The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

America’s tough approach to policing black communities began as a liberal idea

(Washington Post illustration)

Two years ago in Ferguson, Mo., when residents marched to protest Michael Brown’s death, the police responded with tear gas and SWAT teams trained in military tactics. Viral photographs showed unarmed protesters facing down phalanxes of armored vehicles. For many African Americans, it seemed like the perfect metaphor for how law enforcement has treated them in recent decades.

The Black Lives Matter movement began as a response to violence against black people, often at the hands of police. But activists quickly acknowledged that the problem was much larger than that. The problem was black poverty, the persistently high black unemployment rate, the overpolicing of black neighborhoods. The problem was Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs, Bill Clinton’s crime bill and the massive, disproportionate incarceration of black men.

How did we get here — from the optimism of the civil rights movement to riots and rubber bullets in Ferguson? In her new book, “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime,” which comes out May 9, Harvard historian Elizabeth Hinton pinpoints the moment when things started to go sour. The problem didn’t originate with Clinton, or Nixon, or Ronald Reagan, she says, though each amplified it in his own way. The roots of today’s crisis reach back further.

Hinton argues that the current regime of militarized policing and mass incarceration, which has done so much to suppress the opportunities for African Americans, was set into motion by a liberal hero — Lyndon Johnson, the same president who signed the Civil Rights Act and who oversaw the greatest expansion of social services since the New Deal. Johnson is a celebrated figure among liberals, who remember him for launching the War on Poverty, which created Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start; formalized a national program for food stamps; and founded the Job Corps to train people for employment.

But Johnson also kicked off the nation’s decades-long focus on police enforcement in black communities. And that fact is often forgotten, Hinton says. 

“Most of the discussion about the rise of mass incarceration has focused on the war on drugs or the policies of the Reagan administration,” Hinton said recently over the phone. “But Reagan stepped into 15 years of a national crime-control policy that really began — ironically and tragically — at the height of the civil rights revolution, during a time of sweeping liberal reforms.”

“Policymakers recognized that unemployment was a major issue driving these incidents, even though the the proximate cause was police brutality,” Hinton says. “Much of the rioting itself was rooted in very similar grievances as the mainstream civil rights movement.”

Demographic forces were in part to blame for the situation. After World War II, black migration out of the South accelerated — between 1940 and 1980, roughly 5 million black Southerners moved to cities in the North and West. Places like Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and Harlem grew into major black metropolises. Economists Robert Fairlie and William Sundstrom estimate that the South lost about 17 percent of its workforce between 1940 and 1960 alone.

But as they arrived in the North starting in the 1940s, black workers learned that jobs weren’t as plentiful as they had hoped. Fairlie and Sundstrom say that between 1880 and 1940, the unemployment rate for black and white men was more or less the same. After 1940, their fates began to diverge. In 1950, the white unemployment rate was around 4 percent, but the black unemployment rate was around 7 percent. That inequality has persisted to this day.

[America has locked up so many black people it has warped our sense of reality]

In the early 1960s, politicians began to describe the concentration of black urban poverty as “social dynamite.” The term, Hinton says, was coined by former Harvard president James B. Conant, who told policymakers that the cities were essentially powder kegs. “The building up of a mass of unemployed and frustrated Negro youth in congested areas of a city is a social phenomenon that may be compared to the piling up of inflammable material in an empty building on a city block,” Conant said in 1961.

Even at this early stage, social policy was intertwined with crime control policy. As Hinton writes, Johnson’s War on Poverty “is best understood not as an effort to broadly uplift communities or as a moral crusade to transform society by combating inequality or want, but as a manifestation of fear about urban disorder and about the behavior of young people, particularly young African Americans.”

President John F. Kennedy sought to soothe tensions with urban anti-delinquency programs designed to instill moral character into youths. He started the early-childhood education and vocational training efforts that Johnson would later expand into Head Start and the Job Corps under the umbrella of his War on Poverty. The Economic Opportunity of Act of 1964, one of Johnson’s major legislative accomplishments, also created a domestic version of the Peace Corps, sending young do-gooders into impoverished neighborhoods to make change.

These were well-intentioned efforts, Hinton says, but they fell far short. For urban African Americans, the War on Poverty could better be described as a war on the culture of poverty. Politicians did see the connection between poverty and crime. They recognized how one fed the other, and vice versa. But instead of trying to create jobs or substantially increase welfare payments to families, they fixated on what the influential Moynihan report, echoing the views of many social scientists, called in 1965 the “social pathologies” of black urban life.

“In a word, a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure,” concluded the report. “The object should be to strengthen the Negro family so as to enable it to raise and support its members as do other families.” For all its good intentions, the Moynihan report reinforced the idea that there was something particularly wrong with black America — that centuries of slavery and oppression had inculcated dangerous habits.

During his commencement address at Howard University in 1965, Johnson drew upon the ideas in Moynihan’s report to make a distinction between white poverty and “Negro poverty.”

“Negro poverty is not white poverty,” Johnson said. “Many of its causes and many of its cures are the same. But there are differences — deep, corrosive, obstinate differences — radiating painful roots into the community, and into the family, and the nature of the individual.”

Johnson’s War on Poverty had a fatal fixation with reforming individuals instead of addressing the larger economic problems, Hinton says. In the book, she describes it as a short-sighted approach, “committing to vocational training and remedial education programs in the absence of job creation measures or an overhaul of urban public schools.” She writes:

Moynihan’s understanding of the urban crisis as rooted in black pathology provided the [Johnson] administration with a rationale for directing domestic programs specifically at the plight of black men while removing itself from accountability for the de facto restrictions, joblessness, and racism that perpetuated poverty and inequality.

It’s important to understand how the Johnson administration thought about poverty in the black community because of what happened next. Starting in the summer of 1964, race riots ripped through Northern cities including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Rochester, N.Y. Hundreds of people were injured, and thousands were arrested. The riots began with clashes between police and black citizens. In New York City, for instance, 15-year-old James Powell was killed by an off-duty white police officer, which led to six violent days of marching, looting and vandalism in Harlem. “The ‘social dynamite’ that had worried policymakers and officials at the outset of the decade had finally exploded, despite the Kennedy and Johnson administrations’ prevention efforts,” Hinton writes.

By 1965, Johnson had formulated a new initiative, what he called a “War on Crime.” He sent to Congress a sweeping new bill that would bulk up police forces with federal money and intensify patrols in urban areas. This would be the first significant intrusion of the federal government into local law enforcement, and it was the beginning of a long saga of escalating surveillance and control in urban areas.

In particular, Johnson played up the military flavor of the reforms. “We are today fighting a war within our own boundaries,” he said in 1966, likening the black urban unrest to a domestic Vietnam. His initiatives provided money for police to arm themselves with military equipment — “military-grade rifles, tanks, riot gear, walkie-talkies, helicopters, and bulletproof vests,” Hinton writes. As the riots intensified through the rest of the ’60s — some estimate over 700 incidents occurred between 1964 and 1971 — the administration increasingly began to shift money away from the War on Poverty and toward the War on Crime. “Policy makers really feared a large-scale urban rebellion,” Hinton says. “They were really worried about black youth, and had a number of racist notions about their propensities for crime and drug addiction.”

These same ideas permeated Johnson’s anti-poverty efforts. Some historians view Johnson’s War on Crime as a repudiation of his War on Poverty, but one of Hinton’s key points is that these initiatives were more similar that they were different. Both programs were propelled by concerns about civil unrest in black communities, and both were influenced by the administration’s opinion that poor urban black people suffered from a cultural deficit, even if it wasn’t of their own making.

Subsequent administrations expanded and intensified the crime-fighting programs that Johnson had created. They sent undercover officers to go into black neighborhoods and ensnare criminals. They camped out in black communities waiting for crime to happen. They funded the creation of special-tactics forces — SWAT teams — in part out of fear of race riots and the Black Panthers. The War on Drugs, which began under Nixon but reached its height under Reagan, added hundreds of thousands of people to the correctional system. Intensified policing created a growing population of prisoners, which set off a boom in prison construction.

At a moment when policing’s impact on African Americans and mass incarceration have again become topic of national conversation, Hinton’s book is significant for its reminder that both liberals and conservatives share the blame. Here she is writing on Johnson's War on Crime, and his legacy:

As the product of one of the most ambitious liberal welfare programs in American history, the rise of punitive federal policy over the last fifty years is a thoroughly bipartisan story. Built by a consensus of liberals and conservatives who privileged punitive responses to urban problems as a reaction to the civil rights movement, over time, the carceral state and the network of programs it encompassed came to dominate government responses to American inequality. Indeed, crime control may be the domestic policy issue in the late twentieth century where conservative and liberal interests most thoroughly intertwined.

It’s part of standard history that the race riots in the late ’60s were pivotal to the rise of tough-on-crime politics. Thanks to the widespread urban unrest, “race had become, yet again, a powerful wedge, breaking up what had been a solid liberal coalition based on economic interests of the poor and the working and lower-middle classes,” writes Michelle Alexander in “The New Jim Crow,” her history of mass incarceration.

But other historians have been much kinder toward Johnson and his responsibility for the shift toward more punitive policing. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin describes Johnson's stance on race as “courageous and humane” in her recent biography. “In the political world of the 1950s and early 1960s it would have comfortably occupied a position midway between the radicals and the conservatives,” she writes. “But the dimensions of the racial problem in the mid- and late sixties were so large, having grown larger with every year of neglect, that it could not be easily handled by traditional politics.”

In a way, that is Hinton’s point precisely. Both the left and the right were unwilling, in her view, to make the drastic investments in jobs, housing and human development that black urban communities demanded and needed.

In 1967, Johnson set up a mostly liberal task force to investigate the race riots. The Kerner Commission, as it was called, handed back a white-hot report that blamed the uprisings on the dearth of economic opportunity in poor black neighborhoods. Johnson’s War on Poverty, they said, was hardly doing enough. “To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values,” the report warned.

The commission argued for “national action on an unprecedented scale”: among other things, the immediate creation of 2 million jobs, the establishment of a basic minimum income and the allocation of 6 million units of affordable housing within five years. Essentially, Hinton says, it was a Marshall Plan for black America — a mind-bogglingly huge investment in a distressed community.

Obviously, those economic reforms didn’t happen. Instead, the Johnson administration continued to treat urban black poverty and urban black unrest as a problem of discipline, not a problem of denied opportunity.

The consequences of that decision can be observed today, Hinton says — in the policing tactics that led to the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and many others, and in the way that the protests in Ferguson were confronted, almost reflexively, by militarized riot teams and armored cars.

A few days ago, President Obama’s economic advisers released a new report on criminal justice and mass incarceration. To help reduce crime, they recommend raising the minimum wage and investing more in early-childhood education. It’s expensive to hold so many people in prison, they note.

The implication: It’s cheaper, sometimes, to give people opportunities instead of punishing them for not having any. But as always, the question is if the nation is willing to go that far — and whether that’s even far enough.

The Black Lives Matter movement has more in common with the Civil Rights Movement than many would like to remember, argues The Post's Simone Sebastian. (Video: Tom LeGro/The Washington Post, Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii/The Washington Post)