From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America

In America today, "states like California and Michigan spend more money on imprisoning young people than on educating them." How did we let this happen?

A “War on Crime”

Exactly two weeks after Johnson outlawed discrimination and Jim Crow segregation in signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, on July 16, a demonstration protesting the murder of a fifteen-year-old high school student by a New York City police officer evolved into six nights of disorder in Harlem and the death of one resident. The taunting of police officers, burning, and plunder in department and grocery stores, what policymakers and the general public referred to as “rioting,” spread to Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and touched off similar incidents in Philadelphia and Chicago. The largest and most destructive riot that summer emerged a day after the unrest in Harlem and Brooklyn subsided in the smaller deindustrializing city of Rochester in upstate New York. Four people died in Rochester during the uprising, and approximately 1,000 residents were arrested — nearly double their numbers in New York City — a sign that the social conditions that fomented unrest weren’t specific to major metropolitan centers. The civil rights movement brought a long history of police brutality and vigilante violence to the attention of the nation during the 1950s and early 1960s, but the explosions during the summer of 1964 underscored the ways in which discriminatory policing deeply shaped black urban life. The uprisings exposed the tensions that existed between law enforcement officers and residents in segregated urban neighborhoods. They also brought to the fore the unanswered legacy of Emancipation: despite civil rights reform and the unprecedented War on Poverty Johnson had recently declared, monumental federal actions had failed to resolve entrenched inequality and everyday racism within American institutions, North and South. The “social dynamite” that had worried policymakers and officials at the outset of the decade had finally exploded, despite the Kennedy and Johnson administrations’ prevention efforts.

Rather than critically examine the deeper causes of urban unrest, Johnson declared that “the immediate overriding issue in New York is the preservation of law and order.” Johnson had spoken out against racial violence in the South and was now becoming increasingly concerned with the violence that plagued the Northeast. “The denial of rights invites increased disorder and violence,” Johnson told the American Bar Association during its annual conference at the Waldorf- Astoria hotel in New York, recognizing that African Americans who engaged in direct action protest and collective violence shared similar grievances. But ultimately, the president argued that the “fulfillment of rights and prevention of disorder [goes] hand in hand.” He pledged his administration “will not permit any part of America to become a jungle, where the weak are the prey of the strong and the many.” Although the actions of the black residents who participated in unrest during the summer of 1964 represented a response to discriminatory policing strategies and structural exclusion, Johnson believed that civil rights legislation and equal opportunity programs offered a sufficient cure, and he viewed their actions as criminal.

Eight months after Harlem erupted, in March 1965, Johnson called the federal government’s War on Crime. Marking the first national investment in local crime control efforts, Johnson’s Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965 sought to bring the Department of Justice to a new level of prominence and expand the power and influence of the attorney general at the local level. The legislation proposed a new federal crime control agency, the Office of Law Enforcement Assistance (OLEA), to support training programs and experimental surveillance techniques for police forces serving low-income urban communities. The administration hoped the OLEA’s demonstration projects would provide the basis for a permanent national crime control program.

Beginning a federal law enforcement intervention was in part a calculated political move to take possession of the issue from conservatives. “No right is more elemental to our society than the right to personal security and no right needs more urgent protection,” the president affirmed in his March 1965 speech to Congress on crime, emphasizing that “one of the most legitimate functions of government is the preservation of law and order.” Southern politicians relied upon similar anticrime rhetoric immediately following the Brown v. Board of Education decision to oppose racial integration, and Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater had introduced the idea of a “forgotten civil right” into national political discourse to attract newly embittered white voters. As commentators observed at the time, and as scholars have since concluded, Johnson vowed to protect the safety of “ordinary” Americans and made his federal law enforcement intervention part of the Great Society to maintain support of this critical portion of the electorate. More than a campaign strategy, however, the Johnson administration’s turn to the War on Crime was largely an extension of the assumptions about “culturally disadvantaged” Americans that had emerged in domestic policy alongside the crescendo of civil rights demands.

Rooted in the theoretical frameworks that had shaped the aims and implementation of urban social programs from the Kennedy administration onward, the punitive measures Johnson included in his Great Society built upon the federal government’s previous interventions in black communities. Shortly after Johnson sent the Law Enforcement Assistance Act to Congress, Daniel Patrick Moynihan submitted a report on the “crisis of race relations,” one intended for a small audience of policymakers and state officials, to Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz. Moynihan had joined the Kennedy administration as assistant secretary of labor after receiving his PhD in sociology from Tufts, and he was the driving force behind the creation of Kennedy’s Task Force on Manpower Conservation, its research, and its general conclusions. Kennedy convened the task force in the fall of 1963, with Wirtz as its chairman and with the participation of the secretaries of Defense and Health, Education, and Welfare, out of concern about the alarming numbers of young men deemed unfit for military service. Although Kennedy was assassinated before the task force completed its research, Wirtz delivered its report, One third of a Na-tion: A Report on Young Men Found Unqualified for Military Service, to Johnson on January 1, 1964. The task force drew connections between poverty, low literacy, and national security, making the case for a federal intervention in urban and rural areas where low-income families were concentrated. According to the task force, the young men who failed the army’s mental test had inherited poverty from their parents, and unless job training, counseling, and literacy programs broke that cycle, they would “surely transmit” it to their children. In the absence of immediate federal action, the task force argued, this “third of a nation” would, most likely, “face a lifetime of recurrent unemployment.” An outspoken critic of community action programs during his tenure in the Kennedy administration, Moynihan believed the mounting pressure from black Americans — through nonviolent direct action protest and collective urban civil disorder during the summer of 1964 –provided an opportune moment to advocate for new federal employment measures once again.

Moynihan came from the postwar tradition of liberal social science that took Gunnar Myrdal’s analysis as its starting point. In 1944’s American Dilemma, Myrdal described black poverty as a “vicious circle” perpetuated by economic inequality, cultural exclusion, and the psychological impact of racism. Myrdal importantly challenged genetic theories of racial inequality with ideas about pathology, a term he borrowed from medical science, to describe the impact of social ills on individual behavior. This pathology could be disrupted if black Americans acquired, in Myrdal’s words, “the traits held in esteem by dominant white Americans” and assimilated into the mainstream. Building upon Myrdal’s ideas, Moynihan argued that what he called the “tangle of pathology” could be alleviated through planned interventions in black communities (as Moynihan declared at a conference on poverty at Berkeley in February 1965: “I think the problem of the Negro family is practically the property of the federal government”) but that confronting existing discrimination in American institutions was a critical step in doing so. Like many liberal social scientists before and after, Moynihan grounded his case for systemic reform in behavioral and cultural assumptions.

Further elaborating upon the implications of the data he collected for One Third a Nation, Moynihan drew in equal measure on social science research and psychological theory to argue that delinquency, crime, unemployment, and poverty resulted from unstable black families and what he called the “pathology of post-industrial society.” According to Moynihan, the submissive “Sambo” and the emasculating “Mammy” figures that characterized the black family during slavery had been transmitted from one generation to the next, producing high rates of unemployment, failing school systems, and neglected housing. Four generations removed from slavery, Moynihan argued that poor African American families were trapped in a self-perpetuating “tangle of pathology” that could “be broken only if these distortions are set right” by federal policies that actively created jobs for black men and, by extension, promoted stable families. Moynihan’s research went on to influence the federal government’s racial reforms in the post–Jim Crow era, grounding the legislative proposals that laid the basis for not only the War on Poverty but also, as special advisor to President Nixon for urban affairs, the War on Crime.

Elizabeth Hinton is Assistant Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Harvard University.

Excerpted from From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America by Elizabeth Hinton (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2016 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.