James Forman on the Limitations of the Jim Crow Analogy
In the current issue of the Boston Review, Georgetown Law professor James Forman has some interesting thoughts on two of last year’s most significant books on mass incarceration — Robert Perkinson’s Texas Tough and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Here’s Forman on the limitations of Alexander’s account:
This account of the origins of mass incarceration reinforces the Jim Crow analogy by tracing a direct line from a profound social ill (mass imprisonment) to a well-known enemy (racist voters and politicians who pander to them). But the account is incomplete. Something else was going on in the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s: violent crime shot up dramatically just before the beginning of the prison boom. Homicide rates doubled between 1965 and 1975, and robbery rates tripled.
The increase in crime helped to fuel demands for more punitive policies. In The Politics of Imprisonment, Vanessa Barker describes how black activists in Harlem fought for what would become the notorious Rockefeller drug laws. Harlem residents were outraged by rising crime rates in their neighborhoods and sought increased police presence and stiffer penalties. …
Those who call attention to the harm caused by our current criminal-justice policies must also be ruthlessly honest about the harm caused by crime. This, too, is a matter of racial justice: victims of crime—especially violent crime—are disproportionately poor, young, and black or brown. It is also a strategic imperative. Tough-on-crime advocates are not going to stop talking about violent offenders and the need to protect communities from them. If reformers shy away from the topic, their chances of building a broad movement for change will suffer.
The review is well worth reading in full. It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that the carceral state was already on its way to expansion even before homicide rates shot up in the late 1960s. It’s worth wondering whether black leaders responded to violence in their communities in the late 1960s and early 1970s by calling for more incarceration at least in part because that was a solution that the nation, dating back to the Johnson years, had already indicated that it would support; whereas more comprehensive social programs such as those envisioned by Johnson’s War on Poverty were already falling out of favor.