Alice Goffman’s critically acclaimed ethnography On the Run is another story about a white lady come to study young black men. Who thought this was a good idea?
Mentioned alongside Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, On the Run’s many admirers say it not only reveals things that “we” do not know about what is being done to a portion of the population, it centers that population’s negotiations of an unlivability produced by policing and all-too-often drowned out by the (right, liberal, and left) white noise of calls for increased ”security.” Goffman’s admirers believe that she has provided “extraordinary” new insight into how and why black life is lived under and against occupation. They anticipate that On the Run’s reach will extend far beyond the US academy and that it will shift and extend conversations and public policy about policing. They expect, too, that it will illuminate, for those who have been able to remain blind to it, the scope and devastating impacts of the carceral state on the lives of (poor) black men and women.
Now an assistant professor of Sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Goffman was 20 years old and a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania when she began her regular trips from Penn’s campus to a black West Philadelphia neighborhood. She initially went there to tutor Aisha and Ray, the grandchildren of Miss Deena, the older black woman who is her supervisor during the six-week-period she works at Penn Dining for a research project.
The neighborhoods in question have a long and contentious history with the University. Over the years Penn’s relationship to them has largely been extractive and exploitative and as the university expanded it gentrified, “rebranded” (here an apt metaphor for the violence of black forced removal) the neighborhood, and displaced many of the black residents. Penn has long treated these neighborhoods as a source of menace that must be controlled and contained and as source material for its students and faculty. And Penn and other area universities bear direct responsibility for the immiseration of these communities. This was the case when I was a Penn undergraduate in the 1980s and it remains the case today. This geography and this history matter.
Thinking ahead to her senior thesis project, spending more time in the neighborhood with Aisha, her mother and their female friends, and reading literature on “working poor people and women struggling on welfare,” Goffman becomes convinced she has little to add to the work that’s already been done on black women and their “domestic world[s].” (Too, the women in the neighborhood tend to view her with more suspicion; they wonder why she’s there and what she wants.) Instead, she turns to the lives of the young black men (Mike, Chuck, Alex, Tim, Anthony – all pseudonyms) whom she has gradually befriended, and who she sees “dipping and dodging” their way through numerous encounters with the state. In the midst of such state intrusion, Goffman is amazed to realize that “neighborhood residents are carving out a meaningful life for themselves betwixt and between the police stops and probation meetings” and have “moral codes.” This is, for her, undiscovered sociological territory.
Despite Goffman spending a great deal of time in two dissimilar households over the course of many months, it was only “slowly [that she] began to perceive the social distance between Aisha’s and Miss Deena’s households. At Miss Deena’s the fridge was often full, the family had no problem keeping the lights and gas on, and Ray spent his evenings on SAT prep and college applications. … In my two years of spending most weekday afternoons at their place, I observed them entertaining guests only twice…. In contrast Aisha lived with her mother and sister in a four-story, Section 8-subsidized housing unit on a poorer block.” Aisha’s home life is described as chaotic, the television blares during their tutoring sessions, people are always coming and going, and her mother “admitted to having sold drugs for a while.” But it is only in the “following year, in Elijah Andersons’s urban ethnography class, [where] I would learn about the tension between decent and street, and the divides between Miss Deena’s and Aisha’s households began to make a lot more sense.” (“Decent” and “street” being terms that moralize and individualize how one lives under siege.)
In other words, prior to taking Anderson’s urban sociology class, when she is already at least one year into her study, Goffman is unable to discern as class difference the differences among black lower middle class, working class, and poor people. That blackness made that difference illegible as class is one problem that should raise questions about what else Goffman is unable to hear, see, and make sense of; her oscillation between tutor and ethnographer is another. One (tutoring) is structured as a gift while the other (ethnography) we might just call theft. But whether or not Goffman can read class in these black neighborhoods is immaterial in the face of the larger issues of a generalized and necessary black suffering. In other words, even as this geography matters, its mattering recedes in the face of the reality of black people living in regimes of surveillance and punishment, that make, as Jared Sexton writes, “every place seems to look like the one just left, if one leaves at all.”
Yet it is Goffman’s “insight” and her narrative voice that many readers find “extraordinary.” For them she not only shows that the state has this reach into every aspect of black life (continuous surveillance by camera and police helicopter, stop-and-frisk, curfews, the restrictions imposed on people without papers, minimal to no employment opportunities, probation officers, the judicial system, police pressures on family members, etc.) but how communities and families and individuals have been remade under these pressures and resisted and reshaped aspects of that remaking. The force of the state and responses to that force constitute the “fugitive life” that appears in the subtitle of the book. “Fugitivity,” as Keguro Macharia writes, “is seeing around corners, stockpiling in crevices, knowing the un-rules, being unruly, because the rules are never enough, and not even close.” Fugitivity is a powerful way to imagine black life that persists in and in spite of; and Goffman is not the first person to notice or explicate it. There is a long history of fugitivity and scholarship on fugitivity as ways of imagining black resistant life lived in captivity that seem to be unavailable to Goffman and to the majority of her readers.
Further, Goffman has “discovered” that “a new social fabric is emerging under the threat of confinement one woven in suspicion, distrust, and the paranoiac practices of secrecy, evasion, and unpredictability.” It has turned “ghettos” into “communities of suspects and fugitives.’” But Dwayne Betts is right: Goffman “in fact, tells us very little (or very little new) about the state that has always produced and that continues to produce black people as the bearers of criminality” and “In the end […] her unrelenting focus on criminality is just as likely to encourage more arrests and surveillance than to convince people that mass incarceration should end.” Betts reminds us that not only is this not the entire story but it’s also likely that because Goffman writes this narrative, her book may, in fact, not contribute to decarceration. Indeed, it’s is just as likely that On the Run’s publication will prompt an increase in the “distrust” and “paranoiac practices” on the part of those being policed as a direct result of an increase in policing. Recall that when Frederick Douglass, philosopher of fugitivity, made his way to “comparative freedom” in the Northern states he refused the pressures by allies and enemies alike to reveal the routes by which he did so. He writes:
“I have never approved of the very public manner in which some of our western friends have conducted what they call the underground railroad, but which I think, by their open declarations, has been made most emphatically the upperground railroad. … I see and feel assured that those open declarations are a positive evil to the slaves remaining, who are seeking to escape. They do nothing towards enlightening the slave, whilst they do much towards enlightening the master. They stimulate him to greater watchfulness, and enhance his power to capture his slave.”
In a New York Times profile, “Fieldwork of Total Immersion,” Goffman’s dissertation advisor Sociologist Mitchell Duneier says she “got access to the life of the ghetto and came to understand aspects of it we don’t ever get to see.” But who’s the “we” here who never gets to see or access aspects of “ghetto life”? (Anderson and Duneier are the leading figures in urban ethnography.) Goffman tells us that her subjects consented to being studied. She writes that in January 2003 she decides that documenting the lives of Mike, Chuck, and other 6th Street young men as they “dip and dodge” is the thesis work that she wants to pursue. In March 2003 she asks Mike if she can write about him for her thesis and Mike agrees, with the caveat that she will not include what he does not want included. How do we know she kept her word? Her subjects hardly have a way to hold her accountable. What did Goffman’s friends/subjects know and understand about the work that she was doing, and what would eventually become of it?
While the majority of her subjects are Goffman’s age some of them are substantially younger. (Aisha is 14 when Goffman begins tutoring her and “seemed to have experienced little outside of Black Philadelphia” and Tim is 12 in his first appearance in the book.) Who thought this was a good idea? And who gave institutional consent for Goffman to pursue this project as an undergraduate with little-to-no training in whatever skills and code of ethics that discipline determines as necessary for undertaking immersive fieldwork? Meanwhile, fieldwork itself reproduces modes of knowing straight out of plantation slavery, plantation management, and plantation geographies that were laboratories for black subjection and black resistance.
When Goffman starts her PhD program at Princeton she confesses to experiencing culture shock. She has been living in another world and so she no longer gets the cultural cues and references of her Princeton peers — hipsters, music, current events, witty email banter, Facebook, and iPods. She has, during her six years living on 6th Street, confined herself to the media and entertainments of the young men at the center of the study. I take Goffman’s accounts of alienation both in and after her immersion in life on 6th Street at face value, though she presumably had access (or the license to refuse access) to current events, email, witty banter, and iPods in the time she spends away from 6th Street with her family.
In light of the ways that she is disoriented by her temporary foray, we ought to reassess the relationship between Goffman and her primary subjects — only one of whom has a high school diploma and most of whom have rarely, if ever, ventured far from 6th Street. Goffman can make jumps that are ontologically impossible for subjects of her book. Even Josh, the one young man who leaves to attend college, ends up back on 6th Street and unemployed for two years after graduation because of his deep connections to people in the community. For Goffman, though, “the prospect of graduate school became [her] lifeline.” The structural division widens: In the interview with Jennifer Schuessler, Goffman recalls wondering if she could afford to be arrested: “They said that with a felony record, I couldn’t teach at a public university. For a second I thought, ‘Should I take this job?’” But, as the interviewer tells us, Goffman chose the job over jail. No other 6th Street resident who appears in the book has such a choice. (And this is not a matter of class. Recall the studies that show that white men who are high school dropouts or who have a record are more likely to be hired than black men with no record and a college degree.)
In her “Appendix: A Methodological Note,” Goffman addresses questions of method, consent, and how she “negotiated her privilege while conducting fieldwork.” Never fear: Goffman owns that “white privilege” and informs us that she had “more privilege than whiteness and wealth: my father was a prominent sociologist and fieldworker [Erving Goffman]“ and her mother and adopted father are also “professors and devoted fieldworkers.” She writes that wealth, education, the family business of ethnography “perhaps” “may have” given her “the confidence and the resources to embark on this research as an undergraduate.” And “perhaps my background, and the extra knowledge and confidence it gave me, also contributed to professors encouraging the work and devoting their time so freely to my education.”
Nevertheless, Goffman concludes that, “none of these advantages seemed to translate into … situational dominance, or at least not very often.” And most alarmingly and myopically, “In many situations, my lack of knowledge put me at the bottom of the social hierarchy. I hung out on 6th Street at the pleasure of Mike and Chuck along with their friends and neighbors and family. They knew exactly what I was doing and what I had on the line; whether I got to stay or go was entirely up to them.” Obscured here are not only what we might concede to be Goffman’s pleasures but the pleasures to be had by the reader of this text in, what Joy James elsewhere identifies as, such work’s “appeal to the ‘moral conscience’ of the dominant culture.” And rather than “white privilege” and “situational dominance,” we should be talking about ontology, captivity, white supremacy, and antiblackness.
On the Run raises no alarms for most readers precisely because it is sociology as usual as it is done in “urban” communities. The New York Times interview tells us that her thesis “advised by the noted ethnographer Elijah Anderson, won her a book contract from the University of Chicago probably the first based on undergraduate research the publisher has ever signed.” (A book contract for an undergraduate thesis!) Alex Kotlowitz in an otherwise admiring review does raise important questions about Goffman’s “über-version of immersion journalism.” Among them he writes: “Goffman at times makes rather sweeping statements or offers up the occasional anecdote, mostly relating to law enforcement, without an indication of the source.” This work raises profound ethical questions. And by ethical questions, I mean questions of power. “I am interested in ethics,” says Frank Wilderson, “which is to say that I am interested in explaining relations of power.”
Criminologist Tim Newburn would likely think I make too much of this. In his review of On the Run for the London School of Economics Blog he calls the book “gloriously readable.” His review displays a clear and symptomatic disregard for black contributions to the understanding of their own lives:
”In an age where ethics committees and the increasingly instrumental nature of academic life are making imaginative and risky work less and less possible, one can only be thankful that there are (very) occasional Alice Goffmans around to remind us just what can be achieved by sociology at its best. As a work of ethnography it is outstanding. As a piece of social science it is refreshingly and gloriously readable–how often can one say that of sociology these days? And as an insight into the reach and effect of the contemporary penal state on the day-to-day lives of Black urban America it is unparalleled.”
But Goffman’s work is not unparalleled, and Newburn positions her work above that of scholars and activists like Mariame Kaba, Angela Davis, Ruth Gilmore, Beth Richie, and The Black Youth Project (to name a very few) who, in their different ways, document the devastating effects of policing on black communities and also the organizing and resistance against incarceration and the criminalization of everyday black life. They tell very different kinds of stories than Goffman does.
In a review that raises almost as many problems as the book itself, Danah Boyd calls On the Run ”a true ethnographic account, so accessible and delightful that I want the world to read it.” But I get stuck on Goffman’s thick descriptions, of, for example, Miss Laura and Chuck and Tim’s house as noxious, smelling of urine and vomit, and pulsating with vermin. (Did Miss Laura approve this language?) I get stuck on Goffman’s descriptions of police brutality that take place while she and Aisha and others sit on a stoop and that leaves those who witnessed it completely unfazed. In light of an NYPD officer’s murder of Eric Garner and the public outcry — to name just one recent instance of police violence against black people — it is difficult to digest Goffman when she writes, “As the day goes on, I notice that Aisha and her family make no mention of what we have seen. Perhaps because they don’t know the man personally, this event is not important enough to recount to those not present when it occurred.” This is one among many decontextualized, ahistorical descriptions. Another is when Goffman writes of “white” and “black” neighborhoods in a way that naturalizes and erases the forces of racism, not to mention university expansion. Sixth Street just is black and Center City just is white. But we should recall Amiri Baraka’s argument to the contrary in his reassessment of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun: “There is no such thing as a ‘white folks’ neighborhood’ except to racists and to those submitting to racism.”
While Newburn bemoans the dampening effect of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and the increasing regulation of academic research, those protocols were put in place to try to decrease the possibility that certain populations would be made vulnerable to “imaginative and risky work.” Let me be very clear. I do not think that following proper protocols is the answer or even an answer; the IRB process itself is already completely structured by these ways of framing and seeing. Nevertheless, I am concerned about the risks Goffman’s presence posed to her subjects — increased attention by the police, undue stress on personal lives etc. I am concerned that there is no IRB protocol on file for her undergraduate thesis at the University of Pennsylvania. And while the Princeton IRB protocol on file may be backdated to include the research Goffman did as an undergraduate, that’s an exceptional procedure. I am concerned, but not surprised, that critics have overwhelmingly embraced this book as it abets fantasies of black pathology.
Indeed, Goffman displays a certain sympathy for and with the police:
“This justifiable anger [toward the police] does not mean that we should view the police as bad people or their actions as driven by racist or otherwise malevolent motives. The police are in an impossible position: they are essentially the only governmental body tasked with addressing the significant social problems of able-bodied young men in the jobless ghetto, and with only the powers of intimidation and arrest to do so. Many in law enforcement recognize that poverty, unemployment, and the drugs and violence that accompany them are social problems that cannot be solved by arresting people. But the police and the courts are not equipped with social solutions. They are equipped with handcuffs and jail time.”
That this is a cynical conclusion or a craven one becomes even clearer alongside Betts’s critique of her unsubstantiated and “unsettling claims about Philadelphia police practices” and Frank Wilderson’s argument that, “violence … precedes and exceeds blacks.” Put another way, what Goffman describes as the bind of police having “only” the “powers of intimidation” and “arrest” accounts neither for the entirety of the apparatus aimed at corralling black life nor for the violence that she witnesses as foundational and not mere examples of conflicts in civil society between the police and the black subjects whom “they are charged to protect.” Rather, what this book fails to grasp and what much of sociology cannot account for even as it reproduces its logic is that the violence everywhere and everyday enacted by the state on black people is the grammar that articulates the “carceral continuum of black life.” All black life, on the street and on the page.
So, the black communities of 4th and 6th Street continue to be laboratories in which Goffman and other student and faculty researchers at the University of Pennsylvania do field work. With its frisson of “authenticity,” On the Run may have a long and varied life ahead ( mini-series? feature film?) shaping misperception and abetting black narrative and material subjection. I already know that this book will be chosen for First Year common reading programs and that all over the US, historically white colleges and universities with small black undergraduate and faculty populations will read and then reproduce as truth On the Run’s ethics and methods; which is to say its relations and practices of power. In the neoliberal “engaged” university, On the Run is sure to be a primer for how to do immersive “urban” ethnography. And so continues, into the next generation, within and outside of the university, what Sylvia Wynter has called our black narratively condemned status.