I first read sociologist Alice Goffman’s book On The Run in 2014, before vitriolic gossip accused her of crossing the line from fieldworker to criminal collaborator; before some critics pegged her as another white do-gooder going native; before reviewers picked over the fine print looking for scraps of incriminating dirt.**
I had been out of criminology for several years and was trying to catch up on the rush of books on “mass incarceration” and related topics. On the Run stayed on my mind long after I finished reading it. I thought then, as I still do, that this is a remarkable first book, written with an honesty and self-examination that is rare in the social sciences. It deepens our knowledge about the mundane, tragic ways in which the criminal justice system creates havoc in the lives of impoverished African American communities.
During her freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, a very young Goffman got a job at the University cafeteria. It was her first foray into sociological participant observation, riskily following in the footsteps of her famous father Erving, who died when she was an infant. She challenged herself—a white, privileged, middle-class woman—to learn about the everyday lives of hard-pressed African American workers serving students who mostly ignored them. As she tentatively crossed the color line, she began to feel an affinity with her downwardly mobile co-workers and alienation from her classmates, who were climbing the ladder to professional success.
Goffman’s job at the cafeteria led to tutoring and living for four years in an impoverished African American community in Philadelphia she calls 6th Street, where her study of young men “dipping and dodging the police” became her dissertation at Princeton and then this book.
Goffman’s ethnography is sharply observed, capturing the rhythms and tensions of a “hyper-policed Black neighborhood”: how constant surveillance and intrusion create lives of “secrecy, evasion, and unpredictability”; how young men must “cultivate a secret and unpredictable routine” if they want to stay out of custody; and how the police physically and psychologically force mothers, sisters, and lovers to snitch in order to survive or keep their homes and children.
She brings fresh insights into how young men and their networks of support try to make something out of nothing: using jail as an occasional safe haven from street violence; turning bail offices into an informal banking service; and creating an underground market that trades in fake documents, drug-free urine, jail cell phones, and off-the-grid medical services. Yet, even as she documents these creative and innovative forms of agency, she doesn’t romanticize her subjects or imply that repression and resistance are equally balanced. “To be on the run,” she concludes, “is also to be at a standstill.”
On the Run is clearly and well written, with a preference for local slang over arcane jargon. No index and skimpy footnotes mark the book as clearly aimed at a crossover market (no doubt hoping to emulate the success of The New Jim Crow). As a result, analytical complexity is sometimes sacrificed for a good story.
There’s some occasional, unexamined hyperbole, such as declaring that “the US ghetto [is] one of the last repressive regimes of the age,” or suggesting “the current treatment of poor Black people” is comparable to what happened to “the Jews of Europe” and other victims of totalitarian regimes. And, as with most of the recent literature on mass imprisonment, the deep historical roots of police violence and the racist foundations of American criminal justice are minimized. We learn nothing, for example, about the specific history of policing in Philadelphia or comparable cities.
Goffman claims that hyper-policing in African American communities is a relatively new phenomenon, that “for most of the twentieth century, the police ignored poor and segregated Black neighborhoods such as 6th Street.” Here she ignores the weight of historical evidence, from W. E. B. Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier, and Richard Wright, to Gunnar Myrdal and the Kerner Commission. In 1960, James Baldwin hardly knew anybody in Harlem, “from the most circumspect church member to the most shiftless adolescent, who does not have a long tale to tell of police incompetence, injustice, or brutality.”
When Goffman sticks to the present, her account is original, insightful, and morally compelling. To understand the integrity of her project and how she pushed herself “further than was safe or expected,” make sure you read the last and longest chapter in the book, the blandly titled “A Methodological Note.” Here, she reveals how at first she endured suspicions in the community that she was a lesbian on the prowl for teenage girls or “one of those white girls who liked Black guys.” She’s refreshingly candid about how she often “felt like an idiot, an outsider, and at times a powerless young woman.”
As Goffman walked the fine line between participation and observation, 6th Street became her home, its sorrows her sorrows. Over seven years she attended nineteen funerals for young men; she allowed men on the run to hide out in her apartment; she witnessed routine police violence and was herself stomped by a SWAT team; and she sat in hospital holding the hand of one her friends as he died, wishing the worst for the man who shot him: “I learned what it feels like to want a man to die.”
After her funding ended, Goffman left 6th Street, finished her dissertation, and moved on to her first job at the University of Wisconsin. But she remained “tied to the memory of the men who are no longer with us.”
There is no doubt that this project broke Goffman’s heart, changed her life, and shaped how she thinks about the world. “The likelihood that I’d soon go to prison seemed about equal to the chance I would make it to graduate school,” Goffman recalled. Fortunately for readers — along with her colleagues and students—she ended up doing time in academia.
* This review of Alice Goffman’s On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (New York: Picador, 2014) was originally published in a slightly different form in The Journal of American History, 102, 4 (March 2016): 1149-1150.
** On the various controversies, see, for example, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, "The Changeling," New York Times Magazine (January 17, 2016); Paul Campos, "Alice Goffman's Implausible Ethnography," Chronicle of Higher Education (August 21, 2015); and Jennifer Schuessler, "Alice Goffman's Heralded Book on Crime is Disputed," New York Times (June 5, 2015).