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Excerpted from: Devon W. Carbado and L. Song Richardson, The Black Police: Policing Our Own Locking up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. By James Forman Jr. New York, N.y.: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2017. Pp. 306. $27.00, 131 Harvard Law Review 1979 (May, 2018) (Book Review)(226 Footnotes)(Full Document)


Jame sForman Book CoverSince Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in 2014, the problem of police violence against African Americans has been a relatively salient feature of nationwide discussions about race. Across the ideological spectrum, people have had to engage the question of whether, especially in the context of policing, it's fair to say that black lives are undervalued. While there is both a racial and a political divide with respect to how Americans have thus far answered that question, the emergence of Black Lives Matter movements has made it virtually impossible to be a bystander in the debate.

Separate from whether racialized policing against African Americans is, in fact, a social phenomenon, is the contestable question about solutions: Assuming that African Americans are indeed the victims of overpolicing, meaning that by some metric they end up having more interactions with the police and more violent encounters than is normatively warranted, what can we do about it? And here, the answers range from abolishing police officers altogether, to training them, to diversifying police departments. It is on the last of these proposed solutions--the diversification of police departments--that we focus in this essay. The central question we ask is: What are the dynamics that might shape how African American police officers police other African Americans? Asked another way, what do existing theories about race and race relations, and historical and empirical studies on race and policing, suggest about how African Americans will police our own?

Our point of departure is a review of Professor James Forman's Locking Up Our Own. Though not framed in precisely this way, Forman's book is, in many ways, about the relationship between diversity and governance. Forman is particularly interested in the role African Americans have played across different sites of governance--as city council members, mayors, governors, prosecutors, police officers--in facilitating and legitimizing the mass incarceration of African Americans. The story he tells is largely a story about choices under constraints--but choices that produced consequences for which African Americans bear some, though not the bulk, of the responsibility. Which is to say, Forman is clear to describe how African American leaders contributed to and participated in the war on drugs, clear to emphasize that many of those leaders had unsuccessfully advocated for interventions, even beyond criminal justice-oriented or law enforcement-oriented ones, to address the growing drug epidemic in African American communities, and clear to highlight the broader racial and political context in which African American leaders acted.

Some might deploy Forman's book to advance the proposition that race has played less of a role in the mass incarceration of African Americans than liberals and progressives like to admit. After all, black people have been agents, and not just victims, of mass incarceration. Our own view is that Forman's thesis is more nuanced than the preceding account suggests. Forman's focus on African American governance is a way of complicating our understanding of how race has mattered in the mass incarceration of African Americans. His analysis of African American decisionmaking across various domains of the criminal justice apparatus reminds us that the persistence of racial inequality in the United States derives from problems of power and structure, rather than simply individual choice and identity.

To recognize the existence of power is not to deny the possibility of agency or the space African American leaders might have had to exercise at least some meaningful control over their choices. The point is rather that the phenomenon of African Americans exercising governance does not eliminate the racial barriers to combating racial inequality. If the two-term presidency of Barack Obama teaches us anything on this issue, it is that the racial identity of a leader--even a President of the United States--is not enough to dismantle or meaningfully mitigate the racial inequality of a society. Does this mean liberals and progressives are wrong to argue for racial diversity? No. It means that if racial diversity is the only game in town we are in civil rights trouble. That, we think, is one of the most important lessons to be drawn from Forman's book: racial diversity without meaningful reallocations or redistributions of power might not only limit the possibilities for social transformation but also potentially reproduce and legitimize the very forms of inequality the pursuit of racial diversity was intended to address. At least implicitly, Forman advances that insight with respect to the mass incarceration of African Americans. Our focus is on a slice of that criminal justice problem--policing.

Specifically, drawing on empirical, historical, and theoretical literatures, we examine how, if at all, black police officers' race might shape how they police other African Americans. Fundamental to our approach is a Du Boisian conceptualization of race and professional identity--namely, that African American police officers have to negotiate and reconcile two historically distinct strivings--the strivings to be "blue" and the strivings to be "black"--in one "dark body." As we will explain, how they perform that negotiation and reconciliation is not simply a matter of individual choice, individual agency, and individual commitment. Structural factors are at play as well, in much the same way that structural factors shaped, though certainly did not fully determine, how the black leaders Forman describes mobilized various dimensions of the criminal justice apparatus to address the proliferation of crime and drug usage in African American communities.

The remainder of the essay proceeds as follows. Part I summarizes Forman's book, paying particular attention to where in Forman's account he focuses on individual agency and where he pays closer attention to structure. Part II builds on that summary to discuss the black police. Part of our aim here is to show that the very factors--including Fourth Amendment law, explicit and implicit biases, and racial anxiety explain why white police officers might systematically over-police and deploy violence against African Americans arguably implicate black police officers as well. Moreover, the pressures black police officers likely experience to fit into their departments potentially compound the problem. Some black officers may believe that their failure to share and display fellow officers' racial assumptions about African Americans will engender the perception that black officers are "soft" on crime and criminality and "hard" on racial affiliation and loyalty. That perception would create an incentive for black officers to "work their identities" to disconfirm assumptions that they will insufficiently identify with being "blue" and overly identify with being "black." Overpolicing other African Americans would be one way for black officers to perform that work. We conclude by suggesting that just as the pursuit of diversity in the context of higher education has not eradicated the racial dimensions of educational inequality, the pursuit of diversity in the context of policing will not, without more, fundamentally change how African Americans experience the police.