This past week, I finished reading On the Run by Alice Goffman. Although I read the book because I HAD to for a sociology class, I found myself incredibly engaged with the novel and the concerning revelations it exposes about racism and hyper criminalization in America. On the Run, a book based on the 6-year ethnographic research Goffman conducted as an undergraduate and graduate student, about the lives of black families living in a crime ridden area of Philadelphia. The book, while quite controversial for the sociological methodology Goffman used, as well as a few unethical instances, sheds a bright light on the social issues minorities face, even today. With the War on Drugs as a premise, Goffman showcases the criminalization that young black and Latino boys of America face when society gives them no other option, let alone a break.
Reflecting on her book and the message she was hoping to transcend, Goffman gave an inspiring TED talk about the mass incarceration in the United States, particularly through the youth. Over the 6 years of her research, Goffman became close to a group of young men, of black and Latino descent. Chuck, the elder child of a drug-addicted single mom, Miss Linda, is undoubtedly the greatest example of the effects of hyper criminalization and racial-stereotyping. Goffman uses Chuck as vehicle for statistics, poignant examples, and a heartbreaking lesson, both in the novel and her TED talk, “How We’re Priming Some Kids for College – and others for prison.” Although he is an especially rare example – *spoiler alert* – and dies by 18 because of a gang war, Chuck’s societal experiences with incarceration and its collateral consequences represent a much more general fact: we’re not doing anything to change the incarceration rates in America. For example, “In the past 40 years, our incarceration rate has grown by 700 percent,” Goffman says. However, crime isn’t the problem.
America’s crime rates have actually gone down in the past decades. So why are we arresting more people? It is because we aren’t helping. We are asking these racialized kids to do the impossible, which is to “live in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods,” survive with the “least amount of family resources,” attend “the country’s worst schools,” face the “toughest time in the labor market” and do nothing wrong. These are all social hindrances that Chuck faced when growing up on 6th street (Goffman’s pseudo name for the neighborhood in Philadelphia) and it led him to become a drop out, a drug dealer and user, a convict, and ultimately a murder victim. If we cannot look past the white middle class, then we – as voters, as citizens, and as human beings – cannot fix the problem. We need to provide support, not punishment. We need a justice system that “prioritizes recovery, prevention, and civic inclusions,” as Goffman states in her talk. And, as On The Run emphasizes, we need much, much more understanding.
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