Starting in late summer 2014, a protest movement known as Black Lives Matter convulsed the country. Triggered by the fatal police shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, the movement claimed that blacks are still oppressed by widespread racism, especially within law enforcement. The police subject black communities to a gratuitous regime of stops and arrests, resulting in the frequent use of lethal force against black men, according to the activists and their media and academic allies. Indeed, America’s police are the greatest threat facing young black men today, the protesters charged. New York’s mayor Bill de Blasio announced in December that he worries “every night” about the “dangers” his biracial son may face from “officers who are paid to protect him.” Less than three weeks later, a thug from Brooklyn, inspired by the nationwide anti-cop agitation, assassinated two New York police officers.
The protest movement’s indictment of law enforcement took place without any notice of the actual facts regarding policing and crime. One could easily have concluded from the agitation that black and white crime rates are identical. Why the police focus on certain neighborhoods and what the conditions are on the ground were questions left unasked.
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.
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.
Goffman contends that it is the legal system itself that is creating crime and dysfunction in poor black communities. Young men get saddled with a host of allegedly petty warrants for having missed court dates, violated their parole and probation conditions, and ducked the administrative fees levied on their criminal cases. Fearful of being rounded up under these senseless procedural warrants, they adopt a lifestyle of subterfuge and evasion, constantly in flight from an increasingly efficient and technology-enhanced police force. “Once a man fears that he will be taken by the police, it is precisely a stable and public daily routine of work and family life . . . that allows the police to locate him,” Goffman writes. “A man in legal jeopardy finds that his efforts to stay out of prison are aligned not with upstanding, respectable action but with being a shady and distrustful character.”
Goffman’s own material demolishes this thesis. On the Run documents a world of predation and law-of-the-jungle mores, riven with violence and betrayal. Far from being the hapless victims of random “legal entanglements”—Goffman’s euphemism for the foreseeable consequences of lawless behavior—her subjects create their own predicaments through deliberate involvement in crime.
In 2002, when Goffman began her acquaintance with Sixth Street, the half-brothers Chuck, Reggie, and Tim were 18, 15, and nine, respectively. All had different fathers by the same crack-addict mother, Miss Linda. Their Section 8–subsidized house reeked of vomit, alcohol, and urine; roaches and ants crawled over the inhabitants as well as the furniture; cat feces covered a kitchen corner. Chuck’s and Reggie’s arrest records had begun in their early teens; Tim would graduate from middle school to the juvenile courts when he turned 12. Fatherlessness is a virtually universal condition among the young men in Goffman’s tale, but gradations exist within it. Chuck’s father came around during his early years, which helps explain, says Chuck, “why [Chuck] knew right from wrong and his young brothers did not”—a poignant acknowledgment of the role of fathers in raising sons, even if its premise (that Chuck knows right from wrong) is questionable.
On Sixth Street, drug dealing is tantamount to a bourgeois occupation. Chuck complains that his middle brother, Reggie, lacks the patience for “making slow money selling drugs hand to hand.” Instead, Reggie favors armed robberies, to the admiration of his mother, Miss Linda. “He fearless,” she says. “A stone-cold gangster.” It would be a mistake, however, to think of drug dealing as a peaceful activity. Early on, a disgruntled supplier firebombs Chuck’s car. Chuck responds by shooting at the supplier’s home. In 2007, at the end of Goffman’s chronicle, Chuck is fatally shot in the head while standing outside a Chinese restaurant, one of three shootings that night in Philadelphia. The killer, Goffman writes, was “trying to make it at the bottom rung of a shrinking drug trade.”
Accompanying this drug-related violence is a more random violence that springs from dog-eat-dog exploitation and lack of impulse control. In an earlier incident, Goffman’s fourth main character, Mike, another crack dealer, is walking home one night with a large wad of cash from a dice game. An armed robber accosts him—presumably tipped off to Mike’s stash by the other players. Mike tries to pull his own gun but gets shot in the hip first. Several days later, Mike sees the gunman in a Buick and opens fire. Two days after that, Mike and his attacker drive past each other, guns blazing. Mike’s car takes seven bullets, and he starts wearing a bulletproof vest. During another dice game, a young thug from Sixth Street named Tino puts a gun to a fellow player’s head and demands his money. His target, Jay Jay, refuses, so Tino, who is high on PCP, kills him. Jay Jay’s fellow crew members take to driving up and down Sixth Street firing at residents. Chuck gets shot in the neck—this time, not fatally—and his friend Steve is hit in the thigh.
Ned, 43, supports himself in part by stealing credit cards and intercepting checks in the mail. When he and his girlfriend Jean, a crack addict, need money for property taxes, they lure a cousin of Reggie’s (Miss Linda’s second son) to their house with the promise of gossip about a former girlfriend. Waiting there is a man in a hoodie, who robs the cousin at gunpoint. The unintended punch line of the story: Ned and Jean also get income from working as foster-care parents, a fact that does not apparently give Goffman pause but that speaks volumes, sadly, about the quality of parenting in the area.
Theft is constant among Sixth Street residents. Mike invited a man he met in prison to play video games at his mother’s house. The guest steals the stereo, DVD player, and two TVs. Anthony, another Sixth Street resident, was thrown out by his mother for stealing from her purse. He was turned in to the police by neighbors on a warrant, after stealing their shoes. When he stayed at Miss Linda’s, he grumbled that he couldn’t save money because she would steal from him while he slept. Mike gives Anthony crack to sell, but he could not shoot his fellow dealers when they stole from him, since his usual whereabouts at night were widely known, making him an easy target. As a result, he was not a very effective drug dealer.
The characters’ mishaps often resemble farce. Reggie, on the run for a drug crime, takes refuge in his mother’s house. Miss Linda had instructed him to leave before midnight, but he falls asleep. When a SWAT team arrives, Miss Linda persuades them not to go upstairs, and Reggie jumps out the bedroom window and flees into the alley, like Cherubino leaping from the Countess’s window in The Marriage of Figaro. Mike gives himself a birthday party, and the guests start stealing liquor bottles. He sets up sentry on the windowsill, gun on his lap, threatening to pistol-whip the next guy who takes a bottle. But he, too, falls asleep, and a guest lifts a wad of cash from his pocket.
After the police find Reggie cowering in a shed one day, he is sent to the county jail. He wallows in self-pity because his Sixth Street male friends are not visiting him or putting money into his commissary account. “Niggas ain’t riding right! Niggas ain’t got no respect,” he complains to Goffman. “When I come home, man, I’m not fucking with none of these niggas. Where the fuck they at? They think it’s going to be all love when I come home, like, what’s up, Reggie, welcome back and shit . . . but fuck those niggas, man, they ain’t riding for me. I got no rap for them when I touch.”
The residents’ chaotic sex lives generate further farcical situations—if one can overlook for a moment the consequences for their children. Virtually every male has a baby mom and a simultaneous collection of girlfriends; the females have children and their own series of boyfriends. After a prison term, Mike is sentenced to a halfway house in North Philly. He starts sleeping with a caseworker there named Tamara. Mike violates curfew and winds up back in prison. He tries to ensure that Tamara’s visits are on different days from those of Marie, the baby mom of his two children. One day, however, Tamara shows up unexpectedly, “ostensibly,” Goffman qualifies, to visit her inmate brother. Tamara sees Marie and Mike sitting across from each other and says hello. Marie sizes up the situation and announces loudly: “I ain’t drive five fucking hours for this shit.” Mike tries to quiet Marie down—like Don Giovanni trying to hush up Donna Elvira—but she retorts: “You fucked her, didn’t you.” Tamara announces loudly to her brother that she really likes Mike and hopes that he is not still messing with his baby mom, while Marie conspicuously plays with Mike’s hair. Mike starts talking loudly to cover up Tamara’s monologue to her brother while looking desperately at Goffman to rescue him. Marie stands up and leans in for a kiss, which Mike, cornered, supplies. Tamara ends up in tears.
But the sexual complications usually take on a more depressing aspect. At the hospital where Chuck has died after his head wound, his “on-again-off-again girlfriend,” Tanesha, shows up, but everyone wonders “where the hell Chuck’s baby-mom Brianna was.” Miss Linda asks Goffman to give the Pampers money, which the author had promised her, to Tanesha, who is looking after Chuck’s two daughters until Brianna can be located. This is not an arrangement likely to end well.
False incriminations are pervasive. When Mike was 24 and his children were three and six, he started dating a woman from North Philly named Michelle. He had high hopes for her, he tells Goffman, since, as a Puerto Rican, she should be more loyal than the “black chicks” who “love the cops” and turn in their boyfriends. Moreover, Michelle’s father and brothers sold drugs, so she was well accustomed to criminal proceedings. Michelle said that she loved Mike more than any man she had ever met, including her three-year-old’s father, then serving a ten-year federal prison sentence for an undisclosed crime. But Mike misses a court appointment, and a warrant issues for his arrest. The police find drugs and a gun in his apartment, which he tries to pin on Michelle and her father. The police show Michelle Mike’s statement against her, as well as his texts and phone calls to Marie that indicate that he is still involved sexually with his baby mom. Indignant, Michelle tells the police everything she knows about his drug dealing. Mike writes her from jail: “Don’t come up here, don’t write, don’t send no more money [this last mandate entailing heroic self-sacrifice, no doubt]. . . . You thought I wasn’t going to find out that you a rat? . . . Fuck it. I never gave a fuck about you anyway. You was just some pussy to me and your pussy not even that good!”
But Mike is the victim of double-crossing as well. He acts as godfather to a young, hoodie-wearing tough named Ronny, a close competitor to Miss Linda’s son Reggie for the status of Sixth Street’s most loathsome figure. Ronny started carrying a gun at 13 and shot himself in the leg while boarding a bus at 15. He periodically gets kicked out of school for such offenses as hitting his teacher and trying to steal his principal’s car. He brags to Goffman that he has slept with women older than she (she was then 21). Most of his days are spent running from truant officers and serving suspensions. One night, when Ronny was 16, he and some Sixth Street associates try to break into a motorcycle store on the outskirts of Philadelphia to steal motorbikes. They fail to get in to the store and, when their Pontiac doesn’t start, are unable to make their getaway. Ronny calls Goffman and Mike at 2 AM to pick him up. (Mike is, at that point, living in Goffman’s apartment, along with Chuck.) The silent alarm in the motorcycle dealership has already alerted the police. They arrest Ronny and Mike, and in the stationhouse, Ronny falsely incriminates Mike as the mastermind behind the break-in. The police let Ronny go and charge Mike with attempted breaking and entering. Mike spreads the word that Ronny is a snitch. Eager to redeem his reputation, Ronny burgles a house in Southwest Philly with Mike’s gun and pays Mike’s bail with the proceeds from the stolen TV, stereo, and jewelry.
This lawlessness cascades into the legal economy as well. Health-care workers steal antibiotics and medical supplies from their employers to provide to their fugitive friends who are fearful of being apprehended at a hospital. University of Pennsylvania law professor Regina Austin has approvingly referred to such “pilfering employees [who] spread their contraband around the neighborhood” as occupying the “good middle ground between straightness and more extreme forms of law-breaking.”
Goffman looks at this unending stream of lawless behavior and sees only the helpless pawns of a mindlessly draconian criminal-justice system: “Since the 1980s, the War on Crime and War on Drugs have taken millions of Black young men out of school, work, and family life, sent them to jails and prisons, and returned them to society with felony convictions.” Actually, it is these men’s own consistently bad decisions that remove them from lawful society. “Felony convictions” do not simply fall from the sky; they result from serious criminal activity—and persistence at criminal activity, at that—required to induce a district attorney actually to seek a felony charge and possibly a trial. If any of Goffman’s subjects made a disciplined effort at “school, work, and family life,” she forgot to include that detail.
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.”
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.
Remarkably, however, Goffman tries to shoehorn even these law-abiding individuals into her mass-incarceration framework, resulting in the most incoherent passage in the book: “In a community where only a few young men end up in prison, we might speak of bad apples or of people who have fallen through the cracks,” she writes. “Given the unprecedented levels of policing and imprisonment in poor Black communities today, these individual explanations make less sense. We begin to see a more deliberate social policy at work. In that context simply bearing witness to the people who are avoiding the authorities and the penal system seems worth a few pages. The people featured here are all, in a variety of ways, leading clean lives in a dirty world. In so doing, they demonstrate that the criminal justice system has not entirely taken over poor and segregated Black neighborhoods like Sixth Street, only parts of them.”
It would be more accurate to say that the clean people demonstrate that lawless behavior and moral breakdown have “not entirely taken over poor and segregated Black neighborhoods like Sixth Street.” The fact that the criminal-justice system distinguishes people who break the law from those who do not shows precisely that “individual explanations” for who gets incarcerated are accurate, not mystifying. The clean people do not run from the police because they are not wanted by the police. Even more absurd is Goffman’s ascription of a “deliberate social policy” of oppression to the prosecution of crime. If such a policy existed, there would be no reason to make exceptions for anyone.
Goffman’s thesis that the supervision of offenders creates more crime also lacks support in her reportage. She claims that the enforcement of warrants for missed court dates, probation violations, and unpaid court fees drives the Sixth Street drug dealers and thieves underground, preventing them from joining the “clean” world. But she never reveals why her subjects miss their court dates. Do those court obligations inflexibly interfere with job schedules in the legal economy? She would have said so. Instead, these drifting drug dealers most likely simply lack the organization and will to make their court appointments. Goffman herself notes that many a Sixth Street resident who blamed his joblessness on his fugitive status made no effort to find work when he had no outstanding warrants. As for testing dirty for drugs in violation of parole or probation conditions, no one forces a parolee to take drugs. Goffman gives us no reason to think that these thugs would behave better with less supervision; nor does she suggest what a court’s response should be when they go AWOL. (UCLA professor Mark Kleiman advocates the use of “flash incarceration” for parole and probation violations—short stays in a local jail, rather than prison, swiftly meted out. It is not clear that such an option was not available to Philadelphia prosecutors and judges. In any case, flash incarceration possesses little deterrent value for seasoned criminals.)
Goffman’s most persuasive critique of the justice system is that court fees are imposed on defendants who lack the means to pay them, resulting in a vicious cycle of judgments for nonpayment and further warrant enforcement and incarceration. (A U.S. Justice Department report, written in the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown last August, lodged this complaint against Ferguson, as well, and it is a growing focus of academic attention.) Here, too, though, Goffman shows no instance of someone making a good-faith effort to pay his fees. While her young men are not prosperous, she mentions Mike’s sizable collection of worldly possessions, which include cars, motorbikes, sneakers, speakers, jewelry, and CDs. Some men may indeed lack the resources to pay their court fines, in which case the system is self-defeating; but it is also quite possible that they choose to spend their money on other things, such as drugs and sneakers.
On the Run unwittingly demonstrates why police presence is heavy in black inner-city neighborhoods. Goffman mentions just one fatal police shooting: Anthony had shot at undercover officers in an alley, thinking that they were gang rivals; they returned fire and killed him. Otherwise, and contrary to the claims of the Black Lives Matter movement, her young black men overwhelmingly die at one another’s hands, such as a friend of Chuck’s, shot while exiting Goffman’s car outside a bar. The clean people of Sixth Street do not complain about the police; indeed, Miss Linda’s father, a retired postal clerk, regularly calls the cops on his grandsons and welcomes the heavy police activity in the neighborhood. Even the Sixth Street criminals try to get themselves arrested when the local gang violence becomes too hot; prisons and jails are the only place they feel safe.
Goffman claims to have witnessed officers beating up suspects 14 times in 18 months of daily observation and asserts that the Philadelphia Police Department has an official, if sub rosa, policy of pummeling suspects who so much as put a finger on an officer. She also claims, without a source, that the cops routinely steal cash during drug raids. (She doesn’t mention the alleged deficiencies in the department’s deadly force training, for which it is criticized in another recent Justice Department report, which also noted that black and Hispanic officers were far more likely than white officers to shoot black civilians based on a mistaken perception of threat.) Such brutality and corruption, if true, must be punished and eradicated. (One should note, though, in assessing Goffman’s credibility in such matters, that her loathing of the police is such that she develops a fear of white men in particular, and white people more generally.) But such police misconduct, if it exists—as it did in North Charleston, South Carolina, where Walter Scott was shot to death in wholly unjustified circumstances—does not mean that lawful police activity is any less needed in neighborhoods still plagued by violence and other forms of disorder. Philadelphia’s high crime rate has been a perennial drag on its economy. Data-driven policing and the incarceration buildup that Goffman and her mentors so decry resulted nationally in the steepest crime drop in modern history (especially in New York), saving countless inner-city lives, both clean and dirty. At the end of the book, Reggie and Tim are serving long prison sentences. We have no reason to believe that those punishments were not deserved.
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.
But it is even more remarkable that so many influential readers have bought Goffman’s thesis that law enforcement is the predominant source of trouble in her subjects’ lives. Journalist Malcolm Gladwell, lauding the book in The New Yorker, draws the conclusion that the criminal-justice system blocks black criminals and their progeny from entering the middle class, unlike its earlier treatment of the Mafia. Harvard’s Christopher Jencks, writing in The New York Review of Books, rues the “terrible collateral damage inflicted on the young black men of Sixth Street by their interminable struggle with the police”—echoing Goffman’s contention that such struggles simply happen, rather than being the result of voluntary behavior. Like Goffman, her well-placed readers focus on the consequences of crime for the criminal and ignore the crime itself. On the Run could have been a needed corrective to the post-Ferguson conceit of a racist justice apparatus arbitrarily descending on helpless black communities. But it is not being received that way. Instead, the book’s reception has demonstrated how ineradicably committed liberal elites are to the belief in black victimhood. And that belief, continuously fed to the street by the advocates and the media, means that police-community relations in New York and other American cities will continue to be fraught with tension and danger.