Friday, May 18, 2007

Governing through Crime or Governing by Race

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.


Dr. Victor M. Rios said...

Right on point. For many on the Right "moral poverty" as Bennet and Dillulio (1996) call it is a "criminogenic" pathology. therefore, they argue, there is no use in providing social services to the poor since, they are not materially poor but rather morally poor--according to them, no amount of money or resources can bring morallity back into the inner city (except of course faith based initiatives which Dillulio later became the head of in 2000 or so).

it seems to me that Bennet and Dillulio were pioneering a governing through crime that would eventually impact many racialized innner-city youth for years to come (I have traced how their "superpredator" thesis would later impact the passing of Proposition 21--that in my account criminalized a generation of youth--in California)

JSN said...

It is good business to export the poor. They live in substandard low value housing that is often located in a central area that could be rebuilt and sold at high prices if the poor were exported. There would other advantages;
1) they poor use many social services so those costs would go down.
2) crime rates would go down reducing the pressure on an overloaded criminal justice system.
3) fire insurance rates would be reduced
4) pressure on the emergency medical providers would be reduced
5) the tax base would be increased at the same time that expenditures are being reduced so a property tax rate reduction is possible.

On the other hand if a community is importing the poor exported from some other community there are no advantages.

Anonymous said...

I like this blog. we should use it to include some of the repercussions of governing through crime. For example, the Chronicle reported this morning that soon California will be paying as much for prisons as it is for higher education. We should be increasing our spaces in institutions of higher education if we wish decrease the number of prison beds.

JSN said...

I was able to observe the process of exporting the poor in Portland Oregon. The crack dealers would move into a neighborhood and the renters would move out immediately. The people who were purchasing a house would stay for awhile but would then move losing their equity (the mortgage owner would be stuck with a house nobody would buy). The home owners would stay the longest finally selling at a huge loss to a speculator. In this case the newly made poor were exported by the drug dealers.

A savings and loan company failed as a result and they turned over all of the boarded up houses they owned to Habitat for Humanity. When Habitat for Humanity would demolish an old house and rebuild or rehab a house in better condition the land values would go up to near their previous value and the speculators would then fix up their houses and sell them making a large profit. At this stage the previous residents could no longer afford to live in that neighborhood.

There were pockets in Portland of boarded up houses that probably by now have been demolished and rebuilt or rehabbed. No doubt this process is not restricted to Portland.

Jonathan Simon said...

I would just an additional addendum to my post to emphasize that the governing through crime is inextricably bound up with governing by race because of both the populist and professional roots of the ideas of criminal dangerousness that are embedded in crime as a target of governance.

I want to consider the transfer the poor thesis in a subsequent post. Victor Rios and I (along with Deborah Lustig) will be looking at aspects of that in a study of gentrifying neighborhoods we hope to launch next year.

Unknown said...

Over use of sociological and technical terms sometimes prevents real communication or confuses the explanation of concepts. Terms like social pathology or pathological or the like seem confusing to me. I am not sure I understand all of this article.

I think that simpler language or an explanation of complicated terms might make this article better.

It is true, I think that the application of the law can have a disproportionate impact on minorities such as the difference in the application of penalties for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. According to some statistics (which can be manipulated) there are more black Americans in College than in prison but many minorities and caucasians assume the opposite to be true. (There is a web site for the video --- was played on c-span -- but I forgot the link to the web site).
There are theories that the "welfare" state and the nanny state have contributed to the decline of the black American family by forcing black men out so the family can get social assistance. Not sure I agree with this theory but it is interesting... conditioning social assistance on the man (white or black) not being there for the family seems like a mistake to me.

The destruction of the middle class by over-seas competition and public policies that seem to be opposed to middle class may be due to more than just the application of criminal justice system laws and there might be more involved than that. Voting is only 10% of the answer by the way --- real change will require more than merely voting....... By Glen R. Graham, Tulsa, OK and