Book Review: "From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime" by Elizabeth Hinton

I've recently read the book From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime by Elizabeth Hinton. This book is a history of the progression through the titular subjects in the US, starting with the Kennedy presidency and ending with the Reagan presidency. It shows how while some problems associated with the war on poverty did come from good but conflicting intentions when implementing social welfare programs, many more problems came from halfhearted implementation of social welfare programs with the intent & through the lens of fighting crime leading ultimately to replacement of those programs with more explicit expansions of policing to fight crime especially in response to high-profile riots in large cities in the 1960s & 1970s.

The introduction makes clear that the war on crime started with the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and arguably even earlier with the Kennedy administration's efforts to combat juvenile delinquency, so the association of the war on crime primarily with the presidencies Nixon, Ford, and Reagan (as Carter is often left out of popular discussions about this despite being equally responsible in these ways) is because those presidents (and Carter) cut funding for social welfare programs that Johnson initially saw as integral to the success of programs combating crime but began to back away from by the end of his presidency, increased funding for policing, and shifted focus to arrests & imprisonments as ways to prevent future crimes. The author discusses how law enforcement agencies started to develop biased metrics for crime & collect data in biased ways to justify racist theories about the supposedly inherent pathologies of black Americans in cities, even as some politicians at that time wondered if law enforcement agencies should be collecting crime statistics given the conflict of interest. The author emphasizes the bipartisan white American political consensus about crime after 1960 to show that it wasn't just Reagan or other Republicans in the 1980s who focused on punishment through veiled racism. The author also discusses how black American community leaders in & after the 1960s wanted to partner with law enforcement agencies to develop effective strategies together to deal with local problems at the root of local crimes, but conservative politicians (from both parties) deliberately moved away from such partnerships toward the federal block grant funding model that would incentivize states to conduct law enforcement in the most heavy-handed & punitive way possible especially in urban black neighborhoods, which led many black Americans to stop trusting law enforcement. My only criticism specifically about the introduction (that doesn't have to do with the rest of the book) is that the author's language about conditional probabilities is quite sloppy, which is problematic in the context of discussions about biases in data collection & statistical analysis by law enforcement agencies about crime.

The rest of the book simply goes through the history in detail. In the introduction, I wasn't sure who the target audience of the book was supposed to be given frequent references to gaps in academic literature in the main text, but the narrative became more clear through the rest of the book.

There are a few points that I credit the book for. These are as follows.

First, the author repeats points effectively to reinforce the narrative. This makes the narrative easy to follow, and the narrative is clearly well-sourced.

Second, I didn't know that the war on crime dated back to the Kennedy administration. I can claim to have learned that from this book.

Third, I didn't know that close federal cooperation directly with local governments also dated back to the Kennedy administration at the latest. I can claim to have learned that from this book. This is an issue that has been on my mind for a while in the context of empowering cities whose political views oppose those of their state governments which want to disempower them (because while there is a clear federal relationship among the federal, state, and tribal governments in the US Constitution, the US Constitution doesn't govern states' internal affairs, and many states treat their constituent cities as fully subordinate to state governments in all matters).

Fourth, in my view, the author correctly recognizes that policies to combat crime should be evaluated for effectiveness several years afterwards, as there are no quick fixes. The author therefore evaluates whether different parts of the war on crime had effects on crime 10-20 years later instead of just a year later, as the latter would have been a political cheap shot.

Fifth, I appreciate the author's recognition that the US made the same mistakes in both military & social welfare strategies domestically as in invasions of other countries. The author makes clear that many politicians at that time recognized this in the context of wars in Southeast Asia. This adds another dimension to arguments from the book How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything by Rosa Brooks (which I have reviewed on this blog [LINK]) which, from what I remember, focused a little more on more recent invasions of Afghanistan & Iraq.

However, there are many more points in the book which I find problematic. These are as follows.

First, at several points, the author claims that news media & politicians often overstated the prevalence of violent crime, but the author's claims that federal law enforcement statistics about crime were less biased before the 1960s are undercut by the author's acknowledgment that such statistics were collected much more sparsely and in a more ad hoc way before the 1960s. Even leaving aside this point, the author doesn't (in the main text, leaving out the endnotes) name or cite enough specific sources to effectively argue against the dominant narrative of that time, which the book simply restates while feebly arguing against, or intuitively explain why certain crime statistics may initially look alarming but may actually imply rarity of such incidents in practice for an individual. For example, it could be argued that a certain homicide rate given in homicides per million people per year could look big at first but could be argued to imply that an individual has a very low chance of being killed by another person on a given day. (I don't know enough about crime statistics to know what specific number could plausibly fit this description.)

Second, at several points, the author basically wags a finger against what the federal government did, but in some cases where solutions are longer-term and therefore more obvious like investments in unleaded plumbing, better street lighting, or better sidewalks, the author barely identifies these, and in other cases where issues like imminent or continuing riots are spiraling out of control, the author doesn't convincingly argue in favor of specific alternatives except in perhaps 1 or 2 isolated cases. Part of the problem, as becomes clear in the epilogue, may be that the federal government prematurely dismissed such alternatives before seriously trying them, but then the author should have spent more space arguing for such programs on their own potential specific merits instead of giving most of the space to the arguments of contemporary politicians that, by dominating the narrative, may unintentionally seem more convincing than the author may have wanted.

Third, the author argues at some points that poor black Americans should have been empowered from the bottom-up but at other points that they should have gotten similar top-down federal assistance as poor white Americans (which did happen in the war on poverty, albeit at much less monetary amounts per person). This seems incoherent, and the author makes no attempt to explain why these views are compatible with each other.

Fourth, the author ignores the issues of continued slum clearance, urban highway construction, and the dynamics of white flight from urban cores in much of the narrative. I've read in many other places how critical these concerns were in the context of urban crime, so it is surprising to see no mention of these concerns in the book.

Fifth, the author seems to unduly dismiss the challenges that the Carter administration faced in rebuilding damaged urban neighborhoods in the face of high interest rates & high inflation in the 1970s. Perhaps the argument would have been stronger if the author could have found examples of the Carter administration spending scarce resources on less dire issues.

Sixth, in the introduction, the author claims that the war on crime specifically wasn't a reincarnation of the Jim Crow era, but later in the book, the author at many points implies & comes close to explicitly saying exactly that. This seems inconsistent, though to be fair, it was obvious to me that the author would ultimately argue that the war on crime was related to the Jim Crow era, so this inconsistency only threw me off in the introduction.

Seventh, I found it interesting that the author used scare quotes around the term "evil empire" and called the Cold War "Reagan's Cold War". It could be argued that the latter was a more specific reference to how the Reagan administration waged the Cold War in the 1980s as a smaller part of the broader conflict over decades, but based on the author's other stated & implied views through the book, I see it more likely as evidence of the author having far left-wing sympathies, because the latter term in the broader context of the author's views through the book sounds like the author believes the Reagan administration was too bellicose toward the USSR and was too taken by American propaganda over decades to admit that some parts of Soviet propaganda especially about race relations could be true (which is debatable in the context of internal affairs in the USSR).

Eighth, the author seems to argue that the implementation of the ban of handguns but not shotguns was racist because it failed to separate bans on weapons (which should mostly be about destroying those weapons and removing sources of weapons production, though perhaps some further consequences could be appropriate for repeat offenders) from the harsh punishment of offenders. I agree with this in the context of having excessive punishments and in the sense that, even now, it is clear in the US that white Americans are much more often than black Americans given the benefit of the doubt with respect to usage of firearms in self-defense or the possession of firearms per the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. Moreover, it is worth remembering that while courts of law in the US didn't start to systematically recognize an individual right to bear arms until the 2000s (many decades after the 1960s), that doesn't mean that everyone was prosecuted equally for bearing firearms before the 2000s; it is much more plausible that there were racial disparities in enforcement of such laws. However, I think the author doesn't do a good job of acknowledging how the much greater difficulty in using a shotgun to commit violent crimes in urban settings compared to using a handgun for the same purpose makes a handgun ban more sensible without such a ban (separate from the consequences to humans who violate such bans) necessarily being racist per se.

Ninth, at several points, the author seems to go beyond merely describing large-scale riots led by black Americans as a predictable consequence of oppression to being an apologist for such riots. I do at least acknowledge the merit in describing such predictable consequences from a sociological perspective. Also, I admit that it took me a while to understand the author's point that the problem with claiming in the 1960s & later that black Americans are culturally pathological is that such claims were coming from white American politicians who wanted to claim that such cultural pathology was the root of poverty & crime (and not the other way around). Finally, while I still believe that any human culture can have pathological elements in which some elements come from a history of being oppressed & therefore traumatized while other elements may be evidence of being a privileged or oppressive group (so there is no such thing as being a purely "good" or "oppressed" group or a purely "bad" or "oppressive" group), I can understand the author's desire to call white American racism as the dominant group in the US something closer to "cultural pathology" and the cultural pathologies that may result directly from centuries of oppression "trauma" as qualitatively distinct things within the context of US history. Having said those things, I don't think the author did a good enough job of acknowledging that even if some ideal form of reparations for these harms could be formulated & implemented overnight, the lasting effects of these traumas could continue to have negative consequences for different localities & the US as a whole for many decades, and especially now with the US having so many residents & citizens who come from other places & don't identify as white or black, I'm not sure how many Americans would have the patience to wait decades for those things to resolve even if they are much more understanding & supportive of the need for reparations than most white Americans would have been in the 1960s (as the author shows how white Americans in the 1960s wanted quick fixes to the eruptions of violence in response to oppression, which led to further oppression through brutal crackdowns by law enforcement).

Overall, I still recommend this book because the basic historical narrative is well-written & well-sourced; I do feel like I learned a little bit and I had a lot to think about. I just think that readers should be aware of the author's biases as I've discussed above.