By Scott Jacques
Code 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 suburb.” 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.
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 Criminology, Crime & Delinquency, The International Journal of Drug Policy, The Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Justice 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).
My book, Living with Insecurity in a Brazilian Favela, examines the social production of insecurity in a poor neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, paying particular attention to how multiple, overlapping forms of urban violence impact the residents of a neighborhood that I call Caxambu. I try to show how the neighborhood is experienced as a profoundly contradictory space. On the one hand, it is a place of social intimacy, pride, and creativity, reflecting the deep social ties that bind many of its residents and the years of work that they’ve put into building their homes, streets and alleys. Yet at the same time it is often a space of social marginalization and unpredictably lethal violence, reflecting how drug-trafficking and policing conspire to disorganize daily life.
By Randol Contreras
One summer night, I was conducting field research on a group of Dominican men in a South Bronx neighborhood. It was just past midnight and some of us were high or inebriated from smoking weed and drinking hard liquor. Only the dim streetlights broke the darkness as we huddled against two beat up parked cars. We talked about familiar topics – women, sports, women, drugs, women – in loud, exaggerated tones. But we also talked about their new drug market activity: Stickups.
On the streets, these Dominican men were known as Joloperos in Spanish, or Stickup Kids in English. Their specialty, robbing upper-level drug dealers, involved unimaginable brutality, violence that mimicked state-sponsored torture from around the world.
Tukee: He told a story of a non-compliant drug dealer who would not talk, would not reveal the cash, the drugs, nothing, nada, leading him to chop off the dealer’s pinky with a kitchen knife.
David: He told a story of how his accomplices became angered when a stubborn dealer insisted that he did not have three kilos of cocaine (“Mierda! We knew he had them! The dealer’s own partner set him up!”). They found a clothes iron in the dealer’s closet and used it to burn his back.
Neno: He told several stories, ones where he and Gus pistol-whipped dealers; burned them with la plancha, or iron; threatened to sodomize them, sometimes following through on the threat as a last resort.
Aye mi madre! I thought to myself when I later transcribed the tape-recordings. On their face, these stories rendered these men as sociopathic monsters. They seemed heartless and irredeemable, as sadists pursuing violence for pleasure.
The series ‘tips the proverbial hat’ to the major works and big ideas that inspire established and up-and-coming scholars alike. In it, we’ll showcase these scholars and the classic works that shaped them.
The first installment of this series is written by Randol Contreras, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto and author of The Stickup Kids: Race, Drugs, Violence, and the American Dream (University of California Press, 2013), and focuses on C. Wright Mill’s The Sociological Imagination. If you are interested in seeing a scholar featured here please send an email to email@example.com with “Tip of the Cap” in the subject line. Enjoy!