Our cities are saturated with militarized law enforcement officers. An extraordinarily high number of American civilians are killed by police each year. The U.S. prison population is the largest in the world. And we are only beginning to understand why.
In recent years, scholars such as Naomi Murakawa and Marie Gottschalk and activists in the Black Lives Matter movement have broken from the civil rights generation’s obeisance to the Democratic Party, and from the left’s reflexive assumption that “law and order” Republicans are exclusively to blame for this situation. Instead, they have persuasively argued that much of today’s criminal justice regime originated in policies forged by liberal Democrats in the second half of the 20th century, in particular under the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton.
Yet even this new and welcome historical analysis of militarized policing and mass incarceration does not go deep enough.
The campaign to criminalize victimless behaviors and then build a carceral system large and efficient enough to contain the criminals it would create began long before the 1960s, with the formation of the political regime we now call liberalism. The intellectuals and policy makers who created the modern wars on drugs and crime were the direct descendants of the original progressives, who emerged at the turn of the 20th century. Those progressives consistently argued that disruptive and marginal populations should be encouraged to assimilate into the formal culture of the country and to adopt the responsibilities of American citizenship, but they also held that individuals who refused to do so should be removed from society. Indeed, it could be said that progressivism was created around those twin projects.
Unlike scientific racists, who were the dominant ideologists of race until World War II, progressives generally maintained that there were no innate barriers in any race of people to acquiring the personality of a “good” American. Progressives believed that certain races and nationalities had not attained the level of civilization of white Americans and northern Europeans, but also thought those peoples could and should be raised to that level. That is, most progressives were simultaneously anti-racist and hostile to cultures other than their own. Immigrants who brought alien ways of living, radical political ideas, and criminal behavior into the U.S. were invited into progressives’ settlement houses, where they were given free vocational education, subsidized room and board, and instructions on the proper attitudes and behaviors of Americans. Those who demonstrated a willingness to follow the rules of their new society—even those who were originally believed to be of an inferior race, such as Italians, Jews, and Slavs—were deemed worthy of full citizenship.
Most progressives believed that the culture of blacks was especially retarded, but they nonetheless funded hundreds of settlement houses for blacks and helped establish the first major civil rights organizations, the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. One mission of those organizations was to eliminate the “pathologies” of native black culture, to “adjust or assimilate” blacks to the dominant culture, and to make them into “orderly citizens.” This was a brutal and puritanical assimilationism, but it ran directly counter to the belief of the scientific racists that blacks were biologically incapable of becoming civilized. Nonetheless, progressives acknowledged that some immigrants and blacks and even some native-born whites would choose renegade lives of crime over constrained lives as citizens, and for that eventuality they created the basis of what is now called the carceral state.