(Washington Post illustration)

When black activists and voters protest police shootings of African Americans, their conservative critics often respond that what African Americans should really be protesting is black-on-black crime.

That criticism runs afoul of basic facts. 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.

Source: General Social Survey.

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.

Why did so many black voters and leaders endorse crime crackdowns when they knew that many of the people who would be arrested and incarcerated would be black? Scholars such as Forman and Michael Javen Fortner, author of the 2015 book Black Silent Majority, offer multiple, nuanced explanations, but a key one will resonate with anyone who has ever experienced crime up close: African Americans were sick of being victimized. In 1975, 85 percent of people killed by guns in D.C. were African American (So too were 85 percent of the killers). Even in today’s lower crime environment, victims are disproportionately black.

Crime is largely a local phenomenon, and residential segregation remains an enduring fact of life in the United States. As a result, when a black person is victimized, the offender is very often black as well. Through a compelling mixture of personal stories and wonky data analysis, Fortner and Forman document how African Americans have grappled with an anguished choice. On the one hand they want to protect themselves from crime, on the other hand they know that the more active and powerful the criminal justice system grows, the more African Americans will be caught up in it, some of whom will be subjected to grossly racist treatment. Fortner is extremely candid illuminating both sides of the coin, disclosing that one of his brothers has been incarcerated, whereas another was murdered.

Rather than continuing to force African Americans to choose the lesser of the two evils, Forman advocates major investment in black communities that would prevent many crimes from happening in the first place, including expanded employment opportunities, improved housing options and better schools. Coupled with efforts to combat racial discrimination within the criminal justice system, such policies would allow more African Americans to enjoy public safety and a fair, responsive criminal justice system at the same time.

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University.