The birth of mass incarceration is often tied to a rise in “tough on crime” rhetoric in the 60’s and 70’s that resulted in a “race to incarcerate” in which politicians competed to pass the harshest laws in a bid for political popularity. But where did “tough on crime” politics come from, and why were voters so enticed?
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander traces the rise of “law and order” discourse to white southern politicians during the Civil Rights Movement. This rhetoric was not only applied directly to those engaged in civil disobedience (framing protests and sit-ins as disruptive to “law and order”), but was also a useful proxy for explicit racism when a change in cultural norms effected by the Civil Rights Movement made old fashioned racism problematic. During the post-Civil Rights Era, the most vociferous promoters of tough on crime politics were conservatives. Liberals were typically sympathetic to the plight of prisoners and viewed people in prison as precisely that: people.
It was in the 1970s that tough on crime politics gained broad-based support. In Mass Incarceration on Trial, Jonathan Simon points to a rise in crime and a loss of faith in rehabilitation as two primary drivers for increased acceptance of the conservative message. He also points out that the image of the prisoner was changing, thanks to an increase in highly publicized, particularly violent crimes like serial murders, as well as two highly publicized rebellions within prisons: George Jackson’s at San Quentin and the Attica riot in New York. Although these uprisings were quickly quashed, the image of the prisoner as a “revolutionary terrorist,” invariably Black or brown, and posing a threat both inside and out of prison, continues to be trotted out to sell newspapers, win elections, or preserve prison jobs.
Was the new tough on crime rhetoric racism by another name?
Excluding upper class African Americans and sweeping in some poor whites reassured most people that the criminal justice system was targeting crime not race. But both history and the present tell us otherwise. The historical moment at which tough on crime politics gained wide support was also the moment when American whites faced the prospect of real sacrifice to make good on the promises of the Civil Rights Movement. Today, high levels of discretion in policing and prosecution have been used to create an unprecedentedly large prison population with massively disproportionate racial demographics within prisons that reflect neither the general population nor the offending population.
The particular brand of slavery that America created, lasting for life and extending to future generations, was born out of physical fear and fear of distribution of wealth. But it was also a difficult concept to justify as a “Christian nation.” Thus was born the notion of the less-than-human African laborer (much like the savage Indian). The idea that Blacks were a lesser species justified their loss of liberty, forced labor, physical and sexual abuse.
The same two fears – for physical safety and for loss of resources – fuel the prison system, a system that has, like slavery, persisted by dehumanizing those it controls. Two hundred years ago, slave owners framed their human property as intellectually inferior, inherently dangerous, and dependent on beneficent masters in order to justify a horrifically unjust system.
Today the same justifications have been reframed into a language about “law and order,” “career criminals,” and “public safety,” but because they’re somewhat more racially complicated, we’re missing the link. We need to recognize that connection, and confront our own biases, and think about the prison system the same way that, in retrospect, we’re able to think about slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws, etc.: as a massive and urgent human rights problem that requires radical change.