Alice Goffman, a University of Wisconsin sociologist, has gained much praise for her new book On the Run. For her research, Goffman spent a great deal of time on the inner-city stoop, where young black men usually only gain arrest records. From all the attention, it would appear that she has produced a revelatory piece of scholarship. But that’s wrong. By any measure, On the Run does not merit the laudatory reviews and notice it has received.
For six years Goffman lived a double life: During the day, she was an Ivy Leaguer; at night, she was a homegirl of the young men on “6th Street.” That’s the pseudonym she gave to the poor Philadelphia neighborhood where she lived. She writes of a cast of characters she got to know intimately: Mike, Chuck, Reggie, Tim, Alex, Tino (all pseudonyms), their baby mothers, girlfriends, and mothers. They became both Goffman’s friends and her research subjects.
Goffman’s appeal comes from the danger she faced and the violence she witnessed. She gives what many readers expect: crack addiction and senseless crimes, including murder. Goffman argues that mass incarceration has led to a constant state of siege in poor urban communities, by police officers, probation officers, and the court system. She sees fear build to paranoia among young men wary of arrest. For Mike and his friends, evasion and unpredictability are tools of survival. The book presents pathology as the central experience in black life.
To give Goffman her due, she paints a vivid picture of the dangerous and ineffective overuse of police raids. Goffman also shows how the threat of incarceration can be used as a weapon. She saw people calling the police, on friends and foes, to control their behavior or extort money. In the end, however, her unrelenting focus on criminality is just as likely to encourage more arrests and surveillance than to convince people that mass incarceration should end. The book suffers because it panders. Unwittingly, Goffman gives ammunition to tough-on-crime politicians who want to believe that urban areas are breeding grounds for crime and lawlessness.
I’ll say what should be obvious, but isn’t: Most young black men are not committing armed robberies and burglaries, are not engaging in armed battle from moving cars, and are not murdering acquaintances at dice games. They are not shooting into homes. If Goffman wants to reveal the abuses of a surveillance state, why not focus on characters that aren’t so entrenched in the worst criminal activity? Why not give us a picture of Mike and his friends’ lives that is broader than the last felony they committed? Instead Goffman only gives us young men who seem to be committing crimes with relative impunity. If these are the targets of surveillance, is the level of policing in urban communities really a problem as opposed to a solution?
As I read, I was troubled by how many more words Goffman devotes to criminality, violence, and dysfunction than to using data to establish how intrusive and unnecessary the level of surveillance on 6th Street is. The ease with which the criminal becomes normal extends to characters in supporting roles. Take Shonda, who Goffman tells us makes money by smuggling drugs to men who are incarcerated. “Shonda first smuggled drugs into jail at the age of eight, when she helped her mom pass a crack-filled balloon to her dad, a heavy user who was on trial for aggravated assault,” Goffman writes. When we are introduced to Miss Linda, the mother of the Chuck, Reggie, and Tim, we learn that she is addicted to crack cocaine. You won’t forget that fact, because Goffman mentions Miss Linda’s addiction and her roach-infested home at least five times. Of course, her three sons all have different fathers. These details present black life as a rendition of stereotypes. And they have so little to do with the surveillance state Goffman sees that I have to wonder why she chooses to focus on these details. However true, it’s all straight out of a bad movie from the ’90s—New Jack City, Menace to Society, Boyz in the Hood. If On the Run had been written then, its title would have been Six Years on Crack Street.
Unsurprisingly, the violence in On the Run has featured prominently in most discussions of the book. So has Goffman’s role as participant-observer. Marc Parry of the Chronicle of Higher Education writes that with Mike and his friends Goffman “dodged police, partied, and discussed shootings.” In a review in the Times Higher Education, Dick Hobbs writes, “police raids, chases, guns, drugs, arrests and a cop’s boot on her neck typified her time in a community that was corralled, controlled and regularly beaten to the verge of submission.” What offends me is that Goffman has turned 6th Street into a jungle that she has braved. I come from a community, in Prince George’s County, Maryland, that’s in many ways like 6th Street. At 16, I plead guilty to carjacking and went to prison for eight years. Yet, I know that my experience, even though it was shared by friends who also went to prison, or sold drugs, or were murdered, does not represent our community.