Alex Webb / Magnum Photos

The Fault Lines of Race and Place: A Conversation with Elijah Anderson

Jelani Cobb

March 28, 2023

On Black people, white spaces and cities

On Black people, white spaces and cities

Vital City · Elijah Anderson in His Own Words

Elijah Anderson has spent the past half-century honing a subtle, underappreciated and, amid the tide of digital distractions, increasingly rare skill: the ability to pay attention. As one of the nation’s premier ethnographers, Anderson, who is the Sterling Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Yale, has spent his lengthy career mining the source code that lies beneath our everyday social interactions.

His insights, spread over five books, have become central to an evolving body of scholarship about race, geography and American cities. He has worked in the same way for decades, first identifying a question at the center of our experience of race and then exploring the people and places central to answering that question. His ability to pay attention — to what people say, when and how they say it, and the geography and design of the places these people inhabit — has yielded a nearly predictive ability to understand the unwritten rules governing crucial parts of our communities and what those rules mean.  

Years ago, I invited Eli to talk to a group of graduate students at Columbia Journalism School. The course was designed to highlight what journalists could learn from other forms of investigation. Eli had just published “The Cosmopolitan Canopy,” an urban ethnography conducted in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, and the students read excerpts before his arrival. He gave a brilliant talk about the craft of ethnography, but the students, rooted in the specifics of investigative journalism, had a difficult time grasping how the field actually worked. There was a polite conclusion, but I left class feeling that an opportunity had been missed.

A year later, two Black men entered a Starbucks in Philadelphia and sat down at a table. Within minutes, a nervous white barista had, with no provocation, called the police and had them removed from the location. The Starbucks was in Rittenhouse Square. The incident seemed to be a live enactment of the racial rules and habits Eli had outlined in the book. Students from the long-concluded class began messaging me about the connections between the book, the lecture and the incident. The world made sense to them in a different way than it had before they’d met Anderson, which is an experience shared by the legions who have been influenced by his scholarship. 

This spring he published his latest book, “Black in White Space.” He and I sat down to talk about his career, the ways in which our experience of race has changed — or not — during the past 50 years, and what he has learned through the quiet, disciplined and continual act of listening.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Credit: Arthur Mount. Portrait of Elijah Anderson.

Jelani Cobb: You’re someone who has been concerned about questions of race and space and geography for a long time. Can you talk a little bit about the genesis of your latest book, “Black in White Space: The Enduring Impact of Color in Everyday Life”?

Elijah Anderson: Each of my books builds on the themes of the previous one, and “Black in White Space” brings many of these themes together. 

In my earliest days as an academic, I was dissatisfied with some of the arguments that were being put forth to explain the lives of poor Black people — the “culture of poverty,” among others.

When I matriculated at the University of Chicago, I was determined to study the situation of Black streetcorner men. I’d learned that Elliot Liebow had received his Ph.D. for his important work, “Tally’s Corner,” which was a major study of “Negro streetcorner men” in 1967, at the height of the ghetto riots.

JC: So is that how your own ethnography work got started?

EA: Yes. I went about studying Black streetcorner men as an ethnographer on the South Side of Chicago.

Liebow wanted to know why Black men he studied couldn’t become viable husbands and fathers or what seemingly kept them from becoming middle-class. He argued they had certain “manly flaws” and ignored the role of ethnic competition and racism. I was skeptical, and like many of my peers, I wanted to interrogate some of these issues.

So I canvassed corner bars in the South Side ghetto until I found “Jelly’s,” where I conducted my fieldwork, including participant observation — a skill that was useful to me then and has been ever since. I spent three years on that corner and wrote my dissertation, which the University of Chicago Press published in 1978 as my first book: “A Place on the Corner.”

The sociological question that I dealt with was this: Why and how do these men come together day after day and make and remake their local social order, their stratification system?

During my fieldwork, I tried to apprehend the way of life of the people and then to represent it in my study.  

JC: Your work has had a thematic connection to Philadelphia. How did that come about?

EA: “A Place on the Corner” was the germ of my body of work and especially my initial fieldwork in Philadelphia. In the mid-1970s, I was recruited by Swarthmore College for my first teaching position, and then, when I moved from Swarthmore to accept a new position at the University of Pennsylvania, my wife and I settled in Powelton Village, a diverse community just north of the Penn campus in West Philadelphia but located near a distressed inner-city community, a Black ghetto.

Almost immediately, I began to consider the gentrifying neighborhood I was living in as a potential new field site.

Eventually, this project resulted in my second book, “Streetwise,” which is also an ethnography that Chicago published in 1990.

Building on my previous work, I continued to be concerned with themes of social organization, and, more specifically, how residents navigate the public spaces, and especially the streets, in such a gentrifying community. Or why do well-off white people remain in such a relatively “high-crime” community when they have options to move elsewhere? The answer to that question was that they become streetwise, and to some extent, socially invested in their community for the long term, or until they are pressed to move on. These issues intrigued me.

“Streetwise” is about how people, white yuppies in particular, deal with Black folk of the ghetto ’hood and vice versa, at times in complementary ways; how that process works itself out. In the book, I describe how urban residents in a racially informed manner become streetwise and adopt an “etiquette” of the street.

After completing that project, I became concerned about why young Black folk were killing one another and, underlying that, how poor Black people get on in communities that are profoundly distressed. I began to investigate this phenomenon, first in Mantua, an area just north of where I lived, and later in North Philadelphia and the Germantown area of Philly.

When larger society abdicates responsibility for the ’hood, the local people can feel abandoned, and their respect for the civil law erodes.

I began to delve deeply into those Black communities. I visited corner grocery stores, schools, playgrounds, churches, barbershops, taverns and other local settings where I could observe people coming together. Through this process, I came to know local cornermen, grandmothers, grandfathers, storekeepers and policemen. I’d sit on building stoops or visit playgrounds and play basketball with the young men and sometimes watch their craps games.

Much of that work is represented in “Code of the Street,” which Norton published in 1999. The argument there is just that there’s a code, a set of prescriptions and proscriptions of public behavior that people try to follow to stay safe and which I describe, and it is encouraged by the presumed abdication of the wider society, including the politicians, the banks, the insurance companies, and the economy — but most profoundly, the police.

When that larger society is sensed to abdicate responsibility for the ’hood, the local people can feel abandoned, and their respect for the civil law erodes. And so, they sometimes take matters of personal defense into their own hands. These actions are mediated by the code of the street, in which respect for one’s “street credibility” — the effective promise of retribution for physical assaults against oneself or one’s loved ones — becomes a valued coin.

JC: You haven’t solely explored ethnography of mostly Black spaces, though. Your work has devoted a good deal of attention to how race operates in contested or mostly white spaces as well.

EA: Yes. At one key moment when my wife and I were living in the gentrifying community, she said to me, “It’s pretty tough living in this neighborhood.” At that point, some of our neighbors were getting held up by young boys on the street, getting robbed. It was the time of the “crack” cocaine epidemic, and you couldn’t leave your change in the console of your car. You couldn’t leave children’s toys or your welcome mat on the porch. You couldn’t leave flowerpots out on the porch. They’d come up missing.

One neighbor, a white man across the street named Larry, was stuck up one night walking home from the local video store. He came up with five bucks and gave it to the muggers, and they let him live. After that, he and his wife moved — not just out of the neighborhood but out of Philadelphia.

My son, who was 12 or 13 at the time, said, “Dad, did they do that to Larry?” I said, “Yeah, they did that to Larry.”

My son stopped walking by himself to the local barbershop, and asked his mom to walk him there. When I saw that, I said, well, maybe it’s time for us to move, too.

We had a lovely house in that gentrifying neighborhood — an old three-story house with Corinthian-style pillars, like the kind you might find in Brooklyn: 10-foot ceilings, oak floors and a postage-stamp backyard. The neighborhood was racially and class-mixed, and life there was fine much of the time, except for the occasional disruptions of local street crime.

We gave all that up and moved to an apartment on the 20th floor of a building on Rittenhouse Square, the premier park of Philadelphia. In our new building, virtually all our neighbors were white.

I began to spend time on the benches there, observing the park scene and the denizens’ comings and goings, appreciating the diversity of the square. In the evenings we’d take our constitutionals and visit local restaurants. And on Saturdays my wife and I would shop for groceries at the Reading Terminal Market, a few blocks away. I noticed how civil people were across racial lines and observed diverse strangers getting along — I mean, all kinds of people just getting along and enjoying themselves. I began to think about the space more critically.

In the square, I’d look up, noticing the old tree growth forming a canopy at the top. That led me to come up with the term “the cosmopolitan canopy.” I developed this perspective and ultimately a book with that title describing the workings of the canopy, an island of racial civility located in the sea of segregation, because Philadelphia is one of the most segregated cities in the country. I observed that in this canopylike space, people actually get along, at least on the surface — until they don’t. Norton published that book in 2011.

Credit: Tony Wood. The cosmopolitan canopy of Philedelphia's Rittenhouse Square.

I found that the canopy comprises essentially two kinds of people: cosmopolitan people and ethnocentric people. The cosmopolitans tend to appreciate all kinds of people. They feel that they are capable of valuing others who are different from themselves. Of course, the cosmopolitan people tend to be better educated and better off financially. The ethnocentric folks are essentially tribal — to them, you are not a person unless you look like them. And these two types come in all races. Sometimes these orientations coexist in the same person, and depending on the situation, people code-switch.

Under the canopy, because the ethnocentric types are generally outnumbered, they usually defer and keep their ethnocentrism or racism in check. But when something they observe disturbs them greatly, or when they reach their limit of tolerance, they express it, and they may insult some of the most marginalized people under the canopy, especially Black people.

JC: One thing that was interesting to me about that work was its predictive ability. If you’re talking about the shared understanding of a particular community in your work and how that becomes visible, it can seem almost airy or theoretical. And in that book, you talked about the racial policies that undergirded the environment around Rittenhouse Square, which predated, of course, the incident in which the two young men were arrested in Starbucks less than three minutes after they walked in the door. Can you talk to me a little bit about the mechanics of that, about how you came to understand that community even before something like that happened, seeing almost the coding that would lead to an incident like that?

EA: You’re referring to the 2018 racial incident at a Starbucks near Rittenhouse Square, when two young Black men entered, sat down without buying anything, and then asked the barista for the restroom code. She promptly refused because they had ordered nothing and indicated they weren’t intending to. It came out later that they were waiting for someone to join them. She called the police, who arrived and arrested the two young men essentially for being in Starbucks while Black. Of course, this turned into a huge national scandal.

You’re right: I regard that Philly Starbucks as an example of a cosmopolitan canopy. And I’ve visited the place many times. The barista that day was likely to have been from a more parochial neighborhood, maybe a blue-collar neighborhood. Typically, in her professional role, she was obligated to appear cosmopolitan, promising to treat all customers without prejudice; but then those two Black men entered, and she seemed to take umbrage — her mask dropped.

The two Black men experienced what so many other Black people do from time to time: that is, what Black people sometimes refer to as the “N-word moment,” a moment of acute disrespect based on being Black. It is an abrupt drawing of the color line, and every Black person I interviewed for my book has experienced some version of that dreadful moment.

Small or large, these moments rend the canopy, exposing its weaknesses and communicating to the Black person quite emphatically that they don’t belong. The small moments are those that most Black people may try to ignore. They are sometimes referred to as microaggressions, but I don’t like that term, because any aggression can be consequential in its negative effect on a person. Moments that are large need to be addressed, because they are typically disturbing, humiliating, threatening and profoundly consequential. They can make you lose your job, get you stopped by the police, or even get you killed.

In fact, the now-famous “talk” that Black parents must have with their children centers around the N-word moment. The task of Black parents is to warn their children about it, in hopes that their children can avoid being hurt, humiliated or worse by prejudiced white people who draw the color line.

In other words, Black parents want their children to be “woke” to the dangers of white racism and escape those dangers. Not surprisingly, elements of the right wing now have turned that term “woke” into a pejorative and use it to mock Black people and their white allies, who have real concerns about what happens to Black people when they are in the presence of racist white people or navigate white spaces.

The urgency of persistent racism motivated me to write my next book, “Black in White Space,” which the University of Chicago Press published just last year. As I mentioned, almost every Black person has felt the sting of disrespect on the basis of being Black, so they understand how important it is to be aware of their environment, and especially those places dominated by white people.

Since the end of the civil rights movement, large numbers of Black people have made their way into settings previously occupied only by whites as they have sought and gained access to the country’s centers of economic, political and cultural power. Even so, overwhelmingly white neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, restaurants and other public spaces remain. Black folk perceive these settings as “the white space” and informally off-limits to people like them.

The ghetto is not simply a physical space; it has become an icon. It has become an image, a negative symbol.

JC: In “Black in White Space,” you talk toward the end about the concept of being a perpetual stranger, in your analysis of the way that racial inequality functions. Do you think that’s a pessimistic view, or do you think it’s realistic based on your observations as an ethnographer for all of these years?

EA: I’d say it’s both. I worry about the road ahead because of all that I’ve seen as an urban ethnographer and experienced as a Black man.

While navigating white spaces, unfamiliar Black people are typically burdened with a negative presumption about their character and capacity that they must disprove or neutralize in order to establish trusting relations with others who are at home in white space. That’s because when a white person meets a Black stranger, the white person doesn’t necessarily see a human being. What the white person likely sees is a person from the ghetto — that destitute and fearsome locality that has taken root in the American imagination as “the place where the Black people live.”

But the ghetto is not simply a physical space; it has become an icon. It has become an image, a negative symbol that hovers over unfamiliar Black people as they navigate white spaces as well as cosmopolitan canopies. The iconic ghetto is a powerful source of stereotype, prejudice and discrimination that Black people confront when they encounter unfamiliar white people in everyday life. The best way I’ve found to describe this is symbolic racism. To deal with this type of racism, Black people may perform respectability, or what some derisively refer to as a dance. This dance is performed before a distant and at times unsympathetic audience. This is what it means to exist as the perpetual stranger: to occupy a provisional status, a status rooted in slavery. Slavery established the Black body at the bottom of the racial order. During and after slavery, white Americans became deeply invested in the lowly place of Black people, which underscored the principle of “white over Black” in the public mindset, and this positionality became institutionalized and passed on from one generation to the next.

Now it manifests in ghetto areas like the South Side of Chicago, or North Philly, or in Dixwell in New Haven, the city where I live now. Virtually every city has its Black ghetto area.

JC: You have five decades of experience as an urban ethnographer, an astounding amount of history in the examination of race in these spaces. What, if anything, has changed in that time?

EA: What’s changed, I think, is that we’ve had a highly successful civil rights movement, followed by a major racial incorporation process that has produced the largest Black middle class in history.

Black people now inhabit all levels of the American class and occupational structure. Many attend the best schools, pursue the professions of their choosing and occupy positions of power, privilege and prestige. But for this ascendant middle class, in the shadows lurks the specter of the iconic ghetto, which is always in the background, shaping the larger society’s conception of the unfamiliar black person as well as the circumstances of Black people in all walks of life.

The question is, what do these people who have been so successful and so incorporated now experience? And I would argue that, to the extent that they are unambiguously Black, they run into issues.

What I’ve done, I hope, is to represent accurately what Black people are dealing with, their condition, as they go about living their lives in America.

It’s complicated, because there are many, many white people who supported racial incorporation and are sophisticated enough to continue to support it. But there are also a lot of white people who feel that their own rights and presumed privileges have been abrogated by the inclusion of Black people. And since affirmative action and policies of incorporation were developed, that group has grown in size and political influence.

JC: What do you mean when, in your writing, you refer to “white skin as racial capital”?

EA: This is the legacy of slavery and white supremacy. When well-off white people move into a Black ghetto neighborhood, they invest not only their financial capital; they also invest their racial capital, their white skin. And their properties take on value simply because they as well-off white people own them.

Just by their presence, the property values go up and the place may become “hot.” Around the city, in Philadelphia and other large cities, you see the same housing stock in Black communities whose value is much cheaper. In other words, market value is powerfully associated with having white skin.

JC: Just wrapping up, what do you think is the most salient observation we should take from your explorations of race and place?

EA: When I did my first book, the issue was status and identity: How did those men on that Jelly’s corner come together over time to form and reform their social order? When one of my white senior colleagues at Penn read my manuscript, he said, “These guys you write about are, like, uh, people.”

I didn’t react because I wanted to get tenure. But he inadvertently summed up the way so many white people thought about Black folk at the time.

Earlier you asked, are my books realistic or pessimistic? What I’ve done, I hope, is to represent accurately what Black people are dealing with, their condition, as they go about living and meeting the exigencies of their everyday lives in America.

Black people oftentimes come to realize that they have only provisional status, always with something more to prove, after hoping or even believing that they’re part of an egalitarian society where the color of one’s skin shouldn’t matter as much as the content of their character. But Black people know they have a long way to go in this regard. As a nation, we’ve come a long way, but we have so far to go.