ARTS Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America
by James Forman Jr.
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27)
This “superb and shattering” book should cause a lot of people to rethink how our criminal justice system got so far off track, said Jennifer Senior in The New York Times. For several years, Yale law professor James Forman Jr. had a front-row seat on the damage done to black communities by tough-on-crime policies, and that seat enabled him to recognize that in many cities, the enforcers of those policies were often black, too. Forman, whose father was a civil rights legend, worked in the 1990s as a public defender in Washington, D.C., a city whose black political leaders enthusiastically embraced the same policies that resulted in the mass incarceration of young black men nationwide. In D.C. and similar places, the intent was to help black neighborhoods, not devastate them. That’s what makes Forman’s story “tragic to the bone.”
Whether black or white, the public officials who pushed for tougher enforcement were responding to reasonable fears, said Richard Thompson Ford in the San Francisco Chronicle. Beginning in the 1960s, drugs began flowing into minority communities— first heroin, then PCP and crack cocaine— and an accompanying flow of guns made matters worse. Black leaders described local drug dealers as traitors to the achievements of the civil rights movement, and they passed zero-tolerance laws and strict sentencing minimums. In the 1990s, the future Attorney General Eric Holder, then U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, championed what was essentially “a version of ‘driving while black’ policing,” urging cops to find guns by making more misdemeanor traffic stops in black neighborhoods. Forman taps his public defender files to illustrate the human cost of such tactics: a woman who lost her job over a minor marijuana charge; a promising 15-year-old pulled from school and locked away because he was caught carrying a handgun for protection.
Fortunately, the age of mass incarceration may be waning, said Charles Lane in The Washington Post. Many obstacles remain, though, and President Trump has promised an aggressive law-and-order response to a troubling recent uptick in urban homicides. But as Forman’s “beautifully written” narrative underscores, state and local officials have more real power to shape America’s criminal justice system, and in response to citizens’ concerns about abusive policing and excessive sentences, they’ve lately been using their power constructively. “Those efforts can and should continue, whatever might happen next in Washington.” ■