On Goffman and seeking justice in America

That day we were all at the ASA crammed into Alice Goffman’s author meets critics session, a battle was raging in Ferguson. The battle, erupting after Michael’s Brown’s death at the hands of the law enforcement of Ferguson, arose because the Ferguson Police Department was capricious, heavy-handed, and bigoted in their treatment of black residents. Further insuring the systematic discrimination against African Americans, the municipal courts worked in tandem with police by reserving harsher treatment for blacks with citations for minor offenses. Long after Goffman’s Author Meets Critics had concluded and just before dissemination of an anonymous critique opened the door to an over-long, high profile, multi-disciplinary controversy about Goffman’s research, a U.S. Department of Justice Investigation into the situation in Ferguson “revealed a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct within the Ferguson Police Department that violates the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and federal statutory law.” The US DOJ concluded that the rights of Ferguson’s black residents were violated on account of discriminatory intent and the intentional use of the law enforcement and the courts to increase city revenue through the imposition and collection of fines and fees. [insert your favorite Sheriff of Nottingham image here]

The DOJ findings provide chilling evidence corroborating the work of a growing number of scholars who have examined overpolicing and its alternatives; the school to prison pipeline in which institutional linkages such as having parole officers offering anger management as one the few extra curricular activities available to students has cemented the path from failing schools to penal institutions; the rise of the “new Jim Crow” – an exploitative social system that targets African Americans, denies their constitutional rights, and keeps them economically subservient; and an inside look at the violence and destruction characterizing the “criminal life course” adopted by a minority of the people coming up in communities that are groaning under the weight of a racist society. These stellar academic treatments of contemporary American racism and its impacts are crucial reading for anyone who really cares about the ongoing crisis of mass incarceration, the racist impact of broken windows policing, the continued gap between national ideals of equality and a brutally unequal reality, the 1138 people killed by police in 2015, or the 21 million black boys in the juvenile justice system in 2014.

But, such heady subjects and so many pages of reading! Perhaps it would be easier if we keep talking about Alice Goffman as she continues to upstage her research subjects – the people, to quote her words from this most recent press coverage “who are written off and delegitimated” and denied the opportunity to “describe their own lives and to speak for themselves about the reality they face.”

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