Elizabeth Hinton

The Carceral States of America

Air Date: October 8, 2016

Harvard University historian Elizabeth Hinton talks about her new book From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Today we examine the carceral states of America amid racial unrest with a leading scholar of criminal justice reform. Harvard University assistant professor of history and African-American studies Elizabeth Hinton studies persistent poverty and racial inequality. She’s the author of the new book From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, which the New York Times calls “an exceedingly well-researched … revelation.” Hinton reveals police militarization in the face of protests, punitive policies targeting communities of color, juvenile youth specifically, and the incentives that propped up the long-unscrutinized incarceration system. Moreover, she definitely exposes how federal and state policy sanctioned widespread racial profiling, surveillance, and the criminalization of African-Americans. So today with Elizabeth, we’ll grapple with the troubling trajectory of police brutality, the peaceful turned violent backlash in the streets, and prescriptions for realistic reform at this crucial moment of reckoning for those condemned to a prison cell in America. Elizabeth, a pleasure to have you here.

HINTON: It’s wonderful to be here. Thanks for inviting me, Alexander.

HEFFNER: You’re very welcome. I use that phrase condemnation because go—going back to the literature of Khalil Muhammed,

HINTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: And The New Jim Crow, uh, you are developing on that literature now with a history of the present moment and we were discussing what enabled us to bring these issues to the fore, again long-unscrutinized private incarceration that has been a vicious cycle. Take us to the beginning of policy that would fail generation after generation of African-American youth.

HINTON: Well one of the things that I argue in the book is that we have to go back. A lot of people think that mass incarceration begins with the War on Drugs, Ronald Reagan, and we actually have to go back to the height of the liberal welfare state and the civil rights revolution with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The Kennedy Administration in 1961 launched the first federal intervention in the lives of low-income African-American youth with his, with Kennedy’s anti-delinquency demonstration projects and these were essentially, they looked like what we would later see in the War on Poverty. They were job training programs, they were version of head start, and all of this was a comprehensive way to end delinquency because the social scientists, uh, like Lloyd Ohlin and Richard Cloward who were very influential in the Kennedy Administration really said if we want to fight delinquency we’ve got to, you know, fight it as a whole, we’ve got to look at the socioeconomic problems, et cetera. Johnson takes these programs, implements them as a War on Poverty and, and implements them nationwide. But the, this, this kind of desire to launch this, this intervention essentially targeting young African-Americans, um, was out of policymakers’ own fear about the changing demographics of American cities in the postwar period and the nation where cities like DC had just come into a black majority, Cleveland and Detroit were um, also had about a third black population and middle class Americans and um, white Americans were leaving the cities increasingly. In an era of deindustrialization, policymakers and social scientists recognized okay, we’ve got to do something with these groups of youth who they began to call “social dynamite” before they explode. But in the absence of a different kind of more comprehensive socioeconomic program, those youth and, and many other residents did indeed explode, um, beginning with the Harlem uprising in 1964, which really prompts Johnson to, to call a War on Crime. So these, these, these interventions are kind of rooted in policymakers’ fears about um, and desires to manage um, and impose social control among groups of citizens who they saw as potentially threatening, um, potentially delinquent, et cetera.

HEFFNER: And it was because in that great migration that you describe there was not a possession or an ownership of community on the part of the, um, blacks in this country, um, African-Americans had been sharecropping and…

HINTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Now when they were moving from rural to city, there was not an opportunity for them to enshrine their own rule of law…

HINTON: Right.

HEFFNER: And that was the fundamental flaw in believing that a War on Poverty could lead to the gentrified conditions.

HINTON: Right, exactly. So what is remarkable about this intervention and kind of this turn in domestic policy we see in the 60s is that for the first time, federal policymakers want to address racial discrimination, they want to address the issue of racism and, and the long-term impact of discrimination. Um, as Kennedy, you know, Kennedy kind of saw himself as continuing the policies of reconstruction. He looked to Lincoln, he saw reconstruction as kind of the, one of the hallmarks of American history and wanted to kind of finish that project for these groups who had, groups of African-Americans who had transformed the United States and, and urban life by moving, um, to the north. The problem is that their, their ideas about the causes of that poverty, you know, they said okay, you know, we have these issues of unemployment, we have these issues of failing schools and we’ve got to improve our housing, but really poverty is the result of black American pathology, black American behavior problems, um, the impact of living, of generations of living in single parent households, et cetera. So, we can, we can address black poverty by providing home, homemaking, home skills workshops and we can just provide job training, teach people how to tie ties and become productive citizens, is the language that policymakers use, how to fill out job applications. But the problem is if you do that in the absence of as you say, you know, really giving people the tools to be able to have a say in the institutions that are um, impacting their lives on a, on a daily basis and direction and control over the, the programs that they’re working with, that are, that they, you know, interact with every day, um, in essence, socioeconomic transformation.


HINTON: Those, those programs are going to fall short, because poverty is not, um, you know, the result of individual, individual behavior alone.

HEFFNER: I, I don’t want to sidetrack us too much,


HEFFNER: But I said this to Daniel Allen and to Leah Wright, your colleague at Harvard…

HINTON: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: That had it been a President Sumner rather than a President Lincoln who would not have tolerated reunification of the union until slaves, now freed slaves, were given the land of Confederate territories…

HINTON: Right.

HEFFNER: Repatriating the land so they actually had stake…

HINTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Stock in the country ownership,

HINTON: Right. So interesting is that we get that exactly, it’s a similar moment, we had the expansion of civil rights, um…

HEFFNER: And it’s same today.

HINTON: The same, yeah exactly.

HEFFNER: The same issue that has propelled the activists in Black Lives Matter…

HINTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: I, we can’t necessarily say that they articulate it that way, but when you talk about the stigma and the entrenched systemic conditions of poverty…

HINTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Goes back to that moment because so little has changed in terms of the concentration of wealth and political power.

HINTON: Right. Right. And that’s because there’s been a lack and a, a lack of socioeconomic change in this country and I think those in power have really resisted committing the resources that it would take to fundamentally disrupt racial hierarchies that have kind of guided social relations in this country, political and economic relations as well historically.

HEFFNER: How soon after the War on Poverty was declared did it become a war on a class of people in effect?

HINTON: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. That’s a really complicated question. So I mean in, in some senses, Kennedy’s anti-delinquency programs that were kind of reframed as a War on Poverty, um, in, in ‘64 by Johnson with the Economic Opportunity Act were, were, were also about kind of social control. The, as I mentioned, you know, this real kind of fear okay, we have to do something to address these issues because we have a potentially troublesome or rebellious population in these cities that we’re harboring by not addressing issues of racial discrimination and employment and, and schools, et cetera. Um, Johnson essentially launches the War on Crime at the same time as the war on poverty, one year, one year after the Economic Opportunity Act, this is following the unrest that Harlem, Brooklyn, Rochester, Chicago, and Philadelphia witness in ‘64 with the, after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, Johnson calls the War on Crime in March, sends the Voting Rights Act to Congress, completes the civil rights package. Essentially the War on Poverty and the War on Crime were both, historians and others have kind of treated the war on crime as um, not really a major part of Johnson’s domestic policy but my sense from being in, in scouring um, in the Johnson administration White House central files is that it was actually a major part of his domestic policy that Johnson, you know, had made this decision to break with two hundred years of American tradition and create a role for the federal government and local state, uh, local and state prison courts and policing operations for the first time to invest, to make a national investment in American police, this had never been done before and he wanted to do it right. There was extensive studies, et cetera. But we have to understand that both the War on Poverty and the War on Crime were part of the Great Society. They were an attempt on the part of Johnson and likeminded policymakers to improve American society. I think that some of the assumptions guiding the policy limited their potential. Um, but the, you know, so, so the War on Poverty kind of imposes a, a, what I call in the book in some ways a softer form of surveillance. It has, you know, the major component of it are training programs, um, without necessarily a job creation program accompanying those training programs which make them, uh, less effective than they might have been had there been guaranteed job, jobs afterwards. So we have that, this kind of softer form of social control or surveillance and then the War on Crime with, with a real, um, kind of impulse to militarize urban police forces in order to prevent, um, unrest and future urban unrest.


HINTON: Um, and to patrol low-income targeted black communities where the threat of unrest was higher and rates of reported crime were rising. These were the, these were the communities that concerned policymakers, uh, the most. Now we also have the War on Poverty in rural areas, um, but we don’t get that, we also, we don’t get the, the sticks. We have the, you know the, you know, it’s a “carrot and the stick” kind of policy.

HEFFNER: Right, right.

HINTON:We have the carrot and the stick happening in black urban areas in the 60s and that’s not happening in, in Montana and, and West Virginia and some of the other communities that are benefiting from federal funds, um, during the War on Poverty. And then in Nixon it kind of takes a whole new…

HEFFNER: Right, so I was gonna, I was gonna say then,


HEFFNER: It takes on a more explicit law and order…

HINTON: Mm-hmm. Right.

HEFFNER: Um, commandment, uh,

HINTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Mandate. And um, by the time you say, by the time Ronald Reagan takes offense in 1981, African-Americans had become vulnerable on two fronts, a struggle against one another and a struggle with the institutions and policies that federal policymakers developed to fight the war on crime.

HINTON: Mm-hmm. We see that dynamic playing out today in Baton Rouge and Ferguson and…

HEFFNER: Right. That synopsis of 1981 and people are comparing it to the late 60s but that…

HINTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Where we stood then in terms of the condition of African-American communities, how is it different from today?

HINTON: Right. I mean that’s one of the things that it’s, it’s, you know, we spent in the, in the 15 years of the kind of War on Crime era when the, the department of justice, the law enforcement assistance administration, uh, was making grants with state and local authorities, we spent um, I think 10 or 15 billion dollars, what amounts to twenty-five billion in today’s dollars. Crime increased, incarceration increased, the, you know, these policies failed, yet policymakers continue to fund them. All, many cases, and I document this in the book, using their, the failures of the policy as fodder to get more resources to these communities. I think it’s a lesson that we need to keep in mind today as we’re, we talk about body cams and we talk about immediately turning to hardware, um, as a continued solution and it’s more about kind of rethinking policing but in terms of…

HEFFNER: No, rethinking policing, stay on that track.

HINTON: Yeah, we, so I was, and I’ll go back to answer your question.

HEFFNER: Okay, okay.

HINTON: Um, but, but I mean what’s clear is and, and we, there are many examples of community groups, tenant patrols, grievance boards, things like that getting funded by the federal government. The—These in the 60s and 70s, these programs were often short-lived, even though they were cost-effective and were, were proved to actually have a, a stronger impact on crime than, than additional foot patrol, more housing police forces, hidden cameras, um, thing, you know, these kind of hardware, um, and surveillance technologies. But they’re not fun—they’re not sustained…


HINTON: And they’re not, they’re not consistently funded by federal policymakers in the way that you know, technological advancements for police and new weapons for police and you know, new prosecutorial powers for uh, defense attorneys or sorry, excuse me, district attorneys are, are awarded during this period. So we, we need to think about, and this goes to some of the other themes we’ve been talking about, how to redistribute power in a way, especially, you know, what is the function, what is the purpose of police.

HEFFNER: What are the tactics you think ought to be employed here to, for, for Black Lives activists,

HINTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: To take political control. This is public policy…

HINTON: So the movement for Black Lives, which is kind of a umbrella organization for a number of different groups who have been concerned about the conditions in many cities across the United States, in early August or late July released a, a platform that looks in, in some senses very much like what we saw from black power and civil rights groups in the late sixties so in the early stages of the War on Crime, calling for economic control, calling for community control, calling for a, an end to the war on, on black people. And part of that is again we talked about this, but a real investment of resources that allows communities themselves, residents themselves to decide how those resources should be spent. I think what’s really exciting about the 60s is we get this principle of maximum feasible participation introduced by the Johnson administration and the Economic Opportunity Act, and this essentially was, and it really only functioned, um, in this spirit for, for its first year but the federal government was funding grassroots groups, um, to autonomously run their programs and help identify the, the sources of poverty and come up with their own solution. Local officials did not like this practice, they though it was kind of a voter registration drive for the Democratic Party or that it was in Johnson’s self-interest and eventually, um, policy, federal policymakers ceded control over those programs but I think that we need to go back to that. I think that you know, people within, the question of rethinking policing, so much of it is that we have outside forces coming into impoverished neighborhoods and people should be responsible for keeping their own neighborhood safe, so things like residency requirements, a real civilian grievance board where people can get their aggressive encounters or um, civil rights violations on the part of law enforcement they’ve experienced addressed and answered. Um, you know, one of the things with, with the recent acquittal of, of Freddie Gray, of the police officers involved in Freddie Gray’s killing,

HEFFNER: In Baltimore.

HINTON: I think, yeah, I think people are really frustrated that there seems to be so little accountability for police and if, if residents in communities that are targeted for how, to be heavily patrolled and monitored by law enforcement authorities need to have a say in how these programs are being implemented and this is a question that we saw arising in the 60s and it, and it had, that power hasn’t been really shared in a serious way and we’re dealing with the consequences now.

HEFFNER: Do you have to start with local law enforcement or do, do you think it would be more effective to start with the prison system?

HINTON: We have to do a, it has to be all at once.

HEFFNER: Holistic.

HINTON: I, I really think it has to be all at once but…

HEFFNER: Let, let’s face it, in this political season…

HINTON: Right, right.

HEFFNER: That’s not gonna happen which leads me to the question what is most feasible in this environment?


HEFFNER: From the protestor’s perspective on the street but also the legislator who is fighting fear, bitter fear.

HINTON: I think, I think police as kind of the first, the first line of contact between low-income citizens and law enforcement, and let’s face it, with the disinvestment in our social programs, really in many low-income black and Latino communities, police are the public institution standing, it’s who you call because it’s the only person that you can call when you have a problem and so I think we, we need to, we need to rethink, we need to look at police but also why is it that we have made this decision to respond beginning in the 60s to socioeconomic problems with law enforcement, with punitive measures? And that’s kind of rethinking the function of police. What does public safety mean? Um, so that’s kind of the comprehensive rethinking. There’s so much criminal justice reform that needs to happen but if I had to choose two, I mean it, it would be policing, it would be resident—things like residency requirements, avenues for, for, for citizens to have a say and real power in the way that patrol and surveillance unfolds in their communities. But then also we have to deal with re-entry, with the re-entry system as we, you know, President Obama recently released another, uh, few hundred prisoners and I, I do think that we’re kind of in this moment especially and part of it depends on the election, who wins the election but where we will begin to release at least, um, nonviolent drug offenders and we have to have comprehensive re-entry services that actually give them a route to education and resources so that they don’t, so that that cycle of incarceration and recidivism doesn’t continue, um, and…

HEFFNER: And what is the political outlet for that?

HINTON: Well re-entry, so, so the federal government is I think very interested in re-entry. Some states have begun comprehensive re-entry programs, like California is one of the leading states in re-entry because they’re, they’re, they’re kind—with realignment they’re kind of reshifting the way that they’re, um, they’re, they’re trying to release people from the state prisons, keep people in jail for longer, et cetera to kind of de-carcerate in a way. And I think that people, I think that states are beginning to rethink and kind of roll back some of the really, really harsh sentencing that they doled out that, for example Michigan juveniles getting sentenced to life at age 14, these, these policies of the, of the 80s and 90s that are now kind of seen as unconstitutional, as these Americans are released, they really, really deserve a second chance. And I worry that again re-entry looks kind of like some of the failures of the War on Poverty. It’s not, it provides training, it in many cases imposes another form of surveillance because people are released and much of the re-entry programs are pri—privatized so again, you know, there aren’t service, it’s, they’re for profit so there, there aren’t necessarily services being, uh, accessible, made accessible to formerly incarcerated people and it’s kind of you have to, you know, check in several times a day and you’re essentially back in the environment where you came from. Your chances of recidivism are extremely high. So we’ve, so we’ve got to you know, rethink things like giving people a real avenue towards employment. I mean I think the number one issue beyond policing, beyond um, re-entry and, and mass incarceration is really employment.

HEFFNER: The enormity of the problems could not be stressed more adequately I think than we have today but finally as we conclude, Elizabeth, where do you see the instincts of sort of the, the counter-example to what has dominated legislation which is the build-up of arms…

HINTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Policing, surveillance, um, in terms of building a bridge to greater understanding between communities, when you see that disconnect with the white officers in Ferguson for example and the homogeneously black community, um, are there examples you found in the history of elected officials aspiring to do the right thing?

HINTON: Oh, I mean I, certainly.


HINTON: I think a lot of, Johnson and Kennedy is you know, I think really acted out of their kind of, their policies were well-intentioned. The Kerner Commmission which Johnson himself distanced himself from because it was too radical but I think that that kind of rhetoric, the idea that we really have to deal with racism, the Kerner Commission suggested what we’ve been talking about, a Marshall Plan for American cities, a massive investment of resources, and I think those conversations are beginning to bubble up again. One of the things that we saw at the Democratic Convention we haven’t seen really since the 60s is an emphasis on the principle of equality rather than, you know, in President Obama’s remarks, he didn’t talk about liberty and domestic policy, he talked about domestic policy is responsible for fostering greater equality and we haven’t heard this rhetoric really since the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. So I think that we are at a crossroads in, in part because of the shortcomings of our policy historically but especially in the last 50 years that we’re beginning to reckon with in, in new and promising ways.

HEFFNER: When was the moment when the Kennedy and Johnson regime went wrong? When was, can you attribute it to a moment when the impulse towards fear took over the better motivations that you describe? Because if you can take us back to that moment, maybe we can, can help us reorient ourselves in this present climate.

HINTON: I would say that the que—the, the kind of socioeconomic dimension of these federal urban interventions were still in question in the Kennedy administration. I, you know, they were still being debated. I think they went wrong when Johnson and the council of economic advisors said we can fight this War on Poverty relatively cheaply, I mean even though this was an unprecedented billion-dollar investment but we can fight it cheaply because we don’t need, we don’t need major structural programs. We don’t need a major employment program. Although police officers got a major employment program but black Americans didn’t, so that moment where, we can fight poverty by fighting behavior. We can fight poverty by, as uh, Johnson’s future Attorney General, then deputy attorney general Ramsay Clark said helping the disadvantaged help himself by making the war on poverty kind of federal resources towards a self-help program for so-called disadvantaged Americans, ‘64, ‘65, that was, that was the mistake.

HEFFNER: I think that it’s helpful.

HINTON: We’re not gonna solve, yeah, we can’t solve these problems without structural transformation. [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: Well I think, I think that’s, that’s really useful for us to acknowledge and thank you for being here today.

HINTON: Thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.