North American Culture

Analysis of Urban Life in America



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"Analysis of Urban Life in America"
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The "Code of the Streets" is a strict product of the socialization of urban culture. Their sense of community is affected by how they are raised, which modes of socialization they encounter, and how they are introduced to them. The "streets" have their own values, norms, rituals and beliefs while the interactions that take place on these streets depend completely upon behavior, respect, and power.

The "streets" are different from what many people, like myself, may have grown up with in the suburbs. Typical white suburban neighborhoods have nothing in common with the mostly black, urban cities of Philadelphia, for example. The city instills a very different self-identity upon its inhabitants and it is not so much a side effect of the situation as it is more of an evolution towards the goal of survival. Creating a strong self-image is important in its own way because it is their "poker face". These individuals create their strength, whether they have or not, in order to ward off dangerous opponents or gain respect. The streets are nothing other than this "campaign for respect". Money and education is in many ways irrelevant, toughness and confidence rule the playing field. What kind of person is created through this code?

The streets create a person who is rugged, tough, possibly ill-tempered and quick to jump to assumptions. The call for respect is one which relies heavily on personal space. Once one person steps within that space, whether physically or verbally, the person who feels questioned is now responsible to retaliate how he sees fit. If he does not, he could see dire consequences down the road resulting in more challenges or becoming a victim of a worse situation. A failure to defend oneself, even if not under attack, could trigger a loss in respect. A loss in respect allows the surrounding people to view them as an easier target less likely to defend, or be able to defend themselves. This person is created through a mass of influences brought together collectively through his agents of socialization. The most major of these are family, peers, or even schools.

The street life is a major part of city life in general. The streets are composed of two groups, the "decent" families and the "street" families. Despite the two groups it is important to realize that both groups share the same financial situations, regardless of their group, and because of this, individuals may cross "group lines" from time to time out of mere necessity. This is known as "circumstantial behavior" and is a very real part of the urban lifestyle. Generally, however, there is a distinction between the values and behaviors of the two. Both must know the code to avoid possible complications. Just because one is part of a "decent" family does not mean that he is free from street rules, but quite the contrary. It is not at all important what group one is part of; if a rule has been broken the consequences must be paid. Because of this, though many decent families are reluctant to the behavior of the street, they must instill those rules in their children to help them understand how to avoid issues when out in possibly dangerous territories. These problems arise when possible misunderstandings occur during what may be understood in the street community as the "campaign for respect."

The "campaign for respect" is a byproduct of the lack of confidence in the police and judicial system. The police are often seen as a representation of "the dominant white society[un]caring of protect[ing] the inner-city residents." (Anderson 82) In essence, the streets have their own society in which everyone must fight for themselves. This is what causes quarrels and high rates of violence. They believe they are their only protection which is why each little "petty" behavioral action, like maintaining eye contact, can be potentially seen as threatening and a "diss" (a disrespectful action). In street society respect is hard-won but easily lost, therefore, these small actions, though possibly not even intentional, must be noted as "serious indications of the other person's intentions". (Anderson 82) Respect is gained through this sort of savage behavior and is displayed most commonly in their appearance: "clothing, demeanor and way of moving". (Anderson 82) These characteristics are seen as determents, ways that the individual proves his toughness, and his capability to take care of himself. This capability is what runs the streets, what everyone strives for. This externally-motivating attribute "translates into [the necessary] sense of physical and psychological control". (Anderson 82)

The campaign for respect usually starts at a young age, especially for the street-oriented. These families allow their young 7-8 year old children to roam freely with their friends well into the hours of 10-11 P.M., most of them disregarding the existence of homework. The decent families obviously keep a much stronger grip on their children. Because of street life's dependency on one's campaign for respect, it is easy to understand why these children are given such a head-start. Their friends typically become their primary associations (and most likely gangmates soon later). Most of the values they learn on the streets from their peers are later reinforced indirectly by their families. After witnessing older males fighting verbally or physically, they may return to their homes with related issues such as bullying at school. These families will then instill reinforcing definitions into their heads by saying things like, "'Protect yourself', Don't punk out', or If someone "disses" you, you got to straighten them out.'" (Anderson 86) It is this interaction between peers and family, personal experiences and viewed altercations that trigger this social learning in street families.

Two words associated with this campaign are "juice" and "nerve". The components of these terms have already been noted. "Juice" is simply one's quantity of respect. This is the reason for the instability and sensitivity on the streets. One's actions must be carefully monitored at all times. If someone sees something that they see as an indication of a threat, they may jump to that challenge for two reasons: to protect their "juice", or to increase it. "Nerve" is one's capability or tendency to attack another's "juice" or "diss" them. Examples of this would include throwing the first punch, or pulling the trigger of a gun. This is not only a way to steal respect from someone while in turn gaining some, but it also serves as a deterrent for future challenges. The more "nerve" someone has, the more unpredictable their actions or capabilities are.

Social learning is a component of human development. Each individual undergoes their own form of social learning by using behavior, speech and overall understanding or analyzation of their peers to develop their own knowledge, and eventually their self-identity. This is also known as a looking-glass self, a self identity that grows out of the social interactions one has with those around them. This self-identity is especially important in those who choose the life of the streets because their identity is everything. No job, no education, no true friends; all they have is their "juice" and "nerve". It is all they are. Another sociological issue integrates quite solidly into this subculture and that is self-conception. The two parts of self-conception, "I" and "me", can greatly influence others but also their environments. As previously stated, it is important to have these personal characteristics squared away correctly before facing the streets. The first aspect, "I", is spontaneous, inner, creative and subjective; and the "me" is the organized attitudes of others which is more closely connected to the society itself. The "me" is typically how the individual sees themselves through other peoples' eyes, a looking-glass self. Because there are two distinct social groups in the same culture, the "decent" and "street" families, it is only fair to engage comparison upon the two in a quest to understand social learning in general and its impact on city inhabitants. These are of course the two radical groups and in no way fully embody the behaviors and beliefs of the families or individuals that may experience "circumstantial behavior."

True "decent" families are usually hard-working married couples or single parents. They are usually slightly more financially secure than their "street-oriented neighbors." They are willing to sacrifice for their children and take an interest in their schooling. Instead of letting themselves be affected by the tumultuous issues of city life, some see their situations as "test[s] from God and derive great support from their faith and from the church community". (Anderson 83) They find themselves to be very strict and constant promoters of ideals during the ever-so-important child-rearing process. They see the issues on a first-hand basis and do everything within their power to instill better values in their children, guiding them along a "strict moral line. They have an almost obsessive concern about trouble of any kind and remind their children to be on the lookout for people and situations that might lead to it". (Anderson 83) Sometimes the parents' views and parental actions win out and sometimes they fall short. It is not, in this situation, the fault of the parents but simply of the society. "The kind of home [one] comes from influences but does not determine the way he will ultimately turn outalthough it is unlikely that a child from a thoroughly street-oriented family will absorb decent values on the streets." (Anderson 86) This of course causes much confusion when the child finally realizes they must choose an orientation.

"Street" parents are on the other side of the value spectrum. They typically have a poor sense of distinction between family and community and "though many of them love their children, many of them are unable to cope with the physical and emotional demands of parenthood". (Anderson 83) In some ways they may even, intentionally or not, push their children into the rules of the street due to their understanding and reverence for their own personal values. Some of the driving forces behind this less virtuous lifestyle include limited comprehension of priorities and consequences. Confusion over "bills, food, and [more unnecessary components] drink, cigarettes, and drugs" can provide for an emotionally scattering environment for many children and in turn push them closer to joining the very same "street life" that their parents themselves are fighting with or against. "Youths who emerge from street-oriented families but develop a decency orientation almost always learn those values in another setting [aside from their family]in school, in a youth group, in church. Often it is the result of their involvement with a caring old head' (adult role model)". (Anderson 86)

Norms are rules of behavioral action, what is seen as right or wrong in a society, what people expect from each other. Decent families may have their own views of what is right or wrong, and those would tend to be very much like the mainstream views of the country. Street families would have very skewed views that would base mostly on respect and fear. Consequences and the individual's quick instinct-driven responses to those consequences would be all that could be expected, while any form of disrespect to family or friends is avengable by whatever seems necessary. Very few bounds are concrete in the life of the streets. Rules are simply those of respect and power, no other. Decents, however, may see things differently. They would most likely be more influenced by familial rules similar to those of suburban life (or as virtuous as possible for urban life), with some preventative, protective measures built in given the urban environment.

As we can see in this contrast, there are two very similar and yet also very different lifestyles in the city. How they coincide is one of the most fascinating sociological concepts that have arisen in the last half-century or so. One group, though entirely different from the other in beliefs, values, and virtues, must learn the ways and ideals of the other in order to adequately protect themselves and integrate themselves among them in the healthiest way. It is a difficult task and many struggle with the issue, but it is a modern dilemma that has reared its head and therefore must be addressed. It will be interesting to see in the coming decades if one group will become greater than the other or if the dominant/minority struggle will remain unchanged.

-Works Cited-

Anderson, E. (1994, May). The Code of the Streets. The Atlantic Monthly , pp. 81-94.

More about this author: Lou Vailant

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