James Forman Jr. divides his superb and shattering first book, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” into two parts: “Origins” and “Consequences.” But the temptation is to scribble in, before “Consequences,” a modifier: “Unforeseen.” That is truly what this book is about, and what makes it tragic to the bone: How people, acting with the finest of intentions and the largest of hearts, could create a problem even more grievous than the one they were trying to solve.
Forman opens with a story from 1995, when, as a public defender in Washington, he unsuccessfully tried to keep a 15-year-old out of a juvenile detention center with a grim reputation. Looking around the courtroom, he realized that everyone associated with the case was African-American: the judge, the prosecutor, the bailiff. The arresting officer was black, as was the city’s police chief, its mayor and the majority of the city council that had written the stringent gun and drug laws his client had violated.
“What was going on?” Forman asks. “How did a majority-black jurisdiction end up incarcerating so many of its own?”
This is the exceptionally delicate question that he tries to answer, with exemplary nuance, over the course of his book. His approach is compassionate. Seldom does he reprimand the actors in this story for the choices they made. Instead, he opts for dramatic irony. When he discusses policy decisions first made in the 1970s, the audience knows what’s eventually coming — that a grossly disproportionate number of African-American men will become ensnared in the criminal justice system — but none of the players do. Not the clergy or the activists; not the police chiefs or the elected officials; not the newspaper columnists or the grieving parents. The legions of African-Americans who lobbied for more punitive measures to fight gun violence and drug dealing in their own neighborhoods didn’t know that their real-time responses to crises would result in the inhuman outcome of mass incarceration.
The effect, for the reader, is devastating. It is also politically consequential. Conservatives could look at this book and complain, for example, that Michelle Alexander underemphasized black enthusiasm for stricter law enforcement in her influential best seller, “The New Jim Crow.” But it’s also possible, reading Forman’s work, to stand that argument on its head. One of the most cherished shibboleths of the right is that African-Americans complain about police brutality while conveniently overlooking the violence in their own neighborhoods.
“Far from ignoring the issue of crime by blacks against other blacks,” Forman writes, “African-American officials and their constituents have been consumed by it.”
Forman does not minimize the influence of racism on mass incarceration. And he takes great pains to emphasize that African-Americans almost inevitably agitated for more than just law-enforcement solutions to the problems facing their neighborhoods — they argued for job and housing programs, improvements in education. But their timing in stumping for social programs was terrible. “Such efforts had become an object of ridicule by 1975, a symbol of the hopeless naïveté of 1960s liberalism,” Forman writes.
One result: A wide range of African-American leaders championed tougher penalties for drug crimes and gun possession in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. It was the one option they consistently had, and it seemed a perfectly responsible, moral position. Wasn’t the safety of black law-abiding citizens a basic civil right?
The list of those who voiced support for such measures may today seem surprising. It includes Maxine Waters, the current California congresswoman, back when she was a state assemblywoman, and Johnnie Cochran, when he was an assistant district attorney in Los Angeles. In 1988, when running for president, Jesse Jackson told The Chicago Tribune: “No one has the right to kill our children. I won’t take it from the Klan with a rope; I won’t take it from a neighbor with dope.”
Eric Holder, who would become Barack Obama’s attorney general, may have played the most astonishing role in escalating the war on crime. During the mid-90s, when he was the United States attorney for the District of Columbia, he started Operation Ceasefire, an initiative that gave Washington police wide latitude to stop cars and search them for guns. “I’m not going to be naïve about it,” Holder said at a community meeting in 1995. “The people who will be stopped will be young black males, overwhelmingly.”
He knew the roots of crime were complex. He said so in interviews. But his immediate concern was reducing harm in the present.
That Forman alights on Holder is not an accident. Part of the power of “Locking Up Our Own” is that it’s about Washington — not the swamp of deceit merchants and influence-peddlers that Donald J. Trump promised to drain, but a majority-black city that hundreds of thousands call home, regardless of whose bum is in the Oval Office. Washington only first got the chance to elect its own mayor and city council in 1975, and the city’s coming-of-age story — and the challenges it faced — in some ways mirrored that of other cities with large African-American populations, like Atlanta and Detroit.
“Locking Up Our Own” is also very poignantly a book of the Obama era, when black authors like Alexander andBryan Stevenson and Ta-Nehisi Coatesinitiated difficult conversations about racial justice and inequality, believing that their arguments might, for once, gain more meaningful traction. (Often, in fact, they said things the president, burdened with the duty to represent everyone, might not have felt free to say himself.)
Forman is a professor at Yale Law School and a co-founder of an alternative charter school for dropouts in Washington. (He’s also the son of the Civil Rights leader of the same name.) But it’s his six years as a public defender that seem most relevant to the sensibility of this book — and that give it a special halo, setting it apart. The stories he shares are not just carefully curated to make us think differently about criminal justice (though they will, particularly about that hallowed distinction between nonviolent drug offenders and everyone else); they are stories that made Forman himself think differently, and it’s in telling them that he sheds his cautious, measured self and becomes a brokenhearted, frustrated civil servant.
“So what?” he crankily replies, when a judge tells him his client is ineligible for a drug program because her attempts at rehab have failed in the past. “Our system,” he later writes, “never treated the failure of prison as a reason not to try more prison.”