In a provocative Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Endowed Lecture at the Free Library of Philadelphia, author James Forman Jr. reminded the audience that the term mass incarceration didn’t exist until the year 2000. His new book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, is making an impact. It explores what he calls the “profound and profane human cost” of our criminal justice system’s poisonous racial dynamics.
Forman took listeners back to his own roots. He was born in 1967 and raised in Atlanta, with a black father and white mother who met in the activist Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He grew up in what he described as a "mostly black but integrated" neighborhood, a life that was possible thanks to the activism of his parents’ generation, but would have earlier been “unimaginable.” He worked as a public defender in Washington, D.C., clerked for Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and became a law professor at Georgetown and Yale. His byline often appears in the Atlantic and New York Times.
A “great experiment” gone wrong
His book poses a simple question with endless complications: Why, just as the country was getting its first elected black leaders in the wake of the civil rights movement, did many of those leaders support America’s “great experiment” in mass incarceration? We surpass Russia and even apartheid-era South Africa in the proportion of our imprisoned citizens, and an outsized percentage of them are black.
Forman shared a story from his days in the Superior Court, where “you would think there were no white people in D.C., or that they never commit crimes, neither of which is true.”
“Brandon,” a black teenager, was awaiting sentencing for possession of drugs and a handgun. Forman was optimistic because of his client’s youth and otherwise clean record, but the black judge lectured the offender on what black activists of the ‘60s had faced, then handed down the harshest possible sentence in a juvenile prison.
In the 1960s, Forman noted, D.C. was 70 percent black. The city would go on to have a majority-black police force and judicial bench; when Brandon was facing sentencing, Eric Holder (who is African American and would serve as attorney general under Obama) was the city’s chief prosecutor. When most of the city’s police and judges were black, why were courtrooms and prisons still disproportionately full of black offenders?
Pinioned by the past
Given his personal and professional background, Forman is uniquely qualified to tackle this question. His current work focuses on how the contemporary U.S. landscape grew out of the civil rights movement, while noting that mass incarceration is the legacy of Jim Crow, which is, in turn, the legacy of slavery.
Forman says he couldn’t address the question of black leaders’ apparent complicity in nationwide toxic policing and mass incarceration from a place of anger; he had to research and write with compassion and empathy. His underlying theme is that even though black people gained a foothold in local government, white supremacy’s entrenched institutional framework thwarted black leaders at every turn. This runs from implicit bias, even among black citizens, to painful disparities in federal funding.
For decades, many police departments did not protect black communities and were often “in cahoots with the Klan.” Forman said there was no homicide in black neighborhoods: “That’s a dead black person, and they didn’t call it a black person.”
Suddenly, to the jubilation of the black community, they had representation on the police force. Would black representation on the police force and in politics be enough to combat racial profiling and discrimination? The answer, statistics now tell us, is no.
According to Forman’s research, black leaders who petition Washington for federal dollars toward education, substance-abuse treatment, housing, mentalhealth programs, and policing invariably receive funds allocated for only one of those items. And so the cycle continues.
The view from Philly
There is progress: Forman lauded Temple University for piloting the nationwide Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which offers law seminars for university students and incarcerated people. An Inside Out professor himself, Forman is a passionate advocate for education, pointing out that every dollar spent educating an incarcerated person yields a five-dollar return when that person is able to join the workforce upon release.
Forman also insisted that Philly’s impending district attorney election is a historic moment of national importants. Never has a lawyer with such a celebrated civil rights resume been poised to become a top elected prosecutor in a major city.
Forman fielded many substantive questions from the Philly audience, including one reader who wondered why Locking Up Our Own does not dwell on gun control. He answered that the topic opens a volatile no-man’s land between conservative gun proponents and liberal gun-control supporters. Though it often angers people, he maintains that we have a “war on guns” to parallel our “war on drugs.” With no functional federal mandates, American gun control is a patchwork of state and city laws, and the cities with the harshest penalties for illegal firearms just happen to be majority-black cities.
What’s the answer? Forman can’t say, but his book sounds like an essential part of the conversation.