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The Abandonment: Reflections on James Foreman’s “Locking Up Our Own”

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Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow is properly understood as a classic text on and against the regime of racist mass incarceration and criminal- (felony-) marking that arose and became deeply entrenched in the United States during the last third of the previous century.  There were three key problems, however, with professor Alexander’s use of the term “Jim Crow” to describe that terrible system. even with the qualifier “new.”

The first difficulty is that the real historical Jim Crow regime of the late 19th and early 20th century was specific to the South whereas the contemporary racist mass incarceration and criminal branding regime is nationwide.

The second hitch is that the Jim Crow system was part of a productionist regime dedicated to the mass exploitation of Black labor still yoked primarily to cotton.  The “new Jim Crow” is a largely post-industrial phenomenon.  Its victims are mostly removed from production even before they are turned into recurrently warehoused raw material recycled in and out of a giant criminal injustice industrial complex whose subjects are not typically assigned to the production of commodities.

A third problem is that the Jim Crow system of formal segregation and political disenfranchisement applied to southern Blacks of all classes whereas the “new Jim Crow” system is imposed primarily on lower- and working-class Black Americans. The Black middle and upper classes have been largely exempt from “the new Jim Crow.”

It is in this third problem area that James Forman Jr.’s new book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America (New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, April 2017) makes a special contribution.  It isn’t just that Black professional and business elites have largely escaped “the new Jim Crow.”  As Forman shows, those elites have actively participated in the rise of the racist mass incarceration and felony-branding system.

Forman is the son of the leading 1960s Civil Rights activist James Forman.  He is also a Yale University Law professor, a first-rate historical researcher, and a former public defender in then majority Black Washington D.C. during the 1990s.

Focusing largely on the District of Columbia, Forman traces the fateful role that pro- “law and order” Black Americans – chiefly Black Mayors, city council persons, police chiefs, judges, prosecutors, and police officers – played in the creation of the wars on crimes and drugs that created contemporary racially hyper-disparate mass imprisonment since the 1960s. Many Black police officials and officers proved every bit as willing as their white counterparts to harass, surveil, and abuse the Black urban underclass. The crackdown and lockdown occurred with considerable support from the Black population, which demonstrated punitive attitudes towards drug and other offenders in their communities.

This did not happen, Forman argues, because Black America was loaded with white-pleasing, racially self-hating “Uncle Toms.”  To the contrary, Locking Up Our Own argues that Black Americans “advocated tough-on-crime measures in race-conscious terms” that bore the imprint of the long struggle for Black civil rights and equality.  Many prominent Black leaders worried that the gains of the civil rights movement were being undermined by lawlessness, drug addiction, and chronic Black on Black crime. Confronting skyrocketing murder rates and rampant, all-too open drug selling (producing a deadly heroin epidemic in the 1960s and the crack cocaine scourge in the 1980s) in Black communities, they thought they had no choice but to join the law-and-order crusade.

But this support for locking up their own came with big caveats. Black Americans didn’t want a racially disparate war on drugs and crime – one that disproportionately targeted Blacks in a nation where whites were and remain every bit as likely as Blacks to use illegal drugs and whites have far more access to political and legal clout to avoid prosecution and harsh sentencing. And while “African Americans wanted more law enforcement,” Forman writes, “they didn’t want only law enforcement. Many adopted what we might think of as an all-of-the-above strategy, combining the war and drugs and crime” with call[s]…for jobs, schools, and housing – what many termed ‘a Marshall Plan for urban America.”  Blacks wanted a war on drugs and crime war coupled with a war on poverty, joblessness, and racial injustice.  To paraphrase the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, they wanted help from the social-democratic and egalitarian “left hand of the state hand” along with the iron fisted and more repressive “right hand of the state.”

They did not anticipate that only the right hand was forthcoming.  As Forman explains, “because African American political power is concentrated in cities, blacks needed help to win national action against poverty, joblessness, segregation, and other root causes of crime.  The help never came.  The requests for assistance came at a time when Reaganism was ascendant, the Great Society was under assault, and there was little national appetite for social programs – especially those perceived as helping blacks.  So African-Americans never got the Marshall Plan – just the tough-on-crime laws.”

In the long aftermath of this tragic irony, many Black elites have continued to advance the endemic locking up and criminal branding of the Black underclass.  Eric Holder, the nation’s first black Attorney General made his mark as Washington’s first black chief prosecutor by advancing mass pretext policing (mass frisks, stops, and arrests on minor or made-up and discretionary police grounds) in Black neighborhoods. The nation’s first black president Barack Obama severely constricted his very tepid and belated steps toward criminal justice reform by ruling out any concern for those arrested and sentenced for technically violent offenses.  That’s a big problem since more than half the nation’s 1 million Black prisoners are behind bars on technically violent charges.

Locking Up Our Own is a compelling and indispensable volume for those who want to get the whole story on the rise of the “the New Jim Crow” – a story that must include serious attention to class and other fractures within Black America. But it is not without problems. Oddly enough given Forman’s desire to provide a somewhat sympathetic explanation for the Black “leadership” class’s participation in the “new Jim Crow,” he fails to note how persistent harsh racial residential segregation – what sociologists Doug Massey and Nancy Denton have rightly called “American Apartheid” – has fed Black support for aggressive policing and harsh sentencing.  The Black middle and professional class lives in much greater immediate proximity than its white counterpart to the deeply impoverished and crime-prone Black “underclass”

Forman might have reflected more ambitiously and radically on the question of what happened to the struggle for Black equality and social justice more broadly in the long capitalist neoliberal era, marked at home and abroad by the triumph of the right over the left hand of the state.  Many on the Black Left will find Forman too mild and forgiving in his discussion of the role played by Black bourgeois elites in the rise of racially disparate mass incarceration.  They will do so with good reason.

A good counter-text here is Elaine Brown’s 2002 volume The Condemnation of Little B. In this forgotten classic and Black radical text, Brown – a former chairman of the Black Panther Party – tried to understand how the entire city of Atlanta, including its prominent Black citizens, came to unjustly condemn a poor 13-year-old Black boy, Michael Lewis, for the 1997 murder of a white man visiting a well-known drug haven in that city’s Black ghetto. Brown showed how Lewis’s conviction was “effectively predestined, attributable to the comfortable ‘New Age racism’ of white liberals and middle-class blacks who have abandoned the cause of civil rights and equal opportunity.”

The most biting chapter in Brown’s brilliant and bitter book was titled “The Abandonment.” Here Brown went into pointed detail on how a host of Black bourgeois elites (Brown’s hall of shame included William Julius Wilson, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Condoleezza Rice, Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, Vernon Jordan, Alexis Herman, Armstrong Williams, Ellis Cose, Thomas Sowell, Chris Rock, Russell Simmons, Cynthia Tucker, Jesse Jackson, most members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and of course Oprah Winfrey) aligned themselves with the bipartisan, and pseudo-color-blind neoliberal racism of the Clintons.  These Black misleaders joined the Clintons and other white elites in blaming the Black poor for their own oppression, in backing the vicious removal of millions of poor Black women and children from the welfare rolls, and in supporting a savage “three strikes” crime bill that drastically expanded the nation’s racist mass arrest and incarceration system.  These and other Black “leaders” functioned as what Brown called “new model House Slaves” and Black “Slave Overseers.” “It was this New Age racist-era abandonment of principle, this shrugging of shoulders and turning of backs by Blacks and former friends,” Brown wrote, “that had set the stage for the unchallenged prosecution of a thirteen-year-old Black boy.”

Whatever the complexities of Black bourgeois anti-crime sentiment in previous decades, there was no excuse for this betrayal in the 1990s.  It came long after the racist essence of the wars on drugs and crime had been made clear as day. The Black mis-leadership class had by the 1990s every reason to know that there was no Marshall Plan for Black for America in the offing alongside the big racist lockdown.  With their support for the welfare-slashing Clinton presidency and its neoliberal policy agenda, moreover, those mis-leaders actively participated in the further destruction of the “left hand of the state” – and the related strengthening of the right hand.  It was all-too consistent with W.E.B. DuBois’ late-life observation that “A class structure …within the Negro group [has] produced haves and have-nots and…encourage[d] more successful Negroes to join the forces of monopoly and exploitation and help victimize their own…”  That’s something to keep in mind the next time you read about Barack Obamas giving a speech to some leading financial institution for hundreds of thousands of dollars – a financial institution likely with significant investments in the private for-profit prison industry.

This article originally appeared on Black Agenda Report.

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