Some pedagogical propositions for teaching Code of the Street-informed “code switching”

[Note:  this post was originally written with an assumed target demographic of juvenile offenders in residential treatment programs and still reflects that original focus at at some points in the following.] 

The highest ranked definition of “Code Switching” in the online-only Urban Dictionary perfectly captures the ambivalence with which this concept is viewed by many African Americans.  A distinguishing feature of the Urban Dictionary is its inclusion of Twitter hashtags along with the formal definition.  Note that while the formal definition of “code switching” is a neutral description of a common behavioral phenomenon, three of the five associated hashtags  betray a harshly negative characterization of code switching

code switching:  To customize a style of speech to the audience or group being addressed.

She talks street to her friends at school, but when she is with her family, she is code switching and speaks proper English.

#hypocrite #fake #two-faced #jive #lingo

But for the purposes of discussing designing Code of the Street-informed intervention programming I will follow Fader’s positive use of “code switching” to denote the idea equipping Code of the Street-socialized youths with “alternative cultural repertoires” they learn to deploy as appropriate to a given context,  as when she says,

“Instead of learning how to “code switch” between “street” and “decent” behavior; inmates learn to “switch off” street behavior inside the confines of the institution. Without new strategies for action in their “cultural toolkit”…these young men will leave the facility without added capacity for negotiating milieus where the “code of the street” does not dominate.”

Jamie J. Fader:  “’You can take me outta the ‘hood, but you can’t take the ‘hood out of me’ :  Youth Incarceration and Reentry”  in  Against the Wall: Poor, Young, Black, and Male, ed  Elijah Anderson. p. 216.

Teaching code switching in the context of training in Non-Coercive Adversary Behavior Management is about teaching children and adolescents having to manage adversarial interactions with peers in their schools and communities, and racial harassment in multiple contexts, how to self-optimize personal empowerment and increasingly win in what had hitherto most often been lose-lose situations.  Quite specifically “code switching” as understood here is not about securing these youth’s compliance with or conformity to the expectations of mainstream and/or majority culture or about the mere avoidance of aversive consequences.  

I suggest, pending discussion and the input of more expert or research informed voices, that the premise and purpose of introducing Code of the Street thinking, ultimately explicitly and by name, is to show and teach youth socialized to the Code of the Street: 

  1. That the Code of the Street is a real thing that dictates and justifies in offenders’ minds much of their behavior and attitudes, both criminal and otherwise, and that it has a rational basis in the narrow context of so many urban youth’s economically dysfunctional and often violent home communities.
  2. That having maximum options for survival and a happy successful life require mastering a second code–the Code of Mainstream Society:  These are the rules and behaviors appropriate to mainstream society contexts in which they will need to work and include mainstream culture’s  educational,  commercial and legal authority structures.  Once mastered, this new rule set becomes what Fader calls an “alternative behavioral repertoire” to be called upon and practiced as context and their perceived best interest requires.
  3. Code switching” will be understood to mean calling on and practicing the behavioral repertoire appropriate to a given context.  It is about knowing both the behavioral code appropriate to surviving in one’s neighborhood and how to fulfill the behavioral norms and expectations that enable thriving in mainstream culture.  The objective is not learning to code switch between either the Code of  the Street or the Code of Mainstream Society viewed as monolithic non-negotiable rule sets, but learning to see, so as to recognize and rationally assess, the discrete rules of both one’s original code of socialization and any chosen alternative behavioral repertoire. Then, any given rule from either code can  be rationally assessed in terms of its utility and foreseeable consequences and followed or not–on a case-by- case basis.
  4. The Code of the Street is disempowering outside of its context–and all too frequently, in it.  Once rationally assessed, and with the option of their being otherwise, many of the rules of the Code of the Street, even in their original urban community context, turn out to neither reflect or contribute to becoming the higher best self one dares to aspire to be (i.e. such rules are “immoral”) or they are not conducive to achieving one’s optimal short or long term best interest (which is the case with all rules resulting in criminal behavior.)  In the worst case adherence to the Code of the Street can  result in anything from surrendering one’s freedom to the corrections system to one’s own physical death.
  5. An inability to code switch as the context requires not  only permanently disqualifies from accessing resources and privileges only available in mainstream culture, including its educational, commercial and  judicial outposts in even the most dysfunctional urban community,  it will almost inevitably result in conflict with its  authority structures and some degree of subjugation by and loss of freedom to its corrections system.

Anderson on Code adherence as a protective front, not always deeply held conviction

In Elijah Anderson’s rebuttal to Wiquant’s Marxist critique of Anderson’s published research  he suggests that for many living in Code of the Street typical communities adherence to the Code of the Street may be less deterministic and unconscious than a consciously adopted  protective “front” that they code switch in and out of depending on the degree of perceived threat.

“…the “street” code embraced by “rebels” is often a protective front for many, if not most people of the inner city, that it is not always a sincere commitment, but a necessary self-presentation in a dangerous public environment, one that may be balanced by “code switching” to civil behavior when safety is not at issue.”  [p. 5535  or  p. 3 of PDF]

Anderson also says….

Most people identify themselves as “decent,” but in the interest of deterrence, especially when danger and uncertainty loom, it often becomes important for individuals “to know what time it is,” and to be perceived as more “street” than “decent” and to act accordingly; a premium is placed on being able to read public situations and then to “code switch” when appropriate. Hence, public behavior in the inner-city ghetto is quite fluid and depends largely on how people interpret and define public situations in the interest of effectively managing them. [p. 5534  or  p. 2 of PDF]

Anderson, E. “The Ideologically Driven Critique”  American Journal of Sociology 107 Number 6 (May 2002): 1533–50