The book being reviewed is On the Run by Alice Goffman and came out last year. As Mac Donald describes.
The year 2014 also saw the publication of a book that addressed precisely the questions that the Black Lives Matter movement ignored. Alice Goffman, daughter of the influential sociologist Erving Goffman, lived in an inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood from 2002 to 2008, integrating herself into the lives of a group of young crack dealers. Her resulting book, On the Run, offers a detailed and startling ethnography of a world usually kept far from public awareness and discourse. It has been widely acclaimed; a film or TV adaptation may be on the way. But On the Run is an equally startling—if unintentional—portrait of the liberal elite mind-set. Goffman draws a devastating picture of cultural breakdown within the black underclass, but she is incapable of acknowledging the truth in front of her eyes, instead deeming her subjects the helpless pawns of a criminal-justice system run amok.I read a number of reviews at the time the book came out and came away with three impressions. First was that Goffman had produced a remarkable look into a world often glossed over. Second was that she showed immense courage and likely sacrifice to conduct the research under the conditions she did. Third was that her detailed, intimate anthropological field work highlighted the ethical challenges that arise in such situations. From the examples offered in the, often favorable, reviews, it was clear that she became sufficiently close to her subjects to effectively, through sins of omission, become an accomplice to some of their crimes. At least from an ethical perspective. Mac Donald offers a critical example.
At the center of On the Run are three half-brothers and their slightly older friend Mike, all of whom live in a five-block area of Philadelphia that Goffman names Sixth Street. Sixth Street, we are told, isn’t viewed as a particularly high-crime area, which can only leave the reader wondering what an actual high-crime area would look like. In her six years living there, Goffman attended nine funerals of her young associates and mentions several others, including one for “three kids” paid for by local drug dealers, eager to cement their support in the community.
It is remarkable enough that Goffman, seeing the lawless behavior of Sixth Street’s “dirty people,” still views them as helpless victims of a racist criminal-justice system. She has clearly been captured by her subjects. After Chuck is killed, she chauffeurs Mike around the neighborhood, Glock in his lap, as he seeks to find and gun down the murderer. She feels “ashamed and sorry” about being white, when Miss Linda’s extended family complains about there being a white girl in their midst. (Such pervasive antiwhite antagonism is perhaps the best-kept secret about black inner-city culture.) Goffman refuses to give the police information about the crimes she has witnessed.The substance of Goffman's critique is that the criminals in her book are substantially victims of the criminal and policing system whereas Mac Donald takes the opposite view that the criminals in Goffman's book are in the situations they are in due to their own serial bad decision-making.
Mac Donald attributes Goffman's inability to maintain perspective to an ideological vision.
Revealingly, Goffman explains how she arrived at her incongruous interpretation of Sixth Street’s malaise. As a graduate student at Prince-ton, she had been casting about for a theme for her still-growing ethnographic material. Princeton was a “hotbed” of mass-incarceration theory, she says, which holds that American prison practices have “cease[d] to be the incarceration of individual offenders and [have become] the systematic imprisonment of whole groups,” in the words of sociologist David Garland. Eureka! Under the tutelage of Bruce Western and other criminal-justice critics (and with obvious influence from the writings of Michel Foucault), Goffman comes to see that her “project could be framed as an on-the-ground look at mass incarceration and its accompanying systems of policing and surveillance. I was documenting the massive expansion of criminal justice intervention into the lives of poor Black families in the United States.”This is different from the ideological blinkers of, for example, a Sabrina Rubin Erdely (of UVA Rape Hoax infamy) who went looking for a story that would support her thesis and, in the absence of such stories, ended up accepting the fabulist concoctions of a disturbed young woman instead. This is a different situation. It appears by all accounts that Goffman has produced an incredible story based on facts. The problems appears not so much to be the facts as the interpretation thereof. As with Erdely, Goffman had a worldview she wanted to communicate and she has used the facts available to reveal that worldview. Her fault appears to be not in the reporting but in the analysis. She embeds herself in her subject's world and she reports it as they interpret it, abandoning the scientific method of questioning the facts and the interpretation in order to deal with alternate hypotheses.
Yet Goffman’s material refuses to conform to this template. To her credit, she devotes a chapter to “clean people”—individuals who have no dealings with the criminal-justice system. A group of young men on Sixth Street try to steer as clear as possible from the “dirty people.” They remain at home at night, playing video games together. They drink beer, rather than smoke marijuana, because there are drug tests at their jobs, which include security guard, maintenance man, and convenience-store clerk. If they lose their jobs, they don’t start dealing drugs; they rely on friends and family until they find another position. When they break traffic laws, they pay off their fines and recover their driving licenses before they start driving again. Their unassuming rejection of criminality comes as an enormous relief after the squalid behavior of Goffman’s closest associates. Their respect for the law should be celebrated and studied, as Robert Woodson has long advocated.
I think Mac Donald is fundamentally correct in her criticism of Goffman. However, I do think Mac Donald steps over a very real issue. Living at the edge of poverty, people often have extremely chaotic lives which in turn makes the probability of a bad decision much more likely. When a bad decision goes wrong, there then tends to be a quick and catastrophic cascade of negative consequences. That is terrible. But what intelligent policies can be undertaken to change that?
We have tried and will continue to try to square the circle but often we have competing good goals backed with competing good intentions that end up working against one another. The classic example is child-support. A man fathers a child out of wedlock and the state properly holds him accountable for contributing financially to the welfare of that child. But if that father is low skill and edge of poverty, it is only a jay-walking fine away from falling behind in child support payments which then trigger garnishments, arrests, court appearances, criminal records, etc.
It is right that we should have child-support laws. It is right that we should enforce them. But how do we prevent those laws and enforcement from making a bad situation worse? Similar with crime. It is right to have those laws and it is right to enforce them. We can't lose sight of the greater majority of people in a high crime neighborhood who are law abiding and need protection from criminals. But those laws and punishments have disproportionate consequences on people at the margin.
Sometimes, the effort to do right leads to bad outcomes. A lot of people in Goffman's book end up getting trapped through multiple court ordered appearances for parole violations and things of that nature. You can look at that and say it is bad that they are being jerked around on minor parole violations. On the other hand, you can acknowledge that they are out of jail as systematic effort to give people second chances and they have blown their second chance by failing to comply with reasonable conditions.
I think Mac Donald is broadly right overall and that she does a good job of demolishing Goffman's central thesis. The problems these individuals have are largely self-created and the tragedies are not a consequence of a systemic racism in the legal and criminal system. On the other hand, I think Mac Donald fails to acknowledge a very real situation that Goffman does document which is that we have a lot of good goals, we have good intentions, we have multiple policies to achieve those goals but that too often those goals and policies are both contradictory of one another and exact too great a price on those most vulnerable in our society.
Those who fail, largely fail through their own actions but we would all benefit if we could find better ways to prevent them from failing in the first place.
UPDATE: A compelling critique of On the Run in Ethics On The Run by Steven Lubet. It turns out, as well, that Goffman destroyed all her notes from the six years of research. All we are left with is her word that the things she says happened, actually did happen.