The Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has observed that academic sociologists are rarely asked to participate in political initiatives to address the problems of poverty, inequality, and black disadvantage. Fueled by their dread of “blaming the victim,” these academics display an indifference to the “cultural dimensions of poverty, particularly black poverty” that renders their work useless and irrelevant, as Patterson wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year. By flying in the face of black people’s own understanding of the role of attitudes, habits, and values, in their present dilemma, sociologists treat the subjects of their study as “cultural dopes.”
Is Patterson on target? Alice Goffman’s lavishly praised On the Run, published in 2014, presents a perfect test case. During college at the University of Pennsylvania and graduate school at Princeton in the past decade, Goffman acquired extensive knowledge of a mostly black, working-class area of Philadelphia she calls 6th Street. A part-time job tutoring a high school student named Aisha developed into friendships with Aisha’s neighbors, relatives, and friends, including an extensive network of young black men, almost all unemployed high school dropouts “on the run” from the police. She embarked on a study of their lives. Her painstaking fieldwork became this insightful, gimlet-eyed book.
By providing an occasion to delve into people’s thoughts and beliefs and observe their actions on the ground, ethnographic projects such as Goffman’s would appear to invite consideration of the influences, cultural and otherwise, that might not be revealed by the large-scale quantitative research that is favored by the social sciences today. Yet, like many academics who observe the inner city, the author shies away from sustained scrutiny of the internal dysfunctions in these communities in favor of focusing on the large and impersonal forces bearing down from outside. In the face of abundant evidence that the denizens of 6th Street repeatedly engage in avoidable self-sabotage, Goffman is at pains to soft-pedal their role as architects of their own desperate and deformed lives, preferring to depict them as helpless victims, doomed by oppressive laws, baleful anti-crime policies, and the hostile “occupying force” of the police.
The young fugitives Goffman profiles follow a well-worn path to trouble, marked out by educational indifference and failure, erratic and unsuccessful employment, and mounting legal violations. Wanted on charges that run the gamut from traffic violations to drug dealing to murder, their routine failure to appear in court, pay fines, or honor conditions of probation results in a proliferation of warrants for their arrest. The focus of Goffman’s attention is on the elaborate cat-and-mouse game these men play with law enforcement in an attempt to evade its authority. And that authority is formidable: According to Goffman, decades of tough-on-crime policies have turned high-crime urban neighborhoods into a panopticon of unrelenting vigilance. Computer mapping and high-tech surveillance direct police to high-crime “hot spots,” where they busy themselves with stopping pedestrians and cars, searching homes, and continuously monitoring the streets for men with outstanding warrants. Information on the location and activities of wanted men is extracted from online databases and social networks, or by twisting the arms of family and friends often complicit with the fugitives.
For the wanted men themselves, ordinary life is out of the question. Attending a funeral, applying for a job, visiting a hospital, or trying to obtain a driver’s license can result in being taken into custody. They adopt shadowy, marginal, erratic, and unpredictable routines, avoiding steady work, and moving constantly.
Goffman is especially astute in describing how this “dip and dodge” informs and deforms 6th Street’s social life, breeding mutual mistrust, disrupting personal bonds, and generating an “understandable” hostility to law enforcement. A “don’t snitch” ethos, which thwarts cooperation with police, is one infamous by-product. But that ethos is conditional; friends and rivals use snitching, or not, as potent weapons to establish loyalty, extract payment, take revenge, or buy future silence. In the same vein, 6th Street is the site of an elaborate network of services for wanted men, generating profits and favors in kind. Local entrepreneurs supply “clean” urine samples for probationers, store possessions and clothes, procure false identity papers and documents, forge drivers’ licenses, and shop for toiletries, electronics, and birthday presents.
Goffman deftly shows how fugitive status affects the full spectrum of social relations for these men. What emerges is a society in fatal imbalance. Here, personal loyalties and emotional ties trump probity, principles, and the broad imperatives of civic order. With male authority figures virtually absent, middle-aged women, who range from the respectable and hardworking to the erratic and drug-addled, are central figures sustaining young men “on the run.” The mother-son bond, the strongest on 6th Street, draws women into complicity and creates resentment when the police catch up with their sons. As one mother complained to Goffman: “The [cops] are taking our children away. They can’t do that.”
As for younger women, Goffman presents a picture both familiar and unsettling. As is typical for the black lower class, marriage is virtually absent, with sexual liaisons short-lived, multiple, and often concurrent. Being better educated than the men and more often employed, the young women seem resigned to the waywardness of the men they encounter, don’t hesitate to sleep with them, and routinely bear their babies. Goffman even suggests that the men’s outcast status adds to their allure. Still, the battle of the sexes rages. In a sad but quaint vestige of bourgeois mores, the women desire and expect sexual exclusivity (even as they frequently subvert it), while the men show no interest in anything approaching monogamy. The resulting disharmony looms large in the fugitive dynamic, as jealous and rivalrous women wield their knowledge of men’s goings-on to gain romantic advantage, settle old scores, curry favor, and vie for primacy with mothers and sisters. The “father-go-round” of children creates a tangle of personal ties that renders women vulnerable to conflicting pressures from lawless men and the authorities. Goffman describes how girlfriends and baby-mamas holding coveted jobs in law enforcement are conscripted into the network of “support to the legally compromised” by using their positions to smuggle contraband and bend the rules. It doesn’t help that relations between the men and women are fraught with mistrust and secrecy, with fugitive men keeping female relatives and consorts at a distance or in the dark. (The author reports witnessing 71 occasions in which a woman discovered that “a partner or family member had become wanted by the police.”)
Goffman offers the ever-shocking but well-known statistic that 60 percent of black men without a high school degree have been to prison by their mid-30s, with others suffering arrest and probationary sanctions. Still, the most revealing chapter of the book is about the denizens of 6th Street who remain on the right side of the law. The author profiles an intriguing group of such “clean people,” among them a man named Lamar and his friends. Although from poor backgrounds and not well educated, they work steadily at unskilled jobs in maintenance, cleaning, security, and retail. Their leisure time is spent together drinking beer and playing the video game Halo, which keeps them off the streets, away from unsavory elements, and out of harm’s way. In perhaps the book’s most telling passage, Goffman admits that, in her eight months hanging out at Lamar’s place, she “hadn’t taken a single field note that contained the word police.” Although the cops could be heard chasing scofflaws outside this group’s door, “whomever the cops were looking for, it didn’t concern them.”
Lamar’s tale brings to mind Charles Murray’s observation that understanding deviance requires studying success rather than failure. Goffman doesn’t heed this good advice. Compared with other profiles in this book, her portrait of Lamar’s stalwart band is curiously sketchy, with little about their personal histories, education, and aspirations. She doesn’t probe their attitudes or let them speak for themselves. How can we account for these men’s relative success? Were there key people or experiences that made the difference? Goffman’s curious lack of curiosity may be grounded in the fear that the good guys will make the bad guys look less sympathetic or their fate less inevitable.
She does persuade us that the clean path is not easy and reveals just why it is so difficult. For Lamar and his ilk, hell is other people, and those people are not the police. Family, friends, and neighbors—and especially the many less scrupulous young men that surround them—always threaten to drag people like Lamar down. Constant vigilance and an enforced social distance are the strategies of choice, but they don’t always work. Goffman profiles a handful of neighborhood men who made it to college or into promising jobs, only to succumb to the street’s temptations. Her account also reveals that avoiding crime doesn’t necessarily translate into an orderly personal life. Out-of-wedlock children and short-lived, serial relationships are the rule for almost all the men in the neighborhood, regardless of their work status or involvement in crime. This suggests that, contrary to current received wisdom, reducing the number of black men in prison probably won’t restore committed fathers and stable families to neighborhoods like this one.
Goffman’s portrait of clean people and the demographic facts they represent stands in contrast to her resignation toward the scofflaws on 6th Street and her diagnosis of the nature of the problem. To her credit, Goffman never denies her subjects’ criminal transgressions or their chronic failure to clear their records or go straight. Nor does she accuse the police of pursuing innocent men. Rather, she takes as a given that the young men of 6th Street are destined to run afoul of the law, resist and lash out at police, and defy every effort to bring them to heel. Yet she is hazy on the specifics of these men’s rap sheets and dodgy on each person’s legal difficulties.
That’s not surprising, for what Goffman finds interesting is the deforming effects of society’s crackdown on crime, not the fact of crime itself—society’s damaging response to these men, not what society must respond to. According to Goffman, that response is all wrong. The criminal-justice system is misguided at every turn, in her view. But Goffman is vague on what would make it right. What infractions should be decriminalized and which criminals released from prison? How would she handle repeated failures to show up for court dates and pay fines? Should serious traffic violations, such as lack of a license or insurance, be penalized, and if so, how? Should probation and parole restrictions, routinely violated in this population, be eased or abandoned altogether? Goffman, exhibiting the classic posture of the above-it-all noncombatant, never answers these important questions.
All of which loops back to the vexed concept of culture. Does invoking that embattled notion shed light on the lives Goffman describes? Although many young men in the 6th Street neighborhood end up caught in a web of lawlessness, many others do not. Their existence shows that the denizens of 6th Street are not inexorably trapped by impossible circumstances, or doomed by a stacked criminal justice system, or destined for a life on the run. Rather, what seems to distinguish the fugitives from the neighborhood men who escape their fate is poor judgment, an attitude of defiance, and the bad choices that they repeatedly make.
This suggests that the concept of culture can only be ignored by neglecting the critical distinction between hard-and-fast externally imposed barriers and influences on behavior exerted from within the person or by the group. And that distinction can be illuminated by asking a few simple questions: Can people in the unpromising circumstances of 6th Street improve their lives? Can making different choices lead to better outcomes? And are those choices available? To use the popular socio-parlance, do the young black men of 6th Street have a “meaningful opportunity” to take a different path? The story of Lamar’s circle confirms that the answer to all these question is a resounding yes.
The road to self-improvement may be taxing and tedious, but it is not blocked by forces beyond these people’s control. Poverty makes things more difficult, and bad habits, attitudes, and misguided others exert a baleful influence, but these can be surmounted and tamed. Regardless of circumstances, the citizens of 6th Street can achieve better lives. Certainly, they can improve on the dangerous, mistrustful, shadowy existence of the fugitives depicted here. And the formula is neither complex nor mysterious. The key choices are to work steadily and stay on the right side of the law. As Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution and others have argued, the odds can be improved by graduating from high school and getting married before having children. This “success sequence” doesn’t guarantee riches or even comfort, but very few who stick to it are poor. These simple steps require no more “human capital” or ingenuity than that required to evade the police or support those who do.
So what is to be done about 6th Street? Taking refuge in her descriptive mission as a “fly on the wall,” Goffman avoids any systematic recommendations. But that doesn’t stop her from treating us to a penultimate chapter of jargon-ridden, stream-of-consciousness J’accuse. According to Goffman, our society has erected an oppressive police state that targets black men for depredations akin to those visited on “persecuted groups throughout history—from Jews in Europe to undocumented immigrants in the United States to people anywhere living under oppressive, authoritarian, or totalitarian regimes.” In collapsing critical and painfully obvious distinctions, this passage stands out as an especially egregious exercise in flawed moral equivalence, steeped in the rhetoric of structural forces and social conditions. Everyone is a victim here. It’s not that the police are “bad people” but rather that they have been placed in “an impossible situation” by the usual disembodied suspects: poverty, unemployment, drugs, violence, and the “social problems of able-bodied young men in a jobless ghetto.” This laundry list, endlessly repeated by social scientists everywhere, sidesteps critical chicken-and-egg issues. Goffman never tells us how to tackle unemployment when “able-bodied” men lack rudimentary skills and desirable habits. One can only hope that Goffman’s next ethnographic project will have her examining a small business struggling to cope with a staff of poorly socialized, unruly, functionally illiterate, profane, defiant ex-cons.
Despite its shortcomings, On the Run has many strengths as a valuable tract for the current historical moment. The spate of fatal encounters between police and young black men nationwide over the past year has triggered a renewed national debate on all aspects of criminal justice. Critics have targeted police brutality and impunity, “broken windows” and stop-and-frisk, racially targeted enforcement, overzealous prosecution, excessive criminalization, overincarceration, and onerous parole and post-prison practices. These are all appropriate areas for scrutiny and debate, because the criminal-justice system is subject to abuse. But the recent obsession with its defects suffers from the same imbalance as Goffman’s one-sided account of the maladies of 6th Street. Curbing law enforcement’s excesses is imperative, but overreactions are still reactions. It is important not to lose sight of what is being reacted to: people who repeatedly break the law and flout police authority, with destructive consequences for everyone.
After reading On the Run, one finds it hard to escape the conclusion that the panoply of proposed reforms cannot make much difference to the reality of neighborhoods like the one Goffman describes. There may be more justice, but there will never be peace. Her account lays bare the rampant lawlessness and resistance to authority that are a way of life on 6th Street. Too many residents are indifferent to society’s rules and don’t even try to abide by them. Goffman doesn’t deny this, but she puts her finger on the wrong button. The force field that deforms 6th Street is not society’s effort to eradicate crime, but crime itself.
As long as so many young men choose crime, the available options are grim. Whether under strict enforcement, or lax impunity, or something in between, 6th Street and places like it can never be desirable places to live. Good neighborhoods rest on a law-abiding citizenry, and a society of lawbreakers can never be a decent one. There are no surrogates for rectitude, no substitutes for an upright populace, and no fixes for a lawless one. This inconvenient truth cannot be policed, reformed, massaged, or jawboned away. No ethnographic study—indeed, no academic exercise, however sophisticated—can prove otherwise. That is the lesson of On the Run, and the reason that Orlando Patterson’s critique of academic sociology rings true.