Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America

Volume 52 (2019)

Reviewed Work(s)

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. By James Forman Jr. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017). Pp. 306. $27.00 Hardcover.

The United States possesses one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and a high percentage of those incarcerated in the United States are African-American. In recent years, historians and legal scholars have attempted to explain the phenomenon referred to as mass incarceration and its effects on the African-American community. In 2010, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness sparked a nation-wide debate over the origins of mass incarceration in the United States that, in turn, influenced the Black Lives Matter social movement.[i] James Forman, Jr.’s Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America is, in large part, a stinging critique of Alexander’s work as well as a pointed rebuttal to conservative critics who have argued that African Americans do not take black-on-black crime and violence seriously.  Not only does the work contribute to the historiographical debate over mass incarceration and the war on drugs and their effects on African Americans, but it also adds to the debate over the essential nature of the black freedom movement. In particular, Forman persuasively contends that church leaders, community activists, and politicians in Washington D.C. and other major Northern cities who waged a generational war against drugs and violence in the African-American community from the 1970s to the 1990s are a part of a broad black freedom movement ignored by other historians and the general public.

Forman, the son of a prominent 1960s civil rights activist, a former public defender in Washington D.C., and now a Yale Law Professor, argues that while mass incarceration and the war on drugs had a disproportionate effect on African-Americans, they were not the products of a racial conspiracy against African-Americans.  Instead, Foreman persuasively details how mass incarceration was, in part, the unintended consequence of a series of small actions taken by many different people, including well-intentioned African-Americans, to address the real problems associated with drugs and violence that plagued cities like Washington, D.C. from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Locking Up Our Own is a work that merges political, social, urban, and legal history as well as public policy.  According to Forman, an exploration of the politics of crime in the period from the 1970s to the 1990s in Washington D.C., a city with an African-American majority, provides valuable insight into the origins of both the war on drugs and mass incarceration. Forman’s central contribution to the historiography on the war on drugs and mass incarceration is his focus on the African-American community’s support for get-tough-on-crime policies spanning  the 1970s to the 1990s. In the view of Forman, several, but not all, African-American politicians in Washington D.C., including inspiring politicians like Marion Berry and black nationalists active during the era, advocated for get-tough-on-crime policies in response to public pressure from within the African-American community. Foreman does his best work in the book’s first chapters when he details the debates surrounding the decriminalization of marijuana in the 1970s as well as the public outcry during the crack epidemic in 1980s and 1990s that resulted in stricter gun laws and harsher sentencing for drug offenders.

Forman divides his book into two main sections. The first section is entitled “Causes,” and the second  is entitled “Consequences.”   In the section entitled “Causes,” Forman explores support in the African-American community for get-tough-on-crime measures.  Foreman describes how activists advocated to strip judges of their discretion to sentence offenders,  impose higher penalties for drug and gun offenses, and increase aggressive policing of African-American neighborhoods in the period from the 1970s to the 1990s.   According to Forman, African-American support for such measures derives from the destructive impact that drugs (heroin in the 1960s and the 1970s and crack in the 1980s and 1990s) had on the African-American community in major US cities. Many African Americans in the period from the 1970s to the 1990s viewed drugs and violence as linked problems requiring the intervention of the government. African-American community activists, church leaders, and African-American politicians viewed black-on-black violence and drug dealing as deprivations of African-American civil liberties and demanded a government response to the drug epidemics that plagued the African-American community from the 1960s to the 1990s.  However, in the second part of the book entitled “Consequences,” Forman describes how the policies and laws enacted in response to the drug epidemics resulted in a host of unintended consequences, including the use of profiling techniques against African-American youth, police brutality, tensions between the police and those policed, and mass incarceration. 

Forman, who practiced law, is a gifted story-teller who supports his thesis with dozens of anecdotes from his work as a public defender and as a co-founder of a school in Washington, D.C. created to assist African-American youths escape the criminal justice system.  While not formally trained as a historian, Forman draws on a mountain of archival research to craft a compelling and persuasive narrative.  Building his case like a skilled appellate advocate, Forman draws upon a robust collection of sources.  These sources include hundreds of articles from predominately African-American newspapers in Washington D.C., polling results, criminal law statistics, and the papers of African-American activists including those of black nationalists and community organizers who supported stricter gun and drug laws as well as aggressive policing of African-American communities.

In addition to his valuable contributions to the field of African-American history, Forman’s book also adds to the contemporary public debate over criminal justice reform.  Forman, in his Epilogue, challenges politicians and policymakers in the twenty-first century to rethink crime and punishment and to rectify the wrongs of the latter half of the twentieth century. In recent years, politicians from across the political spectrum, including former President Obama and current President Trump, have advocated for the commutation of the sentences of non-violent drug offenders as a first-step in a long-process of criminal justice reform. However, Forman argues that this first-step, despite its well-intentions, may end up being the last step because it fails to recognize that many, if not most, drug offenders have a history of violence before and during their incarceration.  Thus, Forman advocates for a radical transformation of the criminal justice system that would focus on rehabilitation of all prisoners, even those with a history of violence. While Forman’s criminal justice reform proposals may not currently possess broad popular support, his proposals enrich the debate over much-needed reforms to the criminal justice system.

Overall, Locking Up Our Own is a masterful work of history that has the potential to significantly influence both the contemporary public policy debate over mass incarceration and the war on drugs, as well as the historiographical debates over these topics and the essential nature of the black freedom movement.  Most importantly, Forman presents a compelling case for the need to break the cycle of mass incarceration that has negatively impacted the lives of millions of African-Americans.  For all of these reasons, Locking Up Our Own should be required reading in any course dealing with modern United States history, criminal justice, urban history, or African-American history.

James Barney

The University of Memphis

[i] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012).

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