No Reason to Blame Liberals (or, the Unbearable Lightness of Perversity Arguments); Review of the First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, by Naomi Murakawa
New Rambler Review, 2015
9 Pages Posted: 9 Sep 2015 Last revised: 30 Oct 2015
Date Written: June 17, 2015
This is a review of The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, by political scientist Naomi Murakawa. Murakawa takes as her target a conventional wisdom that explains the rise of mass incarceration as a victory of Republican law-and-order over Democratic civil rights. Rather, she argues, starting right in her subtitle, “liberals built prison America.” It was liberals, she claims, who “established a law-and-order mandate: build a better carceral state, one strong enough to control racial violence in the streets and regimented enough to control racial bias in criminal justice administration.” Her major point along these lines is that the liberal preoccupation with using fair, non-racist procedures has contributed importantly to the growth of the carceral state, taming reform urges, entrenching the punitive regime. This argument sounds in perversity — on Murakawa’s account, liberalism’s attempt to improve racial justice using procedural tools not only fails, it is counter-productive, entrenching and worsening the system’s inequities.
The review critiques Murakawa's focus on federal crime policy as missing the more important state and local dynamics. In addition, it argues that Murakawa's perversity argument is essentially aesthetic — that she adduces only post-hoc/propter-hoc kind of evidence that the liberal proceduralism she highlights has accompanied the ballooning of the incarcerated population. That is far from enough to convict generations of liberals — many though not all of whom decried overincarceration, as well as the unfair procedures that accompanied it — of the charge that they “built prison America.”
Keywords: prison, liberalism, crime politics, overincarceration
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