In an editorial published earlier this year in the New York Times, the celebrated journalist and Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates reflected on the “Code of the Streets” that he and his friends learned growing up: “Respect and reputation are everything there. These values are often denigrated by people who have never been punched in the face. But when you live around violence there is no opting out. A reputation for meeting violence with violence is a shield. That protection increases when you are part of a crew with that same mind-set.…[W]ithin its context, the Code is logical.”
That logic is difficult to understand outside of its socioeconomic context. Why would someone choose to engage in a gun- or fist-fight, risking serious injury, jail-time, or even death? But in communities dealing with concentrated poverty, acts of violence can be assets, even as they cause great harm.
A daring and richly researched ethnography, published in the February issue of Current Anthropology, probes how participation in violence becomes a moral, social, and practical necessity for young people growing up in poor neighborhoods. Using the analytical tools of anthropology, the authors offer a useful theoretical account of the structural forces and moral logic behind the shoot-outs and beatings that are tragically routine occurrences in the inner city. The authors do not attempt to justify or valorize aggression but to show how market forces, especially the growth of the drug economy and the failures of the state have created a volatile environment where the expectation of justice falls mostly on the shoulders of young men.
For over six years, the authors have been conducting fieldwork in a predominately Puerto Rican neighborhood in North Philadelphia that is known as a hub for heroin and cocaine dealing. Deindustrialization left many of the community’s members out of work, and the drug economy emerged as the dominant source of income for jobless youths. Through their interviews with local residents, the authors of this study present new insights into the attitude that violence is a necessary response to insult or the appropriate way to show one’s love or allegiance. Under the constant threat of violent incidents, and with little possibility of recourse, “violence is converted into a valuable but fragile resource: unstable cultural and social capital that meshes ethically with gender and kin-based roles and is cast not as choice but as obligation to both individuals and the local community.”
The authors find that in the end, the moral economy of violence actually bolsters the authority of the drug bosses, leads to high rates of arrest and incarceration, and in turn drives the cycle of scarcity and plenty that makes this illicit business so profitable. While violence is especially valued in the drug economy, the perception of its necessity runs into other spheres of life, until fighting seems to be a “common sense” response and a way of showing loyalty.
The authors note that this moral economy of violence is not a universal condition of poverty, but “the social product of a particular form of capital.” In the inner city, where political and structural forces have disenfranchised and reduced the number of possibilities for aboveboard work, violence can seem the only code to live by.