain anonymous is acknowledged by the street-smart victim when me victim goes out of his way not to look at the perpetrator. Such a victim will absolutely not look the assailant in the eye, for though it is unlikely that the victim could actually recognize the per­petrator again, the look in the eye both introduces a certain level of ambiguity into the situation and could be taken as a direct chal­lenge to the perpetrator's newly won authority. Once the victim and the perpetrator lock eyes, a bond that could be deadly has been estab­lished, and the event takes on the quality of being memorable. In that event, what started as a simple effort to relieve the victim of his money turns into an ambiguous transaction that may now require the victim's life.

At issue here are the participants' claims on human dignity, claims that have been thrown into furious competition. In order to get out of the situation unscathed, the victim must find a way to allow his assailant to exit with his (the assailant's) dignity intact-which in these circumstances is a goal quite difficult to accomplish. Not only are there competing notions of what constitutes enough dignity, but there is also the problem of just how to grant it-insofar as the vehicle for granting it can become part of its definition, shaping how little or how much is being granted. The wisest victim in such circum-



128 I CODE OF THE STREET

stances simply defers, agreeing with and "yessing" the assailant beyond reason. Yet even then it is not clear that the victim can avoid harm. The victim is clearly at the mercy of the assailant, who holds the power in this situation.

After the stickup the perpetrator may even attempt to "cool out" the victim of the crime. A stickup man with style and wiliness might go so far as to .give the victim a big hug, mainly for the benefit of potential onlookers, in an attempt to give the impression that a stickup has not just occurred, that "we're all right." Some will make excuses or even offer apologies for their behavior, explaining that they or a relative was just robbed.

Thus there is an etiquette of the stickup. Assailant and victim must both know and play their roles. At issue is a core tenet of the code of the street: respect. Primarily, the assailant wants his victim's money, but he also wants things to go smoothly. He wants to wield his power undisputed; he wants his possession of that power to be recognized. Nothing conveys this recognition better than the clear act of total deference. Not to defer is to question the authority, the worth, the status, even the respectability of the assailant in a way that easily suggests contempt or even arrogance. Such a resistant victim is "acting uppity" (for the moment), and such behavior can utterly confuse the assailant. In these circumstances the assailant usually wants a simple way out of the situation: he may use his gun or knife, or he may simply flee. The victim's resistance-or inability to play along-thus may "flood out" the situation with too much informa­tion, rendering it unpredictable. If the assailant is not ready to "raise the ante," he may turn tail and run-or he may shoot. Few victims, streetwise or not, take this risk by flooding out the situation inten­tionally. If they do so inadvertently and survive, they have good for­tune or luck to thank for it. It may be much safer to acquire the street knowledge of the etiquette and then help the assailant carry out his job of robbery.

Of course, the victim is most often surprised by the robbery and has no time to act deliberately. In fact, most stickup men greatly appreciate the element of surprise in pulling off their jobs. They may approach from the dark shadows of the street or from another car in

DRUGS, VIOLENCE, AND STREET CRIME I 129

a parking lot, or they may stalk their victim, choosing an opportune moment to announce, "Give it up."

The phenomenology of the stickup allows us to see that the assail­ant is not always identifiable as such; at most times and in most cir­cumstances, he is part of the cultural "woodwork," revealing himself only at the opportune moment. Up to the point at which the stickup begins, the assailant has managed to be taken as a "law-abiding" cit­izen, someone who might even offer a helping hand to a person in distress. However, not everyone can pull off such deception. Young black, Hispanic, or even white men are often second-guessed in pub­lic, making it difficult for them to "get the drop" on a victim. To get the drop requires a certain Cunning and stealth. The argument can be made that given the greater defensiveness of the potential victims, the assailants, in order to survive as a species, have had to adapt, beCOming ever more creative in the manner in which they pull off their jobs.

Robert Hayes, a thirty-year-old black security guard who works at a Center City CVS, lives in the West Oak Lane section of Philadel­phia. On a warm June day, on a busy section of Girard Avenue, he had just left a "cash exchange" after cashing a check. It was the middle of the afternoon, and people were all about. As he began walking away from the cash exchange, he heard a voice say, "Hey, excuse me, wait up." As Robert looked up, he saw a young black man trotting toward him holding up a brown paper sack, as if he had something to show him. Robert, suspecting nothing amiss and curious about what might be in the bag, waited for the man. As the man approached Robert, he directed him to look into the bag. Robert complied with the man's request and saw a black 9-millimeter pistol with the man's finger on the trigger. The man then said, "Give it up. Don't be no fool." Robert replied, "Well, I don't have any money." The man then said, "I just saw you leave the cash exchange. Le' me hold that fat wallet in your back pocket." Robert complied. And the man smiled

at him and said, "Have a nice day," and went on about his business, clearing out of the area very quickly. In these circumstances Robert knew better than to resist, though a part of him wanted to. He says that he thought of his two young children and his wife and that he


130 / CODE OF THE STREET

could always get more money and a wallet. What most upset him was the fact that this "young boy" had churnped him, had gotten the drop on him, and made a fool of him. "That hurt more than anything else," he says. But he adds, "I know in my heart that I did the right

thing."

One of the greatest fears of people in the inner-city community is

to be on the wrong end of a stickup, and they fear the stickup man, or, as he is known in the community, the stickup boy. (The term "stickup boy" initially referred to those who held up drug dealers, but it has come to refer to young holdup men in general.) In dealing with this fear, residents have developed a working conception of the proclivities of the stickup boy. As was indicated above, their belief that he "picks his people," allows residents to move at least some of the responsibility for a successful robbery from the stickup man to the victim by averring that it is up to those who use the streets­particularly themselves-not to be "picked" for a stickup. So resi­dents, especially those who present themselves as streetwise, try to behave in ways that let potential stickup boys, as well as anyone else, know that they are not "the one" to be targeted for a stickup. They become preoccupied with giving the right signal to people with whom they share the neighborhood streets and other public spaces.

For young people this means being prepared to meet challenges with counteractions. When they are hit or otherwise violated, they may hit back. Or they may even "pay back" later on by avenging transgressions. An important part of the code is not to allow others to chump you, to let them know that you are "about serious business" and not to be trifled with. The message that you are not a pushover

must be sent loudly and clearly.

Of course, this does not always work. There are circumstances in

which the stickup boy will try anyone, including those who have proved they do not deserve to be tested. For instance, the victim could be absennnindedly walking down a street at the wrong time or simply be unlucky. But the belief on the street is that the stickup boy generally knows who is vulnerable and who is not.

Around the streetcorners and carryouts-the staging areas-where

so many drug dealers and corner boys hang out, the would-be stickup boys generally know who is who, who "can fight" and who cannot,


DRUGS, VIOLENCE, AND STREET CRIME I 131

who has nerve and heart and who is a chump. Around such places, in various social arenas, and on the streets more generally, the chump gets little or no respect, and those who resemble him are the ones who most often get picked on, tried or tested, and become victims of robbery and gratuitous violence. Some people so labeled readily report such offenses to the police, a cardinal sin among those strongly invested in the street code.

Stereotypically, the chump is the "quiet" person who, as they say on the corner, "minds his business and don't bother no one. Dresses nice." He is also often "decent" and kind. But in this area of so much deprivation, onlookers are very inclined to take his displays of kind­ness for weakness, thus degrading a positive force in the public com­munity. However, for personal security and standing around the carryout, it is important to demonstrate to all others that one is not a chump; but in order to do so a man must often present a street front, moving and acting in certain ways that more clearly identify him with the street. One common way is to swagger, display a quick . temper, and a foul mouth, but also to let others know in no uncertain

terms that he is prepared and able to defend himself or, as the young men say, to show them he "can hold his hands." The person must be ready and willing to fight, to "get physical," if the situation demands it, or to display the nerve and heart to engage in a standoff when necessary. In a word, he must be able through his demeanor to send the message that he will stand up to others and not let others roll on him. Such an image may require wearing the latest styles, including the "drug dealer look," and having a hip and ready "conversation"­knowing just what to say to keep others from moving on him verbally (the proper reply to someone who tests you)-although actions almost always speak louder than words. The posture at the opposite extreme of that associated with the chump has come to be described as "thorough" or being "a thorough dude" -knowing "what time it is," or being exceptionally streetwise. But for many, such an image is often just that-a front, a posture, a representation-and it is very difficult to enact so as to convince or fool those who are streetwise.

The smarter stickup boys, however, are increasingly coming to fear the chump because of the likelihood that he is precisely not down or knowledgeable about the code of the street. Such a person out of

132 I CODE OF THE STREET

fear, so the reasoning goes, could cause a stickup to go wrong by carrying a gun or knife or by losing his composure and physically contesting the dominance of the stickup boy during a robbery. When a stickup has progressed to a certain point, the chump, through his inexperience with the streets, may misread the situation and believe he is in more danger than he actually is. He may then panic, :flooding the situation out and effectively bringing what began nonviolently to a violent end. If the chump becomes nervous and tries aggressively to protect himself and/ or his loved one, he may in reality be raising the stakes to a dangerous level.

The thorough dude, in contrast, may understand intuitively when the assailant is in control, but until the moment when there is a shift in who controls the situation, he may be able to alter the outcome. Such a person is seldom a passive player, rather, he knows what time it is; and at the right time, he defers to the power of the assailant. He understands that when a gun is put in your face, you do what you can to defer to or appease the person with the gun. You then "give it up," saying something like, "Here it is. It's all yours. Please don't hurt me." Effectively, he cuts his losses, saying, "You got me that time," and he tries to learn from his mistake and to make sure that this never happens to him again.

SEE BUT DON'T SEE

People residing in the drug-infested, depressed inner-city commu­nity may understand the economic need for the drug trade. Many residents become demoralized yet often try to coexist with it, ration­alizing that the boys who deal drugs are not necessarily bad boys but are simply doing what they think they need to do to make money. They themselves, however, don't want to be victimized by the trade, nor do they want their friends and loved ones to be harmed. Many have come to believe that the police and the public officials don't care about their communities, and this belief encourages them to give up any hope of doing something about the drug trade. As a result, they may condemn the dealing but also tolerate it. They become inured

DRUGS, VIOLENCE, AND STREET CRIME I 133

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to it. They also understand that some local people rely on it for financial support. The Robin Hood phenomenon helps the justifi­cation process. As was mentioned above, some dealers try to assist their community by surreptitiously donating money to various organ­izations and helping to support their families and friends with drug profits. One drug dealer told me he paid for his aunt's surgery as well as for all his mother's bills, and he was very proud of having done that. He was proud of having taken' his girlfriend out to fancy res­taurants, proud of everything he had become. He knew drug dealing was wrong, but he accepted his role in it. Of course, not everybody in the community is so accepting of the drug trade. Most people have very, very negative feelings about dealing, feelings that are most obvi­ouslyon display when violence occurs. That is an important point­some people object only when violence erupts.

Another reason for seeing and yet not seeing drug transactions is that as people walk the streets of the community, they cannot help seeing what's going on, but are afraid to get involved. Concerned for their own safety, they don't even want people to notice them wit­nessing what is going on. After an incident like a shooting or a gang war, people tend to clam up for fear of retribution, especially where the authorities are concerned. If a bust occurs, anyone who is con­sidered to have been paying too much attention to the drug activity might be suspected of having told the police about it. The way people deal with this fear and the need to protect themselves is by seeing but not seeing.

Many parents see but don't see for another reason: they realize that their own son is probably involved in the trade. They disapprove of it, but they also benefit from it. A mother who receives money, sometimes even large sums of money, from her son may not ask too many questions about its source. She just accepts the fact that the money is there somehow. Since it is sorely needed, there is a strong incentive not to interrupt the :flow. Some people are so torn over what they are tolerating that they pray and ask forgiveness from the Lord for their de facto approval. Yet they cannot bring themselves to intervene.

The economic unraveling in so many of these communities puts people up against the wall and encourages them to do things that


134 / CODE OF THE STREET

they would otherwise be morally reluctant to do. A boy who can't

get a job in the regular economy becomes a drug dealer not all at once but by increments. These boys make a whole set of choices and decisions based in part on what they are able to do successfully. A boy who grows up on the streets thoroughly invested in the code of the street is also closer to the underground economy. Once mastered, the savoir faire of the street world-knowing how to deal coolly with people, how to move, look, act, dress-is a form of capital, not a form middle-class people would respect, but capital that can nonetheless

be cashed in.

Since the code of the street is sanctioned primarily by violence and

the threat of violent retribution (an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth), the more inner-city youths choose this route in life, the more normative the code of the street becomes in the neighborhood. Neighbors are encouraged to choose between an abstract code of justice that is disparaged by the most dangerous people on the streets and a practical code that is geared toward survival in the public spaces

of their community.

Children growing up in these circumstances learn early in life that

this is the way things are and that the lessons of those who might teach them otherwise become less and less relevant. Surrounded by violence and by indifference to the innocent victims of drug dealers and users alike, the decent people are finding it harder and harder to maintain a sense of community. Thus violence comes to regulate life in the drug-infested neighborhoods and the putative neighborhood leaders are increasingly the people who control the violence.

The ramifications of this state of affairs reach far beyond inner­city communities. A startling study by the Sentencing Project revealed that 33 percent of young black men in their twenties are under the supervision of the criminal justice system-in jail, in prison, on probation, or on parole. This astounding figure must be considered partly responsible for the widespread perception of young black men as dangerous and not to be trusted. This kind of demon­ization affects all young blacks-those of the middle class, those of the dwindling working class, as well as the street element.

One might ask, "What can account for the disproportionate per-

centage of blacks among the adjudicated?" African Americans have


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DRUGS, VIOLENCE, AND STREET CRIME I 135 been overrepresented in the prison population since the first studies were done, but the jump in their numbers over the past generation has been exponentiaL Part of the answer would have to be crack cocaine. The prison terms for the possession and sale of crack cocaine are stiffer than those for powder cocaine, a drug that is more expen­sive and more prevalent in the middle class. Another factor is that proportionately more blacks are dealers, and this speaks to the overall inability of young black men to get into the workforce. The glam­orous hipness of dealing that certifies one as firmly in the oppositional culture is also a factor. When jobs disappear, leaving people poor and concentrated, the drug economy becomes an unforgiving way of life, organized around violence and predatory activity.

THE VIOLENT DEATH

Television images portray and even glamorize the fast life, and mov­ies such as The Godfather, Set It Off, Boyz 'n the Hood, and Menace II Society that feature gratuitous violence help legitimize violence for many young men.!" The films have a certain realism and deal with the complex problems that emerge every day on the ghetto streets. When young men see a leading man resort to violence to settle a dispute, they can ask, "What does it do for him? Was he right? Did the victim deserve what he got?" The answers help them deal with their own problems: "How bad should I be? Should I take that jacket off that guy?"

But probably most important, the films, along with rap music as well as their everyday experiences, help youths become inured to violence and, perhaps, death itself. Those residing in some of the most troubled areas typically have witnessed much street violence that has at times resulted in maiming or death. All of this contributes to the posture that dying "ain't no big deaL" One must understand that some young people bereft of hope for the future have made their peace with death and talk about planning their own funerals. They sometimes speak in euphemistic phrases like "going out" or "check­ing out." After experiencing the deaths of so many young friends, the

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136 I CODE OF THE STREET

hopeless conclude that life is bound to be short "for the way I'm living," or "if the deal go down, dying ain't no big thing." The high death rate among their peers keeps many from expecting to live beyond age twenty-five.

With such an outlook, "living fast and large" in the present makes sense, for "tomorrow ain't promised to you." Young men like this tend to lead an existential life that may acquire meaning only when faced with the possibility of imminent death. Not to be afraid to die is by implication to have few compunctions about taking another's life, for the right reasons, if the situation demands it. The youths who have internalized such attitudes and convincingly display them in their bearing are among the most threatening people of all. The most aggressive develop "beefs," and harbor grudges, at times with complete strangers, and gain a reputation for being "touchy" or "crazy." And they convey the message that they fear no one. With credibility for this position, supported by words and deeds, a young man can gain a sense of respect and power on the streets. This is what many youths strive to achieve, whether they emerge from a decent or a street-oriented background, for its practical defensive value, but also for the positive way it makes them feel about them­selves as men.

At times a parent, particularly one steeped in the teachings of the church, will say to the young person directly, "Son, you living too fast. You living too fast. Better slow down. You gon' die." Some young people take it as a kind of warning, even as a sign from above, that "Mother would speak to me that way. Maybe I better heed what she is saying." But for this kind of message to be taken seriously, other events generally have to come together so that it seems prudent and wise for the young man to try to make a change. Of particular importance is the support or example of friends. If they have suffered severe setbacks like arrests, assaults, or serious drug-related health problems, their example may serve as a sign-and it can be a powerful influence in encouraging the person to try to change. What he needs then is a serious helping hand: a caring old head can make a real difference. Without such support the young person may simply mud­dle along, perhaps hitting on or missing an opportunity to be saved from the streets.

DRUGS, VIOLENCE, AND STREET CRIME I 137

Sometimes young people are looking for an excuse to change, and a sign can be enough. They are often strongly if passively religious, at times invoking "God" or "the Lord" in conversations with peers. They may reflect on the notion that there is a higher power to be reckoned with, and that can be a support in the effort to change. Such people may also invoke the notion of fate, particularly when confronting things they cannot fathom or fully understand. Fate can be used to explain failure in a way that cushions disappointment. A young man can respond to a love affair that does not work out, a loss in the lottery, a fight that does not go his way, or material things that are totally out of reach by simply saying, "That wasn't meant for me," or "That wasn't for me." With feelings of deep resignation, he may let go of the desire to acquire or to achieve the particular objec­tive, at least for the present.

On the other hand, the notion of fate can also encourage a person to be reckless in meting out violence. The belief that whatever one does or says was meant to be allows one to take chances that are not perceived as chances, risks that are not seen as risks, because what will b\ will be. Hence the person is able to walk the streets almost fearlessly, knowing that "when my time is here, it is here, and there's nothing I can do about it." Thus one can live life to the fullest, believ­ing that it is just not "my time" -for now. In the heat of the moment, during an altercation, this belief can determine the outcome of a fight to the death, giving an individual the advantage that only profound faith in his or her ability to prevail can provide.

When a violent death does occur, it affects not just the victim and his or her family but the entire community. Something terri­ble has happened, and the community grieves and mourns. Many ask, "Why?" Johnny, Robert, Marcel, Kevin, or Rashawn was such a wonderful person, with so much promise, so much to give. Why was he "taken out like this"? The family often tries to accept the explanation that it is "the Creator's will." Its members may ques­tion "the Supreme Being," but always with the understanding that His authority is legitimate. For them, the fact that the young boy died must say something about the living, but also about the way the young boy lived his life. There is a strong belief in fate and the notion that a person has a time to be on the planet, but that

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138/ CODE OF THE STREET

people can "rush" their time by "living fast" or "running in the fast lane."

THE AFTERMATH OF DEATH

When a young life is cut down, almost everyone goes into mourning. The first thing that happens is that a crowd gathers about the site of the shooting or the incident. The police then arrive, drawing more of a crowd. Since such a death often occurs close to the victim's home, his mother or his close relatives and friends may be on the scene of the killing. When they arrive, the women and girls often wail and moan, crying out their grief for all to hear, while the young men simply look on, in studied silence; they are there to help the young women if they require assistance. Soon the ambulance arrives and takes the person to the nearest hospital. If he is still alive, the mother or a relative or a neighbor will ride along inside the ambulance. At times, though, it is too late, and the ambulance will go to the morgue.

The next day, the relatives and neighbors and friends look for a report of the crime in the local newspaper. Friends and relatives may already be angry, and they sometimes vent this anger at the news­paper for not running a long enough story of the shooting or the death of their loved one. They sometimes vent at the police, calling them incompetent, racist, or worse. They may wonder why the per­son responsible for this deed has not been brought to justice. In the community there is profound sadness. People talk about the victim. "It is such a shame." "Why did he have to go this way?" "All he wanted was a decent life in this world." And there are many questions. Some people begin to question their faith. "Is there a God?" People who haven't spoken to one another in many months now find some­thing to talk about. They speak of the deceased. Community resi­dents develop a bond based on their links to this person.

The younger people take it especially hard. They wonder aloud why this happened, but in fact they know why. They know the boy was a drug dealer. They know that he violated in some way the code of the street and possibly messed up someone's money. "He did

DRUGS, VIOLENCE, AND STREET CRIME / 139

somebody wrong," or he "thought he was slick." It was something. Otherwise, the youth's death simply makes no sense. "Why do people have to be like that?" they ask. The girls sit on their stoops and cry. Some people pass by and say not a word. Everyone knows that the community is in mourning. Nothing has to be said. All is commu­nicated by the sad looks on people's faces. Girls and boys, friends of the deceased, hug one another spontaneously. Again they bond. This is a terrible thing, a tragedy.

These feelings persist all week. Then there is the wake, as friends

. and relatives gather at the boy's home. They sit with the family mem­bers and try to comfort them. They recall the boy's positive points. Even though they all know the negative things about him, they almost never mention them, It is widely known that the boy was a drug dealer, but nobody will speak about his drug dealing or how it might have led to his death. They all know the boy was involved in "the life," yet at this moment they deny it. It is not good to speak of the boy's negative attributes, even though, deep down inside, every­one is aware of them. They may even know who killed him. But no one comes forward to tell the authorities, because the police are not to be trusted; they are alien forces in the community. The people in the community discuss this among themselves. The boys, his homies, make oblique threats to the people who did this. It is their obligation to get even, to deal with the assassin, and they say as much by their looks. But in reality, over the next days and weeks, nothing is done. Most people leave it to the police, the authorities, although it is important to act as though they will get the person who did this. Around the stoops, they talk big. At the spot where this "went down," they talk big. Over time, though, nothing happens, and they really want to leave it alone.

Of course, whether they do in fact leave it alone depends on what kind of homie the boy was. If he was very popular, then a group might try to do something to pay back, and a deadly feud can start. More often, there is just talk about getting even. They say, "This wasn't the first shooting, and this won't be the last on these streets." As they are saying these things, gathering together and bonding, var­ious graffiti artists of the neighborhood erect memorials for the young man. Some will paint their car windows with messages of hope



140 1 CODE OF THE STREET

like "Rock, RIP." Some make T-shirts with the boy's picture embla­zoned across the front as a memorial to him.

The day of the funeral arrives. At 11 A.M. on a Monday, the com­munity of friends and relatives gathers at the local funeral parlor. Many are dressed in black; the young people are mainly in black leather. Most people are young, from fifteen to twenty-eight or so, but there are also older women and men, some very well dressed, others not. Some of the people appear to be quite poor. There are ladies with big gold earrings and girls whose hair needs fixing. There are girls with babies in tow. A two-year-old walks about the lobby of the funeral home, and the mother has to run after him as others look on. A number of homeboys in Timberland boots and black leather jackets stand outside in the light rain, suspiciously eyeing everyone who arrives. They talk to one another and mill about. Two or three police cars are also there, just in case of trouble. It is the police's job to protect the peace, to maintain order, and the cops sit and watch the crowd come and go. They ask no questions, but people think they are there to investigate, too. Both the cops and the residents have seen this all before, and everyone knows what to expect.

An old head in the community says,

I knew the boy welL I always warned him about these drugs, but he couldn't resist. He knew. I told him I'd come to his funeral. And this is what I'm doing. It is a shame. But you know, it is the system. It is the system. No jobs. No education. And the drugs are all about. You realize what amount of drugs come in here [the neighborhood]. That's not us. It is them. The white people. They bring the drugs in here. They don't want us to have noth­ing. But this is what they give us. All this death and destruction. I know a boy did shoot him, but it was really the system. The

system.

Inside, it is standing room only. This must give the young man's mother and other family members some support. His father is nowhere to be seen, however, and the old head says, "He's in jaiL" The old head adds that most of the men are in jail. That's where they are. That's what happens to the men. The victim was just nineteen

DRUGS, VIOLENCE, AND STREET CRIME 1 141

years old. His friends are here, his homeboys and-girls. The girls wail and cry. The boy's mother cries and wails; this is a "drama for his mama," as community residents say. People whisper. A number of girls become so distraught that they get up and walk out of the serv­ice, tears streaming down their faces. The minister preaches about the young man. People sing sweet songs. There are testimonials about the boy's life, but here, too, nothing is said about the drugs or any of the other negative things he was involved with. Only the pos­itive is accentuated.

FOUR

Tlbe Mating Game

H E problem of teenage pregnancy in the inner city draws as much attention and expressions of puzzlement from the wider community as do the problems of drugs and violence. These kinds of behavior appear to work against everything for which decent young Americans

strive: education, good jobs, a stable household, and middle-class values. Yet they make sense of a sort in the world of the street and in relation to the code that dominates it. Chapter 3 explored the relationship between the code and the underground economy of drugs and violence; this chapter looks at what young people, both decent and street, face as they grow up and find one another in this same world. It needs to be made clear that for these teenagers the benefits they perceive as deriving from their sexual behavior out­weigh the risks. Their outlook on sex and pregnancy, like their out­look on violence, is strongly affected by their perceived options in life, and their sexual behavior follows rules very much shaped by the code of the street. Such perceptions are formed by the fortunes of immediate peers, family, and others with whom the youths iden­tify. Among teenagers one of the most important factors working against pregnancy is their belief that they have something to lose by becoming parents at an early age; many believe they have some­thing to gain.

,f

THE MATING GAME 1 143

THE SOCIAL CONTEXT

In many of these neighborhoods it is the strong, financially stable, tightly knit, "decent" family, often but not always nuclear, that works to instill high aspirations in children and expectations of a good future that would be undermined by youthful parenthood. With the connections and examples of such families and their representatives in a neighborhood, a youth may hope to prevail in life despite pre­sumed obstacles-financial, cultural, or other. The presence of these models can serve as a powerful inspiration to those who may be oth­erwise disadvantaged, and it can work socially as a bastion against the street culture. This street culture is characterized by support for and encouragement of an alternative lifestyle that appears highly attrac­tive to many adolescents, despite their family background. Its activ­ities are centered on the "fast life" and may include early sexual activity, drug experimentation, and other forms of delinquency. But while relatively advantaged youths with clear options may dabble in this culture, becoming hip enough for social approval and then mov­ing on, those with fewer apparent options and a limited sense of the future may more fully invest themselves in the culture, attempting to gain status according to its principles and norms. The relative prom­inence of this culture in the poorest inner-city neighborhoods brings about not only a prevalence of much antisocial behavior but the high incidence of teenage parenthood as well.

As has been an important theme throughout this volume, working poor residents, for social purposes, distinguish values they see as decent from those they associate with the street. Generally, decency is a highly regarded personal quality, and the assigning of a street orientation to a person is usually deeply discrediting. In the impov­erished neighborhood the meanings of the terms sometimes overlap, compete, and even support one another; their interaction is highly complex. In fact, though, these distinctions operate more or less to identify social polarities; and particularly among the young their social referents may be used to distinguish the socially "lame" from the "hip."

Among residents of the impoverished inner-city neighborhood, the culture of decency is usually represented by close and extended

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144 1 CODE OF THE STREET

families, often characterized by low-income financial stability. It emphasizes the work ethic, getting ahead, or "having something" as important goals. Decency becomes an organizing principle against which others are then judged. The family unit, often with the aid of a strong religious component, instills in its members a certain degree of self-respect, civility, and propriety and even, despite prevailing impoverished living conditions, a positive view of the future. Many such decent families become highly protective of their children and motivated to leave the neighborhood. Those who cannot afford to leave try to accomplish socially what they cannot accomplish other­wise: they attempt to isolate their children from the children whom they associate with the street, for they believe that teenage pregnancy, early involvement with drugs, crime, and violence, and other diffi­culties begin in early childhood, in deep involvement with the play groups on the streets. Decent local role models, male or female "old heads," sometimes through direct mentoring, encourage young peo­ple to see possibilities and take advantage of opportunities available to people like themselves.

To negotiate this setting effectively, particularly its public places, one must to some degree be hip or down or streetwise, showing the ability to see through troublesome street situations and to prevail. To survive in the setting is thus to be somewhat adept at handling the streets, but to be streetwise is to risk one's claim to decency; for many youths decency is often associated with being lame or square. In growing up, young people of the neighborhood must therefore walk something of a social tightrope, coming to terms with the street. For instance, youths who go away to college and return are some­times taunted and challenged by their more street-oriented peers with the mocking question "Can you still hang?" (Can you still han­dle the streets?) Those who would be socially mobile often feel they must be hip enough to get along with their more street-oriented peers, but square enough to keep out of trouble or avoid those habits and situations that would hurt their chances for social mobility or even simple survival. It is in this sense that many adolescents, simply by growing up in an underclass neighborhood, are at special risk.

Youths are at risk in other ways as well. Many observe the would-be legitimate role models around them and tend to find them unworthy

THE MATING GAME 1 145

of emulation. Conventional hard work seems not to have paid off for the old, and the relatively few hardworking people of the neighbor­hood appear to be struggling to survive. At the same time unconven­tional role models beckon the youths to a thriving underground economy, which promises "crazy" money, along with a certain thrill, power, and prestige. Streetwise and severely alienated young men can easily deal in the drug trade, part-time or full-time, as was shown in the preceding chapter. They may even draw their intimate female counterparts along with them, "hooking them up," and smoothly ini­tiating them into prostitution.

Given that persistent poverty is so widespread in the neighbor­hood, for many residents, particularly the young, values of decency and law abidingness are more easily compromised. Needing money badly, these people feel social pressure and see the chance for making sometimes huge sums outside their front door. Because of all the vice and crime in the neighborhood, those who can leave tend to do so, isolating the very poor and the working poor even more. This exodus further demoralizes neighborhood residents and makes them more vulnerable to a number of ills, including rising drug use and teenage pregnancy.

The manufacturing jobs that used to provide opportunities for young people in inner-city neighborhoods and strongly, although indirectly, supported values of decency and conventionality have largely vanished from the economy, replaced by thousands of low­paying service jobs often located in the suburbs, beyond the reach of poor neighborhoods. These changes have damaged the financial health of the inner city and undermined the quality of available role models. The trust and perceptions of decency that once prevailed in the community are increasingly absent. In their place, street values, represented by the fast life, violence, and crime, become more prom­inent.

The consequences of these changes can be illustrated by their effect on one of the community's most important institutions, the relationship between old heads and young boys. The old head was once the epitome of decency in inner-city neighborhoods. Thanks to a vibrant manufacturing economy, he had relatively stable means. His acknowledged role in the community was to teach, support, encour-


146 1 CODE OF THE STREET

age, and, in effect, socialize young men to meet their responsibilities regarding work, family life, the law, and common decency. Young boys and single men in their late teens or twenties had confidence in the old head's ability to impart practical advice. Very often he played surrogate father to those who needed his attention and moral sup­port.

But as meaningful employment becomes increasingly scarce for young men of the neighborhood and the expansion of the drug cul­ture offers opportunities for quick money, the old head is losing pres­tige and authority. Streetwise boys are concluding that his lessons a bout life and work ethic are no longer relevant, and a new role model is emerging. The embodiment of the street, this man is young, often a product of the street gang, and indifferent, at best, to the law and traditional values.

Traditional female role models, often paragons of decency, have also suffered decreased authority. Mature women, often grandmoth­ers themselves, once effectively served the community as auxiliary parents who publicly augmented and supported the relationship between parent and child. These women would discipline children and act as role models for young women, exerting a certain degree of social controL As the neighborhoods grow ever more drug infested, ordinary young mothers and their children are among the most obvious casualties. The traditional female old head becomes stretched and overburdened; her role has become more complicated as she often steps in as a surrogate mother for her grandchildren or a stray neighborhood child.

These women universally lament the proliferation of drugs in the community, the "crack whores" who walk the neighborhood, the spo­radic violence that now and then claims innocent bystanders. The open-air drug sales, the many pregnant girls, the incivility, the crime, the many street kids, and the diminished number of upstanding (as the residents say) role models make it difficult for old and young alike to maintain a positive outlook, to envision themselves beyond the immediate situation. As neighborhood deterioration feeds on itself, decent law-aiding people become increasingly demoralized; many of those who are capable leave, while some succumb to the street.

This is the social context in which the incidence of teenage preg-

THE MATING GAME 1 147

nancy must be seen, complicated by peer pressure, ignorance, pas­sion, luck, intent, desire for conquest, religion, love, and even deep hostility between young men and women. It is nothing less than the cultural manifestation of persistent urban poverty. It is a mean adap­tation to blocked opportunities and profound lack, a grotesque form of coping by young people constantly undermined by a social system that historically has limited their social options and, until recently, rejected their claims to full citizenship.

The lack of family-sustaining jobs denies many young men the possibility of forming an economically self-reliant family, the tradi­tional American mark of manhood. Partly in response, many young black men form strong attachments to peer groups that emphasize sexual prowess as proof of manhood, with babies as evidence. These groups congregate on street corners, boasting about their sexual exploits and deriding conventional family life. They encourage this orientation by rewarding members who are able to get over the sexual defenses of women. For many the object is to hit and run while main­taining personal freedom and independence from conjugal ties; when they exist, the ties should be on the young man's terms. Concerned with immediate gratification, some boys want babies to demonstrate their ability to control a girl's mind and body.

A sexual game emerges as girls are lured by the (usually older) boys' vague but convincing promises of love and sometimes marriage. At the same time the "fast" adolescent street orientation presents early sexual experience and promiscuity as a virtue. But when the girls submit, they often end up pregnant and abandoned. However, for many such girls who have few other perceivable options, mother­hood, accidental or otherwise, becomes a rite of passage to adulthood. Although an overwhelming number may not be actively trying to have babies, many are not actively trying to prevent having them. One of the reasons for this may be the strong fundamentalist religious orientation of many poor blacks, which emphasizes the role of fate in life. If something happens, it happens; if something was meant to be, then let it be, and "God will find a way." Willi the dream of a mate, a girl may be indifferent to the possibility of pregnancy, even if it is not likely that pregnancy will lead to marriage. So the pregnant girl can look forward to a certain affirmation, particularly after the



148 / CODE OF THE STREET

baby arrives-if not from the father, then from her peer group, from her family, from the Lord.

Thus, if it becomes obvious that the young father's promises are

empty, the young woman has a certain amount of help in settling for the role of single parent. A large part of her identity is provided by the baby under her care and guidance, and for many street-oriented girls there is no quicker way to grow up. Becoming a mother can be a strong play for authority, maturity, and respect, but it is also a shortsighted and naive gamble because the girl often fails to realize that her life will be suddenly burdened and her choices significandy

limited.

In these circumstances outlook, including a certain amount of edu-

cation, wisdom, and mentoring from decent role models, becomes extremely important. The strong, so-called decent family, often with a husband and wife, sometimes with a strong-willed single mother helped by close relatives and neighbors, may instill in girls a sense of hope. These families can hope to reproduce the relatively strong fam­ily form, which is generally regarded in the neighborhood as advan­taged. The two parents or close kin are known as hard workers, striving to have something and strongly emphasizing the work ethic, common decency, and social and moral responsibility. Though the pay may be low, the family often can count on a regular income, giving its members the sense that decent values have paid off for

them.

A girl growing up in such a family, or even living in close social

and physical proximity to some, may have strong support from a mother, a father, friends, and neighbors who not only care very much whether she becomes pregnant but are also able to share knowledge about negotiating life beyond the confines of the neighborhood. The girl may then approach social mobility or at least delay pregnancy. In these circumstances she has a better chance to cultivate a positive sense of the future and a healthy self-respect; she may come to feel she has a great deal to lose by becoming an unwed parent.

Contributing strongly to this outlook are ministers, teachers, par­ents, and upwardly mobile peers. At times a successful older sister sets a standard and expectations for younger siblings, who may attempt to follow her example. The community and the decent family

THE MATING GAME / 149

help place the successful one high in the sibling hierarchy by praising her achievements. At the very least, such support groups can strongly communicate their expectations that the girl will do something with her life other than have a baby out of wedlock-that is, they subscribe to and seek to pass on middle-class values.

Although the basic sexual codes of inner-city youths may not differ fundamentally from those of other young people, the social, eco­nomic, and personal consequences of adolescent sexual conduct vary profoundly for different social classes. Like all adolescents, inner-city youths are subject to intense, hard-to-control urges. Sexual relations, exploitive and otherwise, are common among middle-class teenagers as well, but most middle-class youths take a stronger interest in their future and know what a pregnancy can do to derail it. In contrast, many inner-city adolescents see no future that can be derailed-no hope for a tomorrow much different from today-hence they see little to lose by having a child out of wedlock.

Sexual conduct among these young people is to a large extent the product of the meshing of two opposing drives, that of the boys and that of the girls. For a variety of reasons tied to the socioeconomic situation, their goals are often diametrically opposed, and sex becomes a contest between them. As was noted above, to many boys sex is an important symbol of local social status; sexual conquests become so many notches on one's belt. Many of the girls offer sex as a gift in bargaining for the attentions of a young man. As boys and girls try to use each other to achieve their own ends, the reality that emerges sometimes approximates their goals, but it often brings frus­tration and disillusionment and perpetuates or even worsens their original situation.

Each sexual encounter generally has a winner and a loser. The girls have a dream, the boys a desire. The girls dream of being carried off by a Prince Charming who will love them, provide for them, and give them a family. The boys often desire either sex without commitment or babies without responsibility for them. It becomes extremely dif­ficult for the boys, in view of their employment prospects, to see themselves taking on the responsibilities of conventional fathers and husbands. Yet they know what the girls want and play that role to get sex. In accepting a boy's advances, a girl may think she is maneu-


150/ CODE OF THE STREET

vering him toward a commitment or that her getting pregnant is the nudge he needs to marry her and give her the life she wants. What she does not see is that the boy, despite his claims, is often incapable of giving her that life, for in reality he has little money, few prospects for earning much, and no wish to be tied to a woman who will have a say in what he does. His loyalty is to his peer group and its norms. When the girl becomes pregnant, the boy tends to retreat from her, although, with the help of pressure from her family and peers, she may ultimately succeed in getting him to take some responsibility for the child.

SEX: THE GAME AND THE DREAM

To many inner-city male youths, the most important people in their lives are members of their peer groups. They set the standards for conduct, and it is important to live up to those standards, to look good in their eyes. The peer group places a high value on sex, espe­cially what middle-class people call casual sex. But though sex may be casual in terms of commitment to the partner, it is usually taken quite seriously as a measure of the boy's worth. A young man's pri­mary goal is thus to find as many willing females as possible. The more "pussy" he gets, the more esteem accrues to him. But the young man not only must "get some"; he also must prove he is getting it. This leads him to talk about girls and sex with any other young man who will listen. Because of the implications sex has for their local social status and esteem, the young men are ready to be regaled with graphic tales of one another's sexual exploits.

The lore of the street says there is a contest going on between the boy and the girl even before they meet. To the young man the woman becomes, in the most profound sense, a sexual object. Her body and mind are the object of a sexual game, to be won for his personal aggrandizement. Status goes to the winner, and sex is prized as a testament not of love but of control over another human being. The goal of the sexual conquests is to make a fool of the young woman.

The young men describe their successful campaigns as "getting

'!III

THE MATING GAME /151

over" young women's sexual defenses. To get over, the young man must devise a "game," whose success is gauged by its acceptance by his peers and especially by women. Relying heavily on gaining the girl's confidence, the game consists of the boy's full presentation of self, including his dress, grooming, looks, dancing ability, and con­versation, or "rap."

The rap is the verbal element of the game, whose object is to inspire sexual interest. It embodies the whole person and is thus cru­cial to success. Among peer-group members, raps are assessed, eval­uated, and divided into weak and strong. The assessment of the young man's rap is, in effect, the evaluation of his whole game. Convincing proof of effectiveness is the "booty": the amount of sex the young man appears to be getting. Young men who are known to fail with women often face ridicule from the group, having their raps labeled "tissue paper," their games seen as inferior, and their identities deval­ued.

After developing a game over time, through trial and error, a young man is ever on the lookout for players, young women on whom to perfect it. To find willing players is to gain affirmation of self, and the boy's status in the peer group may go up if he can seduce a girl considered to be "choice," "down," or streetwise. On encountering an attractive girl, the boy typically sees a challenge: he attempts to "run his game." The girl usually is fully aware that a game is being attempted; but if the young man is sophisticated or "smooth," or if the girl is inexperienced, she may be duped.

In many instances the game plays on the dream that many inner­city girls harbor from their early teenage years. The popular love songs they listen to, usually from the age of seven or eight, are imbued with a wistful air, promising love and ecstasy to someone "just like you." This dream involved having a boyfriend, a fiance, or a husband and the fairy-tale prospect of living happily ever after with one's children in a nice house in a good neighborhood-essentially the dream of the middle-class American lifestyle, complete with nuclear family. It is nurtured by daily watching of television soap operas, or "stories," as the women call them. The heroes and heroines may be white and upper middle class, but such characteristics only make them more attractive. Many girls dream of becoming the com-

152 / CODE OF THE STREET

fortable middle-class housewife portrayed on television, even though they see that their peers can only approximate that role.

When a girl is approached by a boy, her faith in the dream clouds her view of the situation. A romantically successful boy has a knack for knowing just what is on a girl's mind, what she wants from life, and how she hopes to obtain it. The young man's age-he may be four or five years older than the girl-gives him an authoritative edge and makes his readiness to "settle down" more credible. By enacting this role, he can shape the interaction, calling up the resources he needs to play the game successfully. He fits himself to be the man she wants him to be, but this identity may be exaggerated and tem­porary, maintained only until he gets what he wants. Essentially, he shows her the side of himself that he knows she wants to see, that represents what she wants in a man. For instance, he will sometimes "walk through the woods" with the girl: he might visit at her home and go to church with her family or even do "manly" chores around her house, showing that he is an "upstanding young man." But all of this may only be part of his game, and after he gets what he wants, he may cast off this aspect of his presentation and reveal something of his true self, as he flits to other women and reverts to behavior more characteristic of his everyday life-that which is centered on

his peer group.

The girl may refuse to accept reports of the boy's duplicity; she

must see for herself. Until she completely loses confidence in the young man, she may find herself strongly defending him to friends and family who question her choice. She may know she is being played, but given the effectiveness of the boy's game-his rap, his presentation of self, his looks, his age, his wit, his dancing ability, and his general popularity-infatuation often rules.

Aware of many abandoned young mothers, many a girl fervently hopes that her man is the one who will be different. In addition, her peer group supports her pursuit of the dream, implicitly upholding her belief in the young man's good faith. When a girl does become engaged to be married, there is much excitement, with relatives and friends oohing and aahing over their prospective life. But seldom does this happen, because for the immediate future, the boy is generally not interested in "playing house," as his peers derisively refer to

domestic life.

THE MATING GAME 1 153

While pursuing his game, the boy often feigns love and caring, pretending to be a dream man and acting as though he has the best intentions toward the girl. Ironically, in many cases the young many does indeed have good intentions. He may feel profound ambiva­lence, mainly because such intentions conflict with the values of his peer group and his lack of confidence in his ability to support a family. At times this reality and the male peer group's values are placed in sharp focus by his own deviance from them, as he incurs sanctions for allowing a girl to "rule" him or gains positive reinforcement for keeping her in line. The group sanctions its members by pinning on them demeaning labels such as "pussy," "pussy whipped," or "house­husband," causing them to posture in a way that clearly distances them from such characterizations.

At times, however, a boy earnestly attempts to be a dream man, with honorable intentions of "doing right" by the young woman, of marrying her and living happily ever after according to their version of middle-class propriety. But the reality of his poor employment prospects makes it hard for him to follow through.

Unable to realize his vision of himself as the young woman's pro­vider in the American middle-class tradition, which the peer group often labels "square," the young man may become even more com­mitted to his game. In his ambivalence he may go so far as to make plans with the girls, including going house-hunting and shopping for furniture. A twenty-three-year-old woman who at seventeen became a single parent of a baby girl said this:

Yeah, they'll [boys will] take you out. Walk you down to Center City, movies, window shops. [laughs] They point in the window, "Yeah, I'm gonna get you this. Wouldn't you like this? Look at that nice livin' room set." Then they want to take you to his house, go to his room: "Let's go over to my house, watch some TV." Next thing you know, your clothes is off and you in bed havin' sex, you know.

Such shopping trips carry important psychological implications for the relationship, serving as a salve that heals wounds and erases doubt about the young man's intentions. The young woman may report to her parents or friends about her last date or shopping trip, describe


154 1 CODE OF THE STREET

the furniture they priced and the supposed payment terms. She con­tinues to have hope, which he fuels by "going with" her, letting her and others know that she is his "steady" -though for him to maintain status within his peer group, she should not be his only known girl. For the young man, however, making plans and successive shopping trips may be elements of the game-often nothing more than a stall­ing device to keep the girl hanging on so that he can continue to

receive her social sexual favors.

In many cases the more the young man seems to exploit the young

woman, the higher is his regard within the peer group. To consoli­date his status, he feels moved at times to show others that he is in control, which is not always easy to accomplish. Many young women are strong, highly independent, and assertive, and a contest of wills between the two may develop, with argUl11ents and fights in public over the most trivial issues. She is not a simple victim, and the roles in the relationship are not to be taken for granted but must be nego­tiated repeatedly. To prove his dominance unequivocally, he may attempt to "break her down" in front of her friends and his, "showing the world who's boss." If the young woman wants him badly enough, she will meekly go along with the performance for the implicit prom­ise of his continued attentions, if not love. A more permanent rela­tionship approximating the woman's dream of matrimony and domestic tranquillity is often what is at stake in her mind, though she

may know better.

As the contest continues and the girl hangs on, she may seem to

have been taken in by the boy's game, particularly by his convincing rap, his claims of commitlllent to her and her well-being. But in this contest anything is fair. The girl may play along, becoming manip­ulative and aggressive, or the boy may lie, cheat, or otherwise mis­represent himself to obtain or retain her favors. In many of the sexual encounters informants relate, one person is seen as the winner, the other as the loser. As one male informant said, "They trickin' them good. Either the woman is trickin' the man, or the man is trickin' the woman. Good! They got a trick. She's thinkin' it's (the relation­ship'S] one thing; he playing another game, you know. He rhinkin' she all right, and she doing somethin' else.

In the social atlllosphere of the peer group, the quality of the boy's

THE MATING GAME 1 155

game emerges as a central issue, and whatever lingering ambivalence he feels about his commitment to acting as husband and provider may be resolved in favor of peer-group status. In pursuing his game, the young man often uses a supporting cast of other women, at times playing one off against the other. For example, he may orchestrate a situation in which he is seen with another woman. Or, secure in the knowledge that he has other women to fall back on, he might start a fight with his steady in order to upset her sense of complacency, thus creating dynamic tension in the relationship, which he uses to his own advantage. The young woman thus may begin to doubt her hold on the man, which can bring about a precipitous drop in her self­esteem.

The boy may feel proud because he thinks he is making a fool of the girl, and when he is confident of his dominance, he may "play" the young woman, "running his game," making her love him. He may brag that he is "playing her like a fiddle," meaning he is in full control of the situation. Though his plan sometimes backfires and he looks like the fool, his purpose is often to prove he "has the girl's nose open," that she is sick with love for him. He aims to maneuver her into a state of blissful emotionality, showing that she, not he, is the weak member of the relationship.

During this emotional turmoil the young girl may well become careless about birth control, which is seen by the community, espe­cially the males, as being her responsibility. She may believe the boy's rap, becoming convinced that he means what he says about taking care of her, that her welfare is his primary concern. Moreover, she wants desperately to believe that if she becomes pregnant, he will marry her or at least be more obligated to her than to others he has been "messing with." Perhaps all he needs is a little nudge. The girl may think little about the job market and the boy's prospects. She may underestimate peer-group influences and the effect of other "ladies" that she knows or suspects are in his life. If she is in love, she may be sure that a child and the profound obligation a child implies will forge such a strong bond that all the other issues will go

. away. Her thinking is often clouded by the prospect of winning at the game of love. Becoming pregnant can be a way to fulfill the per­sistent dream of bliss.

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For numerous women, when the man turns out to be unobtainable, just having his baby is enough. Sometimes a woman seeks out a pop­ular and "fine," or physically attractive, young man in hopes that his good looks will grace her child, resulting in a "prize"-a beautiful baby. Moreover, becoming pregnant can become an important part of the competition for the attentions or even delayed affections of a young man-a profound, if socially shortsighted, way of making claims on him.

PREGNANCY

Up to the point of pregnancy, given the norms of his peer group, the young man could simply be said to be messing around. Pregnancy suddenly introduces an element of reality into the relationship. Life­altering events have occurred, and the situation is usually perceived as serious. The girl is pregnant, and he could be held legally respon­sible for the child's long-term financial support. If the couple were unclear about their intentions before, things may now crystallize. She now considers him seriously as a mate. Priorities begin to emerge in the boy's mind. He has to decide whether to claim the child as his or to shun the woman who has been the object of his supposed affec­tions.

To own up to a pregnancy is to go against the peer-group street ethic of hit and run. Other street values at risk of being flouted include the subordination of women and freedom from formal con­jugal ties, and some young men are not interested in "taking care of somebody else" when it means having less for themselves. In this social context of persistent poverty, they have come to devalue the conventional marital relationship, viewing long-term ties with women a burden and children as even more of one. Moreover, a young man wants to "come as I want and go as I please," indulging important values of freedom and independence. Accordingly, from the perspective of the street peer group, any such male-female rela­tionship should be on the man's terms. Thus, in understanding the boy's relationship to the girl, his attitudes toward his limited financial

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ability and his need for personal freedom should not be underesti­mated.

Another important attitude of the street group is that most girls have multiple sexual partners. Whether or not this claim is true in a particular case, a common working conception says it holds for young women in general. It is a view with which many young men approach females, initially assuming they are socially and morally deficient, though many are willing to adjust their view as they start to "deal" with the woman and to get to know her intimately. The double stan­dard is at work, and for any amount of sexual activity women are more easily discredited than men.

To be sure, the fact that there is a fair amount of promiscuity among the young men and women creates doubts about paternity and socially complicates many relationships. In self-defense the young men often choose to deny fatherhood; few are willing to own up to a pregnancy they can reasonably question. Among their street­oriented peers, the young men gain ready support for this position; a man who is "tagged" with fatherhood has been caught in the "trick bag." The boy's first desire, though he may know better, is to attrib­ute the pregnancy to someone else.

The boy may be genuinely confused and uncertain about his role in the pregnancy, feeling great ambivalence and apprehension over his impending fatherhood. If he admits paternity and does right by the girl, his peer group will likely label him a chump, a square, or a fool. If he does not, he faces few social sanctions and may even win points for his defiant stand, with his peers viewing him as fooling the mother and getting over her. But ambivalence may also playa role, for men who father children out of wedlock achieve a certain regard, as long as they are not "caught" and made to support a family finan­cially on something other than their own terms. Hence the boy may give-and benefit from-mixed messages: one to the girl and perhaps the authorities, another to his peer group. To resolve his ambivalence and allay his apprehension, the boy will at this point perhaps attempt to discontinue or cool his relationship with the expectant mother, particularly as she begins to show clear signs of pregnancy.

At the insistence of her family and for her own peace of mind, the young woman wants badly to identify the father of her child. When


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the baby is born, she may, out of desperation, arbitrarily designate a likely young man as the father; at times it may be simply a lover who is gainfully employed. As I have mentioned, there may be genuine doubt about paternity. This atmosphere often produces charges and countercharges; the appointed young man usually either denies responsibility and eases himself out of the picture or accepts it and plays his new role of father part-time.

In the past, before welfare reform, the young woman sometimes had an incentive not to identify the father, even though she and the local community knew whose baby it was, for a check from the wel­fare office was much more dependable than the irregular support payments of a sporadically employed youth. With today's new wel­fare reality, there is much more incentive to publicly identify the father and try hard to hold him accountable. Moreover, the new wel­fare laws give sexually active young people pause and will likely work to decrease the long-term incidence of out-of-wedlock teenage preg­nancy. In this new context sanctions are more strongly applied, if not on moral grounds, then for financial and legal considerations. In these circumstances the young map. has greater incentive to do right by the young woman and to try out the role of husband and father, often acceding to the woman's view of the matter and working to establish a family.

But such young men often are only marginal members of the street-oriented peer groups, if they hang with these groups at all. Instead, they tend to emerge from decent, nurturing families with positive outlooks. The young man is likely to be further advantaged and "blessed" with what community members refer to as a "decent daddy" or with a close relationship with a caring old head who looked out for and helped raise him. Religious observance is often also an important factor in the lives of such young men, and locally they are viewed as decent people. In addition, these men usually are employed, have a positive sense of the future, and tend to enjoy a deep and abiding relationship with the young woman that often can withstand the trauma of youthful pregnancy.

Barring such a resolution, however, a street-oriented young man may rationalize his marriage as a "trap" into which the woman has lured him. This viewpoint may be seen as his attempt to make simul-

THE MATING GAME 1 159

taneous claims on the values of the street group and those of con­ventional society. As one young man said in an interview,

My wife done that to me. Before we got married, when we had our first baby, she thought, well, hey, if she had the baby, then she got me, you know. And that's the way she done me. [She] thought that's gon' trap me. That I'm all hers after she done have this baby. So, a lot of women, they think like that. Now, I was the type of guy, if I know it was my baby, I'm taking care of my baby. My 01' lady [wife], she knowed that. She knowed that anything that was mine, I'm taking care of mine. This is why she probably wouldn't mess around or nothing, 'cause she wanted to lock me up.

In general, however, persuading the youth to become an "honest man" is not simple. It is often a very complicated social affair that involves cajoling, social pressure, and at times physical threats.

An important factor in determining the boy's behavior is the pres­ence of the girl's father in her home. When a couple first begin to date, some fathers will "sit the boy down" and have a ritual talk; single mothers may play this role as well, sometimes more aggressively than fathers. Certain fathers with dOmineering dispositions will "as a man" make unmistakable claims on the dwelling, informing the boy, "This is my house, I pay the bills here," and asserting that all activities occurring under its roof are his (the father's) singular business. In such a household the home has a certain defense. At issue here essen­tially are male turf rights, a principle intuitively understood by the young suitor and the girl's father. The boy may feel a certain frus­tration owing to the need to balance his desire to run his game against his fear of the girl's father.

For the boy often can identify respectfully with the father, thinking about how he might behave if the shoe were on the other foot. Both "know something"-that is, they are aware that each has a position to defend. The boy knows in advance that he will have to answer to the girl's father and the family unit more generally. If the girl becomes pregnant, he will be less likely to leave her sUll1ffiarily. Fur­thermore, if the girl has brothers at home who are about her age or


1601 CODE OF THE STREET

older, they too may influence his behavior. Such men, as well as uncles and male cousins, particularly if they have respect on the street, not only possess a degree of moral authority but also may offer the believable threat of violence. Concerning the traditional father's role and his responsibility to protect his daughters, the Reverend Mosby, a seventy-five-year-old minister, had this to say:

If a boy got a girl pregnant in my day, he married her. That's what I had to do. She was my best girl, so I didn't have no problem with that. When she became pregnant, I just went on and got married. It wasn't no problem. Her father said, "What you gonna do about it? Are you gonna do the honorable thing or what? I wanta know." You gotta tell him something. "Put yourself in a man's shoes. I expect you to act like a man." You ain't gonna tell Daddy you wasn't going to marry his little girl. But Daddy's not around [today] now when daughter gets preg­nant. The daddy say, "Look, if you don't many my daughter, you're gonna have to deal with me." But if Mama gonna say, "You gonna have to deal with me," you don't have no problem with it. It doesn't put any fear into you. I can take care of her [the boy might think]. But he doesn't know whether he can take care of Daddy or not. 'Cause Daddy ain't gonna play fair, you know what I mean? Mama might play fair. Daddy ain't gonna play fair-Daddy gonna get the shotgun. Daddy tells him right in the front, "Now, I want you to take care of my little girl. You're dating her, and I'm not gonna let any other boy come here." He's trying to give you a message: "Now, if you mess up, I expect you to clean up."

When you were courting, you hadda go meet the family. And Daddy and Mama looked you over, and if they approved, then you could come to the house, calling on their daughter. Today, the girl is out there courting, and the mama don't know nothing about it. She don't even know the boy. And she ain't got time­she's so busy courting herself, she ain't got time to find out who her daughter'S seeing. And then sometimes-going to the bar with her daughter. Especially if she's had a baby at seventeen and eighteen, there's not too much difference in the age, right?

THE MATING GAME 1 161

I see some of the mamas and daughters wandering in the bar. There's no way in the world a child of mine could drink. When I was going to the bar-I never went [to] them that much-but when I was going to the bar, I couldn't go in the bar with her. Because I had to have that respect.

And as one young man said in an interview,

The boys kinda watch theyself more [when a father is present].

Yeah, there's a lot of that going on. The daddy, they'll clown [act out violence] about them young girls. They'll hurt some­body about they daughters. Other relatives, too. They'll all get into it. The boy know they don't Want him messing over they sister. That guy will probably take care of that girl better than the average one out there in the street.

In such circumstances, not only does the boy think twice about run­ning his game, but also the girl thinks twice about allowing him to do so.

A strongly related important defense against youthful pregnancy is the "decent" inner-city family unit. Two parents, together with the extended network of cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, nieces, and nephews, can form a durable team, a viable supporr group engaged to fight in a COmmitted manner the problems confronting inner-city teenagers, including street violence, drugs, crime, pregnancy, and poverty. This unit, when it does endure, tends to be equipped with a survivor's mentality. Its weathering of a good many storms has given it wisdom and strength. As has been argued throughout this volume, the parents are generally known in the community as decent, but more than this, they tend to be strict on their children; they impose curfews and tight supervision, demanding to know their chil­dren's whereabouts at all times. Detefll1ined that their offspring will not become casualties of the inner-city environment, they scrutinize their children's associates, rejecting those who seem to be "no good" and encouraging others who seem on their way to "amount to some­thing."

By contrast, in domestic situations where there is only one adult-


162 1 CODE OF THE STREET

say, a woman with two or three teenage daughters-the dwelling may be viewed, superficially at least, as an unprotected nest. The local street boys may be attracted to the home as a challenge, just to test it out, to see if they can get over by charming or seducing the women who live there. In such a setting a man-the figure the boys are prepared to respect-is not there to keep them in line. Girls in this vulnerable situation may become pregnant earlier than those living in homes more closely resembling nuclear families. A young man

made the following comments:

I done seen where four girls grow up under their mama. The mama turn around and she got a job between 3 P.M. and 11 P.M. These little kids, now they grow up like this. Mama working three to eleven o'clock at night. They kind a raise theyself. What they know? By the time they get thirteen or fourteen, they trying everything under the sun. And they ain't got nobody to stop 'em. Mama gone. Can't nobody else tell 'em what to do. Hey, all of 'em pregnant by age sixteen. And they do it 'cause they wanta get out on they own. They can get they own baby, they get they own (welfare) check, they get they own apartment. They wanta get away from Mama.

THE BABY CLUB

In the absence of a strong family unit, a close-knit group of "street girls" often' fills a social, moral, and family void in the young girl's life. With the help of her peers and sometimes older siblings and the usually very limited supervision of parents, after a certain age she primarily raises herself. On the street she plays seemingly innocent games, but through play she becomes socialized into a peer group. Many of these neighborhood "street kids" are left to their own devices, staying out late at night, sometimes until one or two in the morning, even on school nights. By the age of ten or twelve, many are aware of their bodies and, according to some residents, are begin­ning to engage in sexual relations, with very little knowledge about

THE MATING GAME 1 163

their bodies and even less about the long-term consequences of their behavior.

The street kids become increasingly committed to their peer groups, surviving by their wits, being cool, and having fun. Some girls begin to have babies by age fifteen or sixteen, and soon others follow. Many of them see this behavior as rewarded, at least in the short run.

As the girl becomes more deeply involved, the group helps shape her dreams, social agenda, values, and aspirations. The hip group operates as an in crowd in the neighborhood, although decent people refer to its members as fast and slick and believe they have tried everything at an early age. Girls raised by strict parents are consid­ered by this hip crowd to be lame or square and may suffer social ostracism or at least ridicule, thus segmenting the neighborhood even further. The street peer group becomes a powerful social magnet, drawing in girls only loosely connected to other sources of social and emotional support, particularly the weak and impoverished ghetto family typically headed by a single female.

When some of the girls get pregnant, it becomes important for others to have a baby, especially as their dream of a "good life," usually with an older man twenty-one or twenty-two, begins to unravel. They may settle for babies as a consolation prize, enhancing and rationalizing motherhood as they attempt to infuse their state with value. Some people speak of these girls as "sprouting babies," and having a baby may become an expected occurrence.

As the babies arrive, the peer group takes on an even more pro­vocative feature: the early play and social groups develop into "baby clubs." The girls give one another social support, praising each other's babies. But they also use their babies to compete, on the premise that the baby is an extension of the mother and reflects directly on her. This competition, carried on at social gatherings such as birthday parties, weddings, church services, and spontaneous encounters of two or more people, often takes the form of comparing one baby to another. First the baby's features are noted, usually along the lines of "spoiledness," texture of hair, skin color, and grooming and dress, as well as general "cuteness." To enhance her chances at such competitions and status games, the young mother often feels


1641 CODE OF THE STREET

the need to dress her baby in the latest and most expensive clothes that fit (rather than in a size larger, which the baby can grow into): a fifty-dollar sweater for a three-month-old or forty-dollar Reebok sneakers for a six-month-old. This status-oriented behavior provokes criticism from more mature people, including mothers and grand­mothers. As one forty-five-year-old grandmother said,

Oh, they can't wait until check day [when welfare checks arrive) so they can go to the store. I listen at 'em, talking about what they gon' buy this time. [They say.] "Next time my check come, I'm gon' buy my baby this, I'm gon' buy my baby that." And that's exactly what they will do-expensive stores, too. The more expensive, the better; some will buy a baby an expensive outfit that the baby only gon' wear for a few months. I seen a girl go ... went out, and she paid, I think she paid forty-five dollars for a outfit. I think the baby was about six weeks old. Now, how long was that child gon' wear that outfit? For that kind of money. They do these silly; silly things.

And as a twenty-three-year-old woman college graduate from the community (who did not become pregnant) said,

Once there was a sale at the church at Thirteenth and Beau­fort. A friend of mine had some baby clothes for sale. They were some cute clothes, but they weren't new. They were seat suits, older things. The young girls would just pass them by. Now, the older women, the grandmothers, would come by and buy them for their grandchildren. But the girls, sixteen or seventeen, had to have a decked-out baby. No hand-me-downs. Some would pay up to forty dollars for a pair of Nike sneakers. They go to Carl's [a downtown children's boutique). And the babies some­times are burning up in the clothes, but they dress them up anyway. The baby is like a doll in some ways. They [young mothers) sometimes do more to clothe the baby than to feed the

baby.

But this seeming irresponsibility of the young mother evolves in a logical way. For a young woman who fails to secure a strong com-

THE MATING GAME 1 165

mitmentfrom a man, a baby becomes a partial fulfillment of the good life. The baby club deflects criticism of the young mothers and gives them a certain status. "Looking good" negates the generalized notion that a teenage mother has messed up her life, and amid this depri­vation nothing is more important than to show others you are doing all right.

In public gathering places the mothers lobby for compliments, smiles, and nods of approval and feel very good when they are forth­coming, since they signal affirmation and pride. On Sundays the new little dresses and suits come out and the cutest babies are passed around, and this attention serves as a social measure of the person. The young mothers who form such baby clubs develop an ideology counter to that of more conventional society, one that not only approves of but enhances their position. In effect, they work to create value and status by inverting that of the girls who do not become pregnant. The teenage mother derives status from her baby; hence her preoccupation with the impression that the baby makes and her willingness to spend inordinately large sums toward that end.

Having come to terms with the street culture, many of these young women feel an overwhelming desire to grow up, a passage best expressed by the ability to get out on their own. In terms of tradi­tional inner-city experience, this means setting up one's own house­hold, preferably with a good man through marriage and family. Sometimes a young woman attempts to accomplish this by purposely becoming pregnant, perhaps hoping the baby's father will marry her and help her realize her dream of domestic respectability. However, an undetermined, but some say growing, number of young women, unimpressed with the lot of young single men, want to establish households on their own, without the help or the burden of a man.

Sometimes a young woman, far from becoming victimized, will take charge of the situation and manipulate the man for her own ends, perhaps extracting money from him for "spending her time." At par­ties and social gatherings, such women may initiate the sexual rela­tions, asserting some control over the situation from the start. Some men say that such a "new" woman is "just out to use you"; she becomes pregnant "for the [welfare] check, then she through with you." Consistent with such reports, in the economically hard-pressed


166 1 CODE OF THE STREET

local community it was for a long time socially acceptable for a young woman to have children out of wedlock-supported by a regular wel­fare check.

In this way, welfare and persistent poverty have affected the norms

of the ghetto culture, such as the high value placed on children. "The check" has thus had an important impact on domestic relations between young men and women. In the past, the young woman could count not only on the public aid but also on a serious interest on the yOllilg man's part after the baby arrived. And, very often, the honest man was discouraged from marrying the young woman for fear of putting the check in jeopardy. In the Reverend Mosby's day the young man frequently took at least a fatherly interest in his child, and the girl's father and the rest of the extended family could at times be expected to encourage the boy to become an honest man, thus creating dynamic tension between the requirements of welfare on the one hand and pressure from the family to do right on the other. The welfare check, in some instances, has served to bond the young man with the woman, without the benefit of wedlock-in effect uniting them in the regular expectation of the welfare check. In the impov­erished conditions of the inner city, when the check arrives, the young man may expect his share, even though he and the young woman do not reside under the same roof. If a new suitor emerges­and one frequently does-there are sometimes arguments, and even violence, over who has rights to the check, as various individuals voice their claims.

With the advent of welfare reform, more young women and men are inclined to pause, to be more circumspect in their sexual habits, in large part because the check is no longer to be counted on. Babies may become less significant symbols of status, but they will continue to be important symbols of passage to adulthood, of being a grown woman, and of being a man. Most young mothers and fathers, I believe, do not have babies just for the check, but in structurally impoverished areas, the regular cash the check provides is not unim­portant. In the past it perhaps was a question less of whether the girl was going to have children than of when, for she often saw herself as having little to lose and much to gain by becoming pregnant, and this remains true in a social sense. In the new climate of welfare

THE MATING GAME / 167

reform, however, there is more of an impetus for young men and women to take greater responsibility for their personal lives and, in turn, to have fewer babies out of wedlock. But the jury is still out on this:

THE GOOD MAN AND THE NOTHIN'

In their small, intimate groups, the women discuss their afternoon soap operas, men, children, and social life, and they welcome new members to the generally affirmative and supportive gatherings. Although they may criticize men's actions, especially their lack of commitment, at the same time they often accept such behavior, view­ing it as characteristic of men in their environment. Nonetheless, the women draw distinctions between "the nothin' " and the "good man." The nothin' is a "a man who is out to use every women he can for himself. He's somethin' like a pimp. Don't care 'bout nobody but himself." One older single mother, who now considers herself wiser,

said, '

I know the difference now between a nothin' and a good man. I can see. I can smell him. I can just tell a nothin' from the real thing. I can just look at a guy sometimes, you know, the way he dresses. You know, the way he carries himself. The way he acts, the way he talks. I can tell the bullshitter. Like, you know, "What's up, baby?" You know. "What's you want to do?" A nice guy wouldn't say, "What's you want to do?" A nice guy wouldn't say, "What's up, baby? What's goin' on?" Actin' all familiar, tryin' to give me that line. Saying, "You want a joint? You wan' some 'caine?" Hollerin' in the street, you know. I can tell 'em. I can just smell 'em.

In this social climate the good man, who would aspire to play the role of the decent daddy of old, is considerate of his mate and pro­vides for her and her children, but at the same time he runs the risk of being seen as a pussy by the women as well as by his peer group.


168 / CODE OF THE STREET

This inversion in the idea of the good man underscores the ambiv­alent position of girls squeezed between their middle-class dreams and the ghetto reality. As one woman said with a laugh, "There are so many sides to the bad man. We see that, especially in this com­munity. We see more bad men than we do good. I see them [inner­city girls] running over that man if he's a wimp, ha-ha."

Family support is often available to the young pregnant woman, though members of her family are likely to remind her now and then that she is messed up. She looks forward to the day when she is "straight" again-when she has given birth to the baby and has regained her figure. Her comments to girls who are not pregnant tend to center wistfully on better days. If her boyfriend stops seeing her regularly, she may attribute this to the family's negative remarks about him, but also to her pregnancy, saying time and time again, "When I get straight, he'll be sorry; he'll be jealous then." She knows that her pregnant state is devalued by her family as well as by her single peers, who are free to date and otherwise consort with men, and she may long for the day when she can do so again.

When the baby arrives, however, the girl finds that her social activ­ities continue to be significantly curtailed. She is often surprised by how much time and effort being a mother takes. In realizing her new identity, she may very consciously assume the demeanor of a grown woman, emphasizing her freedom in social relations and her inde­pendence. During the period of adjustment to the new status, she has to set her mother straight about telling her what to do. Other family members also go through a learning process, getting used to the girl's new status, which she tries on in fits and starts. In fact, she is working at growing up.

Frustrated by the baby's continuing needs, especially as she becomes physically straight again, the girl may develop an intense desire to get back into the dating game. Accordingly, she may foist her child care responsibilities onto her mother and sisters, who ini­tially are eager to help. In time, however, they tire, and even extremely supportive relations can become strained. In an effort to see her daughter get back to normal, the grandmother, typically in her mid-thirties or early forties, may simply informally adopt the baby as another one of her own, in some cases completely usurping


a

THE MATING GAME 1 169

the role of mother. In this way the young parent's mother may min­imize the deviance the daughter displayed by getting pregnant, while taking g.enuine pride in her new grandchild.

OF MEN AND WOMEN, MOTHERS AND SONS

The relationship between the young man and woman undergoes a basic change during pregnancy; once the baby is born, it draws on other social forces, most notably their families. The role of the girl's family has been discussed. The boy's family is important in a different way. There is often a special bond between a mother and her grown son that competes with the claims of his girlfriend. The way this situation is resolved has considerable consequences for the family and its relationship to the social structure of the community. In teenage pregnancy among the poor, the boy's mother often plays a significant role, while that of his father, if he is present at all, is understated. Depending on the woman's personality, her practical experience in such matters, and the girl's family situation, the mother's role may be subtle or explicit. At times she becomes deeply involved with the young woman, forming a female bond with her that is truly motherly, involving guidance, protection, and control.

From the moment the boy's mother finds out a young woman is pregnant by her son, the question of whether she knows the girl is important. If the young woman means something to her son, she is likely to know her and her family or at least to have heard some­thing about her from her son. On learning of the pregnancy, the mother might react with anything from disbelief that her son could be responsible to" certainty, even before seeing the child, that he is indeed the father. If she knows the girl's character, she is in a position to judge for herself. Here her relationship with the girl before "all this" happened comes into play, for if she likes her, there is a good chance she will side with her. She may even go so far as to engage in playful collusion against her son, a man, to get him to do right by the girl. We must remember that in this economically circumscribed social context, particularly from a woman's point of view, many men


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are known not to do right by their women and children. To visit certain inner-city streets is to see a proliferation of small children and women whose fathers and husbands are largely absent. These con­siderations help explain the significance of the mother's role in deter­mining how successful the girl will be in getting the boy to take some

responsibility for the child.

The mother may feel constrained, at least initially, because she is

unsure her son actually fathered the child. She may be careful about showing her doubt, however, thinking that when the baby arrives she will be able to tell in a minute if her son is the father. Thus, during the pregnancy, she nervously waits, wondering whether her son will be blamed for a pregnancy not of his doing or whether she will really be a grandmother. In fact, both the boy's and the girl's relatives often constitute an extended family-in-waiting, socially organized around the idea that the truth will be told when the baby arrives. Unless the parties are very sure, marriage-if agreed to at all-may be held off

until after the birth.

When the baby arrives, plans may be carried out, but often on

condition that the child passes inspection. The presumed father gen­erally lies low in the weeks after the baby's birth. He is apt to visit the baby's mother in the hospital only once, if at all. In an effort to make a paternal connection, some girls name the baby after the father, but by itself this strategy is seldom effective. In cases of doubt­ful paternity, the boy's mother, sisters, aunts, or other female relatives or close family friends may form visiting committees to see the baby, though sometimes the child is brought to them. This inspection is often surreptitious, made without the acknowledgment of the girl or her family. The visitors may go to the girl's house in shifts, with a sister dropping in now, the mother another time, and a friend still another. Social pleasantries notwithstanding, the object is always the same: to see if the baby belongs to the boy. Typically, after such visits the women will compare notes, commenting on the baby's features and on whom the child favors or resembles. Some will blurt out, "Ain't no way that John's baby." People may disagree and a dispute ensue. In the community the paternity of the father becomes a hot topic. The viewpoints have much to do with who the girl is, whether. she is a good girl, and whether she has been accepted by the boy's.

-

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family. If the she is well integrated into the family, doubts about the paternity may slowly be put to rest, with nothing more said about the subject.

The word carrying the most weight in this situation is often that of the boy's mother, as is shown in this account by a young man:

I had a lady telling me that she had to check out a baby that was supposed to be her grandbaby. She said she had a young girl that was trying to put a baby on her son, so she said she fixing to take the baby and see what blood type the baby is to match it with her son to see if he the daddy. 'Cause she said she know he wasn't the daddy. And she told the girl that, but the girl was steady, trying to stick the baby on her son. She had checked out the baby's father and everything. She knowed that the blood type wasn't gon' match or nothing. So the young girl just left 'em alone.

If the child clearly resembles the alleged father physically, there may be strong pressure for the boy to claim the child and assume his responsibilities. This may take a year or more, since the resemblance may initially be less apparent. But when others begin to make com­ments such as "Lil' Tommy look like Maurice just spit him out [is his spitting image]," the boy's mother may informally adopt the child into her extended family and signal others to do the same. She may see the child regularly and develop a special relationship with its mother. Because of her social acknowledgment of her son's paternity, the boy himself is bound to accept the child. Even if he does not claim the child legally, in the face of the evidence he will often acknowledge "having something to do with him." As one informant said, "If the baby look just like him, he should admit to himself that that's his. Some guys have to wait till the baby grow up a little to see if the baby gon' look like him 'fore they finally realize that was his'n.

. Because yours should look like you, you know, should have your . features and image."

Here the young man informally acknowledging paternity may feel ,some pressure to take care of his own. But owing to his limited .employment and general lack of money, he feels that he "can only



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do what he can" for his child. Many young men enact the role of father part-time. A self-conscious young man may be spied on the street carrying a box of Pampers, the name used generically for all disposable diapers, or cans of Similac-baby formula-on the way to see his child and its mother. As the child ages, a bond may develop, and the young man may take a boy for a haircut or shopping for shoes or clothes. He may give the woman token amounts of money. Such gestures of support suggest a father providing for his child. In fact, however, they often come only sporadically and-an important point-in exchange for the woman's favors, social or sexual. Such support may thus depend upon the largesse of the man and may function as a means of controlling the woman.

If the woman "gets papers" on the man, or legalizes his relationship to the child, she may sue for regular support-what people call "going downtown on him." If her case is successful, the young man's personal involvement in making child support payments may be elim­inated: the money may simply be deducted from his salary, if he has one. Sometimes the woman's incentive for getting papers may emerge when the young man lands a good job, particularly one with a major institution that includes family benefits. While sporadically employed, the youth may have had no problem with papers, but when he finds a steady job, he may be served with a summons. In some cases, especially if they have two or three children out of wedlock by different women, young men lose the incentive to work, for much of their pay will go to someone else. After the mother of his four chil­dren got papers on him and he began to see less and less of his pay, one of my informants quit his job and returned to the street corner and began to hustle drugs.

Under some conditions the male peer group will pressure a mem- '. ber to admit paternity. The key here is that the group members have no doubts in their own minds as to the baby's father. When it is clear that the baby resembles the young man, the others may strongly urge' him to claim it and help the mother financially. Ifhe fails to acknowl­edge the baby, group members may do it themselves by publicly asso­ciating him with the child, at times teasing him about his failure "to take care of what's his." As one young man said,

THE MATING GAME 1 173

My partner's [friend's] girlfriend came up pregnant. And she say it's his, but he not sure. He waitin' on the baby, wairin' to see if the baby look like him. I tell him, "Man, if that baby look like you, then it was yours! Ha-ha." He just kinda like just waitin'. He ain't claimin' naw, saying the baby ain't his. I keep tellin' him, "If that baby come out looking just like you, then it gon' be yours, partner." And there on the corner all of 'em will tell him, "Man, iliat's yo' baby." They'll tell him.

Although the peer group may urge its members to take care of ilieir babies, they stop short of urging them to marry the mothers. In general, young men are assumed not to care about raising a family or being part of one, but this is contradicted by many of these men's strong family values. So many of them are unable to suppOrt a family that they hesitate to form one that is bound to fail, in their minds. Much of the lack of support for marriage is due to poor employment prospects, but it may also have to do with general distrust of women to whom the men are not related by blood. As my informant contin­ued,

They don't even trust her that iliey were the only one she was dealin' [having sex] with. That's a lot of it. But the boys just be gettin' away from it [the value of a family] a whole lot. They don't Want to get tied down by talkin' about playin' house, ha­ha, what they call it nowadays, ha-ha. Yeah, ha-ha, they sayin' they ain't playin' house.

In a great number of cases, peer group or no, the boy will send the

. girl on her way even if she is carrying a baby he knows is his. He ' often lacks a deep feeling for a woman and children as a family unit and does not want to put up with married life, which he sees as giving a woman some say in how he spends his time. This emphasis on

i~'freedom" is generated and supported in large part by the peer group

f. Even if a man agrees to marriage, it is usually considered to be

)uly a trial. After a few months many young husbands have had enough.


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This desire for freedom, which the peer group so successfully nur­tures, is deeply ingrained in the boys. It is, in fact, nothing less than­the desire to reestablish the situation in their mothers' homes. A son is generally well bonded to his mother, something she tends to encourage from birth. It may be that sons, particularly the eldest, are groomed to function as surrogate husbands because of the high rate of family dissolution among poor blacks.

Many young boys want what they consider an optimal situation.

In the words of peer-group members, "they want it all": a main squeeze-a steady and reliable female partner who will mimic the role their mothers played, a woman who will cook, clean, and gen­erally serve them and who will ask few questions about the ladies they may be seeing and have even less to say about their male friends. The boy has grown accustomed to home-cooked meals and the secure company of his birth family, in which his father was largely absent and could not tell him what to do. He was his own boss, essentially raising himself with the help of his street peers and perhaps any adult (possibly an old head) who. would listen but not interfere. For many, such a life is too much to give up in exchange for the "problems of being tied down to one lady, kids, bills, and all that." The young man's home situation with his mother thus competes effectively with the household he envisions with a woman his peer group is fully prepared to discredit.

Now that he is grown, the young man may want what he had while growing up, plus a number of ladies on the side. At the same time he wants his male friends, whom he must impress in ways perhaps incon­sistent with being a good family man. Since the young men from the start have little faith in marriage, small things can inspire them to retreat to their mothers or whatever families they left behind. Some spend their time going back and forth between two families; if their marriages seem not be working, they may ditch them and their wives, though perhaps keeping up with the children. At all times they must show others that they run the family, that they "wear the pants." This is the cause of many domestic fights in the ghetto. When there is a question of authority, the domestic situation may run into serious trouble, often leading the young man to abandon the idea of marriage or of dealing with only one woman. To "hook up" with a woman, to


THE MATING GAME / 175

marry her, is to give her something to say about "what you're doing, or where you're going, or where you've been." Many young men find such constraint unacceptable.

In many instances the young man does not mind putting up with the children, given his generally small role in child rearing, but he does mind tolerating the woman, whom he sees as a threat to his freedom. As one man commented about marriage,

Naw, they [young men] getting away from that 'cause they want to be free. Now, see, I ended up getting married. I got a whole lot of boys ducking that. Unless this is managed, it ain't no good. My wife cleans, takes care of the house. You got a lot of guys, they don't want to be cleanin' no house, and do the things you got to do in the house. You need a girl there to do it. If you get one, she'll slow you down. The guys don't want it.

Unless a man can so handle his wife that she will put few constraints on him, he may reason that he had better stay away from marriage. But with a growing sense of being independent of men, financially and otherwise, fewer women may allow themselves to be treated in this manner.

As jobs become scarce for young black men, their success as bread­winners and traditional husbands declines. The notion is that with money comes control of the domestic situation. Without money or jobs, many men are unable to play house to their satisfaction. It is much easier and more fun to stay home and "take care of Mama," some say, when taking care consists of "giving her some change for room and board," eating good food, and being able "to come as I want and to go as I please." Given the present state of the economy, such an assessment of their domestic outlook appears in many respects adaptive.

SEX, POVERTY, AND FAMILY LIFE

In conclusion, the basic factors at work " here are youth, ignorance, " the culture's receptiveness to babies, and the young man's attempt to

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prove his manhood through sexual conquests that often result in pregnancy. These factors are exacerbated by persistent urban pov­erty. In the present hard times a primary concern of many inner-city residents is to get along as best they can. In the poorest communities the primary financial sources are low-paying jobs, crin1e-including drugs-and public assistance. Some of the most desperatepeople devise a variety of confidence games to separate others from their money.

A number of men, married and single, incorporate their sexual lives into their more generalized efforts at economic survival, 'or simply making ends meet. Many will seek to "pull" a woman with children on welfare, since she usually has a special need for male company, time on her hands, and a steady income. As. they work to establish their relationships, these men playa game not unlike the one young males use to get over sexually. There is simply a clearer economic motive in many of these cases. When the woman receives her check from the welfare department or money from other sources, she may find herself giving up part of it to ensure male company.

The economic noose restricting ghetto life encourages men and women alike to try to extract maximum personal benefit from sexual relationships. The dreams of a middle-class lifestyle nurtured by young inner-city women are thwarted by the harsh socioeconomic realities of the ghetto. Young men without job prospects cling to the support offered by their peer groups and their mothers and shy away from lasting relationships with girlfriends. Girls as well as boys scramble to take what they can from each other, trusting only their own ability to trick the other into giving them something that will establish their version of the good life-the best life they can put together in their environment.

We should remember that the people we are talking about are very young-they range in age mainly from fifteen years to their early twenties. Their bodies are grown, but they are emotionally immature. These girls and boys often have no very clear notion of the long­term consequences of their behavior, and they have few trustworthy role models to instruct them.

Although middle-class youths and poor youths may have much in common sexually, their level of practical education differs. The igno-

THE MATING GAME 1 177

ranee of inner-city girls about their bodies astonishes the middle­class observer. Many have only a vague notion about birth control until after they have their first child-and sometimes not even then. Parents in this culture are extremely reticent about discussing sex and birth control with their children. Many mothers are ashamed to talk about it or feel they are in no position to do so, since they behaved the same way as their daughters when they were young. Education thus emerges as a community health problem, but most girls come in Contact with 'community health services only when they become pregnant-sometimes many months into their pregnancies.

A baby could in cold economic terms be considered an asset, which is without doubt an important factor behind exploitative sex and out­of-wedlock babies, though this seems to be changing. Public assis­tance was one of the few reliable sources of money, low-income jobs are another, and, for many people, drugs are yet another. The most desperate people thus feed on one another. Babies and sex were once more commonly used for income than they are now; women continue to receive money from welfare for having babies, and men sometimes act as prostitutes to pry the money from them.

The lack of gainful employment today not only keeps the entire community in a pit of poverty but also deprives young men of the traditional AmeriCan way of proving their manhood-by supporting a family. They must thus prove themselves in other ways. Casual sex with as many women as possible, impregnating one or more, and getting them to have his baby brings a boy the ultimate in esteem from his peers and makes him a man. Casual sex is therefore fraught with social significance for the boy who has little or no hope of achieving financial stability and hence cannot see himself taking care of a family.

The meshing of these forces can be clearly seen. Trapped in pov­erty, ignorant of the long-term consequences of their behavior but aware of the immediate benefits, adolescents engage in a mating game. The girl has her dream of a family and a home, of a good man who will provide for her and her children. The boy, knOWing he cannot be that family man, because he has few job prospects, yet needing to have sex to achieve manhood in the eyes of his peer group, pretends to be the decent and good man and so persuades the girl to

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give him sex and perhaps a baby. He may then abandon her, and she realizes he was not the good man, after all, but rather a nothin' out to exploit her. The boy has gotten what he wanted, but the gir11eams that she has gotten something, too. The baby may bring her a certain amount of praise, (in the past) a steady welfare check, and a measure of independence. Her family often helps out as best they can. As she becomes older and wiser, she can use her income to turn the tables,

attracting her original man or other men.

In this inner-city culture people generally get married for love and

to have something. But this mind-set presupposes a job, the work ethic, and, perhaps most of all, a persistent sense of hope for an economic future. When these social factors are present, the more wretched elements of the ethnographic portrait presented here begIn to lose their force, slowly becoming neutralized. For many of those who are caught in the web of persistent urban poverty and become unwed mothers and fathers, however, there is little hope for a good job and even less for a future of conventional family life.


F I V E

lhe Decent Daddy

H E code of the streets and the world it reflects have taken shape in the context of the existing structures and traditions in the black community in the United States. Some of these traditions go back to the time of slavery

and have served to keep the community together for many gener­ations. Elements of the code, which works to organize problematic public areas, can be traced back to the Roman era, to the shogun warriors, and particularly to the old American South and West! or even to biblical times: "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." And in drug-infested and impoverished pockets of American cities today, where many residents lack faith in the law, people, but especially youths, often take responsibility for their own safety and security, letting the next person know they are prepared to defend themselves physically, if necessary. The code poses visible threats to those traditions, but at the same time two of its key elements reflect those same traditions-decency and violence.

The unprecedented improvements that the manufacturing era brought to standards of living for urban working-class people were perceived by blacks as an opportunity to make an assault on the caste-like system of race relations in the United States. Leaders in the black community were convinced that the situation of blacks

DMU Timestamp: March 28, 2013 23:38