Code of the Street

The term “code of the street” gained national media attention in 1994 when the Atlantic Monthly published a cover story on it by Elijah Anderson, then a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Five years later Anderson delved more deeply into this subject in a book, Code of the Street, in which he defines the term as “a set of prescriptions and proscriptions, or informal rules, of behavior organized around a desperate search for respect that governs public social relations, especially violence, among so many residents, particularly young men and women” ( 1999, 9–10 ).

1999, 33 ). The code is part of a street culture that demands its members be treated with respect and the deference due them. Respect on the streets is acquired and maintained with credible physicality—the believable threat and use of force. On the streets, the strongest survive. Disrespect, or an attitude interpreted as such, can be punished swiftly and harshly. People who are not part of the street's culture gain respect if they stand their ground fearlessly and push back successfully in the face of threats from those who dominate the street where the encounter occurs.

Knowing and obeying the rules of the street can defuse situations that can lead to violence. But the code of the street, like the state of nature as described by the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, is based on force. For this reason, decent families begin to teach their children at a young age not only the middleclass values of civility but also the code of the street. Interviewing school teachers at different grade levels, Anderson found that inner-city students begin to acquire the rules of the street by the fourth grade. But it is not always easy to figure out how to negotiate the streets. Violence in public places is partly a product of this uncertainty, the missteps resulting from it, and aggressive responses to those missteps that the code allows.

The code of the street is neither a new term nor a new phenomenon. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1899 of the “submerged tenth” of black communities who live an alienated existence by their own rules. Nor is the code restricted to black inner cities. Charles Dickens's 1838 novel Oliver Twist is a tale of street culture and its code in London, with the Artful Dodger serving as Twist's ( and the reader's ) guide through its morass. A century later, in the 1930s and early 1940s dozens of movies (including “The Code of the Streets” ) starring the Dead End Kids (their moniker says something about their future) depicted streetwise white boys with thick New York accents who rescued friends, solved crimes, and revealed police corruption.


Anderson, however, is deeply concerned about the influence of the code of the street in the black inner city, especially its effect on youth violence. “Of all the problems besetting the poor inner-city black community,” he writes, “none is more pressing than that of interpersonal violence and aggression” ( 1999, 32 ). What is the relationship between the code and violence?

The code of the street, Anderson explains, can be found where two other moral codes end—the middleclass values of decency and the rule of law. Local residents maintain the first code by conducting themselves by the simple rules of decency they practice at home, instilling those values in their children, expecting decent treatment in public spaces, and knowing how to demand respect when threatened. Historically, the cultural agents of this code are decent families with strong role models. However, this is not enough to withstand the pressures of the street. Communities also must rely on the police and the court system to reinforce the middle-class values of decency. This happens when police and courts enforce the rule of law surely and swiftly by patrolling the streets, responding to calls, controlling disorder, and solving major crimes. This all amounts to a tall order.

When these two moral codes of decency and the rule of law work together, they can help to squeeze out the violence and aggressive behavior that plagues so many inner cities. But when they do not, whether because of a decline in trust or capacity, their failure creates a vacuum. And that vacuum is filled by a more violent form of public social organization based on the code of the street. More often today, all three codes—of decency, the rule of law, and the street—function in tension with one another: decent families are endangered by broken homes, the challenges of single parenthood, readily available drugs and guns, unavailable local jobs and difficult transportation to suburban jobs, all reinforced, according to Anderson, by the alienation and racism of mainstream society. Increasingly, in black inner cities community residents say that the police can no longer be trusted as allies. Residents complain that the police have become unresponsive to calls, more interested in arresting young black men for minor crimes than solving black-on-black major crimes, and more aggressive in their community dealings. Police spokesmen like New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton respond that both minor and major crimes have declined in inner cities ( Bratton and Kelling 2014 ); critics claim that the decline in crime is increasingly due to over-incarceration.

In these tense urban environments, the code of the street has not yet won total victory, but it has become a major part of many communities. Anderson underscores the distinction between studies of the culture or subculture of an entire community ( Wolfgang and Ferracuti 1967 ) and his conceptualization of the code of the street as a set of rules governing “public behavior [that] is normative for only a segment of the community” ( 1999, 327 ).


Based on his observations, Anderson provides an ethnographic interpretation of the influence of the milieu of the street in which the code of the street exerted a force that was partly environmental and partly cultural. As Anderson explains: “The ‘code of the street’ … is the fabric of everyday life, a vivid and pressing milieu within which all local residents must shape their personal routines, income strategies, and orientations to schooling, as well as their mating, parenting, and neighborhood relations” ( 1999, 326 ). Anderson's ethnographic approach focuses on “the distinctive collective reality that patterns of criminal violence create in inner neighborhoods … not the goal or product of any individual's actions” ( 1999, 326 ). His work is rich in the stories of individuals, and how they cope with the code of the streets, but his purpose is to unpack the culture of the street, not the minds and motivations of those touched by it. Anderson contrasted his approach with that of social psychologists such as Jack Katz ( 1988 ) whose work focused more on the motivations of those who participate in the code. Hence the code of the street is an important explanation of the environment and culture of public crime and violence. But the reader must look to additional explanations of why some people get dragged into a life of violence while others in the same circumstances manage to escape.

SEE ALSO Broken Windows Theory ; Crime and Justice Policy ; Du Bois, W. E. B. ; Racism .


Anderson, Elijah. “The Code of the Streets.” The Atlantic Monthly, May 1, 1994. .

Anderson, Elijah. Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and Moral Life of the Inner City. New York: Norton, 1999.

Bratton, William, and George L. Kelling. “The Assault on ‘Broken Windows’ Policing.” Wall Street Journal, December 18, 2014. .

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. (1899.) New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Katz, Jack. Seductions of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attractions in Doing Evil. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

Stewart, Eric A., and Ronald L. Simons. “The Code of the Street and African-American Adolescent Violence.” Research in Brief. National Institute of Justice, US Department of Justice, February 2009. .

Wolfgang, Marvin E., and Franco Ferracuti. (1967.) The Subculture of Violence: Towards an Integrated Theory in Criminology. London: Tavistock, 1967.

Stephen Schechter
Russell Sage College