National Book Award semifinalist Heather Ann Thompson says the war on crime started with LBJ

Historians in the News
tags: LBJ, Heather Ann Thompson, National Book Awards



History Prof. Heather Ann Thompson has recently garnered attention for the success of her book, “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy,” which focuses on the history of mass incarceration and its current impact, particularly in Detroit.

In an interview, Thompson said her research has largely led her to conclude that the slow downfall and ultimate economic collapse of Detroit can be traced back to former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Law Enforcement Assistance Act, which, Thompson argues, started the so-called war on crime and the incentivization of incarceration that came with it.

“As important as deindustrialization and ‘white flight’ are, we have also given short shrift to the punitive turn the embrace of mass incarceration had in destroying cities like Detroit,” she said.

The Act intended to strengthen crime control programs and initiatives by providing grants for training officers and improving incarceration conditions.

Thompson said her work points to the origin of the war on crime stemming from not only racism based in the southern United States, but also a mentality many white northerners held during the Civil Rights Movement.

“To many white Detroiters, the mere presence of so many more African Americans in the wake of the Second Great Migration, who were vocal about their need for an equal share of civil resources, was threatening, dangerous and even criminal,” Thompson said. “White southerners, both ordinary citizens and elected officials, had long equated Civil Rights unrest with criminality, and when African Americans began fighting for greater equality in the North as much as in the South, this is how northern whites began to interpret their actions as well.”

While many researchers argue that the war on crime was instituted in reaction to increasing homicide and violent crime rates, Thompson said she thinks this is misleading, if not blatantly untrue.

“The murder rate had been far higher in the 1930s — as high as 9.7 per 100,000,” she said. “Indeed, if one looks at the entire 20th century, it is remarkable how much safer the 1960s were compared to previous decades.”

Thompson argued that because federal funding is allocated by need, Detroit had an incentive to boost crime figures, resulting in a much more aggressive form of policing than Detroit had seen prior to the War on Crime.

“Thanks to the intensified criminalization of urban space in the 1970s and 1980s, today, Michigan’s prison population has increased by (53.8) percent,” Thompson said.

This increase in the prison population has had a significant social impact on Detroit, including the orphaning of many of Detroit’s children, Thompson said.




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