The author and assistant professor joins us to discuss her upcoming text, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime.
Assistant Professor & Author Elizabeth Hinton
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with author and historian, Elizabeth Hinton. More than 10 years ago, she started to investigate how the land of the free became the home of the world’s largest prison system. That research led her to an iconic source, the Johnson administration, which has been widely credited, of course, with starting the war on poverty.
In her latest text titled “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime”, Hinton argues that the programs intended to lift up the poor created a situation that eventually led to the mass incarceration of mostly African American men.
Then a conversation with conceptual artist, Natasha Marin. Back in July, she started a Facebook group called “Reparations”. Within days, it bloomed into a website that has since drawn international attention, including condemnation from those who see it as racially divisive.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. Those conversations coming up right now.
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Tavis: Elizabeth Hinton is a Harvard University historian whose research focuses on the persistence of poverty and racial inequality in the 20th century United States. Her most recent text is titled “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America”.
In the text, she examines President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society arguing that the programs intended to lift up the poor and less educated created a situation that eventually led to the mass incarceration of mostly African American men. Professor Hinton, good to have you on the program.
Elizabeth Hinton: Wonderful to be here. Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: I met with you, I guess, a year or so ago when you were in the midst of doing this project. I had no idea that this is where you were headed. Because the book calls for, as one can already suspect, a radical reexamination of one’s assumptions about the link between poverty and crime. Did you know this was where the research was going take you?
Hinton: I had no idea starting off.
Tavis: That Lyndon Johnson might be a culprit?
Hinton: No. I began researching this in the Nixon archives, actually. I didn’t think that Johnson–when I was in the Nixon archives, I had to keep on going back actually to the Kennedy administration. The real seeds of this is the Kennedy administration. Kennedy basically lays the groundwork for the war on poverty with his juvenile delinquency programs, its experimental programs in 16 American cities.
And the whole point was to prevent low-income African American youth who policymakers and the social scientists, they viewed as social dynamite from rebelling, from erupting into chaos which we actually do see in the 60s with urban uprisings in American cities. So this essentially lays the groundwork for the war on poverty, these juvenile delinquency programs.
So I began to see that really when the federal government begins to intervene in the lives of low-income Black youth, it’s always kind of this social welfare and crime control programs.
I think that many of us weren’t aware that this actually began during the civil rights movement at the height of progressive social change in this country and this moment when it seemed like the nation was ready to embrace these egalitarian ideals at the same time it’s introducing these kind of new punitive programs that are targeting young Black youth.
Tavis: So when we think of presidents who have been anti-Black–I’ll use that phrase–in their policy, you mentioned Richard Nixon where your research started. Certainly, Ronald Reagan comes to mind immediately with his welfare comments. I could go on from there.
So you think of Nixon, you think of Reagan, you think of presidents, again, who pushed agenda that are, shall we say, antithetical to the best interest of Black people. But tell me more about how strongly in the text you indict Kennedy and indict Johnson specifically?
Hinton: So this is when that I really struggled with and had to think about for years. What aspects of these policies, the consequence of them, were intended and which were unintended?
What I really think is that Kennedy-Johnson, they launched these social welfare programs and juvenile anti-delinquency programs, crime control programs, in this kind of larger effort that we had during their administrations to improve American society.
You know, Johnson really saw the war on crime as part of his Great Society, as part of his domestic legislation, his legacy that he wanted to leave to the United States. The problem is that these policies were deeply informed and shaped by sets of racist assumptions on the part of policymakers and officials.
So when you see the problem of poverty as a problem of behavior, as a problem of pathology, as Johnson did, you’re going to create programs that actually don’t go far enough to solving the root problems of that poverty.
When we get to Nixon and Ford and certainly Reagan, I think that, you know, they kind of seized the punitive dimensions of domestic policy that we get during the Johnson administration and they are more explicitly racist in the sense that the crime control programs aren’t necessarily trying to solve the problems of poverty.
But they really kind of launches the means to manage the socioeconomic problems in American cities stemming from a lack of fundamental structural changes in the 1960s and a sustained dis-investment from social welfare programs.
Tavis: So what kind of programs specifically are we talking about that end up reaping on the heads of Black people unintended consequences?
Hinton: So the anti-juvenile delinquency programs of the Kennedy administration, many of these looked like job training programs for Black youth, remedial education programs. These were efforts in the words of policymakers and social scientists for the federal government to help the disadvantaged help themselves.
So this was, you know, homemaking skills, home building skills, things like that. We get Job Corps, we get Vista programs. These programs are good. They’re promising, but the problem is, if you’re providing people job training programs and you’re not simultaneously providing them jobs afterwards with a job creation program, it’s not going to go far enough.
The job creation program that we end up getting in the 60s is a job creation program for police officers and criminal justice officials, not job creation for people who are living in kind of the lowest socioeconomic ladder of American society.
The programs that they tend to get are training programs that don’t necessarily lead to really a transformation that they get people out of circumstances that, I think, policymakers hope to change.
Tavis: There are a number of ways I could read this even after going through the text. I’m still not sure I know how you intend for me to read it, so let me just put this out here. When you talk specifically about Kennedy and Johnson and these results years later, are these really just unintended consequences?
Are we talking here about a benign neglect of Black people or are we talking, worse still, about a fundamental disregard for the humanity and the dignity and the sanctity of Black life? Where am I at on this?
Hinton: One of the things that I really wanted to show in the book is that, essentially, policymakers even in the 1960s in the midst of civil rights revolution decided that a generation of African American youth were criminals, that they were potential delinquents, that they were social dynamited. They were pre-criminals. They labeled them criminals before they’ve actually committed a crime.
They called them potential delinquents or youth in danger of becoming delinquent based on the socioeconomic circumstances of their lives and not their actual crimes. It’s another kind of blame-the-victim approach to domestic policy that we’ve seen again and again over the past half century.
So it’s really what are the consequences of the decision to essentially indict a generation of Black youth and then that creates self-fulfilling prophecies that lead to generations of criminalization.
And that’s part of what I wanted to show in the book, that mass incarceration. The book is really about the criminalization of social programs and the way that this is a process, a 50-year process, that led to the mass incarceration that we see today.
Tavis: So that Black people–my read of history and you, the historian, here. A little bit of this, not as well as you have. But my read of history suggests to me that Black people loved John Kennedy, that Black people loved Lyndon Johnson.
Indeed, as you well know, you teach this stuff. In the Johnson era, the elite Black took Lyndon Johnson aside at one point against Dr. King, our leader, because of King’s opposition to the Vietnam War.
My point here again is that they had a deep well of love inside the Black community, both of those presidents. So how complicit then was Black leadership in signing on, supporting, these programs that ended up having unintended consequences?
Hinton: Well, one of the things that I think–and this is kind of the policy president that I hope we go back to, that both of these, that the Kennedy administration introduced and then Johnson really did in the Economic Opportunity Act of ’64, is this idea of maximum feasible participation, that we get a domestic policy and we only get it for a window.
But that is that poor people, American citizens should be empowered to decide how to allocate resources in their community, should be empowered to direct their own social programs, should be able to use public funds for their own mobilization and community empowerment.
So there was a real radical view of this concept in the way that it was implemented in cities really during the first year of the war on poverty where you have the federal government literally funding autonomous grassroots organizations directly.
And then increasingly over the course of the 1960s in the context of urban civil disorder or of uprisings, riots, whatever you want to call them, policymakers and local officials increasingly sought greater control over these programs and we get institutionalized programs on the war on poverty like model cities and things like that.
So I think that the promise of that principle of grassroots empowerment that we get in domestic policy during that period is really part of what galvanized so many African Americans especially in the context of direct action protests and civil rights movement.
There were a lot of Black leaders who were very critical of many of the programs that Johnson introduced, including especially maybe his call for the war on crime one week before he signs the Voting Rights Act to Congress.
Tavis: So there were Black voices in opposition to what he was doing even then.
Hinton: Oh, yeah. I think we could even view groups like the Black Panthers and this call for armed self-defense, the kind of increasing militant turn that we get in the Black Freedom movement during the second half of the 60s during Johnson’s presidency.
As a response to the new investment, the federal government begins to make in local law enforcement and the militarization of police that we begin to see not during the 80s and the war on drugs, as some have said, but really it begins in the 1960s with the Johnson administration.
Tavis: So I’ll close on this note. Call me a cynic, but I think it’s just a matter of time before my friends on the right, my conservative Republican friends, who’ve been hating on the war on poverty for all these years anyway, and certainly my Republican friends who want to do anything they can to push back against progressive or liberal policies of the Kennedy or Johnson administrations, so Fox News is going to make this a bestseller for you.
Because it spins the kind of story that aids and abets the narrative they want to tell about Black America and about liberal progressive policy and its relationship to Black America, what do you do when Fox News and the Republicans take this and use it against the people that you’re trying to enlighten and empower?
Hinton: Well, one of the things I’m trying to show is that, yes, liberals are racists too. Really, the domestic urban policies of the last half century have been deeply informed by racist notions across political and ideological lines. That we really, as a nation in this moment, need to begin to deal with the historical legacies and consequences of slavery with the racism that runs through the world view of so many people.
And it’s time for a new kind of shift and approach to policies because what we’ve seen, what we have, is more inequality, in some places, more crime, more violence, and we really need to rethink what our priorities have been and come to terms with the racism that has really shaped nearly every social, economic, political aspect of the United States from its founding.
Tavis: And, finally–I said finally–finally situate this text for me in this moment of Black Lives Matter.
Hinton: I think that this text shows the steps that it took, the steps to decisions made at the highest level of government that got us into this mess. And, hopefully, it can begin to show us a way out of this mess that related to what I just said.
That really goes back to these principles of community empowerment that allows communities themselves to decide how to keep their own community safe rather than continuing to respond to social problems, unemployment, failing public school systems, deteriorating housing, with more police, more prisons, more criminalization. We’ve got to respond to these issues in a different way.
Tavis: “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America” is the new text from Harvard’s Elizabeth Hinton. We are honored to have you on the program. Thanks for the book.
Hinton: Thank you so much.
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