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Reaganism and the rise of the carceral state

In the moment of Black Lives Matter, with public awareness of mass incarceration and lethal force by police reaching new heights, it’s important to look back on the racial dimension of what I call “the Reagan era” and how that politics led us to where we are now.

Today’s carceral state has its roots in the “war on crime” that took hold in America in the 1980s. That “war” was led by the political forces that I associate with Reaganism, a conservative political formation that generally favored a rollback of state power. A notable exception to this rule was policing and imprisonment. Both Reaganism and the “war on crime” had a racial politics embedded in them, so that these three phenomena—Reaganism as a movement, the “war on crime” and the resulting carceral state, and the racial politics of the 1980s—strengthened and reinforced the others.

All those who care about racial equality of a certain age are likely to remember the 1980s as a bleak time for people of color and for African Americans especially. The social reality of the era was complex. More African Americans were making it into the middle and upper classes than ever before, while others were stuck in impoverished urban neighborhoods. Because of middle-class flight, being a big-city mayor in the 1980s was very challenging; nonetheless, it is significant that, during this decade, African Americans were elected or reelected mayor in four of the country’s five biggest cities (Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City).

While African American political power was growing in the city, at least by some measures, Ronald Reagan and the broader conservative movement he led were often openly hostile to urban America and African Americans. When Reagan ran for president in 1980, he peddled a fictionalized tale, one with an obvious racial subtext, of what he called a “welfare queen” living large on the public dole, and he visited Bob Jones University, a segregationist institution in South Carolina, which he called a “great institution.” Moreover, throughout his political career, Reagan was antagonistic toward civil rights law. That was his record, a long record—one that was interrupted only at moments when Reagan bent to irresistible political forces, as when he signed a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1982. Reagan was a realist, but there is no mistaking the broad pattern of his views about civil rights.

Amid this political context, the “war on crime” took hold. What did this “war” consist of? At the federal level, “mandatory minimums” were created that treated crack possession far more harshly than possession of powder cocaine, and other laws were enacted that aimed at making sure convicted criminals went to prison and stayed there longer. Meanwhile, US Supreme Court rulings made it easier for police to get convictions. Between 1980 and 1990, the rate of incarceration in America, taking the federal government and the states together, more than doubled—from 139 per 100,000 Americans to 297 per 100,000.

Ronald Reagan did not do all this himself. He played no role in passing laws at the state level. He didn’t appoint local prosecutors. Supreme Court justices appointed by Reagan’s predecessors provided sufficient numbers for majorities in the relevant decisions. We need to come to grips with the broad political forces that caused the incarceration surge, forces of which Reagan was simply the foremost leader, sometimes merely a symbolic leader. This is about Reaganism, not just Reagan. That extends downward to the decisions of state legislators and to prosecutors who may have decided to push for harsher sentencing. And it extends outward from avowed conservatives to many moderates, and even liberals—for example, members of the Congressional Black Caucus—who supported the “war on crime.” One of sign of Reaganism’s success was its capacity to attract wide support at many moments, even from people who supposedly were not conservatives.

California Prison
Overcrowding in California State Prison, 2006. California Department of Corrections. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In order to understand the broad appeal of these tough-on-crime measures, we also have to see that the fear of crime and urban disorder was raging in America during the 1980s. This tide of fear swelled enormously in the late 1970s, and continued to roll through the 1980s and into the 1990s. Historians need to acknowledge that the long-term increase in rates of violent crime, starting in the 1960s and extending into the 1980s, was real, and they should have sympathy for Americans, most of all for city-dwellers, who were legitimately afraid of violent crime. Sensationalistic media coverage stoked that fear, sometimes in ways that were irrational or destructive. But this was fertile territory, for tabloid journalists and for opportunist politicians, because the fear was already there and the crime was real. It wasn’t racist for people to be afraid of crime, but that fear took the form of a panic, which is never good, and the panic was strongly racialized, which made it truly poisonous.

As many understand now, tough-on-crime policies don’t have to be explicitly race-based or consciously race-biased in order to produce racially disparate outcomes. But the “war on crime” and “war on drugs” measures instituted at all levels of government in the 1980s were often, I believe, consciously directed at young black and brown men. One study (cited by the economists John Bound and Richard Freeman) later found that, between 1980 and 1989, the percentage of African American men aged 18 to 29 without high school degrees who were prisoners rose from 7.4 percent to 20.1 percent. How likely is it that this dramatic, seemingly targeted change, occurring in a rather compressed time period, was just an unforeseen outcome? I would argue, not very likely. I would suggest that those legislators, mayors, and elected prosecutors who stood for office in America’s cities and supported the new lock-’em-up regime understood very well who was going to get caught in the net. At the time, young men of color who were engaged in the illegal drug trade got far less sympathy than they do today. Today, we tend to call many of the crimes for which such men have gotten convicted nonviolent. Back in the 1980s, Americans across the political spectrum treated drug-sellers as people engaged in an intrinsically violent activity, as predators who were tearing poor communities apart and who often targeted children.

It can be disturbing to revisit the 1980s and look at the origins of today’s policing and incarceration state. This is part of the balance-sheet of Reaganism. But if we wish to assign blame, there is a lot of it to go around.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Columbia University Press blog

Featured image credit: Photograph of President Reagan at a Reagan-Bush Rally in New York – NARA – 198556. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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