Tube City Almanac

April 10, 2009

Speaker: Need for 'Street Cred' Spawns Most City Violence

Category: Events, News || By

The shocking rate of black-on-black crime in American cities doesn't stem directly from drugs, racism or guns, but from poverty, a leading sociologist said this week while visiting McKeesport.

And suburban whites who think they're immune will soon be feeling the same pressures, predicted Elijah Anderson, William K. Lanman, Jr. Professor of Sociology at Yale University.

"It's an experience to be broke and see no way out," Anderson told a standing-room-only crowd in the Ostermayer Room at Penn State's Greater Allegheny Campus. "You scuffle and you hustle to make ends meet, and you can't ... Too many young men --- and young women, too --- are against the wall, trying to make it any way they can."

. . .

The audience's ranks were swelled in part by members of several area youth groups as well as a group of young men who had been directed to hear Anderson's lecture by a juvenile court judge.

To them, Anderson had a simple answer for escaping street life: Earn "human capital," he said.

"If you don't have the education and skills to fit into this new economy, you're in bad shape," Anderson said. "This is not a story you're hearing for the first time. It's a story that all good teachers tell their students. But it's serious."

He also screened clips from a new documentary called "Against the Wall: Poor, Young, Black and Male" that he hopes to get onto PBS or another national TV network.

Based on his new book of the same name, the camera follows Anderson through the streets of Philadelphia as he talks to young men, community activists, police and clergy about the underground economy that has replaced once-plentiful factory jobs.

. . .

Anderson called himself "a street kid" and the product of a working-class family. His parents were sharecroppers who moved North so that his father could take a job in the foundry at the Studebaker Corp.'s auto plant in South Bend, Ind.

With just a grade-school education, Anderson said, his father earned the equivalent of $45,000 annual salary and bought a brand-new car every year.

. . .

Just as basic steel largely deserted the Mon Valley, manufacturing has left South Bend, he said, replaced by a combination of minimum-wage service jobs, public assistance, and bartering and flea markets.

When those three sources aren't enough to pay the bills, Anderson said, communities trade in the only commodity left --- "street cred" --- which he defined as "don't f--k with me, or I'll kick your a--."

His definition got a knowing laugh from many of the teen-agers in the audience.

"Street cred is high maintenance," Anderson said. "It leads to stress, which leads to violence." Young men who have to keep looking tougher and tougher end up defending their street cred with a bullet, he said:
"The 'code of the street' is not just about drug dealing, it's that the community feels like it's on its own. You've got to do it all yourself. All of these exchanges are being done without the benefit of civil law. If someone does you wrong, you don't sue 'em, you get in their face. Pretty soon, there's violence."

That violence is endemic among young black males. The New Pittsburgh Courier, which each month tallies homicides, reported this week that 15 of the 18 murder victims in Allegheny County so far this year were African-American.

Of the dead, two were from Duquesne, one was from McKeesport and two were from Clairton, including Clairton Bears midget football coach DeMonje Rosser.

All of the Mon-Yough area victims were black and age 30 or under. No one has been charged in connection with any of their deaths.*

. . .

Some of the pressures on African-Americans are the historic legacy of slavery and white racism, Anderson said. But many others have been caused by the departure of good-paying jobs to the suburbs.

As China, India and other countries ramp up their manufacturing base, Anderson said, "those jobs are now going out to sea, literally."

White suburbanites and rural residents are soon going to be under the same pressures as black city dwellers have felt for the last 40 years, said Anderson, who fears that the violence will just spread.

. . .

Several people in the audience seemed frustrated that Anderson couldn't offer an easy solution to breaking the cycle of violence. But one way to build "street cred" non-violently, he said, is for young men to channel entrepreneurial energies away from the gray-market or from bartering and into legal stores, restaurants and service providers.

"The impulse to be an entrepreneur is really admirable," Anderson said. "Small business has its place, and it may well be that legitimate small business is a way out."

And people who have escaped the streets have a responsibility to build up the community and give others a chance, he said.

"It gets back to this idea of 'each one, teach one,'" Anderson said. "We need to continue to build trust and respect. Apart from being a racial issue, this is an American issue."

* --- Note: The Courier's tally included a McKeesport man shot to death in February by a Duquesne police officer. That shooting remains under investigation; police have said the victim had broken into an occupied house and was fighting with the patrolman who responded when he was shot.

Your Comments are Welcome!

Outstanding report that every other media outlet ignored. Keep up the good work.
Prof. Bag O'Wind - April 12, 2009

Have you seen Hammer Chuck?

We ran into him around four miles outside Boston Sunday afternoon on our way back from a 45-mile ride to Van Meter, scene of the great Darr Mine disaster of 1907. You know the one. Chuck said he hasn’t been out much yet because he’s been working the fish fries at, what, St. Stephen’s, a couple miles off Walnut Street? I think that’s what he said. His wife prefers the sandwiches at St. Stephen’s to the ones at Greenock Fire Hall, even though Greenock breads all their fish by hand, he said. Chuck lives just a couple miles outside Boston and he’s a legend among people who use the Yough Trail.

Did I tell you how I met Hammer Chuck? About five years ago, I was biking along the trail just outside Sutersville. From the corner of my eye, I could see a recumbent pulling around me. I pedaled harder. The recumbent kept right on coming. I pedaled harder still. Pretty soon, my legs ached and I was breaking a sweat as the other bike slid right past me, like ringing a bell. Just that simple.

“Hiya doin’?” the guy on the bananna yellow recumbent smiled as he eased past me. I don’t remember answering him.

I was so mad, embarrassed, really. This guy was just walked right around me, even though I was pedaling as hard as I could. Never even got his name.

At Sutersville, I pulled off for ice cream and ran into a woman I’d met a few weeks earlier at a poetry reading. Little could I then imagine she would be my wife four years later. “This old guy just blew me off the trail,” I said. “Bananna yellow recumbent – I’m so pissed!”

Overhearing me, another woman in line at the time said, “Oh yeah. That’s Hammer Chuck. He’s my neighbor. He’s 70 years old.”

Well, I felt like crawling under one of those picnic tables right there in the back of the soft-serve.

Chuck laughed when I told him the story Sunday afternoon as we pedaled in the cool sun. He was coming from the old Dravo cemetery where he was helping clear a field for future campers. I sure liked to go fast sometimes, he chuckled.

One morning, Chuck said he left Boston at 6:30 a.m., biked to Confluence where he stayed for half an hour, then biked back to Boston by 7:30 p.m. Connellsville, which is an 80-mile round trip, was a regular ride for him on that signature bike.

And everybody knows Chuck. “When you’re at work during the week, Hammer Chuck is out biking on the trail,” the owner of one bike shop told me. He was probably right. Nobody could beat the guy. Just that morning, Chuck said he met seven teachers from Connecticut who were on the trail, headed for Washington D.C. The teachers were amazed by the beauty of the trail and couldn’t believe Our Fair City didn’t do anything to promote it. Not many locals know about the trail, I told Chuck, not even local bloggers.

My first encounter with Chuck was the same day I met my future wife, I told Chuck, who pulled off with us at Boston. Chuck told us he’d been married 56 years – as long as I’ve been alive, I told him. His wife has heart troubles and takes fish oil tablets. My wife suggested that Chuck try the fish oil for its anti-inflammatory properties. It might help his knees and fingers, she said.

“It’s great to see you guys so happy,” Chuck said. “That makes me feel good.”

We said our good-byes, and Hammer Chuck rode off for home. We stowed our bike on our car and beat it home, too, chilled but thrilled to have spent some time with the great Hammer Chuck.
Prof. Bag O'Wind - April 12, 2009

He makes is sound so easy. How many new small business fail? 9 out of 10? It of course does not help that the economy is bad. Neither does the fact that opening a business in an economically depressed area has an increased chance of theft. Finally, it is so hard to compete with so many chains out there. But I guess better tried and failed than never tried at all, right? Good luck to any that do!
Thee Dude - April 13, 2009

I wish I had attended that event, although during tax season I value my evenings off. I don’t know if I entirely agree with Mr. Anderson’s theory as you report it, but I don’t have a better alternative. I suspect the notion that the residents of poorer neighborhoods feel like they are on their own is very accurate. I have heard people who have incomes ranging from a few thousand dollars to maybe thirty or even forty thousand dollars say plaintively that no one helps them, there is no government bailout or assistance for them. And I don’t disagree.

Mr. Anderson’s suggestion that young men (and women) need to look into small business is probably also very accurate, but in my opinion kind of brutal. Most small businesses don’t make it past a year, and as a small business owner you have only slightly better access to health care (slightly less expensive) and the very real possibility that if you get a serious illness your small business will fold. Still, if ten new kids step forward and try a small business, and nine of them fail, the tenth can employ a few of the other nine, and all will have benefited from being treated like a genuine adult by members of the community, instead of just a street thug.

I have been saying for at least a few years that what the poorer neighborhoods need is good jobs to give everybody a stake in the neighborhood, but clearly they are not coming anytime soon. Maybe what we need are Mark DeSantis’s micro loans, or maybe even more if they are happening now, and the resultant small business.
Ed Heath (URL) - April 13, 2009

In all fairness to Dr. Anderson, I vastly oversimplified and condensed his talk.

And I really think he was just offering the idea of entrepreneurship as one possible avenue out.

It’s not an easy problem to solve, and as the fatal shooting Easter morning on Abraham Street shows, it’s not confined to one neighborhood and it continues to plague the Mon Valley.
Webmaster - April 13, 2009

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