A Harvard historian examines the origins of “the foremost civil rights issue of our time.”
Over the past two years, deadly confrontations between police and young African-Americans, the demonstrations and movements these incidents inspired, and subsequent commentaries by writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates have forced the issues of aggressive police practices and mass incarceration to the forefront of our national consciousness. Now comes Hinton (History and African and African-American Studies/Harvard Univ.; co-editor: The New Black History: Revisiting the Second Reconstruction, 2011) to remind us that these problems were a long time in the making. As the author demonstrates, President Richard Nixon’s war on crime, Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs, and George W. Bush’s war on terror played roles in ratcheting up the militarization of police forces and the surveillance of the inner city. All contributed mightily to the vastly disproportionate numbers of African-Americans and Latinos currently filling our prisons. But Hinton goes even further back to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and the unfortunate yoking of anti-poverty legislation with anti-crime laws. This unprecedented infusion of the federal government’s authority, muscle, and dollars into crime prevention—primarily through the aegis of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration—distorted and eventually overwhelmed efforts to combat unemployment, address housing, and improve education. Academic readers will appreciate Hinton’s archival deep dive into the various and successive congressional acts responsible, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes not, for what amounts in her terms to criminalizing poverty. She discusses the prevailing social science theories that informed those laws—James Q. Wilson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan take a beating—and frequently cites official reports and informal intergovernmental communications that expose the policymakers’ thinking. General readers will be appalled at her portrayal of outrageous police practices, all fueled with LEAA money, that contributed to the agency’s reputation as a “bureaucratic monster.”
Those whose politics differ from Hinton’s will likely be inclined to quarrel with her diagnosis, but they’ll be obliged to grapple with her fact-filled, scholarly argument.