The Code of the Street: Social Norms in Putatively Lawless Areas

By Comrade Sloth

When traditional institutions like police forces and courts can’t be depended on to keep people safe, how does a community keep from spiraling into a state of total anarchy? In America's urban centers, communities have developed their own system of rules and enforcements to govern behavior in an environment where mainstream (white) society has entirely let them down. This "code of the street" is a widespread system that has a strong emphasis on demonstrations of respect and how to respond to perceived slights.

While many would dismiss the formulation of this "street code" as being the result of rebellious or uncouth behavior, it's important to recognize what cultural context necessitated the formation of this code in the first place. Many who live in urbanized areas, particularly ethnic minorities, have been systematically marginalized or under-represented by the legal system. When police are shown to be twice as likely to kill unarmed African Americans as opposed to other groups, it creates a culture of deep distrust and resentment against law enforcement. Coupled with the complete political quagmire of the War on Drugs, which devastates poor communities and includes heinous policies like “stop and frisk” that target minorities at ten times the rate of whites, even the most strictly law-abiding citizen may pause before calling the police.

This condition of highly rational fear and distrust has left these communities with no choice but to develop their own rules of conduct and enforcement. The street code is, at its foundation, a set of behaviors that convey security and stability. Followers of this self-regulating system are often the most alienated among society, and have little incentive to abide by traditional laws, as those laws have possibly done more harm than good to their communities. Subsequently, there is widespread encouragement for defiance of legal authority – the result of a contempt exhibited by both law enforcement officers and urban inhabitants. Acts of violence to settle disputes are common, as someone who is constantly being threatened must develop a more sensitive and decisive reaction to perceived slights; a failure to do so can mean the difference between life and death.

It’s true that the effects of this street code have a lot of unintended consequences. This breakdown of cohesion between communities and police leads to an increase in crime, arrests, and economic deterioration. But simply arresting people for violence and drug activity only treats a symptom of a much wider problem: the economic and social conditions of racism and classism that led to that breakdown in the first place. Municipalities should concentrate efforts on community-integrated police efforts in order to build trust between law enforcement officers and their communities. These activities make them seem a little more human and less like a faceless representation of a system that clearly holds contempt for these disenfranchised groups. But in order for conditions to improve substantially, we need to see a massive overhaul in the way many police matters are conducted and take better steps to ensure that the mission to “serve and protect” is equally applied to all.