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'Locking Up Our Own' and the Roots of the Mass Incarceration of Black America

James Forman Jr.'s first book chronicles with compassion how the actions of black leaders sometimes hurt the very people they sought to save.
Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.

James Forman Jr.'s first book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, is a historical chronicle of devastating mission creep: how the policy decisions of noble-minded people came to fuel ruinous outcomes for poor black communities. In the first pages, Forman recalls an episode from when he was a young public defender in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s and tried, unsuccessfully, to keep a 15-year-old out of Oak Hill, a juvenile detention center (or a "dungeon," as Forman describes it) with a bleak reputation. On scanning the courtroom, Forman noticed something startling: Everyone involved with the case—from the young client to the arresting officer to the juvenile prosecutor to the judge—was black.

Using D.C. as a laboratory, Forman spends the book dissecting these delicate questions. "What was going on?" he wants to know. "How did a majority-black jurisdiction end up incarcerating so many of its own?"

From its very beginnings, American culture has nurtured various racial myths. Two of the most pernicious are these: Blacks are inherently criminal. And: Blacks don't seem to care about violence perpetrated by black criminals. These myths continue to thrive. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, for instance, told CNN in 2014 that former President Barack Obama, who had recently spoken about racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal shooting of black 18-year-old Michael Brown, "also should have spent 15 minutes on training the [black] community to stop killing each other." Forman's book quashes this sort of thinking. "Far from ignoring the issue of crime by blacks against other blacks," he writes, "African-American officials and their constituents were consumed by it." Forman's recollection of that courtroom, where black actors sought to secure equal protection and equal justice under the law for their communities, speaks to this righteous impulse.

Locking Up Our Own aims to reverse such myths, while also shining a light on the unanticipated consequences of various policy positions. Forman traces the roots of what he'd seen as a rookie public defender in D.C. to the 1960s, when heroin was devouring poor black communities. "[H]eroin was to the '60s what crack was to the late '80s," he writes. "But the drug didn't simply destroy its users' own lives.... As deaths skyrocketed, parents buried their children; as fear of robberies and burglaries spread, residents stayed home with doors and windows bolted shut; as desperate young addicts resorted to stealing from their kin, families were forced to turn against their own." Even years later, black collective memory of heroin's relentless rampage lived on, especially among dogged defenders of the black community.

Locking Up Our Own is an important book for this era of reanimated black awareness, not least because Forman's view is the utter reverse of post-racial.

In the 1970s, then, when other parts of the country seemed to be shifting toward decriminalizing marijuana, local black leaders in D.C.—including city council members, community activists, and politicians—slapped down those suggestions. They'd seen how addiction could wipe out entire communities, so even the flimsiest of evidence suggesting that marijuana might stoke heroin use, coupled with a broader distrust among blacks of whites, who were then the primary pro-pot champions of marijuana reform, convinced black leaders to oppose decriminalization. Did these actors know that criminal penalties might disproportionately hurt their communities? Yes. But what they didn't—couldn't—know, Forman argues, was what tragic collateral consequences would come to a head in later years: "Because D.C.'s debate over marijuana took place before the full-scale drug war was launched, decriminalization's opponents could not foresee the eventual impact of their victory on the young blacks they were trying to save."

Forman's investigation focuses on D.C., but it mirrors a Greek tragedy of national proportions in its notes of dramatic irony. Over the course of three decades, starting in the 1970s, black leaders of many stripes—including familiar faces such as current California Congresswoman Maxine Waters and former United States Attorney General Eric Holder—pushed for tough-on-crime penalties not only for drug crimes, but also for gun possession. Today, many Americans have become acutely aware that our criminal justice system has led to lopsided outcomes for blacks, especially when it comes to mass incarceration. But remember what they say about hindsight. At the time, black leaders knew that rooting out crime was thorny, but their chief concern was ridding their communities of danger as soon as possible, all the while tethering this goal to long-term solutions. As Forman recently described this "pressure-cooker environment" to NPR: "[Black leaders] want more police, more prisons, better jobs, better schools, better parks. They want the whole thing, all of the above. Instead, they get one of the above, which is law enforcement."

For black readers, Locking Up Our Own is by turns depressing and vindicating. On the one hand, it maps out, in painstaking historical detail, how structural inequality has become so deeply entrenched in our criminal justice system. But there also runs a deeper seam in Forman's examination of crime and race in America, one of great compassion. "At that moment, I hated Judge Walker and the entire court system," Forman writes about the book's opening courtroom scene. "Where did he get off taking the moral high ground?" Yet, despite his obvious frustration, Forman is careful not to carp about the black actors in his story writ large. After all, his argument goes, they were doing what they could within a system as it existed—and still exists.

Locking Up Our Own is an important book for this era of reanimated black awareness, not least because Forman's view is the utter reverse of post-racial. Indeed, it establishes race as the only lens through which American criminal justice can be properly seen, and maybe one day achieved.