Hit & Run

Thaddeus Russell Reviews The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America

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Conventional wisdom holds that mass incarceration of American blacks and Latinos is a result of the "scientific racism" that was established as the dominant racial ideology in the 19th and early 20th centuries and which underlay the Republican "law and order" policies of the 1970s that brought us to our present condition. But in her new book, The First Civil Right, Naomi Murakawa upends that narrative, locating the roots of America's "prison state" instead in the progressive reformism that gained ascendancy during World War II. Progressive thinkers overthrew scientific racism as a respectable belief system and replaced it with a set of ideas that were modern and sophisticated but also a more effective rationale for locking up large portions of the population. Thaddeus Russell reviews Murakawa's analysis as she notes "racial liberalism" was born out of the discourse of ethnic and racial "tolerance" and "equality," which promised liberation but contained a carceral logic.