Black-on-black crime, black-on-black punishment in America

The US locks up more people than any other country on the planet, and a vastly disproportionate number of its prisoners are black. Less commonly discussed is that so too are many of the officials who jailed them. Andy Martin meets James Forman, author of a revealing new book on the subject.
ames Forman can be quite irritating. When he goes to the movies with his friends, he will invariably come out again muttering, “But where have all the black people gone?” “Yeah,” his companions say, “but what did you think of the movie?” Now he is being even more irritating: his book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, which has just been published in the US, puts the black people back in, in more ways than one. He is a bespectacled 49-year-old black lawyer born in New York, who teaches at Yale University Law School, “a child of the Civil Rights” as he describes himself, and also the son of the James Forman, who was a Black Panther and co-wrote the Black Manifesto
The story that we already knew: black people have been imprisoned rather a lot. Over the past couple of decades, America has succeeded in becoming the biggest prison on the planet, easily surpassing China and Russia. Mass incarceration in America has put 2.2 million people behind bars; an ever increasing number are people of colour. When I taught a class at Sing Sing prison, in upstate New York, the prisoners were all black or Hispanic. I was the only white guy in the room.
The statistics are mind-blowing: something like one in three young black men in the country will be put away at some point in their lives; in Washington DC, the figure is more like one in two.
All the above, though horrifying, is well established. But the thing that James Forman, in his irritating way, would like to point out is that many of the people who put them there are also black. Since the Civil Rights era, African Americans have for the first time been involved in the judicial system as something other than victims and jailbirds: they are also judge, prosecutor, even executioner. They have become complicit in what he calls the tough-on-crime “American mindset”, in which the solution to every problem is fondly imagined to be more law enforcement. He has said what no one else hitherto has dared to say, that the concept of black-on-black crime has to be supplemented by the facts of black-on-black punishment.
“I’m not letting white people off the hook either,” he points out, fairly enough. His book is a breakthrough and has caused something of a sensation in the US. I meet him at a “luncheon” organised by New York University, at the Institute for Humanities, where a lot of white lawyers are raving about his book. “All the freshmen should be made to read this book,” says one. Forman analyses the contradictions and ironies of a brutal system but he has enough experience, as a “public defender” for many years in Washington, to have witnessed many specific individual cases at close quarters.
One day back in 2007, Forman found himself defending a 15-year-old black youth called Brandon. He had been caught carrying marijuana and a gun. It was his first offence. Forman pleaded for probation. The prosecutor, who was black, wanted him put away. The judge, who was also black, gave him what Forman calls “the Martin Luther King speech”. Which in a shortened form comes out something like this: “You think you had it hard, young man. Well, we had it a lot harder, under Jim Crow [the explicitly racist laws that made America practically an apartheid state until the mid-1960s]. Martin Luther King – and other civil rights activists – died so that you would have the freedom to choose. And yet you chose to deal drugs and carry a gun. Therefore you betrayed Civil Rights. And you are going down.”
Forman realised at that point that something very strange was going on, hitherto undocumented. The fact is, as his very engaging and lucidly written book carefully explains, after Civil Rights, African Americans were recruited by the legal system in the US, in the form of police officers, as lawyers, as judges, and as mayors and legislators. There was a notion, as an idiom of the time – the 1970s – had it, that “black policemen do not shoot black jay-walkers”. What Forman discovered, trawling through a couple of decades of court archives, was that it was something like the opposite, and the immense phenomenon of mass black incarceration is partly the effect of black officers of the law cracking down ever harder on black offenders.
“In one respect [Forman writes], the century-long fight for police integration had succeeded. Its victory brought a prominent new set of voices to American criminal justice policy: those of the nation’s dozens of black police chiefs. But many of those voices would propel, not constrain, an emerging tough-on-crime movement.”
As Forman puts it, this blunt fact “complicates the narrative”. “I kinda hate that word,” he said, talking about the word complicate. “But it’s right.” The grand narrative that he was speaking about is, in its broad outlines, the Hegelian/Marxist master-slave narrative. It is the narrative that his father, James Forman senior, must have passed on to him when he was a child. There is a grand tradition, contained in blues songs and the works of WEB Du Bois, given forceful expression in the writing of James Baldwin and Eldridge Cleaver (Soul on Ice), in Malcolm X, perhaps too in the aphorisms of Muhammad Ali, and all the way through, more recently, to Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which says the following: there is a fundamental conflict between black and whites in America, which is the hangover of slavery, and which means that all the suffering and poverty of black people is the effect of a conspiracy by white people to keep them down. In their place. Which very often is in jail.

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