'Locking Up Our Own' Details The Mass Incarceration Of Black Men

Apr 18, 2017
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


James Forman Jr. may change the way you think about the mass incarceration of African-Americans on drug charges. Foreman is a law professor at Yale who used to be a public defender in Washington, D.C. He's also the son of a famous black civil rights leader. His father was head of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

In his new book, "Locking Up Our Own," James Forman Jr. tells the story of how blacks in law enforcement, people who had battled for the right to serve as police and judges as well as politicians, made the war on drugs very much their own. Professor Foreman, thanks for joining us.

JAMES FORMAN JR.: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: You start your book with an observation at the trial of a young man who's charged with possessing a handgun and a very small quantity of marijuana. When he was sentenced, he was dispatched with a denunciation from the bench that he not only had violated the law; he had undermined the entire civil rights movement. How common was that?

FORMAN JR.: It was more common than I certainly would have expected. I mean when I became a public defender in D.C. in the 1990s, I did it because I imagined myself doing the civil rights work of my generation, fighting - we didn't call it mass incarceration, but we knew by that point that 1 in 3 young black men was under criminal justice supervision.

And so when I go to court in that case and I have a judge who tells my client, young man, Martin Luther King fought and died for your freedom, and he didn't fight and die for you to be out there running and thugging (ph) and carrying a gun, that for me was really kind of the wakeup moment that there was a story that needed to be told.

SIEGEL: This is a black judge.

FORMAN JR.: Black judge.

SIEGEL: And it may very well have been a black police officer who had busted the young man. And by the time you were representing drug offenders, there were lots of black cops and soon black police chiefs around the country. As you describe it, those men had broken color lines. They'd fought to be treated equally, and they're a part of the story of black empowerment that we often forget about.

FORMAN JR.: It's true that in the 1970s with the decline of formal Jim Crow, the work that my father and so many others contributed to, these new cast of black characters come into office. They're incredibly constrained, right? There's only so much they can do. They're facing rising crime, rising heroin addiction, rising violence. And so I try to tell the story of how this pressure cooker environment leads to a set of decisions that has been so damaging.

SIEGEL: Yeah. One reading of this story is that black cops turn out to be not that different from white cops in their attitude towards crime, in their attitude towards whom they're protecting, the middle-class households that are victimized by crime, not young people who get involved with drugs and commit crimes.

FORMAN JR.: Well, I think we have never had a good theory for what difference we expect black officers to make. I have people like - Martin Luther King Sr. in the book is arguing in 1940s in Atlanta, Ga., that we need one black officer in Atlanta for all of the 105,000 Negroes. And the theory is that black officers will be more aggressive in fighting crime that white officers have ignored.

Other people say we need black officers because they're going to be less brutal. At the end of the day, I think my story is, we need black officers because African-Americans need a fair shot at good jobs in this country, but we cannot expect them and should not expect them to change the nature of policing.

SIEGEL: As you describe it, the - a major motivation for becoming a police officer for an African-American man or woman today was not to advance the civil rights movement but to have a job and to have good benefits.

FORMAN JR.: Yeah, and that's completely reasonable...


FORMAN JR.: ...And appropriate.

SIEGEL: That's why a lot of white people become police as well.

FORMAN JR.: Yeah, and I - and you know, one of the things I say is that black people should be able to be firefighters. We don't think they're going to change how we fight fires in America. I feel the same way about policing.

SIEGEL: I want you to tell the story about how in the District of Columbia a handful of police officers got together to see to it that they would pass the exams to get not only hired but promoted and what an important development that was for the city.

FORMAN JR.: Yeah, well, you had Burtell Jefferson and Tilmon O'Bryant - were the leaders of this in the early 1960s. And at the time, they faced real discrimination because to get promoted, you needed to achieve a certain test on the written exam, and you needed a certain level of supervisor evaluation - you know, a qualitative assessment. And no matter how well the black officers did on the written exam, they would get dinged by their white superiors on the qualitative assessment, and they never would get the promotion.

And the response of men like Burtell Jefferson and Tilmon O'Bryant was, we are going to study twice as hard, three times as hard. They set up special study sessions in Tilmon O'Bryant's basement. They would come together once a week. And over time, 14 out of 15 of them passed the exam with scores so high that even factoring in the discriminatory qualitative assessment, they had to be promoted.

SIEGEL: It's not hard to imagine the police lieutenant that emerges from that experience.

FORMAN JR.: Well, that's exactly right. And then one later in the decade when some civil rights advocates, including the editors of the Afro-American, D.C.'s largest black paper at the time - they call for affirmative action to hire more black officers in D.C. And Tilmon O'Bryant comes out and says he opposes that. And you know, that feeling that you're describing of somebody who comes up through the ranks, studies two times as hard, three times as hard - that does produce a kind of severity later when it seems as if people aren't behaving as you yourself would have behaved or at least as you imagine you would have behaved.

SIEGEL: What do you say to those people who hear in that speech from the judge in the case with which you begin the book, you have betrayed Martin Luther King; you have betrayed the civil rights movement? What do you say to people who say, well, there was - there is some disconnect here? Things - legal barriers come down in the 1960s. Social change is underway. The catastrophe that drugs wrought in inner-city neighborhoods, in black neighborhoods was at least a terrible disappointment to, if not a betrayal of, what people - what their parents and their grandparents had been struggling for.

FORMAN JR.: Well, I'm not sympathetic to that because I think that the nature of the problem changed. So yes, you didn't have Jim Crow. But we also had de-industrialization, right? We had jobs that were leaving. We had an education system that was failing. We had mental health programs that were not being adequately invested in.

So - and we have segregation that's getting harder - the lines are getting harder and harder around a particular group, which is to say low-income, black Americans. Today, a black person without a high school degree - their likelihood of going to prison has gone up 10 times since the 1960s. Jim Crow is gone, but life is just as hard.

SIEGEL: And those communities - you would say instead of economic development or social and economic justice, they get crackdown justice instead, is what happened.

FORMAN JR.: I think that's right. And most of the black actors that I write about are asking for economic development. They are asking for root causes to be addressed. Many people follow John Conyers, the congressman, and say, we want a marshal plan for urban America. They want more police, more prisons, better jobs, better schools, better parks. They want the whole thing, all of the above. Instead, they get one of the above, which is law enforcement.

SIEGEL: James Forman Jr. is the author of locking up our own, crime and punishment in black America. Thanks for talking with us.

FORMAN JR.: Thank you.