Where there is racial indifference, racism thrives

Locking Up Our Own and the New Jim Crow are available at the Ramsey County Law Library.

Locking Up Our Own and the New Jim Crow are available at the Ramsey County Law Library.

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman, Jr. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)

This Pulitzer Prize winning book closely examines race relations in Washington, D.C. from the sixties through the nineties and describes parallel stories from locations outside of D.C.  The stories explain how Black America supported schemes that resulted in high incarceration among Black people.  The reasons include early Black opposition to the decriminalization of marijuana and surging gun possession due to Black views that guns were needed for collective self-defense. These, and other factors described by the author, laid the foundation for how drug addiction and crime have assailed Black America.

In the second half of the book author Forman describes the consequences of decades-old systems that result in mass incarceration of Black people.  Drug sentences and mandatory minimums, the crack epidemic, the War on Drugs, aggressive police strategies (and pretext policing), and the disparate social and economic impacts of incarceration all factor into the disparagement of Black men.

In his epilogue, Forman describes a decline in crime after 2014 in Washington, D.C., but it leaves in its stead a devastating impact on the Black community.  He concludes that mass incarceration is a system that was “constructed incrementally, and it may have to be dismantled the same way.” (p. 238)

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (Tenth Anniversary Edition, The New Press, 2020)

If Forman’s book describes the history of mass incarceration, Michelle Alexander’s book provides an incisive and rigorous study of the criminal justice system’s impact on current Black America.  In fact, in Locking Up Our Own, Forman references Alexander’s book and states it “played a crucial role in providing advocates with a framework for understanding, and a rhetoric for criticizing, the War on Drugs.” (p. 220)   Alexander explains how and why a disproportionate number of Black men versus White men are incarcerated.

In her introduction to the tenth anniversary edition, she states that the 2010 work (the original edition) is even more relevant today due to the passage of time and predictability of patterns that she identified earlier including: the establishment of a caste system derived from mass incarceration; its collateral consequences; and economic and social exclusion.  Alexander states that this system is “invisible to the naked eye but functions nearly as effectively as Jim Crow laws once did.” (page xxvii)  For change to occur, society must address mass incarceration. Alexander also notes Martin Luther King, Jr.’s warning that racial indifference fosters a culture in which racism thrives.

You can find these books, as well as the other books in our summer reading series at the Ramsey County Law Library.

 

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