Alice Goffman, On the Run: Racism and the oppressive police state

I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Alice Goffman, Assistant Professor of Sociology at UW Madison, and the author of the acclaimed and controversial On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American CityI’ve not yet read the book but I’ve read a good bit about it and I was excited about the prospect of hearing her talk about her research.

Her talk focused on a single family, the Taylors. It was fascinating on so many levels but perhaps the most poignant piece of it for me was the family’s trajectory. They began as sharecroppers in South Georgia, moved to Philadelphia as part of the Great Migration in World War II when George was five. His father was a day laborer working on the docks shoveling coal. His mother was a servant to two white families in downtown Philly. Alice told us that it was the neighborhood where she herself grew up. George graduated from high school in 1959, joined the army, received an honorable discharge before Viet Nam, and went to work for the US Postal Service, where he stayed until his retirement.

With his good job, he was able to buy a three-bedroom house in what Goffman calls “the 6th Street” neighborhood. It was outside the traditional ghetto; he was one of the first African-Americans to purchase in the area but was followed by other middle class and professional blacks. Goffman doesn’t give us the precise chronology but she did tell us that things began to fall apart in the community and in the family in the 1980s. George was raising his daughter alone. In the 80s, she became a crack user and gave birth to three sons. It was the three sons on whose stories Goffman focused in her talk. In 2014, one was dead, one (who had spent almost all of his time between age 11 and 23 in the criminal justice system) had been out of prison for a year and a half; the youngest was now behind bars.

Think about that trajectory. In three generations, from Jim Crow and sharecropping, to the middle class, to the New Jim Crow. There may be all sorts of ways of interpreting the reasons for that trajectory, but it’s telling that at the moment African-Americans seemed poised to enter the mainstream of American economic and political life in the late sixties and seventies the war on drugs and crime began its relentless attack.

Time and again, Goffman reiterated that the neighborhood she was studying wasn’t one of the “hot spots.” It was still somewhat mixed economically. When she talked with the police, it wasn’t on their list of priorities; it was relatively quiet. Still, by 2002, there was a 9:00 pm curfew for young black men; there were video cameras on the streets. She listed the numbers of times she saw police helicopters overhead. She recounted the three SWAT team raids over a few nights at the Taylor house because one of the boys had fled an arrest on suspicion of possession of marijuana. She told of the first time the youngest son, Tim, was arrested, at age 11, on charges of being an accessory, while his older brother was stopped for driving a stolen car (it was his girlfriend’s and neither he nor she knew it was stolen).

Goffman compares the police involvement in the 6th street neighborhood to the oppressive totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe under communism. It’s a sobering, depressing story. To her, the criminal justice system is an occupying power in African-American community.

After her talk, someone asked about schools. She had this to say: “In Philadelphia, schools are a dangerous place. The families that are successful in keeping their sons out of prison keep them out of public schools.”

Still, she is not without hope. There is a reform movement emerging. The drug war, she says, is over. It may be that we are reaching consensus as a society that the long-term project to incarcerate African-American males is coming to an end.

About Madison, she said this: Our city and county are unique in the extent of the exclusion of African-Americans and the extent of the disparities between black and white. Goffman is doing important work and I hope that she and her students will engage the situation here in Madison as well as larger American society and culture.



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