by Reggie Peralta
Dissecting the origins of mass incarceration, Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America is especially timely. In the wake of nationwide demonstrations and protests against racism and police brutality this past year, activists and laypeople alike have picked up books that explain how we got here and what forces led to this moment. While the most popular is almost certainly Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Murakawa adds to our understanding of these issues by tracing their roots back to post-war liberalism.
Deliberate in her research, Murakawa leaves no stone unturned in search of support for her thesis. She quotes liberals like former president Lyndon Johnson, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and then-senator Joe Biden: she cites Democrat-authored legislation like the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and the '80s-era Anti-Drug Abuse Acts. Murakawa shows how post-war progressives acted out of a misguided paternalism, essentially accepting conservative premises about Black people and criminality and playing a key role in spearheading policies that treated them as linked. While open about her political leanings, Murakawa’s authorial voice is that of a scholar, never going further than her data and sources allow. She does, however, take the information gleaned from them to its logical, perhaps even radical conclusion, challenging the idea that the machinery of incarceration can be fixed by the kind of procedural reforms that emphasize “administrative perfection” over justice currently being proposed by some activists and policymakers.
The value of Murakawa’s revisionist perspective is demonstrated by the light it sheds on America’s draconian criminal justice system. For example, many Americans believe the shameful legacy of racism to be something peculiar to the Jim Crow South, with its lynchings and state-sanctioned segregation. Yet as the book reveals, Blacks in Northern states during the 1950s faced a different but no less destructive form of oppression in the shape of that decade’s all but forgotten drug war. The product of anti-narcotics legislation introduced by Democratic Representative Hale Boggs and signed into law by Harry Truman, the war on drugs spawned similar legislation at state levels and ratcheted up the number of African-Americans in prison, with Northern states regularly imprisoning more black people for narcotics offenses than Southern ones. As shocking as it is revolting, Murakawa rightly identifies this ill-remembered episode of our history as a stepping-stone to the modern method of mass incarceration.
It’s hard to not want to compare or liken The First Civil Right to The New Jim Crow: indeed, Murakawa herself cites that book’s publication when discussing how public opinion has turned against the war on drugs. However, there are subtle but significant differences between Murakawa’s thesis and Michelle Alexander’s. As indicated in her book’s name, Alexander conceives of mass incarceration as a successor to segregation and slavery in that all three are “systems of racialized social control”, with the former serving the same function as the latter two beneath a facade of colorblindness. Murakawa, on the other hand, argues that mass incarceration was designed not as a continuation of Jim Crow but rather an alternative to it. The system described by the two authors may be the same, but Murakawa’s approach, with its juxtaposition of the “lawful racial violence” of the North against the “lawless racial violence” of the South, more fully illustrates how liberal politicians were able to sell more prisons and policing as an antiracist initiative.
An Associate Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, Murakawa attributes the origin of this book to her days as a doctoral student trying to answer the question of how so many Black people could be imprisoned and deprived of their freedoms in the aftermath of civil rights. At the time, she accepted the conventional wisdom of mass incarceration being the product of a right-wing backlash by Republicans and southern Democrats towards advances in racial equality. This was the answer she provided in a doctoral dissertation, but as she delved more into the subject, she became more skeptical of liberal proposals to combat racism. “'Law-and-order’ and ‘civil rights’ as such could not be the tools for my investigation; they must be the subjects of my investigation,” she writes, neatly reflecting how her book interrogates preconceived notions about political liberalism and its relationship to racism and criminal justice.
Contrarian but filled with critical information and analysis to buttress its conclusions, The First Civil Right is an eye-opening look at how the good intentions of yesterday’s liberals helped pave the road to today’s hellish prison system.
A Santa Ana native, Reggie Peralta's writing has been featured on HonorSociety.org, The Frida Cinema, and The Grindhouse Cinema Database.