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Project Milwaukee: In-depth reporting on vital issues in the region.

Street Cred - A Dangerous Balance in Violent Neighborhoods

We continue our series, Project Milwaukee Youth Violence.
We’re exploring the causes and possible solutions to youth violence in our community.
Today we examine the societal reasons that prompt some young people to gravitate to violence.

Elijah Anderson grew up in South Bend, Indiana in the 1950s, the son of Mississippi sharecroppers.

“My father had limited education and he worked in the foundry and made good money and was able to take care of a family and to be an effective role model and encourage not only myself and my brothers and others to be strong working men. He even set an example for people in the community. You see? But the kind of job my father had is long gone from the inner city,” Anderson says.

Including in Milwaukee’s inner city. Good-paying manufacturing jobs have disappeared.

Anderson is a respected professor of sociology at Yale University. He’s dedicated his career to studying people in inner city, poor communities to convey the reality of their lives, which often includes youth violence.

The professor has found common threads. For one, he says those communities are made up of mostly decent people.

“They go to church, they try to work. They try to raise their children to respect other people and their property,” Anderson says.

But, Anderson says, without decent jobs the underground economy of drug dealing and robbery can take hold on the street. So too, can what he calls, street cred, a delicate and dangerous balance of gaining power and respect.

“A lot of the violence that we see in so many of these cities’ communities is about the business of getting street cred. Because street cred is what people believe will keep them safe,” Anderson says.

There’s another belief system at work here as well, according to Anderson, one that goes back generations.

“Now whether this is true in some objective sense or not, is not the issue. People in the inner city poor community feel that there are two systems of law, one for whites and one for blacks,” Anderson says.

And because many inner city residents don’t believe police watch out for their neighborhood, some groups make up and enforce their own rules.

So Anderson says, everybody has to be street savvy and follow the code. You don’t call the police, you settle your own conflicts, and you don’t snitch. Anderson says, even decent families want their kids to understand “street justice” so they survive.

Phillip McHenry didn’t snitch on his friend. The 21-year-old says he comes from a decent Milwaukee family.

“Graduated high school, did two semesters in college. My life has been like a straight arrow, go to church a lot. Raised by my mother. Always a mother’s boy,” McHenry says.

But, McHenry says his life turned upside down late one night when he walked over to a gas station with a friend.

“The guy I was with put out a pocket knife to try to rob a person. I was there, but I wasn’t the one to actually try to commit the crime, but I didn’t tell on the person,” McHenry says.

That landed McHenry in Milwaukee’s Community Correctional Center for a year.

Phillip McHenry (center) volunteers through Benedict Center community service program.

I meet McHenry at a community service project site. He’s volunteering at a neighborhood garden. McHenry says, he’s trying to keep a level head.

“Yeah, this probation four years, that’s the only thing I’m worried about. Because I know if I catch another case, another robbery case or, like a drug case, or a battery case, or anything, that’ll send me up north and then that’s taking another 2 ½ years out of my life and my family life,” McHenry says.

Across town a group called Urban Underground works with teenagers to give them the tools to making choices that don’t include crime and violence.

Richard is a high school junior.

“There are obstacles purposely put out there to stop us from living, from having a nice life. That’s no reason for us to give up and say, I’m going to take the easy way out and do stuff this way, that’s just something you have to overcome,” Richard says.

Floyd’s another student in the group.

“A lot of people don’t even know that education is the way out of poverty,” Floyd says.

But even surrounded by friends in a safe place, fears creep into the conversation. Worries tumble out of several students, such as:

“Where I live at is really bad. Sometimes you don’t know if you’re going to the innocent person hurt due to violence, because of where you stay at.”

“I think that one of the issues is, why are we not unified, like as a people. Why, when I walk down the street and I see a group of my same race walking toward me I get paranoid, when it shouldn’t be the case. It’s tension and unnecessary hate for each other.”


Sociologist Elijah Anderson says the community has to step forward to eliminate the culture that fuels such violence in American cities.

“We need jobs and opportunities. We need investment in some of these communities,” Anderson says.

He says wiping out a deep sense of alienation, and the resulting violence, will take much more than good intentions.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.