The assumption that African Americans are somehow “soft” on crime is sharply at odds with new scholarship suggesting that, in fact, African Americans have long supported tougher penalties for crime.
In his new book, Locking Up Our Own, Yale University Law School Professor James Forman Jr. points out that in national surveys conducted over the past 40 years, African Americans have consistently described the criminal justice system as too lenient. Even in the 2000s, after a large and sustained drop in the crime rate and hundreds of thousands of African Americans being imprisoned, almost two-thirds of African Americans maintained that courts were “not harsh enough” with criminals.
Forman complements this observation about national trends with a detailed study of D.C., a majority-black city with a majority-black police department and political establishment. He notes that in the 1970s, marijuana decriminalization was popular with white voters and elected officials, but was ultimately defeated by a coalition of African American ministers and lawmakers. Even into the 1990s, black officials in D.C. (including future Attorney General Eric Holder) routinely endorsed aggressive policing tactics and ever-harsher penalties for crime. D.C. was not unique in these respects. Many other cities with large black populations and black elected leaders were equally committed to tough-on-crime policies.