Locking Up Our Own: Book summary and reviews of Locking Up Our Own by James Forman Jr.

Locking Up Our Own

Crime and Punishment in Black America

by James Forman Jr.

Locking Up Our Own by James Forman Jr. X
Locking Up Our Own by James Forman Jr.

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Book Summary

Locking Up Our Own enriches our understanding of why our society became so punitive and offers important lessons to anyone concerned about the future of race and the criminal justice system in the USA.

In recent years, America's criminal justice system has become the subject of an increasingly urgent debate. Critics have assailed the rise of mass incarceration, emphasizing its disproportionate impact on people of color. As James Forman, Jr., points out, however, the war on crime that began in the 1970s was supported by many African American leaders in the nation's urban centers. In Locking Up Our Own, he seeks to understand why.

Forman shows us that the first substantial cohort of black mayors, judges, and police chiefs took office amid a surge in crime and drug addiction. Many prominent black officials, including Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry and federal prosecutor Eric Holder, feared that the gains of the civil rights movement were being undermined by lawlessness?and thus embraced tough-on-crime measures, including longer sentences and aggressive police tactics. In the face of skyrocketing murder rates and the proliferation of open-air drug markets, they believed they had no choice. But the policies they adopted would have devastating consequences for residents of poor black neighborhoods.

A former D.C. public defender, Forman tells riveting stories of politicians, community activists, police officers, defendants, and crime victims. He writes with compassion about individuals trapped in terrible dilemmas?from the men and women he represented in court to officials struggling to respond to a public safety emergency.

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Book Awards

  • award image Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music, 2018

Reviews

Media Reviews

Winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction
Long-listed for the National Book Award
Finalist, Current Interest Category, Los Angeles Times Book Prizes
One of The New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of 2017
Short-listed for the Inaugural Goddard Riverside Stephan Russo Book Prize for Social Justice

"This superb, shattering book probably made a deeper impression on me than any other this year." - Jennifer Senior, New York Times

"Forman's book is brave, offering a nuanced examination of how black communities and their elected representatives wrestled with rising violence and drug addiction; how they came to embrace a war on drugs and aggressive policing tactics years before Reagan's war or the advent of broken windows policing; and how they came to eventually regret the surveillance, forfeiture, and criminal records they helped create ... Forman's book is a compelling example of how to do local history ... [A] richly detailed account ... Incredibly powerful and well-researched ... Forman is masterful." - Vesla M. Weaver, The Boston Review

"Superb and shattering ... 'How did a majority ­black jurisdiction end up incarcerating so many of its own?' This is the exceptionally delicate question that [Forman] tries to answer, with exemplary nuance, over the course of his book. His approach is compassionate ... The effect, for the reader, is devastating." - Jennifer Senior, The New York Times

"Timely ... A masterly account of how a generation of black elected officials wrestled with recurring crises of violence and drug use in the nation's capital ... A big deal and a major breakthrough ... Forman's novel claim is this: What most explains the punitive turn in black America is not a repudiation of civil rights activism, as some have argued, but an embrace of it ... " - Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The New York Times Book Review 

"Remarkable ... Forman's beautifully written narrative, enriched by firsthand knowledge of the cops and courts, neither condemns black leaders in hindsight nor exonerates the white-dominated institutions ... He adds historical nuance to the story of 'mass incarceration' told in ... The New Jim Crow." - Charles Lane, The Washington Post

"Surprising ... [Forman's] moving, nuanced, and candid account challenges another aspect of the 'New Jim Crow' thesis. He shows that some of the most ardent proponents of tough·on-crime policies in the era that brought us mass incarceration were black politicians and community leaders- many of whom were veterans of the civil rights movement ... The correctives offered by Forman ... have consequences not only for how we understand mass incarceration, but for how we go about fixing it." - David Cole, The New York Review of Books

"An honest and balanced book ... Locking Up Our Own doesn't play down the history of racism in our criminal-justice system, but it does explain why racial bias doesn't tell the whole story ... If we are going to have national 'conversations' about race in the U.S., a book like Locking Up Our Own ought to set the tone. If it did, these debates would be not only more honest but also more civil." - Jason L. Riley, The Wall Street Journal

"Revelatory ... As Forman reminds his readers, black people have long been vigilant, often to no avail, about two kinds of equality enshrined in our nation's ideals: equal protection of the law, and equal justice under the law ... Locking Up Our Own is a well-timed, nuanced examination of the past ... [and] makes a powerful case that the African American community was instrumental in creating a monster. We should be grateful that the same community ... is leading the fight to take the monster down." - Paul Butler, The Atlantic

"Poignant and insightful ... Forman deftly moves between ... examples of black community support for a law-and-order crackdown and the dire present-day consequences of our increasingly punitive and aggressive war on crime ... Timely and important." - Richard Thompson Ford, San Francisco Chronicle 

"Eloquent ... A gritty, often revelatory work of local history, interspersed with tales of Forman's experiences as a public defender ... Locking Up Our Own is a sobering chronicle of how black people, in the hope of saving their communities, contributed to the rise of a system that has undone much of the progress of the civil rights era. But, as Forman knows, they could not have built it by themselves, and they are even less likely to be able to abolish it without influential white allies, and dramatic reforms in the structure of American society." - Adam Shatz, London Review of Books

"Tightly argued and compellingly readable ... Forman is ideally suited to tell this tale ... [and] the story he tells is nuanced ... Locking Up Our Own is a major contribution to the literature on mass incarceration." - Matt Wasserman, The Indypendent

"A breakthrough ... very engaging and lucidly written." - Andy Martin, The Independent (London) 

"[Forman] offers an insightful history of black American leaders and their struggle to keep their communities safe from police and criminals alike ... From both these personal experiences and the history that helped shape them, Forman uncovers the black community's role in waging wars on crime and drugs." - Matt Ford, The Atlantic

"Nuanced and insightful ... Locking Up Our Own relentlessly explores the startling paradox that punitive measures today considered discriminatory were initially supported in the black community on the grounds of self-protection." - Owen Hamill, Seattle Book Review

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Author Information

James Forman Jr.

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.

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