Confronting Legacies of Enslavement: Elizabeth Hinton

The author and Harvard Professor discusses “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime,” which traces the roots of mass incarceration in the United States.

The author and Harvard Professor discusses “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime,” which traces the roots of mass incarceration in the United States.

“Ultimately, however, the bipartisan consensus of policymakers fixated on the policing of urban space and eventually removing generations of young men and women of color from their communities to live inside prisons. We can excuse the set of actions and choices these historical actors made as a product of their time or as merely an electoral tactic, but by doing so, we will continue to avoid confronting legacies of enslavement that still prevent the nation from fully realizing the promise of its founding principles.”

– Elizabeth Hinton

Elizabeth Hinton

Elizabeth Hinton is Assistant Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She earned her Ph.D. in United States History from Columbia University in 2013, while her undergraduate studies were completed at New York University in 2005. Ms. Hinton was raised in Michigan.

She has become a leading expert on the problem of mass incarceration in the United States, appearing to discuss it on The Tavis Smiley Show and NPR among other programs.

Purchase From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime:

OR: I wanted to start by simply defining the problem of mass incarceration. I think by this point most everyone agrees that the problem exists, but could you talk a little about what we’re dealing with? How does the United States compare with the rest of the world and with its own history in incarcerating its population?

EH: The U.S. has the largest prison system on the entire planet and the prison population within the United States has dramatically exploded during the last fifty years. It has become such a misuse of funds, in my opinion, so that in states like Michigan, or Georgia, or California, more money is spent by the state on imprisoning people than on educating them.

The statistics for men of color, particularly African-American men, are particularly grim. If current trends continue one in three African American men will spend time at some point in their lives behind bars as well as one in six Latino men. Right now, it is one in sixteen white men. So, this is really a system with a disproportionate impact on low income people in general, but on black and Latino men and women in particular.




OR: Much of my background is in economics, so when I first started reading about the issue I blindly and naively assumed that sifting through the numbers might give some simple answers as to the causes. But, that’s not the case. I’m curious if there was a moment for you when it clicked how complex the origins of this problem are and that it should become a major focus of your research.

EH: When I started doing the work in the early 2000s there wasn’t as much recognition about the federal government’s role in precipitating mass incarceration, in part because law enforcement and prisons are run at the state and local level. It wasn’t acknowledged and was much more invisible. People also assumed that the phenomenon of mass incarceration was the product of policies during the Reagan administration.

Some scholars, like Christian Parenti, the sociologist, look to the war on drugs or drug policies introduced in the Nixon administration and so I began my research in the archives of the White House Central Files of the Nixon administration and I realized once I got into those documents that I needed to go back to Johnson. When I got to the Johnson documents, I realized that I needed to go back to Kennedy.

The irony that I found in considering this development as a historical process is that the origins of these policies begin at the height of progressive social change in the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s. In wading through the debates of policymakers and officials about crime control, you really begin to see that these developments are the outcome of sets of decisions on the part of policymakers at all levels of government, not just the federal government. This isn’t something that just arose naturally, this was something that was debated, considered, and weighed by the policymakers and they decided to take a certain path as a response to demographic and social realities.

OR: You mentioned that the story really goes back to JFK and the Kennedy administration. He was also the first president to tackle civil rights issues in a meaningful way. You talk in the book about how deeply afraid his advisers were about what would happen with unemployed, urban, black men – I forget the phrase now, it’s not “ticking time bomb”….

EH: …Social dynamite.

OR: Yes, that’s it. So, what approach did Kennedy and his advisers take to try and remedy these fears that they held?

EH: What’s really interesting is that the policies of the Kennedy administration were experimental programs that were framed as anti-juvenile delinquency initiatives in sixteen cities that then get implemented on the national level as the war on poverty.

They wanted to launch a delinquency program that didn’t just lock up kids or deploy police forces in these targeted cities. They considered the viewpoints of social scientists from within the administration that saw delinquency as the product of environments and the product of little educational opportunity while living in dilapidated homes or in a broken family or one with marital strife or not having access to employment.

So, there is a comprehensive anti-delinquency program that made interventions in the lives and homes of the mostly black youth who were the targets of the program. Kennedy very much saw himself as fulfilling the promises that were unanswered and failed following the Civil War and Reconstruction. It’s in his administration that we get for the first time an intervention at the federal level that explicitly targets low-income black Americans for social welfare programs. This was an unprecedented move on his part and it began with the delinquency programs that he implemented by executive order. From this we get the first pre-kindergarten programs that became Head Start and the domestic Peace Corps, where you had volunteers going into places like the Lower East Side and Harlem just as they would go to Africa or other parts of the developing world. These get implemented on a national scale.

President Kennedy’s statement on the Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime from May 31, 1962. In it he says, “Certainly, the problems must be solved at the local level but the State and Federal governments also have a major responsibility.” From the JFK Presidential Library and Museum.

Lyndon Johnson supports these programs with a lot more money and not by executive order, but by major legislation. The origins of the legislation are seen in the Kennedy administration and they’re really intended to be a crime control program to prevent delinquency before it happens through social intervention.

OR: There was a book written in the 1970s called The Best and the Brightest. It was about the Vietnam War and was written by David Halberstam. He argued that Kennedy’s cabinet of whiz-kids were so confident in their own talents and judgments that they ignored people with more experience and that was a major contributing factor to the Vietnam War. I raise that issue to ask if maybe that same attitude is part of the origins of the problem – an attitude that we can engineer any outcome that we want because we’re smart enough to figure it out?

EH: I think the arrogance that we see is evident in some of the limitations of the war on poverty and in the community action programs of the Johnson administration. What’s exciting about Kennedy is that academics and social scientists actually had a really prominent role in shaping policy.

One of the things that I argue in the book is that in, at least rhetorically, seeking to empower communities to identify the sources of their own problems and to work to solve them themselves, which is the principle of maximum feasible participation was resisted by the planners of the Kennedy delinquency programs and the Johnson community action agencies. They resisted giving grassroots organizations and the residents themselves real power over the implementation of programs. So, the idea was really that these experts knew best how to solve the problems of a community and that ultimately leads to many of the shortcomings of both programs, but especially the war on poverty.

The root of this unwillingness to allow grassroots people to take a prominent leadership role in implementing and determining how best to use these newly available federal funds has to do with policymakers and social scientists own racism regarding the residents of these communities and their understanding of poverty as a result of ideology rather than socioeconomic exclusion and exploitation.

OR: I don’t want to seem too reductionist, but it seems that one of the main points with Kennedy is that even though he’s not a nefarious player, he created the platform by which there was an excuse for the federal government to involve themselves in areas of life that they hadn’t before. With Johnson, the turning point seems to be the OLEA. I was wondering if you could talk about that and how that changed policing in this country so fundamentally.

EH: Yes, fundamentally. Kennedy began this trend of targeted intervention in black urban areas that Johnson expanded. What is interesting is that you get this kind of anti-delinquency intervention that functions as a war on poverty. Johnson disentangles the two and says that we’re going to fight both the war on poverty and the war on crime and establishes the Office of Law Enforcement Assistance (OLEA) in the first piece of federal crime control legislation that involves direct local assistance to local and state law enforcement authorities in 1965.

LBJ signs the Economic Opportunity Act in 1964 as part of a war on poverty.

So, Johnson’s response to the demographic changes of the 1950s and 1960s and the rising Civil Rights movement was a carrot and stick approach where you get the launch of the war on poverty to address what policymakers in the Johnson administration recognized were the root causes of crime. Johnson himself saw poverty as the root cause of crime. Then you get this war on crime that would be fought by helping urban police departments deal with and prevent urban unrest.

Remember, the Kennedy administration had been aware that urban uprising and rioting was a real possibility, which is why they launched these meddling anti-delinquency programs to prevent what you mentioned, “social dynamite” from exploding. But, because these programs didn’t go far enough in solving the problems that black Americans faced at the time in terms of educational access, employment, housing conditions, exploitative and exclusionary institutions – these cities did indeed begin to explode in the summer of 1964, first in Harlem and then Chicago and Philadelphia and Rochester. So, Johnson begins the war on crime in part to assist urban police in handling these incidents as they occurred as well as to implement policing strategies that might prevent them happening in the first place.

Rioting in Harlem in 1964. Events such as this one, influenced policymakers in their desire to control crime.

So, this marked an unprecedented investment on the part of the federal government in local police departments and changes the face of American policing.

OR: During this period, Civil Rights leaders had to be thrilled with certain moments of progress that were being made. During this period, we get the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. But, as you mentioned its coupled with the seeds of future problems. Do we know how contemporary Civil Rights leaders, somebody like Martin Luther King, Jr., felt about this war on crime? Or was this something that snuck up on people and the negative consequences weren’t recognized until it was too late because it was already so entrenched?

EH: I think people reacted to Johnson’s assessment of the urban uprisings. That complicated the scene because although violent crime wasn’t rising, people saw this unprecedented wave of violence that was sustained through these insatiable depictions of urban unrest. In fact, violent crime at the time was less than it was earlier in the twentieth century.

I also think that these incidents were very much rooted in Civil Rights and mainstream Civil Rights grievances about access to jobs and access for resources for an inclusive American society. They were able to sell this to the American people in part by the idea that certain populations of Americans were lawless and needed to be controlled.

Safety was an issue for every American and African Americans wanted safe neighborhoods as much as anybody else.

OR: There’s a quote in your book that I think in context was referring to Johnson’s cabinet, “Policymakers believed that criminal pathology explained the high rates of reported crime in African American neighborhoods.” What does that mean? Was there really a strong belief that simply being black was an indicator of criminal activity?

EH: The links between blackness and criminality have long been established in the United States before Johnson took office. One of my colleagues, Khalil Muhammad, writes about this in his groundbreaking new book called The Condemnation of Blackness, the ways in which in the decades after emancipation these ideas about innate criminality among black Americans arose among policymakers and social scientists and even progressive reformers. They were based largely on the disparate rates of newly freed people serving time in prison. So, I think the trope of black criminality is one of the most enduring myths in the United States. These ideas had floated around for a long time.

What’s different in the 1960s is the influence of social scientists on what policymakers understood about black poverty and the approach to trying to solve the problem.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had worked in the Kennedy administration and the Johnson administration in the Department of Labor was extremely influential through a report he released in March 1965, where he argued that this is a pathology that was rooted in slavery and then got passed down from one generation to another, so that it was less rooted in socio-economic circumstances than in cultural behavior.

In Johnson’s view, poverty was the cause of crime, but in viewing black pathology as the cause of black poverty, it’s easy to draw the link between crime and pathology as well.

OR: Nixon wins the presidency in 1968. LBJ had implemented this “carrot and stick” approach. How did Nixon change the policy again for fighting crime in the country?

EH: Nixon didn’t necessarily see crime and poverty from the same comprehensive angle as Johnson and Kennedy did. He took the punitive policies that Johnson introduced and ran with them. Even though in the latter half of the Johnson administration the war on crime and the war on poverty become entangled, Nixon disinvests from the social welfare programs and takes law enforcement to an even more prominent role in urban lives. In some cases, you have the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), which is the more permanent, expansive agency that grew out of the Office of Law Enforcement Assistance, you have the LEAA administering programs that had once been under the purview of the Office of Economic Opportunity.

You also have this kind of turn in the Nixon administration as to what these ideas are about. Johnson and Kennedy had these social welfare programs as a means to prevent crime and the Nixon administration saw them as complete failures and that best way to approach the problem of urban crime was to make sure that areas with high rates of reported crime are adequately patrolled.

You also see a shift in sentencing during that period. Nixon began a massive investment in prison construction at the federal level and imposes goals on the states that succeeded in influencing more draconian sentencing policies.

They began with the idea that social welfare programs cannot adequately deal with the crime problem in the United States and ended with a growing sense that the best way to deal with crime is to identify criminals, remove them from the streets, and lock them up in prison for extremely long terms. So, Nixon has a different ethos that’s in some ways more sinister.

I really do believe that Kennedy and Johnson were misguided in their vision, but were really trying to improve American society and trying to offer people greater opportunity, and I don’t think that was part of the Nixon agenda.

OR: John Pfaff from Fordham has done some incredible research on some of these trends and one that jumped out at me was that between 1994 and 2008, prosecutors went from charging one in three arrested individuals with a felony to two in three. Has the problem today shifted from policing to what happens after the arrest?

EH: It has to do with all components of the system and if we’re going to reform, it can’t just be reform sentencing practices. We can’t just urge prosecutors to not charge people with the maximum penalty at the rate that they do. We have to rethink our policing practices and how we deploy police forces and we have to rethink giving judges different degrees of power in determining sentencing.

We have to look at the kinds of programs that the federal government supports and the kinds of programs state governments support and see how we can have a more rehabilitative approach or maybe a more preventative approach. If we’re just going to reform the ways people are charged, it may not make a severe dent in our rate of imprisonment.

If we just de-escalated the war on drugs, which some states are beginning to do like California, and released people who are charged with nonviolent drug crimes, we would still be home to the largest prison system on the planet. So, it’s going to require a large transformation in all sectors and probably a major investment in social welfare programs.

OR: It seems to me that a central theme of American history is this constant psychological need for white America to control black America. We see that Jim Crow and we see it culturally within things like minstrelsy. With that kind of deep and pervasive psychology, do we have hope of ever really reversing the trends if we don’t reverse the psychology?

EH: Right. If we’re really going to deal with this we can’t without simultaneously dealing with racism and a history of racial oppression in the United States.

It is important to reckon with your history in order to move forward and also, as you say, really recognize and address the fact that racism has pervaded the psyche of this nation and if we want to make meaningful and lasting change, we’ve got to all work towards fostering a more inclusive society. Maybe the first step in doing that is coming to terms with our history.

OR: There is certainly a long road still ahead of us.

Thanks so much for your time today. It’s been a pleasure.


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