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January 9, 2015

"How White Liberals Used Civil Rights to Create More Prisons"

9780199892808The potent title of this post is the potent title of this new piece at The Nation by Willie Osterweil, which serves as a review of sorts of a book by historian Naomi Murakawa titled The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America. Both the full Nation article and the book it discusses are worth attention, and here are excerpts from the article:

In her first book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America, historian Naomi Murakawa demonstrates how the American prison state emerged not out of race-baiting states’-rights advocates nor tough-on-crime drug warriors but rather from federal legislation written by liberals working to guarantee racial equality under the law.  The prison industry, and its associated police forces, spy agencies and kangaroo courts, is perhaps the most horrific piece of a fundamentally racist and unequal American civil society.  More people are under correctional supervision in the United States than were in the Gulag archipelago at the height of the Great Terror; there are more black men in prison, jail or parole than were enslaved in 1850. How did this happen?

The common-sense answer is that launching the war on drugs during the backlash against civil-rights struggles encouraged agents of the criminal-justice system to lock up black people for minor infractions.  This isn’t wrong, or not exactly. Ronald Reagan’s infamous Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which established federal minimums (a k a sentencing “guidelines”) and abolished parole in the federal prison systems, did lead to an explosion in the number of federal prisoners, particularly drug offenders.  It was one of the pivotal moments in the production of the prison-industrial complex (PIC) — the overlapping sphere of government and industrial activity that employs hundreds of thousands of guards, cops, judges, lawyers, bail-bondsmen, administrators and service employees and which sees millions of prisoners performing barely paid production labor to generate profit.  But, as Murakawa painstakingly demonstrates, the Sentencing Reform Act has a “liberal core,” and is built on the technical and administrative logic of racial fairness that structures all federal civil-rights legislation.

This is the fundamental thesis of Murakawa’s book: legal civil rights and the American carceral state are built on the same conceptions of race, the state and their relationship. As liberals believe that racism is first and foremost a question of individual bias, they imagine racism can be overcome by removing the discretion of (potentially racist) individuals within government through a set of well-crafted laws and rules.  If obviously discriminatory laws can be struck down, and judges, statesmen or administrators aren’t allowed to give reign to their racism, then the system should achieve racially just outcomes.  But even putting aside the fact that a removal of individual discretion is impossible, such a conception of “fairness” applies just as easily to producing sentencing minimums as school desegregation....

Murakawa does not simply collapse liberal and conservative into each other. She makes an important distinction between postwar racial-liberalism and postwar racial-conservatism. Race conservatives are those who don’t believe that racism is real, but that race is: they believe that black people are innately inferior to whites, and attribute their place in society to a failure of black culture. This race-conservatism is what is broadly considered “real racism.”

Race-liberalism, on the other hand, remains the dominant — and usually unspoken — American framework for understanding race.  Built on the premise that racism is real but manifests as the prejudice of white people, race-liberals argue that individuals’ racism can corrupt institutions and bias them against black people.  That bias damages black psyches as well as black people’s economic and social prospects.  Race-liberals believe that training, laws, stricter rules and oversight can eliminate prejudice and render institutions “colorblind.” Since it is biased treatment that damages black prospects, then this fix — civil rights — applied to all of society’s institutions, would eventually end racial disparity.

Both race-liberals and race-conservatives base their theories on one disastrous assumption: black people naturally produce crime.  For race-conservatives, black people are innately, genetically criminal, full stop.  For race-liberals, the psychological, economic and social damage of prejudice makes black people “lash out” violently and criminally–either in the form of individual criminal acts or, as the black freedom movement begins in earnest, as protests and rioting. Under both schema, however, the reason society must achieve racial equality is because equality will eliminate black crime.

January 9, 2015 at 12:32 PM | Permalink


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From the description, this book seems to be about the emergence of the federal prison system from the 1940s to the 1960s. But state prison systems today house more than four times as many people as the federal system. So it's pretty hard to argue that the emergence of a federal prison system is THE factor explaining the rise in incarceration over the past decades. It looks like this book and the Nation article both fall prey to the strange academic bias of focusing only on federal institutions. In the sentencing context, that bias makes little sense.

Posted by: lawyer | Jan 9, 2015 1:46:03 PM

I could not derive a coherent thesis here.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Jan 9, 2015 10:09:31 PM

Is this skank channeling Goebbels? This is unbelievable trash propaganda and hate speech.

She forgot a couple of things.

Most blacks are mostly white Southern trash in their DNA, most of which originates from the British Isles. There are no real black people, especially among the race whores whose Johns are filthy judges who are rent seeking lawyer traitors. All PC and identity intimidation is case, and stems from the fear of ruinous litigation. This vile criminal organization, the lawyer hierarchy, must be stopped with the lash.

Blacks have the same rate of antisocial personality as whites, the condition predisposing to criminality. They have a lower rate of addiction than whites. Real blacks from African and from the Caribbean are doing as well as whites on the Census, and are sought after as students and employees. Real black skin is a sign of superior performance, and greater amounts of integrity and honesty.

Then the vile feminist lawyer destroyed the black family. And the bastardy rate is the most powerful factor in the disparity in all social pathologies among these pseudo-black people. The vile feminist lawyer is attacking the white family from all sides, and its bastardy rate has soared to 40%. Here comes everything that has befallen our pseudo-black families. "...black people naturally produce crime." Absolutely not. No one conservative believes that, given the low crime rate among immigrants who are real blacks. What conservatives believe is that "bastards naturally produce crime." And they believe the vile feminist lawyers produce bastardy to increase the size and powers of government. The skank blames the wrong people.

The rate of criminality of these pseudo-blacks is real, as measured by community survey of crime victims, and victimization falls heavy on other pseudo blacks.

These drug dealers were mass murderers as they fought over territory.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 10, 2015 3:38:39 AM

Nonsense, conservatives in california such as pete wilson made california prisons filled to capacity. In Louisana, its an incarceration mecca, but I doubt its liberals fault. It's also not uncommon to find drug trafficking and poverty among african americans from the west indies, although immigrants from them tend to do better.

As far as being a "bastard", maybe the government should stop giving tax breaks and other privileges to "legally married couples" after all with no fault divorce and "government can't make you happy", what is legal marriage anyway.

Should singles pay more or less taxes than someone who is married?

Of course, let me point out that libertarians may want to stop the drug war so its different among conservatives. Conservative judges are also the ones upholding long prison sentences and overcrowded prisons.

One point left out is that LWOP did becomes more common after the death penalty was banned temporarily by the courts in the 1970s. Before the 1970s, LWOP was uncommon, hence being "cruel and unusual punishment" at the same time which means it can meet the 8th amendment.

Posted by: Morgan | Jan 14, 2015 8:10:42 AM

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