Mass Incarceration and Postwar American History

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by Sara Mayeux

If, like me, you're interested in both mass incarceration and American history, this podcast with historians Heather Ann Thompson and Khalil Muhammad should go straight to the top of your listening queue. The conversation builds on Thompson's article in the most recent Journal of American History, entitled "Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History" (which doesn't appear to be available digitally yet—thanks to a fellow student, more diligent than I about keeping up with the print-version JAH, for pointing out the article to me!). Since the podcast also draws some comparisons between the post-World War II period and the post-Civil War period in terms of the criminalization of urban space and behavior, I know it will also be of special interest to many readers of this blog.

One of the podcast's main points is that our national discussion about mass incarceration has been dominated by sociologists, criminologists, and legal scholars (and I would add pundits), without enough participation by historians. When you take a historical perspective on mass incarceration, Thompson suggests, developments like urban decay, deindustrialization, the decline of the labor movement, the re-segregation of public schools, and the expansion of the prison system start to look very different. For one thing, the late-20th-century "law and order" turn starts to look less like a single-handed Republican project or an artifact of Southern-strategy race-baiting, since many of the carceral state's origins can be traced to the Johnson Administration. Similarly, we can trace the entrenchment of stop-and-frisk policing (which I wrote about the last time I was here) to the Warren Court's 1968 Terry v. Ohio decision—yes, the very Warren Court that, we are often led to believe, spent most of its time "coddling criminals."

And perhaps most importantly, when you take a historical perspective the notion that the expansion of the carceral state was an understandable or even necessary response to sky-high crime rates may start to look problematic. (For an example of a pundit adopting that notion uncritically, see this otherwise admirable Ross Douthat column.) For instance, Thompson notes that homicide rates were higher in the 1920s and '30s than in the '60s. Here's just one striking excerpt (my transcription of the podcast, so apologies for any typos) suggesting how a historical perspective on mass incarceration might destabilize our accepted narratives: 

[Thompson:] We've really accepted this idea that the crime rate goes through the roof in the '60s and therefore, while the move towards a carceral state and the move rightward, frankly, may be regrettable, it is understandable. ... My own research just really belies that on so many levels. ... The most substantial brick that is laid in the foundation that becomes the carceral state, which as I mentioned is the Law Enforcement Assistance Act, is passed in 1965, and if you look at data from across the country, and if you look specifically at what people purport to be most afraid of which is violent crime, you have a real problem with the data. Politicians are, I argue, actually fueling fears of crime as much as responding to them. For example, you begin to see that if you look at Southern states ... you see that for example in the South the murder rate in numerous Southern cities goes down between 1960 and 1967, the very crucial period that we're talking about. There is indeed an uptick in crime figures towards the end of the '60s and especially the early '70s... The politicians themselves are very frank about the fact that they've had to re-calculate crime, in no small part because of resources newly available to urban districts because of this new Law Enforcement Assistance Act. If you have a crime problem you get more resources. The mayor of Detroit was very frank about this. So we need to unpack what is really happening so that we can then understand what politicians are responding to versus creating. 

Some other statistics highlighted in the podcast (again, my transcriptions):
- Ten times as many Americans were imprisoned in the 1990s alone as were killed during the entire Vietnam War. 
- By 2006, 1 in 9 black men were in prison.
- The number of police in the New York City public schools is the tenth-largest police force in the country, larger than the entire city police forces of Washington, D.C., Detroit, Boston, or Las Vegas.
- The drug addiction rate has been stable over the entire 20th century—consistently, roughly 1.3 percent of all Americans are addicted to drugs, regardless of changes in drug enforcement. 
- According to 2000 federal data, white students were 1/3 more likely to have *sold* illegal drugs than blacks. White students *used* cocaine at 7 times the rate of black students, they used crack at 8 times the rate of black students, and they used heroin at 7 times the rate of black students. (I'll leave you to compare those rates to drug arrest and incarceration rates by race.)

It's important to note that the podcast is not so much a definitive account as a call for further investigation. Thus, rather than squabble in comments about these specific data points, I'd just urge folks to listen to the podcast and/or seek out the article if you're interested in the subject. I'm not necessarily endorsing anything here since I haven't had a chance yet to look closely at the evidence for myself. But I'm absolutely endorsing Thompson and Muhammad's call for historians to join a conversation that has been heretofore dominated by other disciplines, and for all of us to take a second look at the narratives about the rise of mass incarceration and the War on Drugs that have been largely accepted at all ends of the political spectrum.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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