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  • The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation by Adam Malka
  • Hilary L. Coulson
The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation. By Adam Malka. Justice, Power, and Politics. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. Pp. [xiv], 336. $39.95, ISBN 978-1-4696-3629-0.)

In The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation, Adam Malka delves into a history of policing in the United States during the transformational late antebellum era through the early 1870s. Malka purposefully analyzes the decades leading up to the Civil War and carries [End Page 445] his study several years afterward in order to provide a proper treatment of the continuities and developments in policing during this contentious era. Malka also demonstrates his strength in the archives. Not only does he unearth a swath of governmental records, but he also takes special care to include the voices of the police as well as the policed when possible. Ultimately, he provides a significant contribution to the history of policing in the United States, pressing readers to consider uncomfortable truths.

Malka finds links between antebellum and postbellum police practices by identifying the white male supremacy that always lurked in the shadows, lingering and keen to resume authority, despite the theoretically reformed government. Malka urges readers to confront the idea of liberalism as a partner in the continued oppression, incarceration, and control of black citizens. He argues that there is a "violence inherent in the liberal tradition" and bids readers to consider the dogmas and developments of liberal ideology, particularly "the emergence of a rights-centered legal culture, the expansion of property rights across the citizenry, [and] the construction of police institutions to protect those property rights"; these philosophies "played a critical role in subjugating black people" (p. 14). To provide readers with a more nuanced understanding of unequal justice in the United States today, Malka roots his analysis in the nineteenth century to acknowledge the genesis of institutionalized police racism. Though the study concentrates on the city of Baltimore, his findings are relevant to the broader history of policing in the nation.

The book is split into three sections, presenting stories of "race, rights, and policing" (p. 4). Each section is designed to prove the core argument that liberalism and policing are a natural duo. Indeed, the emergence of a professionalized police force was predicated on the existence of average white men patrolling the streets of Baltimore from the late eighteenth century onward. As a professionalized police force emerged in the 1830s and 1840s, it worked cooperatively with existing vigilantes who had patrolled the city for decades. In the second section, Malka delves deeper into the impact of professionalized police authority and argues that the existence of a uniformed police force simply expanded the authority of white men in Baltimore. Since this professionalization occurred simultaneously with emancipation, uniformed policemen of Baltimore became regulators of black freedom. In the third and most compelling section, Malka's claims come full circle to explain a startling statistic: by 1870 "nearly seven in ten inmates in the prison were black." Of course, this figure is made even more staggering because, a decade before, "three of four inmates had been white" (p. 2).

It is no secret that incarceration rates for black men and women soared in the postemancipation era. Certainly, the emergence of the chain gang and convict leasing in the U.S. South is a topic well researched in historical literature. Malka's work not only engages some of the major works in the field but also provides a new perspective and significant contribution to our understanding of the police-state. Malka pushes readers to expand beyond the simple and cynical explanation of racism and proves that liberalism, so often clung to as a protector of liberty, is indeed just one more mechanism of oppression for black Americans. [End Page 446]

Hilary L. Coulson
University of Houston


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