Liberal Punishment

tags: racism, Baltimore, riots, Ferguson

Mike Konczal is a fellow with the Roosevelt Institute and a contributing editor at Dissent.

Between the late 1970s and the mid-2000s, the percentage of Americans in prison quintupled. It is well established that a resurgent conservative movement was responsible. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow demonstrated how conservative politicians—starting with Barry Goldwater, expanding with Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, and culminating with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980—used a fear of black people and the call for civil rights to solidify Southern support for the right. Implicit in this story is the idea that liberals were either well-meaning losers who were outmaneuvered by conservatives, or that they were hammered into acquiescence to the new carceral regime by electoral losses.

Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America dismantles these explanations. Her book is a remarkable investigation into the historical relationship between postwar liberalism and the growth of mass incarceration. Through a detailed analysis of several key Democratic crime bills, she demonstrates how the ideology of liberalism played a role in the growth of the carceral state. And though Murakawa isn’t fully convincing that liberal law and order was necessary for mass incarceration, she makes a strong case that liberalism is unlikely to undo the prison state.

Murakawa argues that liberal law and order contributed to the rise of prison America with a distinct set of ideas and solutions, forged and tested during three waves of riots: white riots against the black population in the 1940s, both in Northern cities and in the South; urban riots by the black population in the 1960s; and prison riots throughout the 1970s. At each step liberal lawmakers developed theories about criminality, racism, civil unrest, and the state. Each theory, in turn, fueled the growth of the carceral state and created persistent roadblocks to reform.

In 1943 alone, forty-seven cities experienced 242 violent racial battles, largely initiated by white Americans against minorities. This includes the famous “Zoot Suit Riots” in Los Angeles, where white people attacked Mexican Americans while cops either participated or looked the other way. At this time, Detroit’s white and black communities were in open conflict and lynchings continued throughout the South.

Though these riots were largely ignored by the Roosevelt administration, Truman would later try to address this urban crisis. Truman’s efforts culminate in the 1947 report To Secure These Rights, which Murakawa argues is one of the first statements of liberal law and order. According to Truman’s vision of liberal law and order, says Murakawa, racial violence is a result of individual prejudice and too much local discretion. The solution is greater federal management and training, which is believed to reduce prejudice and fix the procedures that allowed for violence against black citizens. This fairer system, in turn, would reduce what was presented as black lawlessness. ...

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