Trump Declared Himself the 'President of Law and Order.' Here's What People Get Wrong About the Origins of That IdeaHistorians in the News
tags: social history, presidential history, interview, Donald Trump, Protest
Back then, following revolts in 125 cities nationwide after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and throughout the mid-1960s, fueled by inequality issues yet to be addressed, Nixon made “law and order” a centerpiece of his platform. “Law and order” might sound simple, a 1968 TIME cover story on the campaign pointed out, but to some it was “a shorthand message promising repression of the black community”—and to that community, it was “a bleak warning that worse times may be coming.”
But Elizabeth Hinton, a historian of U.S. inequality and author of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, says the focus on Nixon obscures the real Presidential origins of modern “law and order.” Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson, shaped decades of policy when his Administration decided to invest more in policing than in social welfare programs — and, as Hinton explains, that history is key to understanding why the issues that sparked the protests over the last week remain unresolved. She spoke to TIME about what to know about that past.
TIME: Are there any particular moments from American history you think are parallel to what we’ve been seeing in the days since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis?
HINTON: There are a number of obvious parallels, but also really important differences, between what we’re seeing in the streets of American cities today and the 1960s. The proximate cause of the unrest being police violence and the underlying issues that have fueled the protests, which are continued racial equality and discrimination and socioeconomic exclusion, are really at the heart of both. In the 1960s, even though there was an attempt on the part of federal policymakers to address [those issues], their solutions did not go far enough. Ultimately they embraced a set of policies that continued the very same violent conditions that had led to the original unrest in the 1960s in the first place. We’re still very much struggling with the unfinished legacy of Reconstruction and the enduring racism that pervades American society. And until that’s addressed, these flames will continue.
When you talk about policies and solutions that didn’t go far enough, which examples do you have in mind?
In the middle of the Detroit uprising in 1967, Johnson called for the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission. This group studied the nature of urban unrest in a number of American cities, and basically called on the federal government to begin to make massive investments in urban institutions — schools, housing, job-creation programs. The Kerner Commission famously said, unless the federal government is prepared to make massive investments in these communities that are experiencing this unrest, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
The Johnson Administration and many other liberal policymakers thought this was too radical, and, as I discovered in my research, ended up, long-term, embracing a set of policies that managed problems of poverty and inequality through policing and surveillance of low-income communities and incarceration. And so that choice — that investment in policing and divestment from social welfare programs — is exactly the conditions that led some 50 years later to Derek Chauvin jamming his knee in George Floyd’s neck.
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