Friday Book: Young, shafted and black

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The Independent Culture
WELCOME TO Germantown, Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. Notice the discount stores, the cheque-cashing agency, the Afro barbershop and the takeaways. People around here tend to watch their backs. Listen to Don Moses, one of the senior members of the community, someone known as a "decent daddy". "Keep your eyes and ears open at all times. Walk two steps forward and look back. Prepare yourself verbally and physically," he warns.

He should know. He has seen the neighbourhood transformed from a thriving, ethnically integrated district with plenty of manufacturing jobs into what many call a black ghetto. Part of the fallout has been routine violence born of poverty. The number of "zombies" (as crack addicts are known) has risen in almost direct proportion to unemployment.

Take Betty: 40 years old, she became a grandmother two years ago (a little older than the neighbourhood average). She had two daughters by her husband, who converted to the Nation of Islam and took flight. When the eldest was 12, she started doing drugs and grew progressively wilder, at one time threatening Betty with a knife. She left home and, by the time she returned, was pregnant, into crack and had syphilis. Betty had custody of the child, but bringing up a crack baby virtually forced her to quit her job and go on welfare. Now, her other daughter has started using.

Getting women hooked on crack is a way for young men with few prospects of a legitimate job to develop a "customer base". The underground drugs economy is one of the few ways of scrambling a living. But its effects can be dire: some addictions are so powerful that crackhead dealers introduce the pestilent rock to their own families just to maintain demand. Then the family members turn on each other, neglect their children and spark off obsessive feuds, leaving the area a destitute landscape crowded with humans yet emptied of humanity.

Young Lee Hamilton tried desperately to stay "decent", but he also needs the "respect" that only the street can confer. "When you gon' get legal?" the young men ask him, meaning that he should start using and selling drugs with them. Around here, "slinging" dope is as morally neutral as working behind a post office counter.

Like anyone else in the area, Lee craves the material possessions dangled in front of him by all those TV shows where everybody wears designer clothes. Lee is finding it a struggle and chances are he will "go street", if only to survive.

The guy taking notes is Elijah Anderson, a professor from the University of Pennsylvania, who has been watching the place for four years, making sense of all the apparent disarray in terms of a code. For example, if you don't wear the right kinds of trainers, or you do well at school, you can expect to get beaten up; and if you don't show "nerve" when it happens, then you can expect it to happen again and again.

Young men live by a code that prescribes their "maleness"; getting women pregnant is a potent signifier of this. Young women, whose grasp of birth control methods is often weak, typically want to keep their children, if only as what Anderson calls an economic investment.

The fathers avoid paying maintenance, the children grow up penniless and, like Betty's daughters, get into dope. Violent crime results and the whole area becomes a battleground. Older folk valiantly try to defy the way of the street and stay "decent". The ambitions of the younger ones rarely stretch beyond grabbing a few status symbols, a cool tracksuit or a pager. The things that garner respect for one generation bring shame on the other.

Amid the recurrent torment of this maleficent cycle, there are serio- comic elements. Anderson refers to ways in which robbery victims can demonstrate their knowledge of the code. "The stickup can resemble a ballet, in which each side smoothly performs a choreographed part." Naivety can be fatal for dupes who don't memorise their movements.

Anderson's point recalls the scene in Mick Jackson's film LA Story, in which muggers stand in an orderly line next to a cash machine waiting for the muggee to make a withdrawal. "Hi! How you doin'? I'll be your mugger this evening," the courteous thief introduces himself to Steve Martin, who peels off a few bills and thanks him as he walks away.

Residents of Germantown are inured to this danse macabre. They react to the sound of a drive-by shooting as we might to a car alarm. They shrug at mothers who spend welfare cheques on clothes in preference to food. They live with every urban pathogen: dysfunctional families, homelessness, crack children, teenage pregnancies, internecine conflicts. Yet within this cultural dementia there is a sense of structure. It is frightening that, in the process of revealing this structure, Elijah Anderson, fortifies many of the worst suspicions of black life.

The reviewer's book `The Black Culture Industry' is published by Routledge