Did you know that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world? At least it did in 2012, according to the essay by Jeremy Travis and Bruce Western in this collection edited by Angela J. Davis. Besides having a high incarceration rate, the U.S. also jails black men at a much higher rate than white men, and it’s not necessarily because they commit crime at a much higher rate. It’s that the system treats their crimes differently.
The essays in this collection explore the many ways that the criminal justice system singles out black men, starting with the police on the streets and going through the courts and sentencing. The combined effect is a picture of a world where black men cannot get a break, where they’re treated with suspicion whatever they do, and where they face more dire consequences for their actions. The writers look at recent stories that made headlines, such as the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and Philando Castile. But they also look at less well-known cases, and they dive into the long history of the criminalization of blackness, as with the Fugitive Slave Act.
Each essay exists independently, which meant that the collection on the whole was sometimes repetitive, with more than one writer discussing, for example, implicit bias in detail. But each essay addresses a different aspect of the problem, and together they provide a full and distressing picture. The authors provide extensive notes, referencing both studies and news articles that show what racist policing looks like close up and what the overall trends are.
One of the pieces I found most interesting was Kristen Henning’s “Boys to Men: The Role of Policing in the Socialization of Black Boys.” She describes how young black boys’ personal experiences with the police as well as those of their families shape their attitude toward the legitimacy of the law itself. Even more important, the system tends to treat black boys as adults, often dangerous adults, when they are, in fact, children. As Henning says,
Kids will be kids—impetuous, emotional, and reactive. This is what any parent knows, and this is what the neurological and developmental research confirms. … Children are also particularly sensitive to issues of fairness and respect and are more susceptible to peer influence than adults. Thus, even when children remember their parents’ advice and know it is dangerous to talk back to police, they often cannot help it, especially in fast-paced, emotionally charged situations like those involving the police.
She suggests that police receive training in adolescent behavior so they will better understand what normal adolescent behavior looks like and how to respond productively. When it comes to the police, training is essential. This is not an anti-police book. It focuses on the behavior and looks for corrective solutions. Henning’s essay is the best at this, but many of the authors focus on implicit biases that come out of being born in a world where racism, subtle and overt, is all around. The system is treated as the problem.
Another important point addressed in Travis and Western’s “Poverty, Violence, and Black Incarceration” is that the tough on crime stance in which people, usually black men, face arrest and sometimes stiff sentencing for minor drug violations hasn’t actually had much of an effect in stopping crime. What it has done is break up families and place serious financial burdens on those left behind when family members are imprisoned. The resulting poverty can lead to higher crime rates—and so it goes.
I can’t say I enjoyed reading this. These kinds of stories are always distressing. But when it comes to racism, especially implicit racism, it takes an effort for all of us to notice it and change our mindsets. Reading books like this is part of that work, for me. The information here may not all be new to people who’ve already studied the subject, but it provides a good overview of the problem from a variety of angles.