On the Run

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Alice Goffman. On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Picador: Kindle Edition, 2015.

Alice Goffman contributes some remarkable firsthand observations to the growing debate over the American criminal justice system. She adds her voice to those who suggest that the costs to society of extremely high arrest and imprisonment rates may be outweighing the benefits. Locking up so many people is not only costing a lot of money, but it is deepening social divisions and aggravating economic and racial inequalities.

A sociological perspective

As a sociologist, Goffman appreciates how powerfully human activity is shaped by social interaction and social organization. (She is, by the way, the daughter of renowned sociologist Erving Goffman, although he died when she was very young.) If there’s one thing that sociologists stress, it is that individuals don’t devise their beliefs and behaviors all by themselves. That applies to the behaviors we call criminal too, although thinking sociologically is especially challenging in that area. Sociology goes against the understandable tendency to dissociate ourselves from behavior we don’t like, to regard it simply as a product of bad individuals, having little to do with people like us, our beliefs, practices or social policies.

But if crime were nothing but individual pathology, what would we make of our country’s exceptional rates of incarceration?

The United States currently imprisons five to nine times more people than western European nations, and significantly more than China and Russia. Roughly 3 percent of adults in the nation are now under correctional supervision: 2.2 million people in prisons and jails, and an additional 4.8 million on probation or parole. In modern history, only the forced labor camps of the former USSR under Stalin approached these levels of penal confinement.

Particularly troubling are the disproportionate imprisonment rates of young black men, one out of nine compared to about one out of fifty young white men. The cumulative effect is even more startling: “One in four Black children born in 1990 had an imprisoned father by the time he or she turned fourteen.” Such statistics call out for a systemic explanation:

In a community where only few young men end up in prison, we might speak of bad apples or of people who have fallen through the cracks. 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.

Goffman herself is a white person from a fairly privileged background, but her sociological perspective will be challenging for white readers who want to dissociate themselves from black problems. I would suggest that this dissociation can have racist implications, since one is likely to think that there must be something seriously wrong with a group of people who generate such high rates of imprisonment all by themselves. But that’s exactly what sociology questions. Sociology does not require us to do a 180-degree turn, believing that the people society calls guilty are really innocent, although that is true in some cases. It does require us to acknowledge that the unresolved conflicts of our society, especially conflicts of class and race, help produce both crime itself and society’s response to crime. It helps us see that overly punitive responses can become part of the problem by further marginalizing the most disadvantaged among us. Goffman observes that it is the poorer young men who tend to get caught up in the criminal justice system, “though the crimes that start them off in the penal system are often crimes of which richer young men, both Black and white, are also guilty: fighting, drug possession, and the like.” Criminalization is a joint product of patterns of behavior and patterns of enforcement, both of which are affected by race and class.

The setting

Goffman served as a participant-observer in a Philadelphia neighborhood she calls “6th Street.” It consisted of five residential blocks at the south end of a commercial avenue. In the 1950s and 60s, it was a middle-class Jewish neighborhood, but it began to open to middle-class Blacks in the 1970s. By the 1980s, the area had changed economically as well as racially, as all the white families had moved out and developers had started targeting the neighborhood for low-income housing. Although it was not the poorest or most dangerous of Philadelphia neighborhoods, job opportunities were limited, and young men often turned to illegal ways of making money, especially dealing drugs. For several years, Goffman lived in the community and hung out with its residents, especially young men who had run-ins with the law.

Goffman reports, “For many decades, the Philadelphia police had turned a fairly blind eye to the prostitution, drug dealing and gambling that went on in poor Black communities.” But by the 1980s, police were becoming less receptive to payoffs and more vigorous in enforcing the laws. In the same era, society responded to high crime rates by imposing harsher penalties for both violent and nonviolent crimes. These policies continued even as many forms of crime declined in the 1990s. While the doors of opportunity were opening for some Blacks as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, prison doors were closing on a remarkable number of others.

As a participant-observer, Goffman is in a position to make a unique contribution to our understanding by seeing what the community looks like from the residents’ perspective. That contribution may not be appreciated by those who would rather just distance themselves from people and behaviors they dislike. For them, Goffman may appear too sympathetic to her subjects and even complicit in their crimes. I will have more to say about the author’s methods and the ethical challenges they entailed in my next post.

A community of suspects and fugitives

Goffman’s main thesis is that “historically high imprisonment rates and the intensive policing and surveillance that have accompanied them are transforming poor Black neighborhoods into communities of suspects and fugitives.” Each resident’s legal status becomes a “central social fact” around which social identity and lifestyle are organized. “Those who have no pending legal entanglements or who can successfully get through a police stop, a court hearing, or a probation meeting are known as clean. Those likely to be arrested should the authorities stop them, run their names, or search them are known as dirty.”

How easy it is to go from clean to dirty is illustrated by the case of a high school student Goffman calls “Chuck”. He was a senior in good standing when he got into a school yard fight. “According to the police report, Chuck didn’t hurt the other guy much, only pushed his face into the snow, but the school cops charged him with aggravated assault.” He spent some time in jail before the charges were dismissed, and he was refused readmission to his high school because he had now turned nineteen. A judge ordered him rearrested for failing to pay $225 in court fees. “By the time many young men in the neighborhood have entered their late teens or early twenties, the penal system has largely replaced the educational system as the key setting of young adulthood.”

It is not just incarceration that disrupts young lives, but the conditions of parole or probation:

The supervisory restrictions of probation and parole bar these men from going out at night, driving a car, crossing state lines, drinking alcohol, seeing their friends, and visiting certain areas in the city. Coupled with an intense policing climate, these restrictions mean that encounters with the authorities are highly likely, and may result in a violation of the terms of release and a swift return to jail or prison.

Young men with legal entanglements learn to fear and avoid the police. They don’t call the police when they themselves are victimized. They fly under the radar by not seeking formal employment. They avoid places where police keep a watchful eye, such as hospitals (even when their child is being born or they require medical attention) and funerals (where on many different occasions Goffman observed the police filming mourners as they entered the church).

Police often pressure women to inform on their husbands, boyfriends or sons. They may threaten women with arrest, loss of child custody, or eviction from their apartments. In some police raids, they destroy property and even physically abuse women. Women go back and forth between succumbing to such pressure and trying to repair the damage their collaboration with the authorities inflicts upon relationships. “The police’s strategy of arresting large numbers of young men by turning their mothers and girlfriends against them goes far in creating a culture of fear and suspicion, overturning women’s basic understandings of themselves as good people and their lives as reasonably secure, and destroying familial and romantic relationships that are often quite fragile to begin with.”

Goffman describes a special kind of black market that develops to serve the needs of legally troubled men. An enterprising young man makes over $100 a week doing telephone impersonations of men on probation or parole, so that officers will think they are at home. A supervisor in an overcrowded halfway house takes money in return for letting residents sneak out at night, justifying it as a humane response to an inhumane system (“Each night I give a man is a night he remembers he’s a human being, not an animal”).

From these and many other observations, Goffman draws a general conclusion:

Thus, the great paradox of a highly punitive approach to crime control is that it winds up criminalizing so much of daily life as to foster widespread illegality as people work to circumvent it. Intensive policing and the crime it intends to control become mutually reinforcing. The extent to which crime elicits harsh policing, or policing itself contributes to a climate of violence and illegality, becomes impossible to sort out.

Historical oppression continued?

Some sociologists have compared today’s disproportionate incarceration of racial and ethnic minorities to earlier systems of racial oppression. Historically, the criminal justice system played a major role in enforcing slavery and Jim Crow. Blacks who tried to escape their subservient roles became fugitives subject to criminalization, whether runaway slaves, sharecroppers who couldn’t leave the land without running out on debts to landowners, or “vagrants” without acceptable employment. What is being imposed today is more subtle, confinement to a standard of living far below that of the surrounding society, enforced by the threat of worse confinement within a greatly expanded penal system.

One thing that distinguishes the current system from past forms of oppression is that it is not based on race alone. The United States today is officially a more racially equal society. Aggressive policing and large-scale incarceration are reserved primarily for low-income, high-crime neighborhoods. A small black middle class has been able to move to more affluent, integrated neighborhoods where criminalization is less likely. That is a mixed blessing, however, since it has enabled so many whites to deny that the country still has a race problem. What racist country would elect a black president, people ask? But the problem of race will persist as long as the extreme disparities in income and economic opportunity remain correlated with race. Society’s responses to the problems associated with poverty will primarily target black neighborhoods.  Inevitably, much popular resentment will also be directed toward those neighborhoods, in reaction either to the problems themselves or to the tax dollars that are spent to address them.

So what is oppressive today is America’s peculiar intersection of race and class. The fact that so many black people are poor helps white people develop negative stereotypes about them, while racial stereotyping and discrimination (including racial profiling) help keep people poor.

Goffman concludes:

We might understand the US ghetto as one of the last repressive regimes of the age: one that operates within our liberal democracy, yet unbeknownst to many living only a few blocks away. In a nation that has officially rid itself of a racial caste system, and has elected and reelected a Black president, we are simultaneously deploying a large number of criminal justice personnel at great taxpayer cost to visit an intensely punitive regime upon poor Black men and women living in our cities’ segregated neighborhoods.

Once we see the problem is such systemic terms, we can also see that it isn’t enough to blame the police, as Goffman acknowledges. They cannot solve America’s socioeconomic problems with arrest and imprisonment alone. And as long as we expect them to, we will only perpetuate and even aggravate those problems.


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