Tip of the Cap

Social Control in the Streets and the Suburbs: Understanding the “Code of the Suburb”

By Scott Jacques

PrintCode of the Suburb, which I co-authored with Richard Wright, is based on interviews with 30 adolescents who grew up and sold drugs in middle-class suburbia. Why did they get into drug dealing? How did they procure and distribute their supply? How did they prevent and respond to victimization, legal trouble, and parental problems? Why did they quit? The answers are to be found at the intersection of the dealers’ attempts to be cool while simultaneously pursuing conventional success. This is the book in a nutshell.

Anyone who has read Anderson’s Code of the Street instantly will recognize that he influenced my work. Both codes – street and suburban – are informal rules governing interpersonal behavior, particularly violence. The major difference between them is that the code of the street maintains that violence is a good, or at least an acceptable, way to handle conflict, whereas the code of the suburb holds the opposite to be true.

In my book, the code of the suburb revealed itself in how the sellers responded to being stolen from. The stereotypical understanding of dealers is that they abide by the code of the street and, therefore, their modal response to victimization is violent retaliation. Yet the suburban dealers rarely acted as vigilantes, and even when they did, minor bruises rather than bullet wounds were the result. Instead, they responded to victimization with more peaceful means, such as trying to talk out a resolution with the offender, cutting them off, or doing nothing. When I asked the dealers to explain their nonviolent responses, they often said things like “I don’t want to hurt somebody” and “Better to write stuff like that off.”

Though someone may have uttered it before me, to my knowledge I coined the phrase “code of the 51fN7YSRfnLsuburb.” What I like about it is that people instantly get what it is that I am referring to, so long as they are already familiar with the code of the street. However, what I label the code of the suburb is very similar to what M.P. Baumgartner, author of The Moral Order of a Suburb, calls a “philosophy of moral minimalism.”

Referring to this philosophy, Baumgartner explains that

[T]he most basic component of this system is a strong conviction that conflict is a social contaminant, something to be prevented if at all possible and to be ended quickly once begun.

She goes on to further describe this philosophy, which includes being embarrassed by embroilment in public conflict, a negative attitude toward violence, and positive opinions of toleration and avoidance. A testament to her work, and why I admire it, is that she more or less predicted and described my participants’ orientation to conflict years before they ever took up drug selling.

Works Referenced

Anderson, Elijah. 1999. Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Baumgartner, M. P. 1988. The Moral Order of a Suburb. New York: Oxford University Press.

Scott Jacques is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Georgia State University. His work has been published in journals such as CriminologyCrime & DelinquencyThe International Journal of Drug PolicyThe Journal of Research in Crime and DelinquencyJustice Quarterly, and Theoretical Criminology. His book (co-authored with Richard Wright) is entitled Code of the Suburb: Inside the World of Young Middle-Class Drug Dealers (University of Chicago Press).

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