Historian Elizabeth Hinton Profiled in Harvard Magazine: Color and Incarceration

Historians in the News
tags: historians, Mass Incarceration, Elizabeth Hinton


A LITTLE MORE than a decade later, Hinton had an answer. In 2016, she published From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, a book that cemented her reputation, at the age of 33, as a rising star in a burgeoning field. In it, Hinton, Loeb associate professor of history and of African and African American studies, tells the story of how federal policies—shaped by presidential administrations and endorsed by Congress—ratcheted up surveillance and punishment in black urban neighborhoods from the 1960s through the 1980s, how criminalization was steadily expanded, and how all of this was driven by deeply held assumptions about the cultural and behavioral inferiority of black Americans.

Her biggest revelation—the central irony in a book full of them—is that the contemporary carceral state began to take hold, not under law-and-order conservatives like Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon, the men usually held responsible, but under liberals, most notably Lyndon Johnson, whose Great Society social-welfare programs were enacted at the height of the civil-rights movement. Those programs began with sincere intentions but were never independent, Hinton argues, from federal policymakers’ “desire for social control, or from their concerns about crime.” In meticulous detail, she lays out how “the War on Poverty is best understood not as an effort to broadly uplift communities or as a moral crusade to transform society by combating inequality or want, but as a manifestation of fear about urban disorder and about the behavior of young people, particularly young African Americans.”

The notion that mass incarceration was a bipartisan project from the beginning—indeed, that its earliest innovators were social liberals concerned about poverty—was a significant finding. “And remember, when Elizabeth started this research, nobody was really working on the history of this crisis,” says Heather Ann Thompson, a historian at the University of Michigan (and a graduate and postgraduate advisor to Hinton), whose 2010 journal article “Why Mass Incarceration Matters” was one of the early publications that broke open the field. A flood of scholarship followed, but most of it, Thompson says, examined elements of present-day incarceration; “Elizabeth’s work shows how we got here. It helps us understand a part of the past we just didn’t understand before.”

Hinton’s research led her through the White House Central Files of every administration from John F. Kennedy’s to Reagan’s, looking for any shred of information related to crime, punishment, and African Americans. Her requests to declassify documents turned up tens of thousands of pages of internal memoranda, reports, meeting notes, and correspondence (a few declassification requests are still pending with the Reagan Library). “Her work has definitely changed the narrative,” says Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race, and public policy, whose 2010 book The Condemnation of Blackness documented the Progressive Era origins of the discourse linking crime and race (see “Writing Crime into Race,” July-August 2018, page 57). Tommie Shelby, Titcomb professor of African and African American studies and philosophy, was on the search committee that hired Hinton. “She’s a person whose work you have to engage with if you’re studying the penal dimensions of the state,” he says. “And not just in history—in political science, law, sociology; she cuts across fields.”

Read entire article at Harvard Magazine

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