Seminal Study on Urban Violence by Yale Professor Adopted by U.S. Justice Department

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), a research and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, has issued a report reaffirming the “Code of the Street” theory of urban violence developed by Yale professor Elijah Anderson.

This validation means that the Code of the Street thesis now stands to influence how policy makers and criminal courts evaluate inner city violence.

Anderson, the William K. Lanman, Jr. Professor of Sociology at Yale, is an influential and widely published ethnographer and expert on urban inequality. In his “Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City” (1999), Anderson argues that violent interpersonal transactions among black inner city youths are governed by a set of implicit rules and conventions.

Based on Anderson’s close observation and extensive interviews with young residents of Philadelphia neighborhoods, his thesis holds that entrenched poverty, experience with racial discrimination and chronic exclusion from gainful employment largely account for the vicious cycle of brutality and aggression that dominates many urban streets.

“Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street brilliantly integrates institutional and cultural factors to account for the way many black inner city youth respond to chronic racial and economic subordination. It is noteworthy that the careful research by the National Institute of Justice social scientists provides strong empirical support for his influential study,” says William Julius Wilson, professor of sociology and social policy at Harvard University.

With support from NIJ, the National Institute of Mental Health and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention — among other granting agencies — researchers set out to validate Anderson’s theory. After interviewing more than 800 African-American adolescents in Georgia and Iowa over a period of two years, they concluded, as had Anderson, that “the stress of living in a poor and violent environment can cause young people to adopt the code of the street as a lifestyle guide. This, in turn, is a powerful predictor of violent conduct, amplified by the effects of negative neighborhood characteristics.”

“The inclination to violence springs from the circumstances of life among the ghetto poor — the lack of jobs that pay a living wage, the stigma of race, the fallout from rampant drug use and drug trafficking, and the resulting alienation and lack of hope for the future,” notes the NIJ report, titled “The Code of the Street and African-American Adolescent Violence.”

“Although there are often forces in the community that can counteract the negative influences — by far the most powerful being a strong, loving, ‘decent’ (as inner-city residents put it) family committed to middle-class values — the despair is pervasive enough to have spawned an oppositional culture, that of ‘the streets,’ whose norms are often consciously opposed to those of mainstream society,” adds the report.

In their report, the NIJ researchers stress the importance of their findings: “Anderson’s theory presents a bridge between the environmental and cultural factors examined in many previous studies of urban violence. The research discussed in this report emphasizes the need to consider this theory in future studies within African-American households, neighborhoods and communities.”

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