Thursday, July 06, 2017

Black Law and Order


theatlantic |  If a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, you might expect black folks, who are disproportionately victims of crime, to support the politics of law and order. And they frequently have done just that, according to Forman, a former public defender in Washington, D.C.; a co-founder of a D.C. charter school for at-risk youth; and now a professor at Yale Law School. Using the District of Columbia (a k a “Chocolate City”) as his laboratory, Forman documents how, as crime rose from the late 1960s to the ’90s, the city’s African American residents responded by supporting an array of tough-on-crime measures. A 1975 measure decriminalizing marijuana died in the majority-black city council, which went on to implement one of the nation’s most stringent gun-control laws. Black residents endorsed a ballot initiative that called for imposing harsh sentences on drug dealers and violent offenders. Replicated on a national level over the same period, these policies led to mass incarceration and aggressive policing strategies like stop-and-frisk, developments that are now looked upon as affronts to racial justice.

Much of what Forman reports would not surprise anyone who has spent time at a black church or a black barbershop—or in the company of my mother. In the ’60s, she marched with Malcolm X, and during the ’80s, after the public school where she taught was vandalized, she said, “Those niggers should be put under the jail.” My mom’s ideas about criminal-justice policy are informed by getting held up at gunpoint in front of our house on Chicago’s South Side, seeing family members suffer from addiction, and watching the cops treat my stepfather like a criminal after he got into a fender bender with a white man.

Needing the criminal-justice system to help keep you safe, to be fair in its investigations, and to be merciful with people who’ve run afoul of the law—this urgent, unwieldy agenda explains much of African American politics, from the anti-lynching campaigns of the early 20th century to the Black Lives Matter movement today. As Forman reminds his readers, black people have long been vigilant, often to no avail, about two kinds of equality enshrined in our nation’s ideals: equal protection of the law, and equal justice under the law.

The absence of equal protection has been, historically, the most vexing problem in the lives of African Americans. The NAACP was founded in 1909 partly in response to the federal and state governments’ turning a blind eye to white violence against blacks. More than half a century later, as open-air drug markets flourished in inner-city neighborhoods, black activists perceived a related form of racist neglect by the state. The police, they believed, would have shut down those markets had they existed in white communities. In fact, as Forman notes, many activists thought that those in power actually condoned the availability of drugs in the hood, as a means to keep the black man down. (In those days, it was black men—rather than all black people—who were seen as principally injured by racism, a fallacy that made its way into government policy under the guise of the controversial Moynihan Report in 1965.) The black radical Stokely Carmichael, speaking at a historically black college in 1970, said, “Fighting against drugs is revolutionary because drugs are a trick of the oppressor.”

Back then, many white progressives were pro-pot, and disinclined to see drug prohibition as part of a revolutionary utopia. African American suspicion of white liberals is a theme throughout Locking Up Our Own. One reason the 1975 effort to decriminalize marijuana in Washington, D.C., failed is that the bill’s two primary supporters were white men. Forman quotes the spoken-word artist Gil Scott-Heron’s portrayal of a typical white member of Students for a Democratic Society: “He is fighting for legalized smoke … / All I want is a good home and a wife and children / And some food to feed them every night.”

Scott-Heron’s very traditional wish list reveals another important explanation for black support of law and order. Not for the first time, many middle-class African Americans subscribed to the “politics of respectability”: The race advances, the view goes, when black people demonstrate that they are capable of living up to white standards of morality and conduct. Among the black elite, advocacy for lenient criminal-justice policies was deemed an admission that black interests were allied with the interests of criminals. That sort of solidarity would hardly help the cause. For many bougie African Americans—certainly those in cities like Washington and Atlanta, where light-skinned blacks dominated the middle class—colorism was also at work: The fact that their dark-skinned hoodlum cousins were getting locked up was not a problem. Indeed, one of the primary arguments for allowing African Americans to join Atlanta’s police department in the 1930s and ’40s was that they would be better able than white officers to distinguish between elite blacks and the riffraff.