Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438
Much has been written about the War on Drugs in the United States and about the failures of the American criminal justice system, especially regarding the disproportionate rates of incarceration of African Americans. Little, however, has been written about the role of African American officials in facilitating the development of...
(The entire section contains 438 words.)
See This Study Guide Now
Start your subscription to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.
Much has been written about the War on Drugs in the United States and about the failures of the American criminal justice system, especially regarding the disproportionate rates of incarceration of African Americans. Little, however, has been written about the role of African American officials in facilitating the development of the current situation. Former District of Columbia public defender and Yale Law Professor James Forman, Jr., sought to rectify that gap in the historical and sociological narratives by addressing the role that was played by African American political and community leaders in creating the unsatisfactory situation that exists today.
Forman’s Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America does not dispel existing notions regarding the propriety of prosecuting the War on Drugs—a war that dates back to the Nixon Administration and that gathered considerable steam during the administration of President Reagan. What Forman does do, however, is analyze the role played in the War on Drugs by those of his own ethnic background: Black Americans. Black politicians and others were as bothered by the pernicious influence of illegal drugs in their communities as any other category of American citizen. Drugs ravaged African American communities across the United States, as they continue to do today (in addition to impacting low-income white communities). The costs of large-scale law enforcement efforts to combat the flow of illegal drugs into African American communities were astronomical, and treatment efforts, such as they were, proved inadequate. African American elected officials wanted to present themselves as tough on crime while recognizing the deleterious effects of drugs on their constituencies, and consequently, they provided important political support to the anti-drug campaigns.
The irony, for lack of a better word, of African American political support for the War on Drugs was the mass incarceration of African Americans—the very people these politicians hoped to help. This is Forman’s main thesis. Major legislative initiatives like the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988 all led to laws requiring stiffer sentences for those convicted of drug crimes, the preponderance of whom were African Americans despite the fact that major drug trafficking and importing had been the provenance of those of European and Latin American heritage. The implementation of these laws, with their significantly harsher penalties, resulted in a massive increase in the number of African Americans imprisoned for drug crimes. Forman’s thesis, then, centers on the unintended consequences, at least from the African American perspective, of these tougher drug laws, which had enjoyed the support of the leaders of the communities most affected by their passage and enforcement.