Thursday, March 31, 2016

Alice Goffman: Riding The School-To-Prison Pipeline

My last post was a video of Michelle Alexander talking about how difficult it is for Black men to avoid going -- and going back -- to prison. Today, I'm posting another video, this time of Alice Goffman talking about the fact that this process doesn't start when Black males grow up. It starts whenever the police in Black neighborhoods say it starts. And because of the nature of these White Supremacist cultural norms, young Black boys and men have little if any control over whether or not they're personally chosen for the journey.

Even a child who makes good grades and tries to stay out of trouble can be swept up at a moment's notice on almost any given day, finding himself neck deep in the nightmare, regardless of his innocence. We like to believe this only happens occasionally by accident, but Goffman describes patterns and processes that are much less predictable. And it is precisely this arbitrary quality that makes life for young Black men so challenging.

Looking at Goffman, you may have difficulty imagining how she could possibly know even a fraction of what she's describing. The fact is that there are those in academic circles that find her ethically questionable and lacking in credibility. I don't happen to be one of them. I read some of the attacks on her online (accusing her of everything up to and including having sex with one of her informants). So I read her book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City and it rang so true, I almost stopped reading it because I already knew what she was talking about and I knew it would probably depress me. But I finished it and I was glad I did. It's a good piece of work.

Another criticism some people have directed her way has to do with whether or not she has a "right" to tell the story of those she got so close to during those six years. It is a criticism often heard these days over the way Black academics don't get featured to address racial analysis as routinely as White ones do. No question and that shouldn't be the case. But Goffman didn't take a Black researcher's job. She spent six years living full time in a situation not many folks of any skin tone would have had the stomach for.

It's possible she "went native" on occasion during the years she lived in that inner city neighborhood. I wasn't there and I wouldn't know about that. But I can tell you for certain that she's been there and she knows. Because I've been there and I know, too. Immersing yourself 24-hours a day in a poverty-stricken Black community for six years is not the same thing as doing a nice safe survey from your office in an ivy-covered hall on a campus. And you learn stuff you can't learn any other way. Goffman drank the kool-aid (I'm guessing literally). She's still young and White, as she evidences in her naively optimistic presentation finish. But the rest of what she says is spot on and from the heart. See what you think.


veganelder said...

I remember (vaguely, I'm sorry to say) some of the brouhaha that surrounded her book. Given the increase in information that I've acquired in the past couple of years...all I needed to know she's talking truth is the single slide she presents during her talk. Anyone who can see the graph of the U.S. incarceration rate and be aware of the racial makeup (percentage wise) of those incarcerated...and not realize that there's a profound problem with white supremacist driven someone who's, whether knowingly or not, committed to racism and to racial illiteracy.

One thing I discovered when I was poking around for information about Dr. Goffman is that she is the daughter of Erving Goffman. For those who don't know of him...Erving Goffman is described in the wikipedia article about him as the "most influential American sociologist of the twentieth century". That's a pretty impressive parent for anyone to have.

I had to smile when I read your observation that she finished her presentation with "naive optimism". I smiled because only recently I had said to someone that I wanted youngsters who are pressing for social justice to be naive and optimistic because if they clearly understood the soul-grinding resistance to a society of justice that's out there...they might decide to stay home and do nothing. I suspect it is part of the job of being young to be naive and optimistic...we oldsters can supply judicious pessimism when and if it's needed. :-)

Thanks for this informative post and video.

changeseeker said...

I love your last paragraph, Veganelder. I am 100% in agreement with you here (and laughing as I say this), but I do try to prepare them for the let down without dampening their spirits. Throughout history, undampened spirits have brought down some formidable foes -- in spite of the power differential.