As we close on February, Black History Month, it feels quite timely I just finished reading Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr.
I find myself thinking, “How did we get here?” quite often. When I saw Locking Up Our Own at Commonplace Books, my favorite bookstore actually, I knew I had to buy it. It seemed to explain how our criminal justice system has become what it is today.
James Forman Jr. is a former clerk for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and was a public defender in Washington D.C. for six years. All that to say, he has an interesting perspective.
I’m going to be honest, at first I didn’t like this book. I thought it was unfairly putting a lot of blame on the black community for our current criminal system. As the book started to go on, that narrative shifted and I appreciated a point of view we don’t hear often.
In two parts, Locking Up Our Own covers “origins”-the war on drugs, Black Lives Matter, the rise of African Americans on the police force- and “consequences”- sentencing, warrior policing, and stop and search.
I want to share an excerpt with you, and I hope you take the time to read this book. The stories in it are real, raw and might change how you see our justice system.
For context, this quote comes after a town hall with police and students at a school in a predominantly-black, heavily-policed neighborhood.
“In the town hall’s aftermath, several students told us that we, the school’s adults, had been lying to them. We had said that if they worked hard, society would give them a chance. But the police officers’ behavior on the corner, topped off by their performance at the meeting, made our promises seem hollow. ‘We can be perfect, perfect, doing everything right, and they still treat us like dogs,’ one sixteen-year-old student told me. Another asked, ‘How can you tell us we can be anything if they treat us like we’re nothing?'”
I’m sharing this book with Brett next. He’s interested in reading it himself. He and I have a lot of conversations about race for two reasons: I’m black and he is white and, assuming we have children one day, this will directly affect them.
Locking Up Our Own is a quick read, and I hope you take the time to explore the lessons it can teach us.
I’m reading The Architecture of Happiness next! If you have suggestions, please send them along.