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.