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October 23, 2014

War on drugs means racial oppression for poor, urban blacks, lecturer says

Alice Goffman

Alice Goffman

Law enforcement’s war on drugs has turned black men in America’s poorer urban neighborhoods into too-frequent targets for arrest today, said ethnographer Alice Goffman — paralleling “earlier systems of racial oppression, like slavery and Jim Crow.”

Goffman, a sociology faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, made her case on Oct. 8 as part of the Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC speaker series from the Center on Race and Social Problems in the School of Social Work.

Goffman, who is white, spent six years living on Sixth Street, a largely black neighborhood on the edge of Philadelphia, which she described as “not [even] the most dangerous, drug-involved neighborhood”; she chronicled the experience in her 2014 book “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City.” In introducing her lecture, sociology faculty member Waverly Duck called her account “one of the most important ethnographic studies to come on the scene for many years.”

The book began, Goffman said, as her freshman project at the University of Pennsylvania, when she befriended local residents of Sixth Street after she was asked to tutor the grandchildren of one local resident: her boss at the Penn café where she worked. By the time she undertook her doctoral work at Princeton, she was living in Sixth Street and commuting to class in New Jersey. She emphasized that much ethnographic work takes place on the ground, chronicling one set of people in specific, which differs from the work of demographic sociologists, who gather statistics and view a social milieu “from 9,000 feet,” she said.

Her work also included interviewing Philadelphia police officers — particularly the warrant officers charged with hunting down those wanted by the law — and researching the history of police practices.

She recalled her first encounter with a Sixth Street resident, who “asked me if I was a cop or a case worker, because there was no other reason for a white woman to be here.”

Her talk at Pitt focused on a neighborhood family headed by George Taylor, who had raised his daughter Linda alone. When Taylor was a boy, his family had joined the migration of black farm workers from the South to Philadelphia and other East Coast cities in the 1940s. After a stint in the Army, Taylor began a lifelong U.S. Postal Service career and bought a home on Sixth Street in what was then a middle-class neighborhood.

Black people weren’t always welcomed there in the 1960s; Taylor recalled African-American neighbors getting a brick thrown through their window. By the 1980s, all of Sixth Street’s whites had moved away, but it was still middle class — until developers put low-income housing there. “The ghetto which Mr. George had worked so hard to escape seemed to grow up around him,” Goffman said. He blamed the new residents — whose poor educational background made them less eligible for legitimate work, she said — for leading his daughter Linda down the wrong path to crack addiction. Linda eventually gave birth to three sons with three different fathers.

In addition to new residents, the 1980s brought new “tough-on-crime” laws to combat the increasing presence of drugs in the neighborhood. At first George Taylor saw this new law enforcement effort as a positive development, Goffman said, but soon he began to question it as evidence of “white discomfort … They figured that white people were not going to accept black people as full citizens without a fight.”

As Goffman chronicled in her talk, reflecting the first chapters of her book, Linda’s three sons felt the effects of police targeting Sixth Street residents.

Chuck was arrested for aggravated assault after a minor school fight in his senior year of high school; a classmate had called Linda a crack whore and Chuck had pushed the kid’s face into the snow. So Chuck spent his senior year in an adult prison.

That’s when Linda’s youngest son, Tim, then 8 years old, stopped speaking.

When Chuck’s charges were thrown out, eight months later, he returned home. He dedicated himself to coaxing Tim to talk again, moving into Tim’s room from the privacy he had enjoyed in the basement. He tried to return to high school, but by then he was 19 and the school would not accept him.

Chuck was unable to pay his court fees, so a warrant was issued for his arrest. He went on the run for three months until he could approach the judge with some money and work out a payment process.

Tim eventually began to speak again, but was himself arrested at 11. A police officer pulled Chuck over with Tim in the car, informing them that their car had been reported stolen in California. Chuck had never been to California — he had bought the car from a relative — but decided not to explain this to the cop; it just wasn’t worthwhile, he told Goffman. He was charged with receiving stolen property; Tim was charged as an accessory and got three years’ probation.

That’s when Chuck “began teaching his brother how to run from the police in earnest,” Goffman explained, since any future encounter with police now could result in a prison sentence for either of them.

By the 2000s, she said, a “basic fact of everyday life” for Sixth Street residents was wondering whether they would be arrested by police. Over the six years of Goffman’s project, the Taylor house was raided 27 times.

At 13, middle-child Reggie had begun working for a crack dealer to support his mother’s drug habit, Goffman said. He eventually was stopped for loitering, found with three bags of crack and fled. Knowing police would seek a warrant for Reggie, Linda prepared for a raid that night. She moved her marijuana out of the home and told a friend with his own warrant to leave. She warned neighbors, knowing nearby households sometimes are dragged into the situation.

Reggie had returned home but intended to leave before the raid. When it came, at 4 a.m., he had fallen asleep upstairs but managed to escape through a bedroom window into the alley. The three-man SWAT team raided the house again the next night. Linda refused to tell police Reggie’s location. Two nights later, a third raid occurred, with Goffman in the house. She was handcuffed and placed prone on the floor. She said police abused her verbally, telling her that if she wanted to have sex with black men so badly, she could always come down to the police station.

By then, Linda had weakened and begged Reggie to turn himself in. Her father threatened to kick her out of their home if she continued to harbor Reggie, and said he would call the police if he saw his grandson. Reggie was living in a nearby abandoned car, where the police eventually found him. By then, younger brother Tim had been arrested for crack possession too. All three of Linda’s sons were now in jail.

“‘What’s the use of raising a boy today?’” George Taylor told Goffman. “At 15, they’re shipping him off to juvey … you hope he comes home and does what he’s supposed to be doing.” You also have to hope his presence doesn’t get you arrested, Taylor added.


The Taylor family’s experience embodies the experience of an increasing number of poorer black families, Goffman maintained. Before the 1980s, there had been a “laissez-faire, keeping-the-peace kind of policing,” she said, which, despite the racism pervasive in the country, including its law enforcement, had worked. That is “very different than what you see today.”

New laws in the 1980s created at least 50 new federal crimes and increased sentences for everything from drugs to gambling and vagrancy. More federal money went to local police, who instead of patrolling on foot began to stick to their cars, using high-tech equipment to track those with arrest warrants. From 1960-2000, Goffman reported, the number of Philadelphia police per capita increased 69 percent. In police departments everywhere, eligibility for promotion now is measured by the number of citations and stops each officer makes.

“There could have been a lot of solutions…” she said, “but that was the solution we chose.”

Although Philadelphia and other police don’t keep statistics on warrants, Goffman’s research found that most city warrants today are for minor, technical violations, such as unpaid fines and failure to appear. And with the new, more sophisticated police equipment, police are able to track those wanted for arrest — mostly males — through a wealth of data, ranging from utility bills to hospital records.

“People know that hospitals are not safe and they will get arrested there,” Goffman said, “so a whole underground economy has evolved to provide health care.” She met one resident, for instance, whose jaw was broken and face cut in a fight but who refused to go to a hospital for fear of being arrested on an outstanding warrant. Instead, he relied on a relative undergoing training to be a physician’s assistant to stitch him up.

Asked by an audience member whether schools, at least, provided youngsters with someplace where they were free from arrest, Goffman said: “It would be great if schools were a place where you could safely go. Schools are triaging kids into the criminal justice system, often for things that become a charge just because a cop is there” policing the hallways. The arrest of Chuck Taylor following a minor school fight was an example of this.

As she observed in Philadelphia, if a wanted individual is not found, police “threaten family and friends with arrest, particularly if they have their own legal entanglements.” Women in particular are “being put in a position between the police and the men that they love, being pressured to give information about them.

“These policies are tearing families apart massively,” she added, since women’s relationships with men who were threatened with arrest also put their housing, income and children at risk.

Once arrested, the men often were offered lower bail for providing personal information on family, girlfriends and kids’ schools, information that made them easier to locate under the next warrant. During one door-to-door survey Goffman conducted in Sixth Street, half the men aged 18-30 in a four-block radius of the Taylor household currently were involved in the judicial system, and two-thirds of the neighborhood’s women had been pressured to inform on their loved ones in the previous three years.

Goffman said while she was living on Sixth Street, police commonly used “the N-word” in their interactions with black residents. And she observed children as young as 5 playing a new kind of “cops and robbers” in imitation of what was happening all around them: pretending to handcuff each other, seize drugs and even, once, pulling down a friend’s pants and trying to do a cavity search.

She called the current incarceration rates “a penal system with no historical precedent or international comparison.” Today, one in every 15 black men will be in jail during their lifetime compared to one in 106 white men, she said. “Only the forced labor camps of the U.S.S.R. in world history have approached this level of confinement.”

Although we now have the murder rate of 1961, Goffman acknowledged, she does not believe that the change in policing is responsible. She said that “very little of the crime drop can be accounted for by massively incarcerating black men and poor people …

“This shift we are now in … with the tough-on-crime, arrest-based approach, it is not leveled at the entire population.” There were a lot of similar crimes in the colleges she attended, Goffman said, such as drug use, fights after fraternity parties and rapes. “Those students are graduating with degrees in psychology and English, not felony convictions,” she said.

Black neighborhoods, Goffman concluded, are experiencing “a system of governance … that is separate and distinct from the rest of the population.” The “pernicious cultivation of informants [and] the looming threat of prison” are depriving generations of young black men of basic rights — to vote, to sleep in their own beds.

“We can see this as a continuation of the fugitive slave laws … and the vagrancy statutes that took over from the fugitive slave laws” during the Jim Crow era. Black men still have “fugitive status” that resembles the restrictions of life during wartime or the life experienced by “those living under dictatorships of various sorts,” she said.

Even the police tacitly acknowledged that their methods are having an effect on future generations of African Americans, she said: The force’s own risk assessment of parolees gives worse scores to those who have a parent who is incarcerated.

“The consequences of prison are reaching out to the next generation and the one after that,” Goffman said. “Even if we stopped now, we’d have to reach far out to undo the damage we have done.”

—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 5