5 min read

Events in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore police custody have intensified the national focus on relations between police and African Americans. Like so many, I’ve been wondering about these issues, but the events in Baltimore brought them home to me all the more, as I serve on the board of a nonprofit that supports the only college education program in Maryland’s prisons, which provides college classes at Maryland’s only prison for women and one of the men’s prisons. Many of the incarcerated college students we support come from Baltimore, from neighborhoods like Freddie Gray’s Sandtown.

As a recent Pew Research Center survey found, Americans are deeply divided about how to evaluate the relationship between police and minority communities. As with all divisive public policy debates, disagreements about how to understand what went wrong in Baltimore—and in Ferguson, on Staten Island, and in North Charleston—cannot be settled simply by determining the facts of what happened. “Facts” don’t gain salience on their own; they become relevant because we interpret them by the light of some political philosophy. So it’s no surprise that the divisions in our national conversation about the role of police in poor and minority communities mirror the differences between two of the most important political philosophies underlying all American public debate today: on one hand, a relativistic, postmodern philosophy and, on the other hand, a classical liberal philosophy.

You might ask—debates about postmodernism and classical liberalism aren’t just confined to departments of philosophy and English at colleges and universities? Nope. They’re playing out in the op-ed pages and television debates about these recent events.

Postmodernist philosophers such as Foucault emphasize the role of “systems” which shape—even determine—people’s choices. Classical liberals emphasize the role of individual choice and responsibility; Hegel, for example, wrote that we punish criminals not to demean them but exactly to show that we respect them as individuals responsible for their actions.

There isn’t a more gripping read that presents the side of this debate that sees systems rather than individuals as the origin point for events than University of Wisconsin ethnographer Alice Goffman’s recent book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. In her early 30s, Goffman has already become something of an academic star for this book, in which she chronicles the experiences of residents in a poor, predominately African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia, focusing on how residents interact with the police, probation officers, courts, and other aspects of the criminal justice system. Her riveting account is drawn from her first-hand observations living in this neighborhood, during which she became so fully immersed in the lives of troubled young men that she drove around with a young man hunting the shooter of one of the central figures in her narrative. There’s a fascinating sketch of a teenaged entrepreneur gifted with both a terrific memory and an ability to mimic others’ speech, who puts these talents to use on behalf of men on probation. He would wait at their homes for calls from their probation officers, and then persuade the officers that his clients were keeping their curfews by mimicking their voices, as well as offering up their Social Security numbers and other details the officer might check. With elements like these, I found Goffman’s book hard to put down.

Goffman’s book is not only gripping, it’s instructive for showcasing how these lives look under the rubric of an account in which a “system” rather than individuals shape social experience. Consider how Goffman explains the lives of those whom she studied:

In a community where only a few young men end up in prison, we might speak of bad apples or a few people who have fallen through the cracks. Given the unprecedented levels of policing and imprisonment in poor Black communities today, these individual explanations make less sense. We begin to see a more deliberate social policy at work. . . .

We might understand the US ghetto as one of the last repressive regimes of the age. . . .

The moral world that people weave around the courts, the police, and the threat of prison involves suspicion, betrayal, and disappointment. To repair the damages that so frequently occur to the self and to relationships, young men and women try to cover up the bad things they are made to do, or spin them in a positive light. (emphasis added)

Goffman argues that the level of policing in many poor communities limits people’s ability to make morally salutary choices to hold a job, to support their families, to have regular responsibilities, because these are exactly the kind of ties that police use to track them down—and that the solution is for police and other aspects of the law enforcement system to back off. Many reviews have acclaimed Goffman’s book for making this case. But exactly because her book is so rich in ethnographic detail, other reviewers, including Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald, have found that Goffman’s own narrative consistently undercuts her argument about systemic oppression by police. As one such reviewer wrote:

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. . . . 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?

(This particular reviewer, Dwyane Betts, has a particularly interesting, and interested, perspective: he served eight years for a violent crime committed in a community not far south of Baltimore; he is now a law student at Yale.)

The widely divergent reactions to Goffman’s book parallel the widely divergent interpretations of the recent events in Baltimore and elsewhere. Some people see systematic oppression; others see individual “bad apples,” both on the police force and in the community, who need to be held accountable. In short, some start from postmodern premises, others start from classical liberal premises.

As we discuss and disagree with our friends and neighbors about these issues, keeping in mind that these disagreements truly reflect deep-seated philosophical debates that have lasted over centuries can help temper indignation at others who disagree with us. These disagreements are not at bottom disagreements over facts—although the facts in each case are important—but disagreements over fundamental philosophies.

I suspect that most Philanthropy Daily readers are, like me, on the classical liberal side of this debate. We classical liberals don’t believe in “systems,” but we do believe in communities and civil society, and the ability of the institutions of civil society to make a difference in communities like Sandtown. To do so won’t be easy (our nonprofit’s work with the college-in-prison program certainly hasn’t been easy). The Washington Post details how an investment of $130 million failed to make a difference in Sandtown, where half of high students are chronically absent and more than 7 percent of young children have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Nevertheless, these very sad recent events in Baltimore and elsewhere are a call to consider how we can do better to help individuals in communities like Sandtown to flourish.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *