III. Obscuring History: The Birth of Mass Incarceration

The New Jim Crow writers typically start their argument with a historical claim, grounded in a theory of backlash. The narrative is as follows: Just as Jim Crow was a response to Reconstruction and the late-nineteenth century Populist movement that threatened Southern elites, mass incarceration was a response to the civil rights movement and the tumult of the 1960s. Beginning in the mid-1960s, Republican politicians--led by presidential candidates Goldwater and Nixon--focused on crime in an effort to tap into white voters' anxiety over increased racial equality and a growing welfare state. Barry Goldwater cleared the way in 1964 when he declared, Choose the way of [the Johnson] Administration and you have the way of mobs in the street. In 1968, Nixon perfected Goldwater's strategy. In the words of his advisor H.R. Haldeman, Nixon emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to. John Ehrlichman, another advisor, characterized Nixon's campaign strategy as follows: We'll go after the racists.

There is much truth to this account, and its telling demonstrates part of what is useful about the Jim Crow analogy. Today, too many Americans refuse to acknowledge the continuing impact of race and prejudice on public policy. By documenting mass imprisonment's roots in race-baiting political appeals, the New Jim Crow writers effect- ively demolish the notion that our prison system's origins are exclusively colorblind.

But in emphasizing mass incarceration's racial roots, the New Jim Crow writers overlook other critical factors. The most important of these is that crime shot up dramatically just before the beginning of the prison boom. Reported street crime quadrupled in the twelve years from 1959 to 1971. Homicide rates doubled between 1963 and 1974, and robbery rates tripled. Proponents of the Jim Crow analogy tend to ignore or minimize the role that crime and violence played in creating such a receptive audience for Goldwater's and Nixon's appeals. Alexander, for example, characterizes crime and fear of crime as follows:

Unfortunately, at the same time that civil rights were being identified as a threat to law and order, the FBI was reporting fairly significant increases in the national crime rate. Despite significant controversy over the accuracy of the statistics, these reports received a great deal of publicity and were offered as further evidence of the breakdown in lawfulness, morality, and social stability.

In this account, the stress is not on crime itself but on the FBI's reporting, about which we are told there is significant controversy. But even accounting for problems with the FBI's crime statistics, there is no doubt that crime increased dramatically. Nor were white conservatives such as Nixon and Goldwater alone in demanding more punitive crime policy. In The Politics of Imprisonment, Vanessa Barker describes how, in the late 1960s, black activists in Harlem fought for what would become the notorious Rockefeller drug laws, some of the harshest in the nation. Harlem residents were outraged over rising crime (including drug crime) in their neighborhoods and demanded increased police presence and stiffer penalties. The NAACP Citizens' Mobilization Against Crime demanded lengthening minimum prison terms for muggers, pushers, [and first] degree murderers. The city's leading black newspaper, The Amsterdam News, advocated mandatory life sentences for the non-addict drug pusher of hard drugs because such drug dealing is an act of cold, calculated, pre-meditated, indiscriminate murder of our community.

Rising levels of violent crime and demands by black activists for harsher sentences have no place in the New Jim Crow account of mass incarceration's rise. As a result, the Jim Crow analogy promotes a reductive account of mass incarceration's complex history in which, as Alexander puts it, proponents of racial hierarchy found they could install a new racial caste system.