Elijah Anderson, PhD Sociology, Northwestern University (his mentor was Howard S. Becker), is William K. Lanman Jr. Professor of Sociology at Yale University. He teaches and directs the Urban Ethnography Project, and is one of the nation’s leading ethnographers and cultural theorists. In addition to The Cosmopolitan Canopy, his books include Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City (1999), Streetwise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community (1990), and the classic A Place on the Corner (1978).
In his folk ethnography of three quasi-public spaces in Philadelphia (Reading Terminal, the Gallery Mall, and Rittenhouse Square), Anderson proposes the “cosmopolitan canopy,” a space where people from diverse races exist and do things in the anonymous company of others. This canopy eases social tensions, promotes trust and comity. However, there are borders between these canopies that can and do reinforce social tensions. “Canopies are in essence pluralistic spaces where people engage one another in a spirit of civility, or even comity and goodwill” (xiv). Anderson takes a flâneur’s walking tour and observed how people behave in spaces (cf Lofland, 1985), their acts of “civil inattention” (Park, Burgess, McKenzie, 1925), and the power of “hybrid institutions” (24), such as Barnes & Noble stores that provide indoor space for the homeless. In the Reading Terminal, nearly all races and ethnicities are represented; it’s predominantly white, middle class “with a healthy mixture of people of color” (32). Here, people relax but not entirely, and gaze at each other more directly, owing to the greater overall sense of security. “Under the canopy, people perform race” (72); these encounters are civil, friendly, and educational. In the Gallery Mall (“The Ghetto Downtown” ), the majority of users are lower middle and working class blacks. It has a long-standing reputation as a “black place” (73); there are interracial interactions but they are fewer and less free-flowing than at Reading Terminal. It’s public, if not cosmopolitan. Here we see Everett Hughes’ (1945) “master status” framework, the “deficit model” (99) that black males are confronted with. They are criminal and their female counterparts, hypersexualized. In this world, the black individual must prove him/herself and the Gallery reflects the declined invitation for the middle class to see past these wrong perceptions. In Rittenhouse Square, we see the “premier public park” (104). Anderson lived here. In that time he observed “eye work” (113): blacks and whites hold gazes for short periods of time, blacks feel compelled to greet one another. But people do engage in conversation and, as with the other locations, there is specific diurnal activity.
It is the second half of the book that astounds. Anderson holds that skin color persists in being the single greatest stigma for a person of color, and that this is particularly salient for the middle- to upper-class black. For the black professional in the workplace, s/he works among majority whites in an institutionalized canopy. After work, however, few straddle the color line. There are two orientations, the “cosmopolitan” and the “ethnocentric,” that a black professional might assume. The latter, “ethnos,” are generally linked with the lower and working classes, don’t trust whites and are often in a state of self-defense “against prospective or actual racial injury” (190). They understand that to get ahead, they must work with the white majority but believe that white ethnocentrism amounts to racism, and so choose homogeneous social relations. The former, the “cosmos,” are still generally uncertain which whites they can trust, but they opt to give them the benefit of the doubt. They find they are considered “race ambassadors” (214) in the cosmos world. In public, the African American is clearly marginalized. Intraracial mistrust exists, and there is strong stereotyping between the AA classes.
This all leads us to Anderson’s devastating “N moment.” (He actually says it outright, but I can’t bring myself to do it here.) This moment occurs when a black person, going about his/her daily business, is stopped by law enforcement or anything that shakes him/her into remembering that just being black is a public offense. And the black male always has the burden of proof. It “occurs because others have no assimilated, or do not fully accept, the implications of the recent social changes” (256). The whites’ collective power to effectuate a “N moment” “sets the stage for a deferential rather than mutually respective scenario in interactions between black and whites” (263). For Anderson, the canopy is never torn beyond repair, so we need these public and quasi-public spaces to provide diverse strangers the opportunity to meet each other and “work toward a more cosmopolitan appreciation of difference” (276). “The canopy offers a taste of how inclusive and civil social relationships could become” (282).