Michael Slate Interview with Elizabeth Hinton

From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime... and the “Social Dynamite” the System Feared

February 19, 2018 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


The following is excerpted from an interview with Elizabeth Hinton, portions of which were broadcast on February 9, 2018 on The Michael Slate Show on KPFK Pacifica radio.

The Michael Slate Show airs every Friday at 10 am Pacific Time on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles, a Pacifica Network station. The show can be streamed live here and people can listen to or download archived shows here.

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Michael Slate: Elizabeth Hinton is the author of the book, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America. In the United States today one in every 31 adults is under some form of penal control including one in 11 African American men. In a work vivid with detail and sharp analysis Elizabeth Hinton challenges the accepted belief that mass incarceration originated with the Reagan administration. Rather, she traces its rise to an ironic source: the social welfare programs of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society at the height of the Civil Rights era. So I wanted to ask you this: why this book?

Elizabeth Hinton: Well I grew up in the 1980s. I am on the older side of the millennial generation so I witnessed first-hand the impact of crack and crime on my family, but I also understood the larger socioeconomic context that led some members of my family to go in and out of prison and it wasn’t until I was much older in my 20s, in graduate school, that I began to visit family and loved ones in prison in the state of California.

A lot of us who have incarcerated family members feel a lot of shame about that so it took me a while to be able to actually go visit them and come to terms with it in different ways. When I stepped onto the campus on High Desert State Prison in Susanville, California, I was just astounded. This was in 2005, and this was a time when mass incarceration itself wasn’t talked about. It wasn’t quite the catch phrase that it is now; it was way more invisible. I could not believe what I saw, which is generations of mostly Black and Brown men behind bars, interacting with their families and their children, and in this carceral place where guards are watching every move. They won’t let you touch. The process of going to visit somebody means that you’re criminalized yourself, in the search, in the registration for visitation. I really wanted to try to understand how we got to this place. How, in the United States of America, the so-called land of the free, where all of us are created equal, were there entire groups and entire generations of men of color behind bars? I wanted to understand the historical process that made it happen. So that’s kind of the personal aspect.

The other is that I had studied in undergraduate and wanted to study in graduate school, the Black Power Movement, Black Power politics. I was really interested in the 1960s and what happened to this promise of civil rights and I noticed as I began to dive into various Black power organizations that there was a real gap in the literature, in the historiography on Black Power in that era, on the transformation of federal policy. We had a much better understanding of groups like the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army and Stokely Carmichael, but we lacked this understanding of the ways in which racism still profoundly shaped federal policy after the Civil Rights Movement. So I started to come to this question of how did the Federal government ultimately respond to the Civil Rights Movement and the enlightened protest of the 1960s? This kind of turn towards punitive policy emerged for me as the foremost answer to that question.

Michael Slate: Now 50 years ago, more or less, Lyndon Johnson called for a War on Poverty along with a war on crime?

Elizabeth Hinton: He declared both and that was one of the surprises for me as I began the research. We don’t talk about Johnson’s role as the architect of modern American law enforcement but he was the first in 1965, the week before he sent the Voting Rights Act to Congress, to declare an all-out war on crime. So this was a year after he declared the war on poverty, the next year he follows it up with this declaration of a war on crime.

Michael Slate: You make a point that since then, prisons, jails, law enforcement institutions, they’ve all functioned as the central engine of a big part of American society. Let’s talk about that.

Elizabeth Hinton: The way I see it in part, there was a crisis, there was a social and demographic and structural crisis going on in the 1960s. Cities are transforming, middle class and especially white residents are increasingly moving to the suburbs, and you have a growing population of low-income African American youth who are coming into major parts of significant American cities like Cleveland by the early 1960s, with Black Americans about one-third of the population in Detroit and Washington, D.C. and at the same time this is the moment when domestic manufacturing is really starting to decline in plants. The former Midwest and Rust Belt are closing so here you have this growing population of low-income people of color and there aren’t jobs for them. So this begins to become a real issue that policy makers are concerned about in the Kennedy administration. They say, “OK, we have to do something about what’s going in American cities because of these Black youth.” This is what Kennedy officials and social scientists used to call this group: “This group is social dynamite and if we don’t provide programs for them they’re going to explode.” Initially this comes in the form of juvenile delinquency programs. The Kennedy Administration, then the Johnson kind of expands this into a larger war on poverty that’s implemented nationwide.

At the same time Johnson kind of offers this carrot and stick approach, which is kind of this softer, social programs, social welfare programs, but also the rise of new police programs, the beginnings of the militarization of urban police forces, not during the war on terror which many people thought to explain how we got the kind of armor and tanks that we saw in Ferguson and the military rifles. This actually begins in the 1960s in the context of the Vietnam War. So Johnson begins at the same time initiating this massive and very promising and important social program. So Johnson kind of plants the seeds of this punitive response to problems of failing public schools and unemployment and deteriorating housing conditions and eventually these kinds of crime control programs begin to take precedence over the social welfare programs. We really see this transition take hold very firmly during the Nixon administration where social welfare programs are defunded.

As for crime control programs, Congress gives them greater and greater allocations and eventually under the Department of Justice and the grant-making administration that Johnson sets up, the law enforcement administration programs that had previously been administrated by the Office of Economic Opportunity come to be administrated by law enforcement officials. So you’ve got things like employment programs, after school programs that increasingly police are running by the 1970s. So in terms of the engine of inequality, it’s part of this approach that policy makers begin to take in the 1960s at the federal level that is a response to socioeconomic conditions and poverty, with police and surveillance and then eventually incarceration.

Michael Slate: When Johnson came into power there was actually an upsurge of rebellion that happened in this country. Johnson was very, very afraid of—what were these things harbingers of? What did they say about the future? He was very motivated by the fact that he needed to control people who could actually strike at the heart of this system.

Elizabeth Hinton: Right, and that’s actually a central part of my argument. It’s interesting that the social dynamite that Kennedy and then Johnson officials feared did indeed explode in the absence of major structural changes in 1964. There was a series of unrests, uprisings beginning with Harlem, Philadelphia, Chicago, Rochester, NY, where the National Guard was actually deployed and this was the first moment that the social dynamite exploded on a mass basis and I see Johnson’s call for the war on crime that previous spring as a preemptive measure to prevent future unrests. This was part of why he was so concerned with getting urban police forces with military-grade weapons in order to better manage these uprisings should they occur in cities. As the war on crime escalates and more money becomes allocated to the war on crime, the uprisings do, indeed, increase.

Simultaneously the program—the War on Poverty—being increasingly entangled with police officers and they’re taking on new roles in social programs. In the first year the War on Poverty was steered by this really amazing principle of maximum feasible participation. The idea was that federal grants would go directly to local organizations and local organizations would determine the causes and the solutions to poverty in their communities on their own terms. Increasingly in the aftermath of especially the Watts Uprising in the summer of ‘65 those autonomous grassroots organizations are increasingly forced to partner with municipal authorities and more formal organizations in order to receive federal funding. Johnson eventually requires that programs like model cities, community action programs, partner with and include police officers and law enforcement as well as local authorities in their decision-making process. So the War on Poverty itself has this kind of early moment where grassroots organizations are able to use these federal funds on their own terms or receive federal funding directly and that quickly begins to change.

Michael Slate: You bring out these quotes from Nixon, where he tells his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman that the whole problem is really the Blacks and the key is to devise a system that recognizes this without appearing to. And then how Nixon made comments to John Ehrlichman about how the war on drugs is really this cover to arrest hippies and Black people. You point out how with this intentional and sinister aspect to Nixon’s policies, he takes the punitive elements, the crime control programs, that Johnson introduces and runs with them. Nixon also had this thing that “Black cultural pathology is the cause of crime,” which I think is actually really important for people to think about and get into because that lays the basis for actually, not just the continued oppression of Black people but actually the genocidal assault on Black people as a people.

Elizabeth Hinton: I mean Nixon really embraces the idea that somehow, and when I say Nixon I’m also talking about the officials in his administration and many members of Congress and the federal government, really begin to embrace this idea as crime continues to escalate in the era of the War on Crime, that Black people are somehow inherently, innately criminal. Instead of reevaluating these programs which had failed because the underlying structural issues that lead to crime remained unaddressed, policy makers continued to just throw more money at incarceration, surveillance and policing and under this idea that, “OK, well nothing works, there’s nothing that can be done to help these people,” to kind of get into the mindset of Nixon, and so our only option is to police them and incarcerate them. That’s part of the logic that leads to his major $500 million, which is like 1.5 billion in today’s dollars, prison construction project that gets initiated in 1970.

These programs, these ideas, lay the groundwork for Reagan and the War on Drugs. I think a lot of people assume that mass incarceration and the types of policing that we’re more aware of today that have been going on for some time emerged with Reagan and really, Reagan steps into a process that began with the Johnson administration and that really took on an entirely new level, especially in respect to prisons and incarceration during the Nixon administration.

Michael Slate: At one point, white people made up the majority of people in jail....

Elizabeth Hinton: And that begins to change during the Nixon administration.

Michael Slate: Yeah, and very dramatically. Let’s talk about that.

Elizabeth Hinton: So the thing that gets introduced most consequentially in terms of thinking about mass incarceration is a massive prison construction project. So again this goes into the way someone sees policy. These crime control and law enforcement policies are based on potential crime or projected crime. Nixon calls the Bureau of Prisons to completely overhaul the prisons at the federal level as a model for the states and they begin to make these projections of what the prison population will be - in 1970 they begin to make these predictions of what prisons will be in 1980 and those projections are based, again, projections made by the Kerner Commission and the Crime Commission on the ways in which the population of Black youth would grow. So they’re based on, again, that troublesome population for policy makers which is how many Black youth are in this country between the ages of 15 and 24 that are really the kind of group that is responsible for most of the nation’s crime as policy makers believed. So based on these projections of Black youth populations which later proved to be false in the mid-70s, Nixon begins this major prison construction project and basically incentivizes states to start building prisons.

When I came across these planning documents in the Nixon archives they were very chilling to me because the idea is that mass incarceration arose because there were real crime problems and it was kind of the natural response to what was going on on the ground and here you see policy makers actually building prisons based on what might happen in the future. I’m still trying to wrap my head around how you can project for prison populations. The tragic irony of this, and this again reflects these general priorities and this intentionality and the racism in the policies, the Congressional Research Service in the mid-’70s began to draw correlations between unemployment and prison populations and so instead of using unemployment rates to say OK, why don’t we provide people with jobs so they won’t turn to crime, the Bureau of Prisons in the Nixon and Ford administrations begin to say OK, based on our unemployment rates we need to build more prisons.



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