Our 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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