- The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation by Adam Malka
"The whole sentiment of Baltimore was murderous," recalls Frederick Douglass in his autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom. He had been brutally attacked by four white workmen at Gardiner's shipyard and barely escaped with his life. Douglass laments that "Lynch law" prevailed in Baltimore, "nor was there much of any other law toward colored people, at that time, in any other part of Maryland."1
Adam Malka's The Men of Mobtown takes issue with Douglass's claim of lawlessness. Rather, he argues, white male power was legally authorized, so what appeared to be the absence of law when it came to black people was in fact a legal regime. A professional police force emerged in antebellum Baltimore, but it shared its duties with ordinary white men, who were empowered to regulate the racial order of the streets. As the free black population grew, so too did white Baltimoreans' anxiety over black criminality. That anxiety intensified with the abolition of slavery in Maryland in 1864, which was accompanied by a substantial increase in the incarceration of black people, especially black men, as state-run jails and prisons took over from the slave owners' private tools of coercion and white vigilante justice.
A real shift occurred in the 1860s. According to data that Malka compiled from Baltimore city jail and Maryland Penitentiary reports, the percentage of people committed to the Baltimore city jail who were black doubled from 17 to 34 percent from 1861 to 1870, while the proportion of people in the Maryland Penitentiary who were black rose from 30 to 70 percent from 1863 to 1872. Those who see abolition and emancipation as marking an important stage in the development of the mass incarceration of black Americans will find supporting evidence here, although the total numbers of incarcerated people in 1870 pale in comparison to what takes [End Page 118] place today. Perhaps the best analysis of the shift with emancipation comes from the warden of the Maryland Penitentiary. "Where masters formerly punished their servants for petty crimes," Malka quotes him as writing in 1866, black men "are now, under existing laws, carried to the Criminal Courts, and punished by sentence to this Institution" (224–25).
But for Malka, that shift is not the whole story. He holds liberalism responsible for the racist carceral order. He argues that "the very developments that ushered in a new liberal order … also played a critical role in subjugating black people" (14). Over and over, he links developments in policing to a liberal commitment to protecting property rights (which includes, in his view, the patriarchal household). Even black people were complicit in this ideology, according to Malka, who writes that "freedom for black Baltimoreans … amounted to the right to earn a wage no less than it did for white Baltimoreans" (102). This is a very narrow, if not altogether false, view of what freedom meant to Americans in the nineteenth century. As Martha Jones argues in her recent book Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (2018), which also focuses on black Baltimoreans, freedom meant citizenship and the rights and privileges that came with it, not just earning a wage.
The Men of Mobtown argues that policing black people was one of the privileges of white manhood in the antebellum era and that white men derived their political identities as citizens from that policing. This argument is consistent with the now-extensive historiography on whiteness. On the other hand, Malka's evidence shows that white men often found themselves on the wrong side of the law, because in the antebellum era the majority of people arrested and incarcerated were white. Indeed, the professionalization of policing and establishment of carceral institutions in antebellum Baltimore were more of a response to the emergence of socalled dangerous classes of white men, especially Irish immigrants, than to the growing free black population...