Angela J. Davis is a law professor at American University and a former director of Washington, D.C.’s public defender office. This combination of experience and knowledge lends some extra heft to the task she has undertaken in compiling the essays present in the 2017 book Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution and Imprisonment. Armed not only with an encyclopedic understanding of US laws as they apply to Black men across the nation, Davis’s experience in the D.C. public defender’s office provides the book with a legitimacy one gains by working some of the toughest city streets in the country; a city whose Black population has been under suspicion by its federal overseers and police force since before the US Civil War.
To describe the purpose of this book, let me quote Davis from her introduction: “The tragic killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and others served as the catalyst for this anthology. But these killings also inspired the contributing authors to think about all of the ways that Black men are “policed”—in the broad sense of the word—heavily and harshly at every step of the criminal process.” In attempting this endeavor, Ms. Davis has compiled a collection of articles written by law professors and other faculty from across the United States. Each essay reflects upon various elements of law enforcement, the court process, legal interpretations of the law, or the history of discrimination against Blacks in the United States.
As the title suggests, the essays herein cover a range of subjects. From the racist nature of the “stop and frisk” laws to the failure of prosecutors to do their job when it comes to police who murder Black men; from the treatment of Black boys by police and the juvenile justice system to the history and uses of the grand jury, the writers here provide a serious counter argument to the so-called crime experts in think tanks from the far right to middle of the road liberal. Both history and current statistics are used to prove that the aforementioned killing of Black boys and men is not an anomaly but business as usual. Likewise, the writers make their arguments with a hope that things might change for the better…and soon.
The essay I found the most interesting was one titled “Do Black Lives Matter to the Courts?” Written by two members of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Jin Hee Lee and Sherrilynn Ifill, the essay addresses the question of racism in a supposedly color-blind justice system. Having to prove a police officer’s discriminatory intent is ultimately a means by which the unfair arrest and prosecution of Black men can continue because the so called color-blindedness of the system is anything but. The US system of justice is racially structured. Even if a police officer or prosecutor is not intentionally racist, the fact is that the nature of policing—from the random stops in the street or on the highway to the prosecution in the court—is designed to trap Black men more than any other demographic. Both history and the present situation make this quite clear.
Policing Black Men is an interesting collection of essays regarding the US justice system and its dealings with a specific US demographic that has historically felt the brunt of that system. Some of the essays indict the system’s failings and occasionally suggest reforms the particular writers believe would diminish the injustices Black men suffer in the courts and in their dealings with police. Other pieces point out the consistent nature of the systems’ abuses and bring up the very real question of whether or not it is the system itself that needs to be replaced. In other words, the writers of these articles consider the US system of justice so flawed when it comes to arresting and prosecuting Black men it cannot be reformed. To argue this possibility is quite radical. To back it up with statistics and history, as this text does, makes that radical argument even stronger than the anecdotal evidence one sees in the media almost daily. In today’s world where the president of this pathetic, hateful nation calls for more police brutality and insults an entire island of Black and brown skinned people, this book is not just useful, it is necessary.