How the Great Society Paved the Way for Modern Mass Incarceration

Lyndon Johnson's war on crime


In the June Journal of American History—a special issue devoted to the carceral state—the Harvard historian Elizabeth Hinton argues that President Lyndon Johnson reacted to the riots of the mid-1960s by reshaping his Great Society reforms, blending

Journal of American History

the opportunity, development, and training programs of the War on Poverty with the surveillance, patrol, and detention programs of Johnson's newly declared "War on Crime." This entanglement of Great Society policies allowed law enforcement officials to use methods of surveillance that overlapped with social programs—for instance, antidelinquency measures framed as equal opportunity initiatives—to effectively suffuse crime-control strategies into the everyday lives of Americans in segregated and impoverished communities. In time, the entire spectrum of domestic social programs actively participated in national law enforcement, thereby pushing the boundaries of the carceral state beyond penal institutions. By the time Johnson's Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act passed in 1968, the carceral state had already begun to metastasize into a vast network of social programs originally created to combat racial exclusion and inequality.

"During the first half of the 1960s, antipoverty programs expanded the degree of federal influence in the everyday lives of black urban Americans," Hinton writes. "By fashioning a new liberal synthesis that brought crime-control strategies under the fold of social welfare programs, federal policy makers eased the shift toward national punitive programs in the second half of the decade." In this way, LBJ helped lay "the groundwork for contemporary mass incarceration."

To read the whole paper, go here. To check out the rest of the issue, go here. Naomi Murakawa's recent book The First Civil Right makes an overlapping argument; to see Reason's review of it, go here.

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  1. LBJ: the gift to black people that just KEEPS ON GIVING!!!!

    Seriously, as much as a racist as he was, I bet he would be THRILLED by his legacy of impoverishing black people while still keeping them voting democrat in a 98% bloc.

    1. impoverishing black people while still keeping them voting democrat in a 98% bloc

      The former would not have mattered to him, only the latter.

  2. LBJ helped lay “the groundwork for contemporary mass incarceration.”

    There is no doubt in my mind that even the most recalcitrant of people-hating racists and bigots could have conceived a program so devious and evil that could keep minorities of color “in their place”, forever indentured to the State, like a program meant tohelp them.

    If anything, the KKK, White Supremacists, the Nazi party et al should pray on the statue of LBJ for decades to come.

  3. I’m no fan of LBJ and am willing to blame him for lots of things, but he really was reacting to rising crime. It’s not like he decided, out of the blue, to put a lot of peaceful and law-abiding people in prison.

    Of course the irony is that his Great Society programs subsidized single motherhood, which led to increased poverty and crime, which led to more federal spending to address poverty and crime, which led to more poverty and crime….

    1. foreseeable consequences. When your ideas have the net effect of making the father dispensable, the outcome is not likely to be good.

    2. I think cause and effect are confused here. While single motherhood may very well be subsidized by the state, there is a whole lot more behind the breakdown of black family units. Such as…mass incarceration that tears at the fabric of a community. A drug war that creates massive black markets more prevalent in economically poor areas, and which are prone to violence.

      There was a spike in crime – what type of crime?

      1. The spike in “crime” was the result of civil unrest. Urban blacks rioting in protest of police brutality, etc. it was a problem created , in part, by government. But instead of fixing government police forces, LBJ decided to incarcerate a certain percentage of urban black males.

        1. All types of crime went up, not just drug-related and civil unrest.

          Yes, the situation is complex and there is feedback in various directions, but the stats are clear: children of single mothers are far more likely to end up poor, in jail, have mental health issues, etc. Thus, subsidizing single motherhood produces more of those bad outcomes.

        2. The back fire got out of control.

  4. But Great Society programs got the soon to be incarcerated voting Democratic for the next 200 years.

  5. Did anyone really expect something as Orwellian sounding as ‘The Great Society’ to not cause oppression and tyranny?

    That would be like creating a new bureaucracy named ‘Homeland Security’ and not expecting it to cause oppression and tyranny.

    I’ll go as far as to say it would be like voting for a Bush or Clinton, again, and not expecting more oppression and tyranny.

    1. “Did anyone really expect something as Orwellian sounding as ‘The Great Society’ to not cause oppression and tyranny?”

      I’ve wondered this for a long time. Especially when you consider the communism paranoia that was rampant in the US during the time. I just dont understand how people couldn’t have seen through the bullshit, it literally sounds like something straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

      1. You have to think like a utopian liberal of the time. And remember, the Great Society wasn’t just suppose to alleviate poverty: LBJ said it would end poverty!

      2. I just dont understand how people couldn’t have seen through the bullshit,

        They did – and were branded racists, Ku Kluxers, soCons, etc. The bullshit Rand Paul is going through now ain’t much different than the bullshit Goldwater went through.

        It isn’t about results, it’s isn’t about reason, it isn’t about respect – it’s been about nothing but marketing. There’s enough human history to conclude that democracy is only about marketing.

        1. Also: that they were just old-fashioned, and unwilling to get with our entirely obvious future destiny of large, efficient government solving all our problems.

      3. In the 20th C., authorities & their “thinkers” all over the world turned to socialism & fascism to stave off communism. They didn’t realize how much communism rested on bluff.

  6. Ran across a phrase in aimed at the French ‘army’ in late ’44, but it’s applicable in many places:
    That ‘army’ reacted to the US supplies “with all the pathologies that dependency engendered”.

    1. Careful, Sevo, pointing out that dependency promotes pathologies is a thought crime. Or soon will be.

  7. The “Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act” had nothing to do with the Great Society and everything to do with the race riots and massive surge of violent crime among inner-city blacks. If crime levels in 1970 had been the same as 1960 there would be no mass incarceration today. And the Second Amendment would be much less “controversial.” Reason should do better than simply report every bad thing said about liberalism.

    1. If crime levels in 1970 had been the same as 1960

      If crime really did increase from 1960 to 1970, and I have no reason to trust any government statistics, there had to be a cause. Or am I to understand that black people grew to hate whitey more by 1970 just for kicks?

      Could the increase have had anything to do with tearing down poor but liveable neighborhoods (eminent domain) and shoving the residents into government housing against their limited-but-otherwise-preferred choices? Thereby trampling property rights, freedom of (practical) choice and making the poor live in even greater density? Even those who would have opted out of government housing were faced with reduced supply of housing which means increased costs. Those whose housing remained intact were still left with neighborhoods suddenly severed by brand new interstates. The choices were: move into a government program, stay put and pay even more for a shrunken neighborhood, or move away to what you can afford.

      “Great Society” sounds like nation building, an idea that has never worked. But by all means blame the victims.

      1. Largely it was demographics. The baby boom (caused by the desire to have kids which had been delayed by the Great Depression & world war) resulted in an increase of men & boys entering the usual hotheaded years of life around then. Partly it was desperation-pessimism caused by the Cold War: If you were just going to be drafted & blown up either on the battlefield or when your town was nuked, why try to grow up?

  8. expanded the degree of federal influence in the everyday lives of black urban Americans,

    God I hate this bullshit. It did the EXACT same thing in poor white communities, too. The Uptown neighborhood in Chicago was “Appalachia by the L tracks.” But let’s ignore them because they’re white and obviously must have shit all over their privilege and couldn’t possibly have been retarded by government programs.

  9. Without RTFA, I’ll just summarize: The deal was, we’ll pay “your kind” (esp. your loudmouths) off, & in return you’ll “behave” or go to jail.

    Was I right?

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