A Look at How Liberals Led America Into Having the Highest Prison Rate in The World

By Yasmin Nair


The United States has five percent of the world’s population, but houses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

Conventional wisdom has it that it is the systemic, widening, and tightening grip of conservatives, particularly racist Republicans and Southern Democrats, over the years that led to such high numbers. Prison is no longer simply confined to four walled buildings or any other manifestation of the judicial system. Today, everyday institutions like schools and hospitals are subject to surveillance and punitive regimes, and the very definition of crime has expanded such that jumping a turnstile can mean a jail sentence. All of this is part of what theorists of prison call the carceral state; the overwhelming presence of the criminal legal system in our daily lives. It is now challenging to not commit a crime of some magnitude somewhere, and it is all but impossible to escape the system of judicial oversight without feeling the effects over the course of one’s lifetime. Consider, for example, sex offenses, which are now classified so broadly that they range from consensual sexual acts to violent rape. Those placed on mandatory sex offender registries (SORs) face restrictions on habitat and occupation so debilitating that anything resembling a normal life is impossible.

The rise toward greater and more wide-reaching forms of incarceration first began in the late 1960s. Naomi Murakawa’s slim but dense new book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, demonstrates that the growth of the carceral state actually came about in the civil-rights era, beginning in the 1940s and continuing through liberal Presidents like Clinton and Obama.

Murakawa’s title is derived from Richard Nixon’s famous 1968 declaration that “The first civil right of every American is to be free from domestic violence…Our goal is justice—justice for every American.” Nixon’s words are often read as the beginning of a racially coded Republican thrust towards more incarceration, but in fact, in 1947, President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights “designated the ‘right to safety and security of the person’ the first condition of all rights.” Murakawa writes, “As the black freedom struggle gained momentum, as lynchings of black veterans caused international embarrassment, and as all feared impending ‘race wars,’ liberals established a law-and-order mandate: build a better carceral state, one strong enough to control racial bias in the streets and regimented enough to control racial bias in criminal justice administration.”

Murakawa uses Nixon’s more familiar formulation as a springboard to jump back in time and demonstrate that what has been widely read as a conservative watershed moment was in fact presaged by liberal policies twenty years prior. Her book is a critique and indictment of “postwar racial liberalism,” which was (and is) based on a diagnosis of racism as a personal, internal problem of character rather than a range of systemic and deliberately wrought economic and social policies specifically designed to occlude progress and opportunities for non-white people.

The First Civil Right sets a hard task upon liberals, progressives, and many leftists: to think about the complicated ways in which they reinforced a racialized and racist paternalism that endures to this day, and to consider how the—no pun intended—black and white rendering of racism allowed liberals to blithely go about building the carceral machinery. As it stands, it unfairly criminalizes black bodies and then continues to reform and refine it so that prisons becomes even more damagingly punitive to those disproportionately targeted.

Murakawa focuses on specific elements to amplify her points, such as mandatory minimums, the death penalty, and the euphemistically termed community policing, along with measures like the “modernization” of law enforcement (more and bigger guns, along with diversity quotas).

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