REVIEW: Code of the Street – Forward Observer Shop

REVIEW: Code of the Street

Code of the Street
Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City
Elijah Anderson
(Norton & Company, 1999)


Understanding the human terrain is one of the foremost important abilities for an intelligence analyst involved in conflicts of the people.  Past the soldiers and their weapons lies a battlefield, often containing people.  And in the insurgencies faced by the U.S. military over the past decade, it’s these people who have a say in determining your failure or success.  The human terrain contains a multitude of timely and accurate intelligence information.  It also contains one of your worst counterintelligence threats.  Therefore your ability to interact with the populace to gain their trust and cooperation is key.  Not only can the populace shower you with actionable intelligence information, but they can also shield you from an adversary’s intelligence collection against you.  Whoever wins the populace — in what’s called the parallel war — gains innumerable eyes and ears, which help you make sense of the battlespace and ultimately accomplish your mission.

Earlier this year, I picked up a copy of Code of the Street from a used book store because I wanted to learn more about the culture of a significant part of the American population.  According to the 2010 U.S. Census, nearly 11 million blacks live in poverty, and it’s overwhelmingly poor, urban black youths who ascribe to the “code of the street.”  As I learn in the book, the code of the street exists independently from civil law, and is in effect regardless of where civil law applies.  Elijah Anderson describes in detail “street justice,” the method through which respect, and therefore security, is earned in and out of the American ghetto.  In short, respect is based on reputation: your perceived ability to carry out violence is determined through the violence you’ve perpetrated in the past.  Ergo, until you prove that you command respect through your propensity for violence, you are afforded none.

The “Knockout Game” and other indiscriminate violence towards innocent bystanders (who are often white) is one way that these youths gain respect from their peers.  To the outside world, it’s wanton violence that further undermines this community’s social standing, but what these kids are actually doing is two-fold.  At the psychological level, they’re resorting to violence because it allows them to feel like they’re getting even with a society that isolates them.  At a social level, they trying to gain respect from the people who matter most to them:  their peers and tribal competitors in their own community.  In the civil world, deference is earned through success or community involvement; in the ghetto, deference is often earned through your ability to commit violence.  As the title of the book suggests, it’s literally the code of the street.

[blockquote style=”1″]”The rules have been established and are enforced mainly by the street-oriented; but on the streets the distinction between street and decent is irrelevant. Everybody knows that if the rules are violated, there are penalties.” (p. 33)[/blockquote]

As Anderson begins the book, he examines areas of Philadelphia and points out that in the upper scale area of Chestnut Hill, black members of the middle class wear nice clothes and drive nice cars; they are very “expressive” in their middle-class social status.  But even they aren’t spared the stigma of being middle class or wealthy blacks in an area where most of the violent crime is committed by poor blacks.  Despite this trend, blacks and whites get along in Chestnut Hill.  The crime problem there obviously isn’t due to all blacks; just those who live outside civility and follow the code of the street.  In other words, culture not color.

The problem with race, to which Anderson alludes, is an inability to distinguish culture.  He writes that when middle class or wealthy black youths (i.e., those youths who don’t follow the code of the street) wear the clothing of urban trends, it’s difficult for many whites to determine “who is law-abiding and who is not.”  (Naturally, I ask, “Whose fault is that?”  If I choose to be more aware of those who might be members of the “street element,” I’m not being racist; I’m being cautious.)

Anderson moves on from Chestnut Hill and arrives at a community called Vernon Park (followed by even worse neighborhoods).  And it’s in these neighborhoods where the code of the street is applied, regardless of police presence and where “morning is the safest time of day”.  Anderson writes that “flagrant disregard” for civil law is on full display.  This display is their “profile”; not necessarily who they are, but how they want to be perceived by their peers and competitors.  This place — exhibited in every major city and lots of smaller towns across America — exists “just below the surface” of the civility followed by neighboring regular America.

Some lessons really stood out to me; especially how looking and acting like a victim will end up making you one.  Just yesterday, I saw a video of an agitated black teenager raising his voice and “talking trash” to a white woman who was sitting down on a bench, apparently daring him to hit her.  As the woman just sat there, the black teen became more boisterous to a response of aloofness, until he reared back and slapped her across the face, knocking her unconscious.  He was earning respect from his peers while the woman was acting like a victim until she became one.

In the same way, a community in a SHTF scenario can look and act like a potential victim, or it can actively deter its own victimization.  Following the code of the street, deterrence is based on the credible threat of force upon provocation.  In other words, no response to provocation is a sure way to become a victim.  A community with the exhibited ability or desire to hunt down perpetrators is much less likely to be victimized in the future.  (That’s probably one of the best reasons to build a community security team right now.)

Another lesson this book pointed out for me is the difference between respect and honor.  Under civil law, honor is respected.  Your peers will respect you because you are honest, reputable or fair.  Honorable people are generally respected.  Under street code, there is no honor; only respect.  We sometimes hear about churches being burglarized or inner city pastors being beaten and robbed — these are institutions and people generally helping the community; in other words, doing an honorable thing.  But they don’t have respect — the pastor who is beaten and robbed poses no credible threat of violence in response to his beating, therefore he is victimized.

[blockquote style=”1″]”[M]ight makes right; toughness is a virtue, humility is not.” (p. 70)[/blockquote]

Anderson also covers the concept of “acting white” as a way to lose respect among peers.  Inner city youths who grow up to become successful — who almost always move away from the ‘hood — are perceived to be acting white.  Doing well in school, prioritizing honor above street respect, working hard and succeeding at an honest job and doing well in life: all these things are considered to be acting like a white person, according to the street code.  And it causes a major dilemma for the people Anderson calls “decent.”  What are decent kids to do; those who grow up in two-parent households and who have families who want to see them achieve success in life, but who live in bad neighborhoods?  Typically, even decent kids are influenced by the street mentality, and it causes them to act up in class and change “codes” in order to fit in.  They adapt to their circumstances — they are decent at home, sometimes decent at school, and street everywhere else.  One of the problems for teachers and society at large is understanding how to legally and ethically deal with teens who change codes depending on who surrounds them.

The last description I’ll make of the book comes from the chapter entitled Drugs, Violence, and Street Crime.  He begins by pointing out that during the time of W. E. B. DuBois (and his study entitled, The Philadelphia Negro, published in 1899) violence and the “street” mentality among blacks was less prevalent than today, although many blacks still suffered from isolation.  The isolation of this previous era, Anderson and DuBois both write, came from racism and bigotry; social exclusion or hatred based on the color of one’s skin.  DuBois wrote about the “submerged tenth”, the percent of the black community incapable of joining the economy and living under civil law.  Anderson blames the prevalence of today’s violence among the submerged tenth partially on drugs and drug gangs.  He also points out that a lack of opportunity leads to hopelessness, which is a major factor contributing to the street code.

If we look at gun violence across America, it disproportionately originates from the submerged tenth (however a greater percentage it might be today) — the drug gangs and warfare involved therein.  I grew up in a middle-class town of mainly whites, with little crime and virtually no violent crime.  Over the past 20 years, however, as urban expansion migrated the street code toward the suburb of my youth, we saw (even while I was in high school) an increase in gang affiliation and drugs.  Without so much as the occasional fistfight in the decades previous, the year after I graduated high school, one black kid stabbed and killed another black kid in a hallway as class was letting out.  That’s the code of the street.   If there’s any lesson in this chapter, it’s that once drug and gang culture becomes a part of your community, it’s a problem virtually impossible to solve, short of eradication of the adherents of the street code.  One problem is that even if you reach these kids and get them “bought into” a world where they can succeed under the civil law, they are still inundated with messages from the street, primarily through rap music and culture.  The lesson we can learn from this section of the book is to be proactive in identifying it early and then being ruthless in your determination to end it.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book.  It opened my eyes to this section of society and I feel better prepared to face this culture in a post-SHTF America.  I felt that the author was being objective in his descriptions; he calls it an “ethnography” after all.  And he includes plenty of first-hand observations, as well as written experiences from those who came up living the code of the street.  Some of the material can be repetitive, as if each chapter was meant to be read independently as its own essay.  I’d highly recommend Code of the Street to anyone who deals with individuals who follow street code, or anyone who expects to deal with the street code in a SHTF environment.

Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.


  1. Some people only understand use of force. I don’t believe might is right, but if violence is the only thing some people understand, then spare nothing to show that it is better for them to live in fear of a heavy hand, then they be allowed to take advantage of peaceful people.

  2. Thanks for this excellent book review. It looks like you were able to boil this book down to the key lessons and takeaways so that we can quickly learn and benefit from them. That seems to be what good intelligence analysts do.

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