Thursday, August 20, 2009

The School as a Staging Area

I offer you an example from “Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City” by Elijah Anderson (1999), Chapter 2 (Campaigning for Respect), pp. 93 to 98.

In my view, any discussion about reform in inner-city schools that does not overtly refer to an understanding of Anderson’s observations and conclusions will miss the target and be pointless. A full internalization of the message in the body of his work will be needed to comprehend the situation, before any reformer even attempts to develop a truly useful strategy.


The inner-city school is an outpost of the traditions of the wider society. Racially segregated and situated in an impoverished inner-city community in which violence, drugs, and crime are rampant, it is characterized by the street/decent dynamic. During their early years, most of the children accept the legitimacy of the school, and then eagerly approach the task of learning. As time passes, however, in their relentless campaign for the respect that will be meaningful in their public environment, youth increasingly embrace the street code. By the fourth grade, enough children have opted for the code of the street that it begins to compete effectively with the culture of the school, and the code begins to dominate their public culture—in school as well as out—becoming a way of life for many and eventually conflating with the culture of the school itself. Such a school becomes a primary staging area for the campaign for respect.

In this social setting, decent kids learn to code switch, while street kids become more singularly committed to the street. Such a division, as previously stated, is largely a function of persistent poverty and local neighborhood effects, which include social isolation and alienation, but it is also strongly related to family background, available peers, and role models. For many alienated young black people, attending school and doing well becomes negatively associated with acting white. In what is essentially a racially black street-world, as shown in Tyree’s case, one develops a strong need to show others he can handle himself socially and physically on the ghetto streets, a powerful community value in and of itself. This “street knowledge” is esteemed, and the quest for it and the consideration for those who have it begin to predominate, ultimately competing with, if not undermining, the mission of the school.

With each passing year the school loses ground as more and more students adopt a street orientation, if only for self-defense in the neighborhood. But often what is out on the streets is brought into the classrooms. The most troublesome students are then encouraged by peers to act out, to get over on the teachers, to test authority by probing for weaknesses. Particularly during mild weather, many students in the upper grades attend school sporadically or stop coming altogether, because street activities effectively compete for their time. Even while in school, they walk the halls instead of attending class, and their encounters there often mirror those on the street, marked by tension and fights.

Some of the seriously street-oriented kids may have mental health issues; some have been abused by their parents; others are depressed. The most troubled may fight with teachers, bring guns and knives to school, and threaten people. The idea of deprivation and anger is important here. In this highly competitive setting, the most deprived youths, who can easily be made to feel bad, sometimes become jealous of peers. To avoid feeling bad, these kids may lift themselves up by putting others down. A common tactic is to “bust on” or “signify” at someone, verbally teasing the person, at times to the point of tears. Sometimes the prettiest girls can get beaten up out of jealousy. From so much envy and jealousy, beefs easily erupt, beginning with ritual “bumping” and ending in serious physical confrontations to settle things. Bumping rights are then negotiated, determining who is allowed to bump whom, to pick on whom, and in what circumstances. In essence, these young people are campaigning for place, esteem, and ultimately respect.

In this situation, the school becomes transformed in the most profound sense into a staging area for the streets, a place where people come to present themselves, to represent where they come from, and to stay even with or to dominate their peers. Violence is always a possibility, for the typically troubled school is surrounded by persistent poverty, where scarcity of valued things is the rule, thus lending a competitive edge to the social environment. However, the trophies to be won are not of academic kind, rather they are those of the street, particularly respect. In this campaign, young people must be prepared not only to fight, but also to take great care with their appearance. The right look means not wearing old or “bummy” clothes, or sneakers that are worn or dirty or out of style. Esteem is so precarious that it can be taken away with just a word, and kids are constantly challenge to defend what they have. Social life becomes a zero-sum scenario: “If you have something and exhibit it, it means I’m less. Who do you think you are by doing that?” The decent kids mimic the street ones, behaving in street ways that often confuse teachers (and also prospective employers and police who might be incapable of distinguishing the decent from the street). Some teachers are unable to differentiate between he two groups. Overwhelmed by clothes, the look, or the swagger, they cannot discern the shy kid underneath, which may be why teachers classify the majority of young people as “street.”

To be sure, much of the students’ behavior may be purely defensive, which requires significant expenditures of social energy. This situation intends to victimize the weakest players and certainly disrupts the business of the school. In time, when unattended, the street element (and those who would be “street”) dominates the school and its local terrain. In the most troubled schools, the street element becomes so powerful that beefs and scores can only be settled by death. Again, most of the young people in these settings are inclined toward decency, but when the street elements rule, they are encouraged to campaign for respect by adopting a street attitude, look, and presentation of self. In this context the decent kids often must struggle to maintain their credibility, like the fifteen-year-old boy I observed who typically changed his “square” clothes for a black leather jacket (thereby adopting a street look) after he got around the corner from his home and out of his mother’s view. In order to preserve his own self-respect and the respect of his peers, he would also hide his books under his jacket while walking to school, bidding to appear street.

In school as in the neighborhood, adolescents are concerned with developing a sense of who they are, what they are, and what they will be. They try on many different personal roles, and they experiment with many scripts. Some work, others don’t. How do the roles of decent and street play out in their search for an identity, and what parts do others play? What stages do the young people go through? What is the “career” of identity as this career takes shape?

Observing the interactions of adolescents in school and talking with them reveal how important school authority is to young people, but too often the authority figures are viewed as alien and unreceptive. The teachers and administrators are concerned that their own authority be taken seriously, and claims to authority are always up for grabs—if not subject to out-and-out challenge.

Young people, of course, do not go about developing their identities based solely on privileges and rewards granted by teachers, but this dynamic does exist to some degree. Often students perceive (more or less accurately) that the institution and its staff are utterly unreceptive to their street presentations. Mixed with their inability to distinguish the decent child from the street child, the teachers’ efforts to combat the street may cause them to lump the good students with the bad, generally viewing all who display street emblems as adversaries. Here, their concerns might be as much with teaching as with controlling their charges.

In response, the decent children place ever greater stock in their ability to code-switch, adopting one set of behaviors for inside the building and one for outside. But, as indicated above—particularly in the heat of the campaign for respect—the two roles often merge, and what is considered proper in either setting can become one and the same. When this confusion goes unchecked, discipline in the school situation becomes elusive, particularly for those children who seem “to get away with it.”

When students become convinced that they cannot receive their props from teachers and staff, they turn elsewhere, typically to the street, encouraging others to follow their lead, particularly when the unobtainable appears to be granted only on the basis of acting white. The sour grapes attitude notwithstanding, a powerful incentive for these young people then emerges, especially for those sitting on the cultural fence, to invest themselves in the so-called oppositional culture, which may be confused with their ”black identity.” Such a resolution allows these alienated students to campaign for respect on their own terms, in a world they control.

Impacted by profound social isolation, the children face the basic problem of alienation. Many students become smug in their lack of appreciation of what the business of the school is and how it is connected with the world outside. In addition, they seldom encounter successful black people who have gone through school and gone on to do well.

Education is thus undermined because the mission of the school cannot equal the mission of the kids. To accept the school would be to give in and act white, to give up the value of the street for some other thing. And the value of that other thing has not been sufficiently explained to the children to make them want to give up the ways of the street and take on the ideology of the school. So the outpost of mainstream society tries to deliver its message to kids in an environment that has little regard for that society. In fact, the code of the street, and by extension the oppositional culture, competes very effectively with traditional values. As the young people come to see the school and its agents are unreceptive to them, embracing the oppositional culture becomes more important as a way to salvage self-esteem. The mission of the school is called into question, if not undermined.

Alienated black students take on the oppositional role so effectively that they often become models for other disaffected students. They do it because they are profoundly at odds with the with culture and can see themselves as visibly different. But other alienated students may mimic them because they are such strong models.

The culture of the street doesn’t allow backing down. When the boys at the Youth Study Center (Philadelphia’s juvenile detention facility) saw a video on conflict resolution as an alternative to fighting, they just school their heads. They knew that you never back down. That is to set you up as a doormat. You have to be tough. If you show fear, others will exploit it. So you always have to give the impression that you are strong, that you are a “thorough dude.” Even a teacher who shows fear becomes vulnerable and can be emotionally undone by the kids. When that happens, the kids know they’ve won. So there is an adversarial relationship between the teachers and the students. The teachers’ role is to keep the kids in line. The students’ role is either to behave or to try to get over on the teacher.

The school is a microcosm of the community in a sense. Although police and disciplinarians are on patrol, kids are parading up and down the halls, socializing, even buying and selling drugs. The same things are going on inside the school as outside it. Yet it remains a haven, a place where one can go and expect relative order.

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