Locking Up Our Own | James Forman Jr.

Summary of: Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America
By: James Forman Jr.


In ‘Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America’, author James Forman Jr. dissects the paradox surrounding African-American political and social influence in the formulation of law and order, and how this has perpetuated the racial injustices that exist in the United States today. Forman examines the progressive rise of Black political leadership in America, particularly in Washington, DC, in the 1970s, and how the efforts to curb drugs and violent crime within the African-American community have inadvertently led to policies that continue to systemically oppress it. Tackling the paradox of the Black community effectively locking up its own, Forman provides an in-depth analysis of the histories, policies, and circumstances that led to this ironic twist of fate.

DC’s Marijuana Reform Act

In 1975, the Washington, DC city council proposed a Marijuana Reform Act to reduce penalties for possession of marijuana, due to concerns about racial injustice. However, the Black community, led by council member Doug Moore, opposed the proposal, arguing that easing penalties would make it easier for Black people to succumb to crime and addiction. This opposition was successful, and the Reform Act was tabled. The decision stemmed from the spike in criminal activity during the heroin epidemic in the 1960s, which primarily affected young Black men. Heroin addiction led to increases in crime, which caused outrage in Black communities. Black drug dealers were viewed as betraying their race, and some believed that Black heroin addicts and their passive dependence benefited the white community.

Gun Control and Civil Rights

In 1976, the Washington city council passed stricter gun-control laws aimed at protecting Black citizens from gun violence, with the support of victims of gun-related crime and citizens who were angered by the fact that 85 percent of those killed by guns were Black. The laws banned further sales of guns, mandated the registration of existing ones, and increased maximum sentencing guidelines for people convicted of gun crimes. However, the policy change was not as effective as many people had hoped, as it mostly punished poorly educated Black men from low-income households. The root causes of gun crimes, such as racial inequality in the provision of health care, education, and employment, were not addressed.

Black Officers and Systemic Racism

Black officers face hurdles in the police force due to systemic racism, hindering their career advancement and preventing progress in reducing police violence against Black citizens.

For much of US history, Black individuals were systematically excluded from positions of authority, particularly in police departments. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that Black civilians started to join the police force. But despite these efforts for diversity, racism hindered Black officers’ advancement by preventing them from receiving good suitability ratings, a requirement for promotion. Two Black officers, Burtell Jefferson and Tilmon O’Bryant, even formed a secret class to teach Black officers how to score higher on written tests to compensate for their low suitability ratings, eventually leading 12 out of 15 officers to promotion.

Despite this advancement, the number of Black officers on the force did not reduce police violence against Black citizens. In fact, a study found that 28 percent of Black officers were prejudiced or highly prejudiced, while white officers exhibited even more prejudiced behavior. This high percentage of prejudice, in part, resulted from the class divisions between officers who viewed poor Black citizens as a threat to law and order.

Thus, systemic racism within the police force hinders the advancement of Black officers and impedes progress in reducing police violence against Black citizens.

Washington’s War on Drugs

In the late 1930s, all drug crimes in Washington had a minimum one-year sentence, but by the 1970s, drug dealing was rampant despite this. City council responded by categorizing drugs into groups with specific penalties, with African-American councilmember John Ray proposing stricter sentencing. Although Ray’s minimum sentencing proposal was rejected, a ballot in January 1982 established mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealing. Initiative 9 mandated four years in prison for dealing heroin, two years for selling cocaine, and one year for marijuana. Despite having no impact on reducing crime, drug-related prosecutions increased by almost 300 percent between 1982 and 1984. Ray and police chief Burtell Jefferson cleverly capitalized on the public’s concern about the thriving drug market and campaigned for Initiative 9 by visiting murder scenes, convincing Washington citizens to vote in favor of the initiative.

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