The explosive rise in the U.S. incarceration rate in the second half of the 20th century, and the racial transformation of the prison population from mostly white at mid-century to 65 percent black and Latino in the present day, is a trend that cannot easily be ignored. Many believe that this shift began with the “tough on crime” policies advocated by Republicans and southern Democrats beginning in the late 1960s.
Naomi Murakawa, associate professor in the Center for African American Studies, inverts the conventional wisdom by arguing that the expansion of the federal carceral state was, in fact, rooted in the civil-rights liberalism of the 1940s and early 1960s. Responding to calls to end the lawlessness and violence against blacks at the state and local levels, the Truman administration expanded the scope of what was previously a weak federal system. Later administrations from Johnson to Clinton expanded the federal presence even more. Ironically, these steps laid the groundwork for the creation of the vast penal archipelago that now exists in the United States. What began as a liberal initiative to curb the mob violence and police brutality that had deprived racial minorities of their “first civil right” — physical safety — eventually evolved into the federal correctional system that now deprives them, in unjustly large numbers, of another important right: freedom.