A new book examines how black communities inadvertently helped lay the groundwork for mass incarceration.
Any real discussion of mass incarceration is impossible without addressing racism. Michelle Alexander’s widely acclaimed book The New Jim Crow cast the criminal-justice system as a successor to slavery and segregation, one that’s hamstrung the African American community’s social and economic growth since the civil-rights movement.
What often followed, however, was a tragic embrace of punitive solutions to deep-seated social woes. “We’re going to fight drugs and crime until the drug dealer’s teeth rattle,” Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson insisted in the 1970s. Congressman Charlie Rangel, who represented Harlem for decades, enthusiastically took up the mantle of a drug warrior during the crack epidemic in the 1980s. Eric Holder, a federal prosecutor and later the first black U.S. attorney general, championed pretextual car stops and searches to curb gun violence during the Clinton administration.
From both these personal experiences and the history that helped shape them, Forman uncovers the black community’s role in waging wars on crime and drugs. I spoke with him about the book, the stories behind it, and their meaning for this unusual moment in the national conversation on American law and order. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The second thing that gives me optimism is the enhanced and elevated role that we’re starting to give to people who have been incarcerated and their family members. For so long, those folks were at the margins. Nobody really gave them a voice. Folks were afraid to speak up, they were so stigmatized.
“Who really wants to hear from me? I have a felony conviction. Do I really want to reveal my past?”
These are the questions that people were asking. And in the past couple of years, that started to change. That idea of turning to those who are closest to the problem for solutions—I think that’s also a cause for optimism.
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