The revelations that academic Alice Goffman either fabricated or misreported some of her best-selling book on young black men in West Philadelphia, "On the Run," have led to suggestions that outsider ethnography cease entirely. Ethnography – the study of people and cultures through outsider immersion – does indeed have a sordid history marked by white people treating different cultures as primitive, especially violent, or worse. But anyone doubting the field’s possibilities to offer useful insights and ideas would do well to read Matthew Desmond’s new book Evicted. It is harrowing, heartbreaking, and heavily researched, and the plight of the characters will remain with you long after you close the book’s pages.
"Evicted" follows eight Milwaukee families as they are evicted from their homes, a process that Desmond says is increasingly common for Americans. “We have failed to appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty,” Desmond writes. “Not everyone living in a distressed neighborhood is associated with gang members, parole officers, employers, social workers, or pastors. But nearly all of them have a landlord.”
Desmond spent a year and a half with the eight families, encountering them first at a trailer park whose residents all faced eviction because the place was decrepit to the point of dangerous. Though the park was filled with drugs, violence, and deemed an environmental biohazard, its occupants fought the city council to keep it open. Why? Because “I can’t afford to go anywhere else,” as one woman facing eviction says. And evicting residents without guaranteeing them another place to live simply makes the problem of inadequate housing worse. “Milwaukee renters whose previous move was involuntary were almost 25 percent more likely to experience long-term housing problems than other low-income residents,” notes Desmond.
Ultimately, however, many of the families were evicted anyway. “When city or state officials pressured landlords – by ordering them to hire an outside security firm or by having a building inspector scrutinize their property – landlords often passed the pressure on to their tenants,” writes Desmond.
Part of what makes "Evicted" remarkable – and one advantage ethnography often has over journalism – is research like this that it intertwines with the narrative. A Harvard sociologist, Desmond has studied evictions and poverty for years, providing him with the theoretical underpinnings that allows him to put the events he describes in the book in their wider context. Rare are the footnotes in a book so important as they are here – indeed, the statistics and references to journal articles almost form a book unto themselves, an academic study that accompanies "Evicted."
By confining most of this scholarship to the footnotes, Desmond is able to keep the focus on the story of the individuals he follows. There is Arleen, a single mother of two living on the barest social assistance. There is Vanetta, whose choice to participate in a robbery rather than live in poverty dictates the rest of her life. There is Scott, a former nurse whose addictions consume him. The lives of these people, plus the five other subjects as well as two landlords shadowed, are described in sensitive detail.
Desmond has uncommon empathy that enables him to understand the reasoning behind deplorable behavior – and there is a lot of that here. (As Desmond writes in a footnote, ‘There are two ways to dehumanize: the first is to strip people of all virtue; the second is to cleanse them of all sin.’) So when Arline tells her deprived young children to stop whining about being hungry, we get this explanation: “You could only say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t’ so many times before you begin to feel worthless, edging closer to the breaking point. So you protected yourself, in a reflexive way, by finding ways to say ‘No, I won’t.’” The point is insightful, and it is devastating.
Fortunately, Desmond, unlike Goffman, is a reliable narrator. His interviews form 5,000 pages, and he corroborates claims with court records, medical files, and news reporters. When he was absent from an event he describes, he explains how he reconstructed it. And he hired a fact-checker to examine the manuscript.
All this means that "Evicted" is unlikely to suffer the same fate as "On the Run." Goffman has made the claim that fact-checking an individual’s testimony is only another way of saying, ‘‘The way to validate the claims in the book is by getting officials who are white men in power to corroborate them.’’ Desmond’s meticulousness shows how precision is not at odds with compassionate storytelling of the underprivileged. Indeed, is the respect that "Evicted" shows for its characters' flaws and mistakes that makes the book impossible to forget.