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Being Black in white spaces: A conversation with sociologist Elijah Anderson | Expert Opinion

A leading scholar of urban inequality who conducted extensive research in the Philadelphia area, he recalls living in diverse local neighborhoods ’where people get along — at least until they don’t.’

Elijah Anderson studied urban life in West Philadelphia, Center City, and other neighborhoods during teaching stints at the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College. He was recently honored with a major award and is the author of a new book.
Elijah Anderson studied urban life in West Philadelphia, Center City, and other neighborhoods during teaching stints at the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College. He was recently honored with a major award and is the author of a new book.Read moreElijah Anderson

Elijah Anderson — ethnographer, Yale sociologist, and a leading scholar of urban inequality — has spent half a century shedding light on the Black American experience.

After months of a racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd, Anderson’s research feels as relevant as ever, and, at 78, he shows few signs of slowing down. Last month, Anderson was awarded the Stockholm Prize — one of the most prestigious honors in the field of criminology — for his study of violence in segregated communities that are marked by “prejudice and blocked opportunities.” And early next year, Anderson will publish a new book, Black in White Space, which explores the persistence of bias and discrimination.

Although Anderson’s research began in the Chicago area where he completed a Ph.D. at Northwestern University, it blossomed here in Greater Philadelphia during teaching stints at the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College. While here, he studied communities as disparate as West Philadelphia, Center City, and Chestnut Hill — all of which informed his perspective on the Black urban experience.

You describe yourself as an urban ethnographer. What is the most distinctive to you about ethnography, and how does being an ethnographer inform your work?

Ethnography is the systematic study of culture, a set of shared understandings about the world. To derive these understandings, the ethnographer typically engages in qualitative fieldwork, spending time with the people of the local community, listening to what they say and watching what they do.

The people of virtually any community go about meeting the demands of their everyday lives, solving problems and meeting challenges. From these experiences, they learn things, or gain knowledge peculiar to their local circumstances. From this knowledge, they gain understandings, which they then share with others, and especially those they care about. These understandings are then manifested in the myths, rituals, and ultimately the social structure of the local community.

I found in my research that one of the biggest challenges for Black people is the “white space,” a perceptual category, and by implication, the white people who are believed to control these spaces. Black people develop local knowledge about these spaces, and then pass it on to others, especially those they love, including members of their families.

The ethnographer’s challenge is to apprehend, comprehend, and understand this local knowledge, and then to represent it as accurately as possible in his or her writings — to render effectively the social situation of the local people, or to paint an accurate word picture of the social world of the subjects, and especially of their shared understandings of themselves in relation to that world. This is what I try to do in my work.

» READ MORE: Philly remains one of the most racially segregated cities in America

Code of the street

In your book Code of the Street, you describe a framework for how people behave in communities where official law enforcement is not trusted. How do these kinds of codes develop? Has the unrest in the wake of the George Floyd and other murders changed your thinking on this at all?

Philadelphia, like so many U.S. cities, has been undergoing profound changes in its local economy, a shift from one based on manufacturing to one based on service and high technology, all in the context of increasing globalization. Many Black people have been left behind and now work at the lowest levels of the service economy in jobs that don’t pay them enough to live and to provide for their families.

Hence, through little fault of their own, these Black people suffer from a form of structural poverty. This manifests as everyday, inner-city poverty and hits Black neighborhoods especially hard, their residents already bearing the brunt of centuries of disenfranchisement and racial exclusion.

Now, in too many of these impoverished communities, the underground economy of drugs and street crime picks up the slack, promising survival money when the regular economy offers little or none.

This underground economy is based on what I have called the “code of the street,” an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

What I found in my research is that in this social context, respect for the civil law is weak. Many residents simply do not trust the criminal justice system, and especially the police. They believe there are two different systems of law — one for Black people and one for White people, one for the poor and unconnected, and one for privileged white people.

When respect for the civil law is weak, street justice fills the void.

» READ MORE: I’ve led two of the nation’s largest police departments. Here are six steps to make law enforcement fairer and more equitable. | Rebuilding Philly

Cosmopolitan canopies

In The Cosmopolitan Canopy, you shift to talking about navigating more neutral spaces. In your personal life, you also moved from a home near Penn’s campus in West Philadelphia to Rittenhouse Square, in Center City and not far from the Reading Terminal, an example of a cosmopolitan canopy. What are the rules under the cosmopolitan canopy?

The “cosmopolitan canopy” is a concept I introduced in my book of that name. It refers to a “culturally diverse island of civility located in a virtual sea of racial segregation” — and Philadelphia is the sixth most segregated city in the nation.

And yet, the city has a number of such public spaces, particularly the Reading Terminal Market, Rittenhouse Square, certain restaurants, universities, neighborhoods, and other public places — places where all kinds of people gather, and for the most part get along. I once lived in University City, where all manner of diversity can be encountered, where people get along — at least until they don’t.

These spaces are composed of people of both cosmopolitan and ethnocentric orientations, though the cosmopolitan people typically dominate the space. However, on occasion, the most ethnocentric person might draw the color line, effectively marginalizing minorities there. But most often, an attitude of civility is present and expressed in these settings, and typically, it prevails.

Has America always had these spaces, even during times of state-enforced segregation and enslavement?

The cosmopolitan canopy is really a metaphor for the nation’s civil society, a place where everyone should be welcome. Historically, these settings have excluded Black people and other minorities. Since the successes of Civil Rights, Black people and others have experienced greater degrees of inclusion.

But such spaces have always existed throughout human history, going all the way back to Roman times, as manifested in the Italian piazza, as a diverse parade of people occupied the same general space.

The cosmopolitan canopy is really a metaphor for the nation’s civil society, a place where everyone should be welcome.”

Elijah Anderson
Alain Bertaud, the former principal urban planner at the World Bank, has said that the best urban spaces often come together without a very specific plan or guidance from urban planners like himself, based almost on a kind of deep-rooted instinct. Is this true of cosmopolitan canopies as well?

I think this may well be true. For example, the Reading Terminal Market or Rittenhouse Square both appear to have emerged organically into the socially tolerant places they are today.

Today, also I might add, there is a proposal underway to create a “cosmopolitan canopy” along the Philadelphia Parkway. I consulted recently with a group of local architects who were inspired by my book The Cosmopolitan Canopy. And they want to make the Parkway into a kind of cosmopolitan canopy.

Oftentimes, in public conversation, any Black person is assumed to be poor and any Black neighborhood is assumed to be “the ghetto.” Even neighborhoods that are predominantly middle class often are assumed to be ghetto by white observers, despite the fact that a majority of Black Americans are now middle class according to the Brookings Institution. Even in the NBA, which when I was growing up was very identified with “street culture,” is now a place where the sons of the middle class predominate. Why does this perception linger despite the changes in American society over the last six decades?

Since the end of the Civil Rights Movement, large numbers of Black people have made their way into settings previously occupied only by whites, though their reception has been mixed. Overwhelmingly white neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, restaurants, and other public spaces remain.

Meanwhile, despite the growth of an enormous black middle class, many whites and others assume that the natural black space is that destitute and fearsome locality so commonly featured in the public media, including popular books, music and videos, and the TV news — the iconic ghetto.

Thus, anonymous Black people navigate civil society, with a deficit of credibility, as the people they encounter assume the middle-class Black people they encounter belong in the ghetto.

While it may be true that everyone who lives in a certain ghetto is Black, it is patently untrue that everyone who is Black lives in a ghetto. Regardless, Black people of all classes, including those born and raised far from the inner cities and those who’ve never been in a ghetto, by virtue of skin color alone are stigmatized by the place and victimized by their color caste.