MLK Day: Mass Incarceration and How White Liberals Helped Create It

Mass-Incarceration

Much attention, and rightly so, has been given to Michelle Alexander’s thesis of the New Jim Crow. She is the author of the book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Basically she makes two critical observations. First, a large percentage of African-Americans are under the control of the criminal justice system today and, second, when a person is under felony status it is legal to discriminate in housing, education, employment and voting rights.

Ms. Alexander goes further, noting that more blacks are under the control of the criminal justice system today than were enslaved. And because so many people of color are made felons, de facto racial discrimination remains as powerful as it was under slavery or under the post-slavery era of Jim Crow segregation. She argues this is an intentional arrangement, where mass incarceration today serves the same purpose as pre-Civil War slavery and the post-Civil War Jim Crow laws: to maintain a racial caste system.

“Today,” writes Ms. Alexander, “a criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a freed slave or a black person living ‘free’ in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow.”

But this thesis, while compelling at some levels, implies that the current system was intentionally constructed to re-create a racial caste system rather than being a natural but unintended outcome of a series of laws that were politically motivated to get tough on crime and had the unfortunate consequence of entrapping the very people they were attempting to help.

I often refer to Ms. Alexander’s thesis because I believe we do have a New Jim Crow system where black people – and, in fact, poor people in general – get trapped in the poverty-crime-incarceration cycle that we have made impossible to break out of because felony status prevents people from breaking out of poverty.

However, the intentionality portion of the thesis does not seem accurate and, in fact, I was reading an article in The Nation by Willie Osterweil who reviews a new book by historian Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America.

Mr. Osterweil’s article, “How White Liberals Used Civil Rights to Create More Prisons” offers us a good snapshot of the argument. He writes that Ms. Murakawa argues that the American prison state did not emerge out of “race-baiting states’-rights advocates nor tough-on-crime drug warriors but rather from federal legislation written by liberals working to guarantee racial equality under the law.”

She writes, “The prison industry, and its associated police forces, spy agencies and kangaroo courts, is perhaps the most horrific piece of a fundamentally racist and unequal American civil society. More people are under correctional supervision in the United States than were in the Gulag archipelago at the height of the Great Terror; there are more black men in prison, jail or parole than were enslaved in 1850. How did this happen?”

The commonly believed answer is “that launching the war on drugs during the backlash against civil-rights struggles encouraged agents of the criminal-justice system to lock up black people for minor infractions.”

Mr. Osterweil writes, “Ronald Reagan’s infamous Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which established federal minimums (aka sentencing ‘guidelines’) and abolished parole in the federal prison systems, did lead to an explosion in the number of federal prisoners, particularly drug offenders. It was one of the pivotal moments in the production of the prison-industrial complex (PIC)—the overlapping sphere of government and industrial activity that employs hundreds of thousands of guards, cops, judges, lawyers, bail-bondsmen, administrators and service employees and which sees millions of prisoners performing barely paid production labor to generate profit.”

However, as Professor Murakawa demonstrates in her book, “The Sentencing Reform Act has a ‘liberal core,’ and is built on the technical and administrative logic of racial fairness that structures all federal civil-rights legislation.”

I think there is a good point here, but I think it is born of political expediency and perhaps plays on the fears of the voting public. Emerging out of the 1960s is the framework of the backlash – the Nixon strategy for emphasizing law and order which emerges from the perceived lawlessness of the period.

Indeed, the crime rate continued to rise until nearly the end of the 1970s. President Reagan’s 1984 legislation came out of the drug scare that was renewed in the 1980s with the innovation of crack – seen by many as the black menace.

Liberals came into play here by the late 1980s. In 1988, Michael Dukakis was crucified with the Willie Horton ad and perhaps just as fatally his insensitive answer to a question on the death penalty about a hypothetical incident involving his wife. By 1992, Bill Clinton was committed to not getting killed by George Bush on crime or the death penalty – he actually interrupted his campaign activities to travel to Arkansas where he rejected a last minute plea for a condemned inmate.

Even before Democrats were routed in 1994, they were attempting to co-opt Republicans on the crime issue. The Marshall Project has an interview by Dana Goldstein with Professor Murakawa.

Along these lines, Professor Murakawa notes the role that Joe Biden played “in leading the Senate in worsening all of the provisions of Clinton’s 1994 omnibus crime act, which expanded the death penalty and created new mandatory minimum sentences. Biden was truly a leader and worked very closely and very happily with conservative senators just to bid up and up and up.”

She writes, “That 1994 act is overwhelmingly, incredibly punitive. One of the ways Biden brokered it was by making it such a huge bill that it had something for everyone. It provided political coverage for everyone who wanted to vote for it. There were certain liberal members who might have been opposed to mandatory minimums, but they were also getting the Violence Against Women Act. The Congressional Black Caucus opposed the death penalty expansions, but the bill also did include some modest money for rehabilitation programs. Everyone got goodies through the criminal justice system.”

Mr. Osterweil notes, “Democrats, afraid of being seen as soft on crime, mercilessly raised federal sentencing minimums.”

Professor Murakawa calls this time “a really dangerous moment of liberal reforms with regard to policing.” She writes, “What’s so troubling about this focus on body cams is this idea that somehow we need more evidence of what police are doing. When really, the data we see in terms of racial disparities in arrests, summonses, and who’s incarcerated is the evidence of racism. The idea that we need to pull out a microscope to find the racism in the system is utterly insane and utterly a legacy of racial liberalism.”

Instead, she argues, “We need to ask ourselves basic questions about not just the manners and technicalities of policing, but the big numbers of who is being policed and what they’re being policed for.”

She notes that, in 2011, “there were about 75,000 arrests of black children on charges of disorderly conduct, vandalism, loitering, and violating curfew. These were children under age 18. And these were their most serious charges.”

The professor argues, “We have to ask ourselves, if every one of these arrests was made by a perfectly courteous police officer following the most pristine protocol and adherence to due process rights, and if we had recordings of these arrests, would it be okay? And I think the answer has to be no. Once we say out loud, ‘No it’s not okay,’ this is about the core of police power.”

Willie Osterweil is a critic of the Professor’s account: “By ignoring intentions, Murakawa’s account can observe precisely how certain bipartisan outcomes are achieved, but the method also sometimes misses the way liberals and conservatives collude due to a shared class interest in stability.”

This is the heart of where I would put my critique of white liberal upper middle class attitude toward race.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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16 Comments

  1. Davis Progressive

    this piece reminds me of a brief point that was made after the ferguson decision came out and suddenly you had all of these conservatives pointing out that mcculloch was a democrat as though that were such a shock and that changed something.  the truth is that mass incarceration was a bipartisan experience and both sides waged war in upping the ante until suddenly we realized that this wasn’t really solving problems, it was just costing a lot of money.

        1. TrueBlueDevil

          And this is another in the line of articles that starts with the conclusion that African Americans are victims of racism, and where the writers work backwards to try to prove their half-cocked theories.

          In the real world, New York went from roughly 2300 murders around 1978 or 1982, and now its under 400. These are the facts which David and his sources conveniently ignore.

          Further, there are tens of thousands of police officers and superiors (many white) who have risked their life every day, and the chief beneficiary of this dramatic drop in violent crime has been young black men.  But the tens of thousands of young black men who have had their lives effectively saved by white men in uniform, are somehow the victims of racism? Oh please.

          On top of this, both David and his sources apparently think that black criminals magically end up in the justice system, surely by some conspiracy drafted by some liberal racists somewhere (see this article).

          But this fuzzy logic doesn’t explain how the large chunk of African American men who have evaded this certainty were so brilliant as to evade this trap.

           

  2. Anon

    She notes that, in 2011, “there were about 75,000 arrests of black children on charges of disorderly conduct, vandalism, loitering, and violating curfew. These were children under age 18. And these were their most serious charges.”

    The professor argues, “We have to ask ourselves, if every one of these arrests was made by a perfectly courteous police officer following the most pristine protocol and adherence to due process rights, and if we had recordings of these arrests, would it be okay? And I think the answer has to be no. Once we say out loud, ‘No it’s not okay,’ this is about the core of police power.””

    Okay, so what is being said here is that the professor believes children should not be charged for disorderly conduct, vandalism, loitering or violating curfew?  We should just wait until the children commit a more serious crime like assault, burglary, murder before charging children?  Question: Does anyone believe that society should wait for a child to get completely out of control and committing felonies before addressing the problem is the best way to go?

    1. Davis Progressive

      i think the professor is saying that the problem is the way our system operates rather than the fact that the police may rough up arrestees.

      “Does anyone believe that society should wait for a child to get completely out of control and committing felonies before addressing the problem is the best way to go?”

      don’t you understand that you create a leading question when you ask it like that.  i think we should find ways other than arresting kids to solve the problem and i think we should begin far before they get to the point of being arrested for minor offenses.

    2. Miwok

      Did the criminals have manners? Were they courteous to the Police? Asking a question like that shows a weird sense of humor.

      And what do the people do about the vast abundance of Children? Why not have social programs that care for them when the families are incarcerated?

      Yes, as entertaining as this article is, it shows politicians are the culprits in the Nation’s problems. But since these sentencing guidelines, like the one that put a guy in prison for life, when another guy convicted of the same amount of drugs went on to make TV and Movies (Tim Allen), it is clear it is not a deterrent.

      Question: Does anyone believe that society should wait for a child to get completely out of control and committing felonies before addressing the problem is the best way to go?

      Answer: That is what people are voting for nowadays…
      https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10203656888479118&set=pb.1123962028.-2207520000.1421705841.&type=3&theater

    3. wdf1

      Anon:  Does anyone believe that society should wait for a child to get completely out of control and committing felonies before addressing the problem is the best way to go?

      I think where Alexander is coming from is the same issue connected to studies of discipline administered in pre-schools across the country.  African-Americans (and Latinos) in these studies are disproportionately suspended from pre-school for similar infractions compared to white and Asian counterparts.  There seems to be a built in bias in the whole system that penalizes certain groups based on race.  And it is questionable if the rationale is that “they deserved it,” especially when you see the trend start in pre-school

      One perspective to take from extending your argument is “maybe they’ll behave better as adults if they get an extra taste of discipline in pre-school” or in other words, “spare the rod, spoil the child.”  But what seems to happen is that from preschool and grade school, many kids adopt the notion that “I’m just a bad kid and there’s nothing I can do about it, so why bother trying?”

    1. TrueBlueDevil

      I enjoyed the movie Selma, and thought they did an excellent job portraying individuals with their real life imperfections and “issues”.  I also found it interesting that they had Mrs. King confront Martin Luther King about his infidelities. I read that the secret FBI tapes of MLK will be released sometime next decade.

  3. Anon

    DP: “i think we should find ways other than arresting kids to solve the problem and i think we should begin far before they get to the point of being arrested for minor offenses.

    I am in total agreement on this one.  “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  We need more after school programs and the like.  But at the same time, I don’t think a good solution is to not arrest kids for vandalism, etc., waiting for them to commit more serious offenses before incarceration.

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