Both men spoke of the street code as though they thought it would be obvious to everyone in the courtroom what it meant. And to a certain extent, they were right to: Even people with no direct experience with street life?—?whose exposure to the criminal underworld comes mainly from gangster rap and television shows like “The Wire”?—?have a sense that it is governed by its own set of rules and ethics. For law-abiding citizens dazzled by Hollywood stories of loyalty or by tough lyrics about street justice, these rule seem to be part of a parallel moral universe built around its own set of coherent beliefs regarding honor, fairness, and integrity. And in neighborhoods where crime is rampant and gang activity widespread, belief in such rules can be a hugely powerful force in people’s lives.
But behind the seductively monolithic notion of a “code of the streets,” say people who have looked at street justice from up close, lies far less certain terrain. According to former gang members, social workers in frequent contact with inner-city youths, and criminologists, it is all but impossible to pin down a single “code,” or one vision of right and wrong, that everyone on the streets respects and adheres to. And insofar as there ever was such a code, they say, it has largely crumpled since the late 1980s, as gangs have grown smaller, younger, and more poorly organized, and increasingly harsh sentencing laws have made it more difficult for people to withstand the pressure to snitch on their associates to avoid prison time. The street rules that exist, experts say, vary from gang to gang and city to city, and most importantly, they are often ignored.
What remains is less a code of ethics than a set of procedures that dictate how to protect oneself from threats and maintain a reputation in hostile territory. Far from being the proud moral system that some of us imagine it to be, the code today seems to exist as a sort of hollowed-out ideal whose role in the street is not to govern behavior, but?—?as we saw in the Mattapan trial?—?to explain it away.
An interesting read. I am intrigued by the concept that there might have once a “golden age” for the code. Is this just another case of generational differences?
But if you are going to write an article like this, why not interview Elijah Anderson? Indeed, it would be interesting to hear what Anderson thinks or knows about the code since he has wrote an urban ethnography that has become a classic work.