Does America accept the moral necessity of a war on crime despite its clear tendency to reinforce almost every aspect of racialized disadvantage and disparity, or is that war on crime a barely disguised strategy to maintain a system of unequal citizenship on the basis of race?
The historical pattern is consistent with both interpretations. The beginning of efforts to reshape governance around the problem of repressing violent crime coincided with the high water mark of the civil rights movement from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970. Many of the astounding gains achieved that movement have been visibly weakened (according to Bryan Stephenson, black male disenfranchisement in his home state of Alabama due to felon disenfranchisement laws is approach the levels that prevailed before the Voting Rights Act of 1965). Moreover the white southern elite, discredited by segregation, were able to strike a much better deal wit the national parties after Richard Nixon's "law and order" plus "southern strategy" worked in attracting Northern Democrats in 1968. The present system of mass incarceration, produces a toxic mix of effects on communities of color, lowering their social and economic viability while squelching their political voice all at once (Bruce Western's new book, Punishment and Inequality, spells all this out in convincing detail).
Clearly some Americans who wanted to reverse the Civil Rights movement, found in crime control, a new model of government through which to continue the campaign for "white mans government." (Katherine Beckett makes this case in Making Crime Pay). But many other Americans who were genuinely moved by the cultural force of the Civil Rights movement, found the problem of violent crime a compelling moral mandate to transform both their expectations of government and their own governing activity (in the home, workplace, community). It was these Americans who politicians like LBJ and Robert Kennedy hoped to reach with the crime commission put in place in 1965 and the promise of a growing federal role in crime control. They clearly didn't want to reverse the impact of Civil Rights legislation they had just supported (although they may have seen it as a kind of balancing act, substituting one kind of hopefully race neutral social control for another expressly racist variant).
Crime control had always been a potent way to govern in America. As recent histories of the 1930s show, war on crime was explicit theme of the early New Deal. Had the reactionary Supreme Court succeeded in shutting off the economic recovery strategy completely, we might have seen a much bigger war on crime in the mid-30s. But like the New Deal itself, governing through crime brought along two quite inconsistent but racially charged traditions. One tradition is the long chain of populist law enforcement and racial violence going back to the "slave patrols" and continuing into the racially charged urban police forces of the 20th century. The other tradition is associated with bureaucratic centralization, professionalism, and positivist criminology. The populist tradition has often been associated with visceral express racism. The professional criminological tradition generally rejected and disparaged that kind of racism, but was profoundly influenced by the tradition of scientific racism, by which the disadvantages of Africans and other colored races were attributed to biological and cultural inferiority (epitomized by the influential work of Cesare Lombroso, see David Horn's The Criminal Body and the new translation of L'Uomo Delinquente done by Mary Gibson and Nicole Hahn Rafter). This generally liberal tradition would eventually repudiate scientific racism as well, but the association between social pathology, crime, and non-white racial status would remain. Moreover, as an approach to governmental action, this progressive wing of criminology has always pushed for earlier intervention. Crime is a product of social pathology that produces early signs of deviance that can be themselves made eligible for intervention through criminalization.
So back to the 1960s for a moment. As both liberal and conservative politicians find in crime a politically viable surface on which to rework post-New Deal strategies of governance, they are investing in both of these traditions; more racially tinged populist punitiveness, and more focus on social pathology and more criminalization of pathological behavior. Moreover, deep economic restructuring, beginning in the 1970s and continuing into the 1980s is producing a collapse of the inner city economies on which the many communities of color still depended. The predictable result was a vast increase in the amount of social pathology to be criminalized, and deep concentration of this pathology inside communities of color (the emergence of the underclass).
Two things follow.
In an era of governing through crime it may be relatively easy to fight the racist implications of populist punitiveness (racial profiling and Frank Rizzo style racist policing are largely discredited), but very hard to stop the professional criminological focus on pathology from reinforcing the racial disadvantages of the war on crime. Thus the hidden danger in all the talk around re-entry about risk assessment and rehabilitation is to deepen the assumption that social pathology must be treated as crime in ways that will structurally disadvantage communities of color.
The struggle against mass imprisonment must become a struggle against the priority of crime over American governance.