Join the Conversation:  “Locking Up Our Own”

Join the Conversation:  “Locking Up Our Own” 

In a fascinating and heart-wrenching read about the struggles and political decisions within the black community that contributed to today’s mass incarceration of black people, James Forman, Jr. sets out to understand why in courtrooms full of black judges, black prosecutors, black bailiffs, and black cops are black people being punished so harshly? 

Today, 2.2 million Americans are behind prison bars.  Black Americans are held in state prisons at five times the rate of white Americans.  Black men receive 10% more prison time than white men for the same offense and criminal history.  Black men are twice more likely than white men to be pulled over for a pretext stop.  Yet when asked, “Do you think the courts in [criminal justice policy] deal too harshly or not harshly enough with criminals,” two-thirds of black Americans still replied, “Not harshly enough.”  Black judges like Curtis Walker lock up young black men every day when they can instead choose to give probation and treatment.  And black prosecutors like Eric Holder enact policies such as pretextual policing that disproportionately target and lead to the arrest of black people. 

Likewise with women, the studies I talked about in my last post show that both men and women generally rate men to be more effective leaders than women and give men more favorable performance reviews than women.  Why do we women rate our fellow women as less effective leaders and evaluate them more harshly?

Don’t get me wrong.  We should not compare locking someone away with giving someone an unfair performance review.  But is there anything that black Americans and women share in our histories or our condition that informs why we appear to turn against our own people in these circumstances?  And if the two explanations are completely different, then do we learn anything about ourselves from these differences? 

First, in explaining how a majority-black jurisdiction like D.C. – where black people serve as top prosecutors, judges, city council members, and police chief – ended up locking up so many of its own, Forman bases his account in history.  Mass incarceration in D.C. was the culmination of many incremental decisions driven not in small part by black leaders and the black community itself in response to the drug epidemic and gun violence that devastated black communities in the 1970s. 

In contrast, the literature that investigates women’s inferior treatment of other women in the workplace have generally been based in psychology, as far as I can tell.  In the recent Atlantic article, “Why Do Women Bully Each Other at Work,” Olga Khazan marches through a series of psychology studies on “the conditions in which queen bees emerge.”  In “Exploring the Asymmetrical Effects of Gender Tokenism on Supervisor-Subordinate Relationships,” Katherine Ryan uses psychology experiments to understand how male-dominated work settings affect women’s attitudes toward other women in the office. 

With respect to motivation, black leaders’ calls for tougher sentences and pretextual policing – albeit on their own – were heavily rooted in protectionism:  to protect black crime victims and black communities.  Forman writes, “Black crime victims often argued that a punitive approach was necessary to protect the African American community – including many of its most impoverished members – from the ravages of crime.”  Black leaders “regarded themselves as the guardians of the black community, and especially of its young people, whom they were determined to protect from the dangers of drug use,” thus leading to increasingly heavier sentences for drug offenses. 

Black officers “cared more about black communities; in particular, they were more concerned about protecting black neighborhoods from crime, violence, drugs, and disorder,” such that they reported being “markedly more aggressive about responding to such low-level infractions as drunkenness and loitering.”  The real problem, Forman writes, was “profound…and tragic.  The officers who rousted the Maya Angelou students sincerely wanted to protect the community from drug dealing and violence.” 

In contrast, women’s inferior treatment of other women appears to be driven by a different kind of protectionism:  protecting our self.  Research shows that “queen-bee behavior” – tendencies to undermine a newcomer who is perceived to be a rival – arises when a woman believes that the path to success is “so narrow, she can barely squeeze through herself, let alone try to bring others along with her.”  Psychology studies suggest that when women managers are proportionally scarce in a workplace, they withhold support from their female supervisees so as to “psychologically distance themselves from their in-group” and thereby “improve their own individual social identity.”  As a result, in male-dominated work settings, women report receiving less support from their female supervisors than their male supervisors and at the same time report a lower likelihood of supporting a female supervisee than a male supervisee. 

But Forman’s mass incarceration story and the psych studies’ workplace bullying stories also share three important and related parallels.  First, mass incarceration and workplace bullying – which continue to hold back black Americans and women in our country everyday – both grew out of a sharp dividedness and lack of unity within each group. 

For black leaders, protecting black crime victims came not hand in hand with protecting and treating black offenders but at the expense of them.  In 1975, D.C.’s largest black paper, the Afro, declared that courts and judges “should take harsher views on convicted offenders and meet out tough and longtime sentences” because that was the only way to “stop this small minority of criminal element from its path of destruction.”  Similarly, Eric Holder recognized that Operation Ceasefire, a pretextual traffic stop mandate, would disproportionately detain young black men, but he nonetheless argued that “such concerns” – the intrusion and subsequent harm on young black men – “were outweighed by the need to protect blacks from crime.” 

For women leaders, elevating our own professional status has often come not hand in hand with bringing up the rest of our historically disadvantaged group but at their expense.  Instead of bringing women together, the marginalization of women in professional settings has tended to turn women into “their own worst enemies.”

Second and third, the dividedness is fueled by (a) scarcity and (b) insecurity.  When black leaders and the black community pushed for tougher drug laws, gun laws, and policing, they did not think they had the ability to effect in a timely manner the broad social reforms in public health, education, and employment needed to alleviate crime and poverty.  So instead of targeting the root causes of violence, they substituted a seemingly more efficient solution:  targeting young black men.  It was in light of this limitation and scarcity that Eric Holder embraced pretextual policing.  Had resources been more abundant and readily available, black leaders may have reprioritized. 

Similarly, research indicates that women rate newcomer women more favorably when they perceive greater opportunities for advancement and less favorably when they perceive advancement opportunities to be scarce, e.g. being told that 5 out of 10 group members would be promoted versus 1 out of 10.  A narrow path to success leads women to feel that "she can barely squeeze through herself, let alone try to bring others along with her."  This suggests that by increasing advancement opportunities for women in male-dominated workplaces, organizations can foster a more collaborative work environment for women.

Finally, scarcity comes hand in hand with insecurity.  Because jobs were scarce for black people in the 1970s, the scarcity bred insecurities that discouraged newly minted black officers from becoming “representatives of their race” and in turn divided black cops and their communities. 

Similarly, queen bee behavior tends to emerge in the workplace when women are a marginalized group.  Women who feel optimistic about their career prospects are “less likely to tear one another down.”  On the other hand, when we feel “unsafe” at work or “thwarted at every step,” we are more likely to turn against our own.  The only good news, it seems, is that our workplaces can help remove this behavior – by promising the world to us:  by promising a world where promotion rates between men and women are more equal, a world where we get the support we need to thrive, a world where we are not thwarted at every step.  This is a world we’ve been denied for way too long.  

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