Two New Books About Race and Crime

16Muhammad-Cover-master768Khalil Gibran Muhammad at The New York Times:

Two new books offer timely and complementary ways of understanding America’s punitive culture and, in the process, stark pleas to abolish it. In “Locking Up Our Own,” James Forman Jr. explains how and why an influx of black “firsts” took the municipal reins of government after the civil rights movement only to unleash the brutal power of the criminal justice system on their constituents; in “A Colony in a Nation,” Chris Hayes shows that throughout American history, freedom — despite all the high-minded ideals — has often entailed the subjugation of another.

Forman, a Yale Law School professor and former Washington, D.C., public defender, has written a masterly account of how a generation of black elected officials wrestled with recurring crises of violence and drug use in the nation’s capital. Beginning in the late 1960s, these officials faced the growing challenge of drug addiction to heroin and later, crack. Forty-five percent of male jail detainees tested positive for heroin in 1969, up from 3 percent in the early ’60s. During roughly the same period the city’s murder rate tripled. By 1987, officials found that 60 percent of Washington arrestees tested positive for crack cocaine.

Letters to public officials, mined by Forman, reveal that much of the black community did not agree on what to do. No one disputed the facts of rising drug use and ballooning murder rates across the city. Some of the earliest options on the table ranged from decriminalization of marijuana — following the lead of white civil libertarians — to increased sentences. Many agreed that some measure of punitive intervention was necessary. But how much could be deployed without destroying the body politic or the social ecology of black Washington was anybody’s guess. There were also calls for prevention and drug treatment over punishment, targeting poverty as a root cause of crime. A number of local and national civil rights leaders preferred to follow Michigan Representative John Conyers’s proposal for an urban Marshall Plan.

more here.