Thursday, May 28, 2015

Alice Goffman's powerful ethnographic study of a West Philadelphia neighborhood--On the Run : Fugitive Life in an American City

Anyone concerned about urban poverty and the hyper-policing of poor minority communities should read sociologist Alice Goffman's powerful ethnographic study of a West Philadelphia neighborhood, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Goffman somehow gained the trust of young men in a poor African-American community and for 6 years lived in the community in order to document their lives. The power of the book lies in the details--the thick description of the lived experience of these young men and their families.

At first I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it; I thought I knew all about urban poverty and the consequences of excessive police surveillance in poor neighborhoods. I’ve read much of the literature and had my own horrendous experiences with racist police in the 1960’s.

So I thought I knew all about this, but I had never really understood the consequences for an entire community when the majority of residents either directly or indirectly have had some interaction with the criminal justice system. I hadn’t realized how frequently young men(and yes it's usually young men of color) were thrown back in jail for long stretches of time for relatively trivial parole violations, or for failure to pay fines—-thus criminalizing poverty itself. I hadn’t fully understood the corrosive effect on personal relationships when the police threaten the partners of these young men with loss of children, loss of housing if they do not inform on their partners.

There is one particularly powerful quote from the book which will stay with me. From a guard in a half-way house:
It’s a broken system. These men are locked up because they didn’t pay their court fees, or they got drunk and failed [their piss test]. They’ve been locked up since they were kids.. Then they come home to this shit[the halfway house], sleeping one on top of the other, no money, no clothes. And the rules they have to follow—nobody could follow those rules. It’s a tragedy. It’s a crime against God. Sometimes I think, in 50 years we are going to look back on this and, you know, that this was wrong. And everybody who supported this—their judgment will come.
The book has been widely praised by scholars such as Cornell West, Elijah Anderson, and Christopher Jencks, but it has also received criticism for reinforcing stereotypes. I too was troubled by this. Perhaps anticipating this criticism, Goffman includes a chapter in the book about young men who manage to lead law-abiding lives despite living in a crime ridden environment.

Nonetheless the focus on violent crime and dysfunctional families does risk perpetuating stereotypes and as Dwayne Betts wrote in Slate “By failing to develop her critique of mass incarceration, [Goffman] has written the kind of truncated account of black urban life that encourages outsiders to gawk. Law Professor James Forman, Jr. makes a similar point in his review of On the Run in the Atlantic: noting that "previous ethnographers have found that a minority of young black men in poor communities engage in violent crime, and that even fewer carry guns.”

Of course, one book can’t explore every aspect of a complicated problem. Goffman is not attempting to write a comprehensive history, but rather trying to give her readers some sense of what it's like to live in a community where excessive police surveillance permeates every aspect of life.

More recently, Law Professor Steven Lubet in his New Republicb article Did This Acclaimed Sociologist Drive the Getaway Car in a Murder Plot? The questionable ethics of Alice Goffman's On the Runcharges that Goffman “appears to have participated in a serious felony in the course of her field work—a circumstance that seems to have escaped the notice of her teachers, her mentors, her publishers, her admirers, and even her critics.”

I found the behavior Lubet considers a felony troubling, but hadn’t thought through the legal implications. I plan to re-read that section of the book. His critique does raise serious questions about Goffman’s judgment, but in no way diminishes the power of the book.

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