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On America’s Front Lines

Daniel Traub
An empty lot in North Philadelphia, 2010; photograph by Daniel Traub, whose book, North Philadelphia, has just been published by Kehrer

Twelve years ago, when Alice Goffman was a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, she took a job tutoring Aisha, a young black girl who lived in a nearby black neighborhood. She then befriended Aisha’s relatives, including her cousin Ronny, who had just been released from a juvenile detention center and was living with his family in a somewhat better part of the Philadelphia ghetto. Ronny introduced Goffman to his cousin Mike, and she began hanging out with Mike and his friends. When her lease was up, she moved to Aisha’s neighborhood.

Near the end of the school year she asked Mike how he would feel if she were to write her senior thesis about his life. He agreed, and they struck a deal that included disguising both him and his neighborhood, which he christened “6th Street.” Later, several of her other 6th Street friends agreed to let her write about them. After graduating from Penn, Goffman lived in the 6th Street area for another four years, taking notes on everything she saw and heard, while pursuing a doctorate at Princeton. Now she has turned what she learned into a book called On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City.

On the Run is an engrossing book that should also become an ethnographic classic. It describes the world of young jobless black men who have seldom finished high school. Like most such men, Goffman’s friends had almost all served time in prison; before she left the neighborhood, she visited many of them in prison. This is a world with which few readers of this journal are likely to have had much contact. I certainly haven’t, despite having spent a lifetime writing about social policy. Goffman hadn’t either, until she moved to Aisha’s neighborhood, since she was raised by professional parents in one of white Philadelphia’s upper-middle-class neighborhoods.

On the Run begins by describing the ongoing struggle for control over the streets and homes of the 6th Street area. On one side of this struggle are the Philadelphia police. Like most other big-city police forces, Philadelphia’s police have a political mandate to reduce drug-selling and violent crime by “getting tough” and exhibiting “zero tolerance” for illegal activity. On the other side of the struggle are a fairly small group of young jobless black men, but also many of the neighborhood’s older residents. The older residents’ quarrel with the police is not over the desirability of reducing drug use or violent crime. Most older residents long for both. What they hate is the way the police pursue this goal, which is all sticks and no carrots.

There is a lot of stopping, searching, chasing, and arresting young men, and a lot of breaking into middle-aged adults’ homes, where the police hope to find young fugitives, drugs, or both. What’s missing is any effort, either by the police or by anyone else in authority, to provide these young jobless men with ways to make a living legally.

Here is Goffman’s description of how the struggle for control of the neighborhood looked and felt during her first eighteen months in 6th Street:

6th Street is not the poorest or the most dangerous neighborhood in the large Black section of Philadelphia of which it is a part—far from it. In interviews with police officers, I discovered that it was hardly a top priority of theirs, nor did they consider the neighborhood particularly dangerous or crime ridden. Residents in adjacent neighborhoods spoke about 6th Street as quiet and peaceful—a neighborhood they would gladly move to if they ever had enough money.

Still, 6th Street has not escaped three decades of punitive drug and crime policy. By 2002, police curfews had been established around the area for those under age eighteen, and police video cameras had been placed on major streets…. In the first eighteen months that I spent in the neighborhood, at least once a day I watched the police stop pedestrians or people in cars, search them, run their names for warrants, ask them to come in for questioning, or make an arrest.

In that same eighteen-month period, I watched the police break down doors, search houses, and question, arrest, or chase people through houses fifty-two times. Nine times, police helicopters circled overhead and beamed searchlights onto local streets. I noted blocks taped off and traffic redirected as police searched for evidence—or, in police language, secured a crime scene—seventeen times. Fourteen times during my first eighteen months of near daily observation, I watched the police punch, choke, kick, stomp on, or beat young men with their nightsticks.

Goffman describes this struggle in vivid detail and without academic jargon. She obviously has more sympathy for the pursued than for the pursuers, but she does not describe the young men whom the police pursue as innocent victims. She recounts their outbursts of fury at one another, which often moved quickly from verbal to physical violence. She reports cocaine and marijuana being bought, sold, and consumed. She mentions instances in which people killed someone, and that she attended nineteen funerals for young men killed by gunfire.

But when she asks why all this happens, she does not point to defects of character either among the police or among their prey. She seems to assume—rightly, in my view—that the police are doing the job they were hired to do, and that the young men are also doing what they do in order to eat regularly and keep a roof over their heads. The difference between the two groups is that what the police do to pay their bills is legal, even though much of it would probably not have survived judicial scrutiny fifty years ago, while much of what the young men do is illegal, even though some of the laws they violate may well be foolish.

Like her friends, Goffman thinks the solution to these problems is to create more steady jobs. At the moment, even the men who spend months looking for work seldom find it. Indeed, they seldom find even part-time or short-term work. As a result, they are almost always short of money. When they are broke, their mothers, girlfriends, or buddies will often take them in, but the generosity of people who also worry constantly about money seldom persists indefinitely. Furthermore, economic dependency is humiliating, leaving many men with a reservoir of anger and resentment that overflows at unpredictable moments.

Skeptics often ask whether these young men really cannot find work, or whether they just prefer not to work. Such skeptics often point to unskilled immigrants from Latin America, who seem to find work despite having less education than Goffman’s friends and having arrived in the United States knowing almost no English. In fact most employers prefer young Hispanic men to young black men. Before the Great Recession began, my current Harvard colleagues Devah Pager, Bruce Western, and Bart Bonikowski ran an experiment in New York City that meticulously matched young men of different races on nonracial physical characteristics, social skills, and paper credentials. All were described as high school graduates. These men then applied for the same publicly advertised jobs. The fraction of those who were called back—indicating they would be considered for a job—was 31 percent for white applicants, 25 percent for Hispanic applicants, and 15 percent for black applicants.1

How are we to explain this? It is obviously true that employers are prejudiced against black applicants, in the literal sense that they have “prejudged” blacks as being less desirable employees than whites or Hispanics. But why is that? It could just be malevolence. However, many employers also say that they see other differences between whites, Hispanics, and blacks that don’t show up on a formal job application. Hiring one person rather than another is always a gamble. In the absence of laws requiring employers to roll dice when they choose among applicants who look the same on paper, employers’ choices will never be random.

6th Street’s young black dropouts faced a further difficulty when they searched for work, namely their prior run-ins with the law. More than a decade ago Devah Pager sent matched pairs of black and white high school graduates to apply for low-wage jobs that had been advertised in Milwaukee. Just as in New York City, whites were more than twice as likely as blacks to be called back. Even whites who said they had just been released from prison after serving eighteen months for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute it were slightly more likely to get a callback than blacks without a criminal record. Blacks who said they had just been released from prison for the same offense hardly ever got callbacks. The differences were huge. Whites with a clean record and a high school diploma had a better than 50–50 chance of getting a callback if they applied for no more than two jobs. Blacks with a high school diploma but a criminal record had to apply for fourteen jobs in order to have the same chance of getting a callback.2

I doubt that reading On the Run would lead many employers to rethink their reluctance to hire the young black dropouts that Goffman knew. Employers do not usually worry much about the fact that applicants for a low-wage job aren’t good at reading or math. If that were a big concern, they certainly wouldn’t prefer young men from rural Mexico with even less (and worse) formal education than American-born black dropouts. These employers are more interested in traits like reliability, friendliness, listening to instructions, apologizing when you make a mistake, and self-control when conflict arises. These are also traits that help students with modest academic skills earn a high school diploma, which is probably the main reason employers favor job applicants who have such diplomas over those who lack them.

The employment problems of young black men are, of course, well known to anyone who follows government statistics. But the consequences of joblessness are far more obvious in Goffman’s front-line account than in the official statistics that the Labor Department publishes every month. Goffman’s description of what happens to these men after they are released from prison is even more revealing. Release from prison means trading guaranteed food and shelter for a lot more freedom of movement and human contact. This was a trade all the inmates she knew desperately wanted to make. But it was not an arrangement that ended surveillance by the criminal justice system. Those who were released from prison were constantly watched, and their movements were often quite restricted.

If men had been paroled, they usually had a curfew, such as 9 pm. Their parole officer would usually telephone them soon after their curfew. If they were not home, they could eventually be sent back to prison. Other minor offenses, like unpaid court fees for a missed court hearing, could also result in a bench warrant for their arrest, making them “dirty” again. Those who were dirty could not take a legitimate job even if one came their way, because the police regularly searched the state’s computerized employment records for people with outstanding warrants, whom they then arrested at work.

Shen Ting/Xinhua/Eyevine/Redux
A protester at a demonstration against the killing of Michael Brown, Ferguson, ­Missouri, August 2014

Goffman reports that the police officers in her neighborhood had informal quotas for arresting people who were wanted for one reason or another, and they used all kinds of tactics to locate such people. Some officers hung around the hospital emergency room, checking the police records of everyone who sought treatment and arresting those who were wanted. This practice was well known to the young men of 6th Street, and as Goffman reports in grisly detail, it deterred almost everyone who was “dirty” from seeking medical treatment, even after intensely painful and potentially life-threatening injuries.

Some of Goffman’s most original observations concern the way police searches for “dirty” young men affect relationships among people within the neighborhood. She reports that when the police were looking for someone, they routinely blackmailed the suspect’s friends to get information about his whereabouts. One common tactic was to enter the home of a suspect’s mother or girlfriend, often by breaking down the door so that the suspect would not have time to flee. If the suspect was not there, the police would demand information about where he was. If his mother or girlfriend said she did not know, the police would often threaten her with eviction. (Most low-rent residences are poorly maintained and in violation of building codes, so the police can have them declared uninhabitable.)

The police, Goffman writes, also threatened uncooperative girlfriends with losing custody of their children, who would then be placed in a foster home. The police could do this by telling the Child Welfare Department that the girlfriend was sheltering a drug dealer. Faced with a choice between losing her boyfriend or losing her children, most women eventually capitulated and told the police what they wanted to know. Of course, boyfriends know this is likely to happen, and after a certain amount of drama they might forgive the girlfriend. After all, boyfriends often move on, while children almost always want to stick with their mothers. As a result, men expect a woman to put her children first. People who spend time in poor black communities often comment on how distrustful residents are of one another. The fact that the police frequently blackmail residents of these neighborhoods to inform on one another presumably contributes to such pervasive distrust.

Goffman describes another incident in which Mike, who was one of her roommates at the time, got a call around two in the morning from Ronny, his younger cousin. Ronny had gone to a remote suburb with several friends, hoping to break into a motorcycle dealership. The break-in failed, but then Ronny and his friends couldn’t make their getaway car start. Ronny asked Mike to come get him and his friends.

When Mike arrived, however, the police were waiting and arrested him for having masterminded the break-in. Later, it emerged that the police had offered Ronny and one of his friends a deal: the police would not press charges against the two of them if they would both sign an affidavit claiming that Mike had masterminded the burglary. Ronny and his friend accepted this offer, even though Mike had known nothing about their plan.

At first, Mike spread the word that Ronny had snitched. But two weeks later, when Mike was still in jail, Ronny sought to make up by taking Mike’s gun, robbing a house in another part of the city, and selling what he had stolen to get money for Mike’s bail. After that Ronny also accompanied Mike to all his hearings. At one such hearing, as Mike was walking out of the courthouse with Goffman, he said to her:

I know, you know, he a snitch, but that’s my little nigga. I raised that nigga from this tall. Plus, like, he don’t have no real family, like, his pops gone, his mom out there in the streets. Nigga had to look out for himself.

Two years after that, Goffman reports, Mike cursed Ronny’s friend for snitching but said nothing about Ronny’s having done the same. Goffman let the omission pass. Five years later, when someone else mentioned that Ronny had snitched on Mike, Mike’s angry response was, “Get your fucking facts straight, nigga. Everybody knows Ronny ain’t do that shit.”

Even those who know this world first-hand will probably find looking at it through the eyes of Goffman’s friends both moving and depressing. On the Run shows the terrible collateral damage inflicted on the young black men of 6th Street by their interminable struggle with the police. The book also suggests that while the police win most of the battles, they are not winning the war. That failure reflects the fact that this is partly a struggle to persuade low-income black Americans, especially those who are between about fifteen and thirty years old, to avoid crime and violence. Blackmail and brutality seldom win such struggles, as we should have learned in Afghanistan and Vietnam. Nonetheless, this is also a war of attrition, and brutality sometimes helps those in authority win those wars even if they do not win over the losers.

For a more quantitative approach to this question, one can turn to The Growth of Incarceration in the United States, a recent report commissioned by the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science. Edited by Jeremy Travis, my colleague Bruce Western, and Steve Redburn, this report summarizes the deliberations of a distinguished twenty-member committee that spent two years examining the vast research literature on the causes and consequences of rising incarceration. The report concludes that one cannot draw any strong conclusions from this literature about the impact of incarceration rates on crime, but that the effect is probably small. It does not address the effects of punitive policing on crime.

A less rigorous way to assess the anti-crime policies of the past forty years is to look at timing. The tough approach to crime and punishment spread across the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. It has clearly increased the fraction of adults in jails and prisons, which grew by a factor of about five between 1973 and 2007. Imprisoning more young men and women who violate the law should in principle reduce the number of people murdered, raped, robbed, and assaulted, simply because more potential assailants are locked up. So what happened? Official estimates of violent crime are not very useful for answering this question, because they include only crimes reported to the police, and many violent crimes are not reported. Our best estimates of how many people commit violent crimes come from the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Surveys, which began in 1973.

These surveys show no clear trend from 1973 to 1993 in the fraction of American teenagers and adults reporting that they had been raped, robbed, or assaulted with a potentially deadly weapon. Between 1993 and 2010 all three offenses declined precipitously. It is hard to see how either tougher policing or imprisoning more criminals could have had no effect on violent crime for twenty years, and then suddenly have cut violent crime by something like 75 percent over the next seventeen years.

Then there is the issue of drugs, especially crack cocaine. Possession and sale of illegal drugs is a victimless crime, which participants have no incentive to report. Arrest rates depend on policing policy, but they are also likely to be higher in places where a lot of drugs are sold and consumed. In the case of cocaine, the limited available data suggest that blacks and whites are equally likely to sell and use it, but that blacks mainly sell and use crack, which is smoked, while whites sell and use powder, which is mainly snorted. A crack high is cheaper, but federal law specifies longer sentences for possession of a given amount of crack than for possession of the same amount of powder cocaine, making possession of powder less hazardous. Consistent with the view that crack is more dangerous than powdered cocaine—a view for which there is not much supporting evidence—policing has been more intensive and more aggressive in black urban neighborhoods. As a result, arrest rates for drug offenses are much higher among blacks than whites.

The National Research Council’s report on the rise of incarceration indicates that drug arrests per 100,000 people rose from under 300 in 1980 to about 750 in 2006 but have since fallen to just over 600. By 2010 about a third of all state prison inmates and more than half of federal prison inmates were drug offenders.3 Reading Goffman and looking back over the statistical trends of the past forty years should make open-minded citizens ask themselves whether there is any good reason for persisting with such an unsuccessful policy. There is no guarantee that an approach based on creating jobs for young men rather than putting them behind bars would work better; but the money saved by closing prisons could certainly be used to provide them with work.

  1. 1

    Devah Pager, Bruce Western, and Bart Bonikowski, “Discrimination in a Low-Wage Labor Market: A Field Experiment,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 74, No. 5 (October 2000). 

  2. 2

    Calculated from data in Devah Pager, “The Mark of a Criminal Record,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 108, No. 5 (March 2003). 

  3. 3

    State rates estimated from the National Research Council report’s graph on page 48. Federal rates are from www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics _inmate_offenses.jsp