The Stoop Isn’t the Jungle

In her new book On the Run, Alice Goffman misses the larger truth about black urban communities—like the one I grew up in.

Philadelphia skyline from the historic Ben Franklin Bridge.
Inner city Philadelphia isn’t Alice Goffman’s home, and it’s not her job to turn it into a jungle that needs interpreting.

Photo by Shutterstock

Alice Goffman, a University of Wisconsin sociologist, has gained much praise for her new book On the Run. For her research, Goffman spent a great deal of time on the inner-city stoop, where young black men usually only gain arrest records. From all the attention, it would appear that she has produced a revelatory piece of scholarship. But that’s wrong. By any measure, On the Run does not merit the laudatory reviews and notice it has received.

For six years Goffman lived a double life: During the day, she was an Ivy Leaguer; at night, she was a homegirl of the young men on “6th Street.” That’s the pseudonym she gave to the poor Philadelphia neighborhood where she lived. She writes of a cast of characters she got to know intimately: Mike, Chuck, Reggie, Tim, Alex, Tino (all pseudonyms), their baby mothers, girlfriends, and mothers. They became both Goffman’s friends and her research subjects.

Goffman’s appeal comes from the danger she faced and the violence she witnessed. She gives what many readers expect: crack addiction and senseless crimes, including murder. Goffman argues that mass incarceration has led to a constant state of siege in poor urban communities, by police officers, probation officers, and the court system. She sees fear build to paranoia among young men wary of arrest. For Mike and his friends, evasion and unpredictability are tools of survival. The book presents pathology as the central experience in black life.

To give Goffman her due, she paints a vivid picture of the dangerous and ineffective overuse of police raids. Goffman also shows how the threat of incarceration can be used as a weapon. She saw people calling the police, on friends and foes, to control their behavior or extort money. In the end, however, her unrelenting focus on criminality is just as likely to encourage more arrests and surveillance than to convince people that mass incarceration should end. The book suffers because it panders. Unwittingly, Goffman gives ammunition to tough-on-crime politicians who want to believe that urban areas are breeding grounds for crime and lawlessness.

I’ll say what should be obvious, but isn’t: Most young black men are not committing armed robberies and burglaries, are not engaging in armed battle from moving cars, and are not murdering acquaintances at dice games. They are not shooting into homes. If Goffman wants to reveal the abuses of a surveillance state, why not focus on characters that aren’t so entrenched in the worst criminal activity? Why not give us a picture of Mike and his friends’ lives that is broader than the last felony they committed? Instead Goffman only gives us young men who seem to be committing crimes with relative impunity. If these are the targets of surveillance, is the level of policing in urban communities really a problem as opposed to a solution?

As I read, I was troubled by how many more words Goffman devotes to criminality, violence, and dysfunction than to using data to establish how intrusive and unnecessary the level of surveillance on 6th Street is. The ease with which the criminal becomes normal extends to characters in supporting roles. Take Shonda, who Goffman tells us makes money by smuggling drugs to men who are incarcerated. “Shonda first smuggled drugs into jail at the age of eight, when she helped her mom pass a crack-filled balloon to her dad, a heavy user who was on trial for aggravated assault,” Goffman writes. When we are introduced to Miss Linda, the mother of the Chuck, Reggie, and Tim, we learn that she is addicted to crack cocaine. You won’t forget that fact, because Goffman mentions Miss Linda’s addiction and her roach-infested home at least five times. Of course, her three sons all have different fathers. These details present black life as a rendition of stereotypes. And they have so little to do with the surveillance state Goffman sees that I have to wonder why she chooses to focus on these details. However true, it’s all straight out of a bad movie from the ’90s—New Jack City, Menace to Society, Boyz in the Hood. If On the Run had been written then, its title would have been Six Years on Crack Street.  

Unsurprisingly, the violence in On the Run has featured prominently in most discussions of the book. So has Goffman’s role as participant-observer. Marc Parry of the Chronicle of Higher Education writes that with Mike and his friends Goffman “dodged police, partied, and discussed shootings.” In a review in the Times Higher Education, Dick Hobbs writes, “police raids, chases, guns, drugs, arrests and a cop’s boot on her neck typified her time in a community that was corralled, controlled and regularly beaten to the verge of submission.” What offends me is that Goffman has turned 6th Street into a jungle that she has braved. I come from a community, in Prince George’s County, Maryland, that’s in many ways like 6th Street. At 16, I plead guilty to carjacking and went to prison for eight years. Yet, I know that my experience, even though it was shared by friends who also went to prison, or sold drugs, or were murdered, does not represent our community.

Amid the clamor of praise for On the Run, one reviewer, Alex Kotlowitz, asked about Goffman’s ethics. “Goffman at times makes rather sweeping statements or offers up the occasional anecdote, mostly related to law enforcement, without an indication of the source,” Kotlowitz writes. He mentions a story Goffman tells about an FBI agent who was inspired by the East German Stasi to create a computer program to track people with warrants. Goffman never tells us who this agent is or where this information came from.

Similar problems arise with two of the book’s most unsettling claims about Philadelphia police practices. Goffman says there are prisons in Philadelphia that run names and license plates of visitors, checking for outstanding warrants. She doesn’t provide the source of this information or the name of a prison that does this. Nor does she write that she saw evidence of it on her many trips to visit friends when they were incarcerated. Goffman also claims that police officers run the names of patients and visitors at local hospitals, also to search people who have arrest warrants. This time, she tells us that she witnessed the arrest of a man moments after his girlfriend gave birth to their son.  She writes, “The officers told me they had come to the hospital with a shooting victim who was in custody, and as was their custom, they ran the names of the men on the visitors’ list.”

Again, though, Goffman doesn’t name the hospital or the police officer she quotes. When I called the Philadelphia Police Department for a response to her claim, Lt. John Stanford said the department doesn’t have the manpower to run random names from a hospital’s visiting list. He was also skeptical that a hospital administration would provide patient and visitor information in the way Goffman describes. Sure, this is what you’d expect the police to say. But given the seriousness of the accusation, shouldn’t Goffman better support it? Without more to go on, how could anyone push for ending this practice?

There is one more dark aspect to On the Run. Immersing herself in the lives of her friends and subjects, Goffman nearly loses herself. One night, after a rival crew murdered Chuck, she found herself driving Mike around searching for Chuck’s killer. She tells us that she wanted Chuck’s killer dead just as Mike and the rest of the crew did. Mike did not find his target that night. What if he had? Goffman never interrogates her own motives, or how close she came, potentially, to abetting a killing. Instead, this reads as her crowning war story, the moment when she finally understood what it meant to be one of the young men of 6th Street.

University of California at Santa Barbara sociologist Victor Rios has a name for this: the “jungle book trope.” In his book Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Youth, Rios characterizes this trope as a self-aggrandizing fairy tale, in which an innocent white person gets lost in the wild, is taken in by the wild people, survives, and returns to society with a story to tell. I wish Goffman’s book didn’t read that way to me. But it does.

In the New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler has written that On the Run “contains enough street-level detail to fill a season of The Wire.” She’s right that there’s enough violence in the book to fill David Simon’s show, but the comparisons end there. The gift of The Wire was that it eschewed easy answers. The chaos that ran through the streets of the Simon’s Baltimore was full of complexity. It was fueled by structural problems like mass incarceration, yes, but also by the complicity of people on both sides of the legal divide. The writers never acted like tour guides into the dark psyche of the black criminal mind.

Goffman falls straight into that trap. By failing to develop her critique of mass incarceration, she has written the kind of truncated account of black urban life that encourages outsiders to gawk. To rephrase a line from Chimamanda Adichie’s novel Americanah, Goffman has cast home as the jungle and herself as interpreter of the jungle. But the Philadelphia neighborhood she has christened 6th Street is not her home, and it is not her job to turn it into a jungle that needs interpreting.