Any real discussion of mass incarceration is impossible without addressing racism. Michelle Alexander’s widely acclaimed book The New Jim Crow cast the criminal-justice system as a successor to slavery and segregation, one that’s hamstrung the African American community’s social and economic growth since the civil-rights movement. My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates has explored at length how racial anxieties led white politicians to support increasingly harsher punishments for gun and drug crimes to devastating effect.
Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America adds more layers to this case. (A full review of the book can be found in the upcoming June 2017 issue of this magazine.) The author, James Forman Jr., is a Yale University law professor and the son of a civil-rights icon. What he offers is an insightful history of black American leaders and their struggle to keep their communities safe from police and criminals alike. “Far from ignoring the issue of crime by blacks against other blacks, African American officials and their constituents have been consumed by it,” he writes.
What often followed, however, was a tragic embrace of punitive solutions to deep-seated social woes. “We’re going to fight drugs and crime until the drug dealer’s teeth rattle,” Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson insisted in the 1970s. Congressman Charlie Rangel, who represented Harlem for decades, enthusiastically took up the mantle of a drug warrior during the crack epidemic in the 1980s. Eric Holder, a federal prosecutor and later the first black U.S. attorney general, championed pretextual car stops and searches to curb gun violence during the Clinton administration.