- From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America by Elizabeth Hinton
Amid the recent emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, activists and scholars alike have claimed that structural racism in the criminal justice system is a key component of white supremacy in the contemporary United States. From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime by historian Elizabeth Hinton historicizes these claims as she reveals how policymakers from the 1960s to the 1980s conjoined ideas about welfare, criminalization, and punishment to rationalize the construction of a system of mass incarceration of minorities.
Hinton engages with several key historiographic conversations—among them, the entrenched assumption among political scientists and legal scholars that the carceral state had its origins in the War on Drugs. More broadly, she challenges the notion of the death of the New Deal Order through rising conservatism, situating the rise of the carceral state in a shift from welfare-state responsibilities to police and prisons. Contributing to a literature on racial statebuilding, Hinton's provocative book addresses how bipartisan, liberal policymaking—wrought through federal spending—represented a punitive solution to post-World War II urban problems that supplanted the welfare state. Not only a work of high political history, however, Hinton's study also sets out to describe how the "diffusion of crime control techniques" impacted the "everyday lives" of African Americans, who in turn fought back against criminalization and offered their own solutions for the urban crisis.
Hinton's thorough research of federal records takes her into postwar presidential libraries, congressional records, as well as a rich trove of reports authored by commissions, criminologists, and think tanks. As these sources reveal, Hinton approaches urban history largely through a federal and national lens. [End Page 650] The panoramic scope of crime control takes Hinton into nearly every type of criminal justice institution as she assesses the federal impact on their growth and policies during the postwar period. This book reveals abundant possibilities for deeper local studies with greater attention to the contexts that preceded and attended this broad historical shift.
The first section of the book is a reinterpretation of the relationship of the War on Crime to other postwar political movements. Where previous studies have considered the War on Crime and the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration in relationship to nascent conservatism and bureaucratic mismanagement, Hinton interprets them as engines of institutional racism. The first four chapters provide an account of federal crime control policymaking under Presidents Johnson and Nixon. Johnson first waged the War on Crime to improve urban social conditions by imparting Great Society values on law enforcement agencies. The result of these "sincere intentions," as Hinton calls them, was that welfare agencies became increasingly involved in surveillance and integrated with law enforcement agencies (31). Under Nixon's "wide-spread hypocrisy," federal crime-control policy encouraged corruption and often directed funds to areas where money was not needed or to cities where funds would be used for the intensified policing of black communities (136). Both Johnson and Nixon, in Hinton's telling, relied heavily on the expertise of intellectuals, among them sociologists and criminologists whose arguments often reflected their liberal politics and cultural ideas about racial pathologies. Racism, it turned out, was a good enough justification for this massive state-building project even as it failed to actually reduce crime. For this reason, there seems to be little difference between the "sincere intentions" and "hypocrisy" frames that Hinton uses in these chapters. The matter of whether this binary is useful for interpreting histories of racialized state violence is one that scholars in this emerging field will need to consider.
Hinton is at her best when telling the vivid stories of people who lived the everyday consequences of this racial statebuilding project. The most captivating chapters, chapters 5 through 9, offer grassroots narratives of the implementation of specific crime control programs under Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan and their impact on...