When it comes to mass incarceration, the most important book, in my opinion, is The New Jim Crow
, by Michelle Alexander. But Locking Up Our Own
takes a close second, being a very important supplement to the narrative that Michelle Alexander sets up. History shows that mass incarceration—regardless of intentions or personal prejudice—locked up young African American males at alarming rates, and still does. Institutional racism and white supremacy are the only reasonable explanations. That is the main plot. But James Forman Jr., in Locking Up Our Own
, sheds light on an important subplot: African Americans supporting, enacting, and enforcing mass incarceration policies—that is, locking up their own. Black leaders, black ministers, black judges and prosecutors, black police chiefs, black voters, and even the first black U.S. Prosecuting attorney Eric Holder supported tough-on-crime policies, partly because of classism within the black community, partly because of the heroine and crack epidemics, and mostly because they wanted safe communities. And, in their defense, most of these black leaders wanted tough-on-crime measures in addition to
uplifting social and economic policies. Unfortunately, all they got was the former, not the latter.
James Forman Jr. draws on his experience as a defense attorney for Washington D.C. criminal courts. Highly readable, highly informed, highly tragic. Forman calls for a piecemeal approach to solving the problem, by slowly chipping away at the policies that got us here. In the end, he thinks any real solution requires shattering the arbitrary distinction between non-violent vs. violent criminals—a paradigm shift in thinking.