Special Issue of JAH on Mass Incarceration

The current issue of Journal of American History centers on a much-anticipated special section on the history of mass incarceration in the United States. Edited by Kelly Lytle Hernández, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, and Heather Ann Thompson, the issue is at its most effective when, whether explicitly or by implication, the assembled authors’ findings address the current policy debates around incarceration that have been catalyzed by Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Many of the contributions also promote understanding of the particular spaces created and transformed by mass incarceration, including the sun belt, the US-Mexico border, and, in telling shadows of each other, America’s urban neighborhoods and its affluent suburbs.

As the editors note in an effective introduction to the section, understanding incarceration is essential to understanding many of the problematics that previous generations of scholars have framed, particularly for the post-WWII period.

Needless to say, when a nation chooses to police and cage many millions of people who reside within its borders, the implications for everything else that takes place in that country are vast. Mass incarceration has had a major impact on everything from how urban and suburban spaces have evolved to how electoral maps are drawn to how national borders are defined and maintained to how state and federal resources are distributed to how social movements are made and unmade to how gender roles are bolstered and undermined to how cultural norms and identities are forged and reinforced to how sexuality is profiled and policed.

Or, as Alex Lichtenstein argues in “Flocatex and the Fiscal Limits of Mass Incarceration,”

Pick up any recent textbook on modern U.S. history, turn to the last few chapters, and you will find an outline of key developments that have shaped the past four decades or so of the nation’s domestic history. Some chapter headings include “The Decline of Manufacturing,” “Retreat from Liberalism,” “The Beleaguered Social Compact,” “The Rising Tide of Conservatism,” “The Problem of Inequality,” “The End of the Long Boom,” and “Conservatism in the Courts.” Yet few of these textbooks pay attention to one of the most dramatic social transformations of this period. Only Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty! includes as subheadings “The Spread of Imprisonment” and “The Burden of Imprisonment,” signaling to students that one of the changes that makes the world they inherit radically different from that of their parents is the huge numbers of Americans behind bars.

The claims for the significance of mass incarceration are bold, and it’s not always the case that the connection of mass incarceration to just about everything else is compellingly articulated. As the editors note,

The essays in this volume provide only a brief sketch of new work by historians mapping the terrains of a burgeoning field.

Indeed, some of the articles read like distillations (but intriguing ones) of book-length research projects, which suggests that many historians are poised to register significant contributions to the debate, enriching knowledge of the process of building mass incarceration and complicating analogies between old and new Jim Crow. As a metropolitan historian, I’m particularly drawn to the accounts of how urban and suburban places figured in the development of the carceral state and how those places were transformed by it.

On this score, Donna Murch’s “Crack in Los Angeles: Crisis, Militarization, and Black Response to the Late Twentieth-Century War on Drugs” is particularly effective. Murch exposes the complexity of intraracial political activity around the emergence and social costs of the cocaine trade in communities of color in and around Los Angeles, particularly the role of Black elites in elevating policing as a response in the early stages of the crisis and of left and working class activists in responding to the harms to individuals and communities created by Chief Daryl Gates. Although Murch is clear that Black and Brown communities in Los Angeles were irreparably harmed by the escalation of the Drug War, her analysis, which is of a piece with recent work by Michael J. Fortner, shows that a narrative of imposition, or of a “New Jim Crow” imposed unilaterally by white law-and-order conservatives, is reductive.

In hindsight, it is clear that the state appropriated real anxieties from black urban areas (such as Harlem and South Los Angeles) that were experiencing rapid economic decline and used these concerns to rationalize its war(s) on drugs. Not only did this strategy appeal to racial antipathies among white voters but it also hindered political opposition to the drug war by African Americans who were desperately seeking solutions to the public health and social crises facing their neighborhoods.

What has remained poorly understood about the rollout of LA’s notorious anti-gang and militarized police tactics is

how deeply divisive punishment campaigns proved for African American populations.

Particularly as the transformative impact of militarized policing on individuals and on Los Angeles became apparent:

Punitive campaigns against drugs and gangs in Los Angeles rationalized a new martial infrastructure. The state applied militarization unequally by focusing on historic African American and Latino neighborhoods in the south central part of the city. As in counterinsurgency strategy, the geographic application of force meant that particular populations were at high risk not only because of their age and race but also because of their location. Indeed, by 1992 city sheriffs listed nearly half of the African American men under age twenty-five in Los Angeles County as gang members. The ultimate carceral effects of this mass criminalization can hardly be overstated. The California Department of Corrections (CDC) prison population increased from 19,623 in 1977 to 162,000 in the year 2000 with over 40 percent drawn from Los Angeles and 70 percent from southern California.

The spatial inequality inherent in counterinsurgent policing within the context of a Drug War is demonstrated in Matthew Lassiter’s contribution, “Impossible Criminals: The Suburban Imperatives of America’s War on Drugs.” Lassiter shows the ways that spatial referents of urban and suburban communities, freighted with racial and social class assumptions about their inhabitants, worked to in effect police policing of drugs. The strongest claim Lassiter makes is not a rejection of but certainly a complication of the ideas driving The New Jim Crow: the drug war and the police state it has justified are not only about the project of criminalizing minorities, but also about the project of preemptively de-criminalizing whites, a project enabled by the cultural currency of suburban community as morally legitimate.

Closer attention to the suburban imperatives of the war on drugs helps explain why policy formation in this area generally has operated within a framework of consensus, especially when political and cultural forces converge around the issues of protecting middle-class communities from external threats, subduing narcotics traffickers in urban and international markets, and keeping law-breaking white youth out of prison.

Inasmuch as affluent outer-ring suburbs are marked as places from which the poor and black are appropriately excluded, those areas have likewise been marked as places from which the aggressive tactics of police and prosecutors have also been excluded–except, as recent events have shown, when such aggression targets perceived intruders.

Exploration of the deep historical roots of these contemporary disparities demonstrates that the exemptions created for white middle-class participants in the underground marketplace were not merely epiphenomenal but rather constitutive of the expansion of the carceral state. Situated on the real and imagined landscapes of affluent suburbia, white teenagers have represented the most sympathetic victims of the narcotics trade, the distinctively illegitimate targets of law enforcement crackdowns, and the chief beneficiaries of public health prevention campaigns.

In other words, as Lassiter demonstrates, successive waves of drug-related panic have inspired and necessitated particular political responses. In circumstances where the core behavior–drug use, and particularly recreational marijuana use–has promiscuously crossed spatial and social borders, legislation has been crafted through the deliberate and conscious political efforts of empowered suburban politicians to steer a course between two unacceptable political alternatives: ignoring drugs entirely, or subjecting white suburban youth to the same punitive system as youth of color.

The racial and spatial logics of the drug war reflect not only the bipartisan mandate for urban crime control but also the balancing act required to resolve the impossible public policy of criminalizing the social practices of tens of millions of white middle-class Americans.

This tension was resolved in many cases by assigning differential roles to the white and nonwhite, suburban and urban, participants in drug transactions. Although suburban conservative politicians embraced a broad view of the market as an organizing principle of society, in this case they refused to recognize suburban drug deals as exchanges between rational actors seeking the mutual benefit (of getting high or making money). Rather, those marked as “other” by racial identity or urban residence, were cast as corruptors and suburban youth as innocents. And, although it takes little faith to imagine that the apparatus of the American state would adopt a punitive stance against urban minority drug dealers, the particular shape of the state’s response–particularly the refinement of criminal law to separate, with room for police and prosecutorial discretion, the acts of possession and distribution–was conditioned by the imperative of protecting both suburban “innocents” and the political illusion of suburban innocence.

Julilly Kohler-Hausmann’s “Guns and Butter: The Welfare State, the Carceral State, and the Politics of Exclusion in the Postwar United States” explores  how

Welfare policy and criminal policy were principal sites where society negotiated the state’s responsibility to poor and socially marginalized people, and these policy areas became central staging grounds for the post-1960 chapter in the long historical struggle over the terms of citizenship.

finding that

Despite the racial and social diversity of the populations subject to penal and welfare administration, Americans typically imagined welfare and crime as problems emanating from the same places: low-income African American and Latino urban communities.

Noting that historians have been slower than social scientists to interrogate the inverse trends of social welfare spending and criminal justice and punishment spending, Kohler-Hausmann proposes an investigation of the ways both trends, and perceptions of both, figured in the political and social processes of stripping the social welfare state while building the carceral state. Are the two, in fact, purposefully connected? Though it seems like a fine distinction, the key historiographical intervention of the work, indeed its key demand on other scholars, is to resist a reflexive assumption that the rise of the latter necessarily followed from or was a product of the former.

This perspective also reveals the limitations of relying on a series of oppositional pairings in our analysis of these transformations: liberal/conservative, welfare state/carceral state, rehabilitation/punishment, or big government/small government. These binaries structured the historical debates, but reproducing them in our scholarship risks overstating polarization and ruptures, obscuring continuities and overlaps, and masking the imprecision and political assumptions of the categories. I propose understanding the relationship between these institutions not as separate or sequential, where the carceral state supplanted the welfare state, but as deeply integrated. The penal system and welfare system have long coexisted—sometimes symbiotically—and their gendered systems interacted and developed together. Elites have deployed these systems together in various combinations, especially when faced with disorder or political insurgency, to secure social stability. Instead of stepping into the welfare state’s void or representing its antithesis, the growing carceral apparatus often built upon the welfare state, particularly through its efforts to enforce social norms through coerced rehabilitation and treatment.

This view encourages thinking not of one mode of state activity supplanting another, or of a sudden shift from “soft” to “hard” policy, but of the ways in which both the welfare state and the carceral state grew out of specific political circumstances in response to particular sets of questions about who would control and who would benefit from social resources. Kohler-Hausmann’s analysis of New York State’s notorious Rockefeller Laws is compelling. Rather than viewing the laws as a divergence from a treatment-oriented approach to drug abuse, the Rockefeller Laws proceeded from a common logic that drug abuse was an individual failing, and that, whether through treatment or incarceration, the most useful social response was isolation of the drug user. Of course, these laws intersected with the racial, socioeconomic, and geographic assumptions with which policymakers had freighted the drug issue, meaning that the full draconian impact of the laws fell on the usual suspects. And, both the Rockefeller Laws and the regime of treatment that they nominally replaced asserted the power of the state to isolate individual drug offenders through penal or quasi-penal institutions, rather than through democratic and community-based ones.

From this perspective, the rise of punishment appears less as a radical break than as a redirection of the state’s power to classify and control. And, the collateral impacts of punishment on individuals and communities, including economic exclusion and disenfranchisement, justified a growing social cognition of welfare recipients as criminal and non-integrable elements.

Increasingly, policies helped produce the political reality they purported to reflect, erecting barriers to the civic and economic participation of poor people, particularly in urban African American and Latino communities.

On this point, it seems fitting to conclude. There are plenty of apt bases for comparison between today’s carceral state and Jim Crow caste society. But one has not followed directly from the other. It will be the task of future historians, building on the work presented in this issue, to explore how particular impulses: to control, to contain, to protect, and to punish, were expressed in the state, local, and federal context of American politics, and how a country that locks up a historically unprecedented proportion of its people differs from the country we might inhabit if it hadn’t.




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