'The War on Crime is the Only Battle in Which the Black Community Has Not Been Enlisted': Black Agency and Alternatives to the Carceral State
Posted: 23 Oct 2013
Date Written: October 22, 2013
“The war on crime has been one of the few battles in our history in which the black community has not been enlisted...then and now, on urban fronts throughout the country thousands of poor and black people continue to be disproportionately victimized by crime… Crime prevention, however, is a very high priority in the black community, as those of us who are of and in it know.” So remarked the director of the National Urban League’s Administration of Justice, Robert Woodson, at congressional hearings on crime in 1976. Our paper asks: what role, if any, did indigenous black organizations play in responding to crime and the politics around crime during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s? Existing scholarship suggests that during a pitched rise in crime in the 1970s, black politicians and community leaders either stayed silent or endorsed punitive measures, following a “politics of respectability” logic. By contrast, we explore a road not traveled in crime control policy. In the midst of the rise of law-and-order politics, a Black elite movement for community-based crime control developed. Supporters of this movement were neither silent nor punitive; rather, they were deeply concerned with crime and violence and developed a comprehensive alternative that would strike at its roots. Drawing on original archival material from the papers of the Urban League, along with analysis of historical black newspapers, congressional testimony, interviews, and bibliographies, we investigate community-based crime control at multiple levels of American government. John Conyers and the Congressional Black Caucus consistently supported community control in law-and-order debates in Congress in the 1970s, though they mostly failed to pass or were inadequately funded. Meanwhile, several community crime control organizations existed in Black communities across the country. We examine the Community Assistance Project in Chester, PA, a free bail and conflict resolution program under the umbrella of the National Urban League. By studying this movement, we show that the politics around crime were more varied than most accounts allow; more importantly, however, is that black grassroots activism could and did propose an alternative to the expansion of the carceral state.
Keywords: criminal justice, black politics, war on crime, Urban League
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