James Forman Jr. Talks Crime and Punishment in Black America
In Conversation with Roxanne Coady
on the Just the Right Book Podcast
In today’s episode of Just the Right Book with Roxanne Coady, we revisit our conversation with James Forman, Jr. from 2018 as he discusses his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.
From the episode:
Roxanne Coady: So, James, the rate of incarceration for Black men is not a new problem. What prompted you to attack this now?
James Forman, Jr.: Well, I’ve been thinking about this since I worked as a public defender in Washington, DC. And you’re right, it’s not a new problem. In fact, the reality of the racial disparities, the reality of the United States locking up more people than any other nation on Earth, had brought me to be a public defender. But when I got to the public defender’s office in Washington, DC, I saw that there was a way in which this story was yet more complicated than even I had understood, because DC is a majority African-American city, there’s an African-American mayor, there’s a Black police chief, there’re Black judges, 40 percent of the judges are African-American. And even in that city, with all of that African-American representation, the chief prosecutor was Eric Holder when I was a public defender. And even there with all of that African-American representation in the justice system, we still had those same racial disparities.
So I really started puzzling over how this could be, and I felt like there was a part of the story that hadn’t been told. Nobody had written about what’s happened in this country in our criminal justice system through the lens of Black elected officials and Black prosecutors and Black judges and Black police officers. You know, what were they thinking? What were we thinking over the last 50 years? Because Black people were just sitting on the sidelines. We weren’t only the victims of the system, but we also in many cities were people in operation of parts of those systems. So how to make sense of that? That’s the story that I wanted to try to tell.
Roxanne Coady: One of the first strands that you address is there was a movement in the 1970s to legalize marijuana. Now, this was coming on the heels of a horrible heroin epidemic in the 60s. There was a surprising amount of support for decriminalizing it, yet the Black community was not so in favor of that. Tell us a little bit about why they weren’t and whether they did or didn’t understand. I have to assume they didn’t understand what the ramifications of that would be.
James Forman, Jr.: Absolutely, and I was fascinated by this piece of the history because if I had known at all what we know today, which is all of the ways in which the African-American community has been disadvantaged by marijuana criminalization and people getting arrest records, getting incarcerated, even if they don’t get incarcerated, getting records. Then you can’t get a job; you can’t get loans. You can’t get public housing. When I went back to the 1970s, what I found in Washington, DC and some other places, but I focused on DC, was a movement to decriminalize marijuana, just as you said. What I found most surprising was that the opposition to that was led by African-American ministers and, in DC, an African-American city council member who himself was a Black nationalist and former civil rights worker. The fact that they opposed decriminalization and then their reasons for opposing it were the things that I found so surprising.
James Forman Jr. is a professor of law at Yale Law School. He has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, numerous law reviews, and other publications. A former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, he spent six years as a public defender in Washington, D.C., where he cofounded the Maya Angelou Public Charter School.
Roxanne Coady is owner of R.J. Julia, one of the leading independent booksellers in the United States, which—since 1990—has been a community resource not only for books, but for the exchange of ideas. In 1998, Coady founded Read To Grow, which provides books for newborns and children and encourages parents to read to their children from birth. RTG has distributed over 1.5 million books.