Amid the clamor of praise for On the Run, one reviewer, Alex Kotlowitz, asked about Goffman’s ethics. “Goffman at times makes rather sweeping statements or offers up the occasional anecdote, mostly related to law enforcement, without an indication of the source,” Kotlowitz writes. He mentions a story Goffman tells about an FBI agent who was inspired by the East German Stasi to create a computer program to track people with warrants. Goffman never tells us who this agent is or where this information came from.
Similar problems arise with two of the book’s most unsettling claims about Philadelphia police practices. Goffman says there are prisons in Philadelphia that run names and license plates of visitors, checking for outstanding warrants. She doesn’t provide the source of this information or the name of a prison that does this. Nor does she write that she saw evidence of it on her many trips to visit friends when they were incarcerated. Goffman also claims that police officers run the names of patients and visitors at local hospitals, also to search people who have arrest warrants. This time, she tells us that she witnessed the arrest of a man moments after his girlfriend gave birth to their son. She writes, “The officers told me they had come to the hospital with a shooting victim who was in custody, and as was their custom, they ran the names of the men on the visitors’ list.”
Again, though, Goffman doesn’t name the hospital or the police officer she quotes. When I called the Philadelphia Police Department for a response to her claim, Lt. John Stanford said the department doesn’t have the manpower to run random names from a hospital’s visiting list. He was also skeptical that a hospital administration would provide patient and visitor information in the way Goffman describes. Sure, this is what you’d expect the police to say. But given the seriousness of the accusation, shouldn’t Goffman better support it? Without more to go on, how could anyone push for ending this practice?
There is one more dark aspect to On the Run. Immersing herself in the lives of her friends and subjects, Goffman nearly loses herself. One night, after a rival crew murdered Chuck, she found herself driving Mike around searching for Chuck’s killer. She tells us that she wanted Chuck’s killer dead just as Mike and the rest of the crew did. Mike did not find his target that night. What if he had? Goffman never interrogates her own motives, or how close she came, potentially, to abetting a killing. Instead, this reads as her crowning war story, the moment when she finally understood what it meant to be one of the young men of 6th Street.
University of California at Santa Barbara sociologist Victor Rios has a name for this: the “jungle book trope.” In his book Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Youth, Rios characterizes this trope as a self-aggrandizing fairy tale, in which an innocent white person gets lost in the wild, is taken in by the wild people, survives, and returns to society with a story to tell. I wish Goffman’s book didn’t read that way to me. But it does.
In the New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler has written that On the Run “contains enough street-level detail to fill a season of The Wire.” She’s right that there’s enough violence in the book to fill David Simon’s show, but the comparisons end there. The gift of The Wire was that it eschewed easy answers. The chaos that ran through the streets of the Simon’s Baltimore was full of complexity. It was fueled by structural problems like mass incarceration, yes, but also by the complicity of people on both sides of the legal divide. The writers never acted like tour guides into the dark psyche of the black criminal mind.
Goffman falls straight into that trap. By failing to develop her critique of mass incarceration, she has written the kind of truncated account of black urban life that encourages outsiders to gawk. To rephrase a line from Chimamanda Adichie’s novel Americanah, Goffman has cast home as the jungle and herself as interpreter of the jungle. But the Philadelphia neighborhood she has christened 6th Street is not her home, and it is not her job to turn it into a jungle that needs interpreting.
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