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Don't Like Militarized Police and Mass Incarceration? Blame Progressivism.

Talking about racism won't end these problems

ReasonReasonOur cities are saturated with militarized law enforcement officers. An extraordinarily high number of American civilians are killed by police each year. The U.S. prison population is the largest in the world. And we are only beginning to understand why.

In recent years, scholars such as Naomi Murakawa and Marie Gottschalk and activists in the Black Lives Matter movement have broken from the civil rights generation's obeisance to the Democratic Party, and from the left's reflexive assumption that "law and order" Republicans are exclusively to blame for this situation. Instead, they have persuasively argued that much of today's criminal justice regime originated in policies forged by liberal Democrats in the second half of the 20th century, in particular under the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton.

Yet even this new and welcome historical analysis of militarized policing and mass incarceration does not go deep enough.

The campaign to criminalize victimless behaviors and then build a carceral system large and efficient enough to contain the criminals it would create began long before the 1960s, with the formation of the political regime we now call liberalism. The intellectuals and policy makers who created the modern wars on drugs and crime were the direct descendants of the original progressives, who emerged at the turn of the 20th century. Those progressives consistently argued that disruptive and marginal populations should be encouraged to assimilate into the formal culture of the country and to adopt the responsibilities of American citizenship, but they also held that individuals who refused to do so should be removed from society. Indeed, it could be said that progressivism was created around those twin projects.

Unlike scientific racists, who were the dominant ideologists of race until World War II, progressives generally maintained that there were no innate barriers in any race of people to acquiring the personality of a "good" American. Progressives believed that certain races and nationalities had not attained the level of civilization of white Americans and northern Europeans, but also thought those peoples could and should be raised to that level. That is, most progressives were simultaneously anti-racist and hostile to cultures other than their own. Immigrants who brought alien ways of living, radical political ideas, and criminal behavior into the U.S. were invited into progressives' settlement houses, where they were given free vocational education, subsidized room and board, and instructions on the proper attitudes and behaviors of Americans. Those who demonstrated a willingness to follow the rules of their new society—even those who were originally believed to be of an inferior race, such as Italians, Jews, and Slavs—were deemed worthy of full citizenship.

Most progressives believed that the culture of blacks was especially retarded, but they nonetheless funded hundreds of settlement houses for blacks and helped establish the first major civil rights organizations, the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. One mission of those organizations was to eliminate the "pathologies" of native black culture, to "adjust or assimilate" blacks to the dominant culture, and to make them into "orderly citizens." This was a brutal and puritanical assimilationism, but it ran directly counter to the belief of the scientific racists that blacks were biologically incapable of becoming civilized. Nonetheless, progressives acknowledged that some immigrants and blacks and even some native-born whites would choose renegade lives of crime over constrained lives as citizens, and for that eventuality they created the basis of what is now called the carceral state.

Beginning in the late 19th century, progressives waged a successful campaign to replace the police forces that primarily served as social-service providers for urban political machines with "modern," "efficient," trained, and professional police, in departments organized like military units, whose duties were limited to the surveillance and apprehension of criminals. In the early 20th century, progressive reformers invented the category of the "juvenile delinquent" and established juvenile courts and detention centers to remove criminal and "immoral" youth from homes, schools, and the streets.

Progressives also launched the war on drugs with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 that placed the first regulations on opiates, which then were widely used as prescription medicines. The legislation, as well as a series of state laws cracking down on opiates and cocaine that followed, created the black market for drugs that violent criminals have dominated ever since.

Two years after signing the Pure Food and Drug Act, President Theodore Roosevelt and Attorney General Charles Bonaparte, a career progressive reformer, created the first national police force, the Bureau of Investigation, later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This agency's initial missions were to produce useable information about crime through scientific data collection and to focus law enforcement attention on two crimes in particular: the trade in newly illegal drugs, and prostitution, which had been effectively outlawed through the progressives' anti-brothel "social purity" campaign. In the 1920s, the bureau redirected most of its resources to fighting the crime syndicates that filled the black market created by the greatest progressive accomplishment, Prohibition.

The Harvard historian Elizabeth Hinton's new book, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, confirms that today's mass incarceration stems from progressives' ideas and initiatives. Unfortunately, this confirmation comes only from the copious data that Hinton presents, not from the argument she fashions around it.

Hinton places the origins of our criminal justice regime inside the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson, who famously signed into law the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and fought a "war on poverty" with the Great Society program, but who also declared a "war on crime" and escalated that war with policies that helped flood cities with police and send unprecedented numbers of people to prison. "It is one of the essential ironies of American history," Hinton writes, "that this punitive campaign began during an era of liberal reform and at the height of the civil rights revolution, a moment when the nation seemed ready to embrace policies that would fully realize its egalitarian founding values."

In fact, it is no irony at all.

Hinton's evidence shows that the policies that produced today's mass incarceration were an extension and expansion of the original progressive "reforms" of the first half of the century. Yet at every turn, her story of the making of the modern carceral state relies on racism, a term she uses with terrible imprecision, as the causal agent. "Racism," she writes, "embedded within federal policy and the social science research that rationalized it encouraged officials to embrace patrol, surveillance, and confinement as means of exerting social control in neighborhoods of segregated poverty." Hinton thinks an even greater tragedy is that racism kept liberalism from becoming fully realized.

This analysis conflates the forms of racism used to justify slavery and segregation with the very different set of ideas about race held by liberal intellectuals and policy makers in the 20th century. It treats racism as an unchanging force independent of historical conditions, a deus ex machina that allows Hinton to resolve the contradictions in her argument and to maintain her own political commitment to ideas at the base of the system she critiques.

The Kennedy and Johnson administrations, she writes, "started out with sincere intentions" to advance the interests of black Americans, but "the notions of black cultural pathology that concealed policymakers' own racism prevented their vision for a more egalitarian America from achieving its larger aims." Had they not been racist, Hinton argues, Kennedy would not have launched his "total attack" on juvenile delinquency, which, in Hinton's words, included programs that "facilitated the influx of social service workers into predominately low-income African American communities" and were designed to "expose them to the values, norms, and ways of speaking in dominant society." Yet this, of course, was the assimilationist paternalism of progressivism, not the scientific racism of segregationists.

Hinton identifies the scholars Edward Banfield, James Q. Wilson, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan as the intellectual founders of the war on crime. All three, whom she describes as "conservative," argued that "cultural pathologies" among many blacks were the immediate cause of crime, and that the existing social welfare regime only deepened those pathologies by reinforcing a dependence on the state. Hinton calls this argument a belief in "crime and violence as somehow innate among African Americans." But Banfield, Wilson, and Moynihan never claimed that the pathologies were biologically determined, and in fact took pains to locate their cause in the history of slavery and segregation. (Hinton later contradicts herself by mentioning that Banfield viewed the problems of black people as "a product not of race, but of concentrated urban poverty." Banfield himself said that if "all Negroes turned white overnight, the serious problems of the city would still exist.")

Nonetheless, Hinton maintains that had the Johnson administration not been informed by Moynihan's "racist -assumptions," Johnson would not have signed the Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965 or the Safe Streets Act of 1968, which channeled hundreds of millions of federal dollars to the states for law enforcement. She never mentions that the first proponents of this kind of nationalization of law enforcement were the progressives who pushed for the creation of the FBI.

Though Hinton locates the "seeds" of mass incarceration in the Johnson administration, Richard Nixon and his racism get the lion's share of blame. The "racist intent behind his administration's domestic programs" led to a "punitive counterrevolution" under Nixon "that brought to an end roughly three decades of progressive legislation." Yet Hinton later contradicts this claim with an aside that, "Given the actual similarities between Johnson's law enforcement program and Nixon's own proposals, Nixon's tough-on-crime stance was to a great extent a matter of rhetoric."

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  • Rat's instance||

    Talking about racism ... I've mostly encountered lecturing about racism.

  • Uncle Jay||

    RE: Don't Like Militarized Police and Mass Incarceration? Blame Progressivism.
    Talking about racism won't end these problems

    It never ceases to amaze me how the progs in this country can't connect the dots. If you have big government, you will have big problems. For example, the proggies like to talk about legalizing drugs, but how many of them in office actually try to legalize it? They whine about mass incarceration but do nothing to stop it, like legalize drugs. The progs says mass incarceration is intrinsically racist, but they fail to notice many of those in prison never knew their fathers because their mothers would rather go on the welfare rolls instead of going to work. The proggies also don't understand that with big government such unintended consequences are a militarized police force that has no problem with using their new toys with unnecessary lethal results. The progs never take human nature into account when it comes to adding new and more laws that restrict freedom and aggrandize the power of The State. One has to wonder if this is done intentionally or if the proggies are just plain stupid.

  • ChipToBeSquare||

    It is done intentionally BECAUSE the progs are just plain stupid. The core of the left's belief system is that if we just acted the way our progressive superiors wanted, all of their policies would work, and maybe they're right about that. But human nature is in opposition to almost everything they want, and so they come up with policies like mass incarceration, the war on drugs, the individual mandate, etc. in order to force people to act how they would like, and soon everything is worse than when they started

    But just like a socialist government blaming their failings on a vast right-wing conspiracy, the progs always have a scapegoat for why things went wrong, which in recent years is simply "racism"

  • Hank Phillips||

    The Democratic party platform stumped for continued criminalization of victimless fun, hence the murder of unarmed youths as "examples" in the show-and-tell of prohibition enforcement. Their only real difference from the looters who won is that they were dead set on making it a felony to produce electricity. Women already have abortion rights, thanks to the LP ticket of Hospers and Nathan, and the Second Amendment is also here to stay. Only the threat to further cripple energy production by added federal coercion sets the Dems apart as it did in 1840, identifying them as preferring human slavery to Buckminster Fuller's energy slaves--which abundance correlates well with life expectancy at birth and economic freedom. More's the pity that in order to defeat these tools, God's Own Prohibitionists had to again associate with the shrillest and most noisome proponents of Ku-klux Christianity since Billy Sunday and Adolf Hitler.

  • Devastator||

    I'll stick to blaming both parties as they've had equal hands in it. Republicans are all for mass incarceration and privately owned companies imprisoning Americans for doing what they wanted with their own bodies. Democrats are just as bad. How something caught started decades ago doesn't much matter. That was a different generation. The time is now to end the nonsense and quit supporting militaristic police (which you will primarily find supported more by republicans than by democrats) and private prisons (hmmmm who is also the primary perp on this one as well). Libertarians need to wake up, republicans are just as bad as the democrats, just in a different way.

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    which you will primarily find supported more by republicans than by democrats

    Completely untrue

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The Progs are divided between the ones who believe in the perfectability of man, and the ones who simply want the State to always have amrational for arresting anybody.

  • Akira||

    I think the root (or at least a major cause) of "progressive" stupidity is a lack of understanding of naturally emergent orders. They think that every detail of society has been planned out by some top men, and this leads them to the corollary that all future changes must also come in the form of a top-down diktat.

    They think that corporations "set wages" too low for unskilled labor because they're a bunch of meanies. They don't understand that such labor is common and hence inexpensive. They think that it's just a matter of passing a law mandating higher wages.

    They look at the "gender imbalance" in STEM fields and conclude that some secret cabal of STEM leaders got together behind closed doors and plotted to keep women out of these jobs. They don't understand that women are just not pursuing STEM careers at the same rate as men; all the data shows that they prefer other careers like K-12 education and human relations.

    If a person thinks that the only way that changes get made is by a top man issuing an edict from on high, the conclusions of "progressivism" will seem perfectly rational to them.

  • 68W58||

    "...a lack of understanding of naturally emergent order"

    Exactly so and it is probably much easier to understand how such things work in rural communities where government is not expected to take such an active role as it does in more urban areas.

    See "Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft"

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    There is no surprise that such lack of understanding exists - K-12 government indoctrination practically guarantees it. And it's given rise to a corruption of the institution of higher education as diversity of thought in such setting is thoroughly discouraged.

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    Agreed that they (too often) reject the idea that there are forces at play that do not require organization, collusion, or conspiracy. The democrat view on economics, where they almost universally reject the long-reaching influence of market forces, is a perfect example of this. So is the creationist view on the laws of nature.

    However, the notion of sexism and racism operates PERFECTLY within the framework of spontaneous order. You don't need a conspiracy of individuals behind closed doors colluding to keep women out of STEM fields. You just need a social infrastructure that exerts its own inherent biases to do it. When you have a room full of men deciding whether a woman should be the next member, it doesn't take an organized effort to exclude them. The same goes for when you have a room full of women deciding the same thing. We're humans, we have biases.

    I don't know how you fix it, and I'm sure the progressives' approach is wrong, but let's not stick our heads in the sand. There very much is a sexist component to the gender wage gap and, likewise, a racist component to criminal injustice. Sure, it might be the natural consequence of having a standing army, but it serves our side well to actually harness these racial disparities and injustices in making our arguments against mass incarceration. We shouldn't pretend they don't exist.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Pretty good article Thaddeus. Not that lefties would read it but the article definitely touches on some points that progressives will never discuss openly. The rest of us should and I for one, like reminding people that the Democrats were the party of slavery and Jim Crowe laws that used government force to control people. The Democrats have changed their tactics a bit but control for your own good or the elite's own good is still their goal.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Yes. All the Dems have changed is the areas of control. Whatever expands the wise government is good enough, consequences be damned.

    Republicans have their own peculiar stupidities and blind spots, and areas they want to control, but nothing on the scale of the Democrats.

  • Devastator||

    As is the the republicans goals, just a different type of control, and they are aiming for more authoritarian candidates these days like Trump. It's on both parties equally.

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    Such a chicken-shit cop-out. Trump is clearly an authoritarian when it comes to national borders, but his position on eliminating domestic regulations does nothing but weaken the need for domestic police, despite his verbal kow-towing to the contrary.

  • ChipToBeSquare||

    The progs will never accept their reprehensible past, just like their slightly more extreme cousins, the socialists. But try mentioning you're a libertarian to a prog with a 4 year social justice degree and see how long it takes before they call you a racist because of the Ron Paul incident or opposition among some for the Civil Rights act. Having the wrong beliefs is always more dangerous to them than a history of policy failure that has damaged millions of lives

  • Devastator||

    and neither have the republicans.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Good to see someone besides Jacob is cogently covering this subject. The explanation of how racial eugenics theories with innate ethical "feelings" shaped thought until National Socialism made the stupidity impossible to ignore is valuable. And racial collectivism, though vague, is collectivism just the same. Nevertheless there were larger financial factors at work than are dreamt of in Russell's sketch. Taft and Roosevelt both intervened on behalf of China when British and German interests were dumping narcotics there. And the Pure Food Law had a long fuse so that it only exploded in 1907, generating the famous-but-unexplained Panic. I am definitely buying Russell's book to see what else he has to add outside the usual altruist-collectivist package in which History is usually sold. This is frightfully relevant material.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Coercive State coerces. Government seeks ways to expand. Control freaks freak out over control.

    Film at 11.

  • Holger da Dane||

    It's nice to know that some early progressives at least wanted to use kindness to control and conform those they deemed inferior. I do find it curious that the article didn't mention the more popular "solutions" of breeding them out of existence or straight up murdering them en masse.

  • ||

    I'm guessing that may make a come back.

    A progressive I know is so committed to the idea of 'we must act in the interest of all' he doesn't for one second consider how this sinister outlook could end badly.

    There's just a blind trust in the government to do 'right by the public'. And even if they concede government messes things up, they just retort it would be worse without it - as Obama stupidly seemed to espouse.

    'Seemed' being a key word here. Thankfully.

  • Holger da Dane||

    I was calling out Thad for writing an article that only mentions the less popular "kindness plank" in early 20th century progressive philosophy, where he could have talked about their flirtation engagement marriage to sickening eliminationist eugenics.

    It might make a comeback, we're about half way there. Most progressives won't take a family of refugees into their own homes when asked directly, it's always some kind of nebulous "they" who have to help the poor people, not them in particular.

    Most of the ones I know are certainly Malthusian in the extreme; it always comes down to "well the world is really over populated, it would be better if there were less than [insert preferred number] people in the world" when pressured about what would really fix global warming, or poverty, etc. But when asked, they refuse to put an actual plan forth on how to achieve their depopulation fever dreams, they just give a sheepish grin and mutter something about education and birth control.

  • Christophe||

    The only really good outcome of population actually peaking this century (as it seems likely to do) is that it'll shut the Malthusians up for a while.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Flat (or no) income tax, no deductions. Yeah, kids and mortgages are expensive but that doesn't justify robbing other people.

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    It's a bigger ego stroke to think you're helping millions. So very few progs are interested in helping actual individuals. When you do see progs actually trying to help individuals - for example, feeding the homeless in a park only to get shut down by the police - they aren't so much helping individuals as setting up their own promotional tent. You could just walk by a homeless person ask him if he would like a sandwich and hand him one if he says "yes", but nobody else see it happen and it requires actually dealing with an individual one-on-one.

  • Migrant Log Chipper||

    Dog whistle gonna whistle....

  • rudehost||

    So let me summarize. A proggie fails to see that the policies they created caused a problem and felt it was important enough to sit down and bang out a several hundred page self contradictory thought stream demonstrating their ignorance and cognitive dissonance. In equally noteworthy and rare news somebody in North America had a bowel movement this weekend.

  • Set Us Up The Chipper||

    I first learned about this sort of thing while reading "Liberal Fascism" about 7 years ago. I only read about half of it but it caused me to read about Woodrow Wilson, the Wisconsin Progs, and several other topics.

    Progressives are most definitely the most dangerous, oppressive movement that this country has experienced in the last 100 years. If I were black and honest with myself, I would hate all Progs for imprisoning my fellow blacks for the last 60 years in the Progressive Plantation.

  • Rational Exuberance||

    Unlike scientific racists, who were the dominant ideologists of race until World War II, progressives generally maintained that there were no innate barriers in any race of people to acquiring the personality of a "good" American.

    Unlike? Progressives were the scientific racists until WWII, they simple changed directions afterwards, moving from explicit segregation and forced sterilizations to welfare dependence and free abortions.

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    That was my thought too. We're still too chicken-shit to admit that progressivism has racist roots and that they merely EXPANDED their disdain after WWII to include untermensch of all races and creeds.

  • TGoodchild||

    Very interesting article. I've read James Q. Wilson's Crime and Human Nature from which Hinton, at least from this article, seems to cherry pick causal connections. One can't blame an author for catering to an audience, but there is just so much data and history on these topics that simply reducing problems to canned political terms is irresponsible.

  • wallyb||

    How can you write an article like this without citations to the historical evidence? This is not all obvious, uncontroversial history. You even have a bunch of words and phrases in quotes but with no sources? This is an interesting pierce, but I just can't put my faith in it without some basic sourcing.

  • Michael Cox||

    No one is stopping you from doing your own reading on the topic wallyb. It's the interwebs, do some searches, make up your own mind.

  • wallyb||

    How can you write an article like this without citations to the historical evidence? This is not all obvious, uncontroversial history. You even have a bunch of words and phrases in quotes but with no sources? This is an interesting pierce, but I just can't put my faith in it without some basic sourcing.

  • SIV||

    the notions of black cultural pathology

    The exact same notions that motivated abolitionists who wanted to end slavery for the express purpose of ethnically cleansing America of it's African-descended demographic. Something the most racist slaveholder would see as unthinkable, impossible and morally reprehensible, even in the absence of the institution of slavery

  • The Fusionist||

    There was quite a variety among anti-slavery Americans, with some of them wanting to move black people out of the country, and some wanting them as equal citizens.

    Frankly, realizing that it's wrong to hold a human being in slavery shouldn't require an ultra-advanced egalitarian belief system - thus a person could be a racist while admitting that slavery Went Too Far, and fearing the demoralizing effect of slavery among whites.

  • SIV||

    and from the left's reflexive assumption that "law and order" Republicans are exclusively to blame for this situation.

    Not just the left. Reason-writers (who know better) regularly reinforce this assumption.

  • Deven||

    If authoritarian is right, libertarian is left, progressives are far more right wing than American conservatives.

    I'm starting to get the feeling that maybe Reason is starting to realize this.

    Sure, we still need to hold Republicans responsible for the shitty things they do and will inevitably do, but the proggies are far, far worse in almost every single respect.

    It isn't the 90s anymore. The true liberals in the Democratic Party are extinct. We are dealing with authoritarians, fascists with a human face.

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    I'm not that comfortable going down the "who's worse?" road, but I find it hard to distinguish between the democrats and the republicans. So it doesn't make sense how one is "far, far worse", or how one is "far more right wing" than the other.

    I think both political parties are pretty accurate representatives of conservatism from a historical perspective. The stranglehold the two (and only two) political parties have on the country is unrelenting. To me, both parties seem equally unwilling to reduce this in any way.

  • Libertarian||

    Speaking of Leftist violence . . . video of an assault. I found this via Instapundit. I thought Canadians were supposed to be ultra nice people?!

    "Yesterday our Alberta bureau chief, Sheila Gunn Reid, was hit in the face by an NDP thug, right on the steps of the Alberta Legislature."

    http://www.therebel.media/shoc.....a_ndp_thug

  • GlenchristLaw||

    Don't think "zebra" until you've ruled out "horse."

    Modern liberal politicians' anti-drug, anti-crime, pro-police obsession has simply been a jujitsu deflection of complaints about their anti-gun policies.

    Not much different from Slick Willy's time-appropriate throwing gays under the bus -- twice -- or out-and-proud atheist Barry Obama finding religion (and his original first name) when it came time to enter politics.

  • Rebel Scum||

    The progs never take human nature into account

    This sums up the entire problem with their ideology.

  • Robert||

    Yeah, see, now it's hard to displace D.P. Moynihan from his high peg & put him on the hook w the blame for this. It's largely from path dependency. Moynihan's hailed as a convert to his later kind of thinking, who from experience woke up from his earlier assumptions & mistakes. Too bad not enough people see his later thinking as a mistake too. It's like nobody's allowed to be wrong twice; if they corrected themselves once & were in a position of prominence, they're assumed to then have been right & a hero for turning around.

  • Robert||

    Funny, that almost looks like an appropriate response!

  • EscherEnigma||

    I read the first couple of paragraphs and couldn't help but notice that a lot of that - black culture is inferior, assimilation is the way to prosperity, hostile to other cultures, etc. - applies to modern conservatives.

    So I guess what the article is saying (unintentionally) is that early 20th century progressives morphed into early 21st century conservatives?

    That said, I'm not sure that anyone is seriously saying that " 'law and order' Republicans are exclusively to blame for this [militarized police and mass incarceration]".

    During the campaign, that was one of the things Clinton addressed head-on, and admitted her faults and missteps there. That's not "exclusively blaming" someone else.

    So interesting history (taken with a grain of salt), but the conclusions and assumptions about how it relates to modern politics fall a bit flat.

  • Stosh||

    Write more laws and regulations, and presto militarized police and mass incarceration. Yet both sides campaign for Congress point out how many laws they pushed....voters would be better served if they touted how many laws they repealed.

  • Unemployed Armenian Tranny||

    Nice take-down.

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