The flawed arguments that triggered mass incarceration
Our last recap!
The clock is ticking down, subscriber,
To the premiere of Season 3 next week! That is, if our Inwood Park Studio hasn’t floated away by then. Wherever you are, I hope you’re managing to weather the storms (literal and metaphorical) of the past five days.
At the beginning of Season 3, we’ll cover the Attica Prison uprising of 1971. The 50th anniversary of that stunning event is one week from today. In preparation, for our third and final recap, let’s discuss a subject that can’t be discussed enough: mass incarceration.
(ICYMI, our second recap rehashed a couple of vids contextualizing the end of the War in Afghanistan. And last week, I sent a post on the Confederate-y history of history textbooks to paying subscribers. A uniquely Texan brand of foolishness features prominently.)
With over two million people incarcerated today, the US has the largest prison population in the world. The pandemic has underscored the inhumanity of the conditions that incarcerated people face. According to JAMA, the infection rate for covid-19 was five times higher among state and federal prisoners than among the general population, and an incarcerated person with the virus was three times more likely to die than a non-incarcerated person who got infected.1
But the US didn’t always have a lethal, mammoth penal system. In fact, the US prison population only began to spike in the early 1970s:
What caused the dramatic spike in incarceration rates? In Season 1, we investigated two reasons.
The Ugly Origins of Crime Statistics
Per the Sentencing Project, one cause is rooted in “disproportionate levels of police contact with African Americans” and, by extension, disproportionate arrest rates. For example, although drug use rates don’t differ much by race, more than one in four people arrested for drug law violations in 2015 was Black.
In many ways, this disparity can be traced back to a 19th-century actuary named Frederick Hoffman.2
How? In the 1890s, new nondiscrimination laws forced life insurance companies to offer Black people the same benefits for the same premiums they guaranteed to white people. Prudential Insurance, one of the leading sellers of life insurance at the time, wasn’t so keen on the new legislation.
So, the company hired Fred, known for his statistical prowess (and for being married to the daughter of a renowned slave-owning family), to prove that discriminating against Black people was statistically justifiable.
Fred came through, publishing a book called Race Traits of the American Negro (1896). Using unsound statistical analyses—for example, comparing arrest rates of Black people with Norwegians, the whitest people in the world—Fred “proved” that “criminality” was part of “the Negro’s... inherent moral nature.” Though people like W.E.B. DuBois castigated Hoffman’s “unscientific use of the statistical method,” Fred’s book spread among legislators looking to justify the Jim Crow laws that were then taking shape.
Soon, Fred’s argument blaming crime on race became embedded in justifications for policing all around the country. As we explored in the first-ever episode of Skipped, Fred’s analysis continues to inform discriminatory policing tactics that lock up disproportionate levels of people of color:
How One Guy’s Daddy Issues Also Helped Inspired Mass Incarceration
Another culprit in the rise of mass incarceration? An aide in LBJ’s Labor Department named Daniel Patrick Moynihan.3
In the 1960s, the US witnessed the worst domestic bloodshed since the Civil War. During widespread protests over the five summers of LBJ’s presidency, hundreds of Black Americans died, thousands of officers and civilians were injured, and billions of dollars of property was destroyed.
Why were people so heated? Well, according to a Washington Post poll in 1967, “7 in every ten Negroes [said] that lack of decent housing contributed to the riots.”4 But thanks to Moynihan, LBJ came to see the protests less as a response to things like oppressive living conditions than as a manifestation of “the breakdown” of Black families.
In 1965, Danny Boy published an internal government report titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” In the report, Moynihan blamed Black mothers for the issues young Black men faced in the 60s, arguing that “a matriarchal structure… imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male.”
Of course, Moynihan, who had no experience as a Black man but was well practiced at being angry at his mom, might’ve been projecting just a tad.
When he was 10 years old, Daniel’s father left his family, plunging them into poverty and forcing them to move to New York, where his mother worked odd jobs to support herself and Danny Boy. Years later, Moynihan still blamed her for his dad’s departure, admitting to having “repressed feelings towards mom” and “enormous emotional attachment to Father substitutes.”
Red flags aside, Moynihan’s personal-experience-infused report was a gift to the government. It meant politicians could say the problems Black people faced weren’t structural but pathological (Frederick Hoffman would agree!). And, indeed, months after reading Moynihan’s report, LBJ launched the War on Crime to help stem the crime that he believed resulted from “the breakdown of the Negro family structure.”
That new “war” led to increased policing of communities of color, which also helped trigger the rise of mass incarceration:
My point is: thanks to people like Fred and Danny Boy, the US’ penal system, which locks up millions of people and now exposes them to more lethal conditions than ever, is rooted in some pretty flawed rationale.
And maybe the most stunningly weak argument supporting mass incarceration appeared in late 1971. Not by coincidence, prisoner frustrations had just reached a boiling point at Attica. Tune in next week to learn more about that bit of Skipped History ☺️
P.S. Premium subscribers, I’ll send out a sneak peek on Monday or Tuesday!