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Delinquent and Criminal Subcultures - The School As A Staging Area

street people students respect

In the toughest urban neighborhoods, the local school serves as an outpost of the traditions of the wider society as well as a focal point for local culture, a place where "the little traditions" of the local neighborhood and the "great traditions" of the wider society come together. Racially segregated and situated in an impoverished inner-city community in which violence, drugs, and crime are rampant, and sometimes ignored by the authorities, it is characterized by the street-decent dynamic. Defined by the young people themselves, youths who are viewed as decent are often not given much respect on the street, and those viewed as "street" are generally seen as tough, and therefore to be respected.

During their early years, most of the children accept the legitimacy of the school, and eagerly approach the task of learning. With the passage of time, however, the relentless campaign they wage for respect in their public environment requires that the street code be observed. By the fourth grade, enough children have usually opted for the code of the street that it begins to compete effectively with the culture of the school, and the code begins to dominate their public culture—in school as well as out—becoming a way of life for many, eventually conflating with the culture of the school itself. Under such circumstances, the school becomes a primary staging area for the campaign for respect.

In this process, for largely instrumental purposes, decent kids learn to "code switch," while street kids become more singularly committed to the street. The difference is strongly related to family background, available peers and role models, and just "how tough" the neighborhood is perceived to be. For many alienated young black people, attending school and doing well become negatively identified as "acting white," and to do so in this environment is to mark oneself as vulnerable. In an essentially racially black street-world, there is often a strong need to demonstrate one's ability to handle oneself socially and physically on the ghetto streets. This is a powerful community value in and of itself. "Street knowledge" is esteemed, and the quest for it and the consideration for those who have it begin to predominate, ultimately competing with and at times undermining the mission of the school.

As these neighborhood conditions persist, with each passing year the school loses ground as more and more students adopt a street orientation, if only for survival and self-defense in the neighborhood. But often what is out on the streets is brought into the classrooms, for largely more expressive purposes. Hence, some of the most troublesome students are then encouraged by peers to act out, to get over on the teacher, to test authority by probing for weaknesses. Particularly during mild weather, many students in the upper grades attend school sporadically or stop coming altogether, because street activities effectively compete for their time. Even while in school, they walk the halls instead of attending class, and their encounters there often mirror those on the street, marked by tension and fights.

The most troubled street-oriented kids may fight with teachers, bring guns and knives to school, and threaten people. In this highly competitive setting, deprivation and anger are combined. The most deprived youths, who can easily be made to feel bad, sometimes become envious and jealous of peers. Some compensate by lifting themselves up by putting others down. A common tactic is to "bust on" or "signify" at someone, verbally teasing the person, at times to the point of tears. Sometimes the prettiest girls can get beaten up out of jealousy. From so much envy and jealousy, beefs easily erupt, beginning with ritual "bumping" and ending in serious physical confrontations to settle things. Bumping rights are negotiated, determining who is allowed to bump whom, to pick on whom, and in what circumstances. In this process young people campaign for place, esteem, and ultimately respect.

In this way, the school becomes transformed in the most profound sense into a staging area for the streets, a place where people come to present themselves, to represent where they come from, and to stay even with or to dominate their peers. Violence and threats of violence are very often of an instrumental nature, and always a possibility, for the typically troubled school is surrounded by persistent poverty, where scarcity of valued things is the rule, aggravating an already highly competitive social environment. And authority, especially that of the police and other agents of social control, is very often questioned, and outright defiance may be seen as a virtue. In this campaign, young people must be prepared not only show a certain defiance of this authority, but at times to fight, or at least not to back down.

Moreover, young people must also take great care with their public appearance. To gain and maintain the respect of their peers, they must display the right look. And the right look means not wearing old or "bummy" clothes, or sneakers that are worn or dirty or out of style. Esteem is so precarious that it can be taken away with just a word, and kids are constantly challenged to defend what they have and who they want to be. Social life becomes a zero-sum scenario in which appearance and possessions may have the effect of diminishing others. In dealing with this setting, the decent kids often mimic the street kids, behaving in street ways that often confuse teachers (and also prospective employers and police who might be incapable of distinguishing the decent from the street). Some teachers are unable to differentiate between the two groups; they may become overwhelmed, unwilling, or unable to discern the often shy kid behind the "tough" facade.

As indicated, much of students' behavior may be purely defensive, requiring significant expenditures of social energy. The weakest players tend to be victimized and the business of the school is disrupted. In the toughest situations, the street element (and those who would be street) may dominate the school and its local terrain. Although most of the young people in these settings are inclined toward decency, when street elements rule, they must campaign for respect by adopting a street attitude, look, and presentation of self. The decent kids must struggle to maintain their credibility. One fifteen-year-old boy typically changed his "square" clothes for a black leather jacket (thereby adopting a street look) after he got around the corner from his home and out of his mother's view. In order to preserve his own self-respect and the respect of his peers, he would also hide his books under his jacket while walking to school, bidding to appear street. In school, as in the neighborhood, adolescents are concerned with developing a sense of who they are, what they are, and what they will be. They try on many different personas and roles, and they experiment with many scripts. Some work, others do not.

School authority is extremely important to young people, but too often authority figures are viewed as alien and unreceptive. Teachers and administrators are concerned that their own authority be taken seriously, and claims to authority are often up for grabs—even subject to outand-out challenge. Although young people do not develop their identities based solely on privileges and rewards granted by teachers, this dynamic does exist. Often students perceive (more or less accurately) that the institution and its staff are utterly unreceptive to their street presentations. Mixed with their inability to distinguish the decent child from the street child, the teachers' efforts to combat the street may cause them to lump the good students with the bad, generally viewing all who display street emblems as adversaries.

In response, decent children place ever greater stock in their ability to code-switch, adopting one set of behaviors for inside the building and one for outside. In the heat of campaigning for respect, however, the two roles often merge. The resulting confusion undermines school discipline, particularly when some children "get away with it."

When students become convinced that they cannot receive their "props" (proper due) from teachers and staff, they turn elsewhere, typically to the street, encouraging others to follow their lead, particularly when the unobtainable appears to be granted only on the basis of acting white. A powerful incentive for young people then emerges, especially for those sitting on the cultural fence, to invest themselves in an oppositional subculture—which may be confused with "black identity." Such a resolution allows alienated students to campaign for respect on their own terms. In this connection, many students become smug in their lack of appreciation for the school and its connection with the wider traditions.

Education is thus gradually undermined as the mission of the school is realized to be incompatible with the more prevalent code of the street. For so many young people, to embrace the school is to give in and act white, neither of which is publicly acceptable. The values of decency and of education have not been deeply enough inculcated and explained to the children, to make them want to give up the ways of the street. Thus, the school, as an outpost of mainstream society, attempts to deliver its message in an environment that has little regard for that society. The code of the street, and by extension the oppositional subculture, competes very effectively with traditional values. Alienated black students take on oppositional roles so effectively that they may be viewed as models for other disaffected students.

The school is a microcosm of the community. Despite security measures, kids parade up and down the halls, socializing. Some buy and sell drugs inside the school as well as outside. Yet school remains a haven, a place where one can go, expect, and find relative order and peace. One of the implications of the reality here described speak to distinctions between the violence in middle-class suburban places like Columbine, Colorado, and that which occurs in the inner cities. Behavior in ground zero areas is often instrumental, a way people live to get along, and the violence is often retributive; people seek to visit retribution or to "get back" at those who violate them through transgressions or threats. And children and young adults as well as mature people abide by the code of the street, whereas in places like Columbine, the code of the street is not so necessary. For in such middle-class communities kids can travel to and from school and interact with their peers without the code. Staging areas exist among middle-class kids, but with less threat and violence (see Schwartz). The violence in middle-class communities is more likely to be expressive, perhaps mimicking what is seen on television and motion picture screens, which often present a glorified picture of violence, including that which takes place in the inner city. The issue of expressive versus instrumental violence speaks to the alienation occurring at ground zero.

Delinquent and Criminal Subcultures - Conclusion [next] [back] Delinquent and Criminal Subcultures - The Staging Area

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