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Book Talk | From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime

04/24 Monday | 6pm

The Race and Public Space working group at NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge invites you to join us for a book talk for From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, by Elizabeth Hinton. The author will be present in conversation with Michael Ralph.

About the book:

In the United States today, one in every thirty-one adults is under some form of penal control, including one in eleven African American men. How did the “land of the free” become the home of the world’s largest prison system? Challenging the belief that America’s prison problem originated with the Reagan administration’s War on Drugs, Elizabeth Hinton traces the rise of mass incarceration to an ironic source: the social welfare programs of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society at the height of the civil rights era.

Johnson’s War on Poverty policies sought to foster equality and economic opportunity. But these initiatives were also rooted in widely shared assumptions about African Americans’ role in urban disorder, which prompted Johnson to call for a simultaneous War on Crime. The 1965 Law Enforcement Assistance Act empowered the national government to take a direct role in militarizing local police. Federal anticrime funding soon incentivized social service providers to ally with police departments, courts, and prisons. Under Richard Nixon and his successors, welfare programs fell by the wayside while investment in policing and punishment expanded. Anticipating future crime, policymakers urged states to build new prisons and introduced law enforcement measures into urban schools and public housing, turning neighborhoods into targets of police surveillance.

By the 1980s, crime control and incarceration dominated national responses to poverty and inequality. The initiatives of that decade were less a sharp departure than the full realization of the punitive transformation of urban policy implemented by Republicans and Democrats alike since the 1960s.


Elizabeth Hinton is Assistant Professor in the Department History and the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. Hinton’s research focuses on the persistence of poverty and racial inequality in the 20th century United States. Her current scholarship considers the transformation of domestic social programs and urban policing after the Civil Rights Movement. Before joining the Harvard faculty, Hinton spent two years as a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Michigan Society of Fellows and Assistant Professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. A Ford Foundation Fellow, Hinton completed her Ph.D. in United States History from Columbia University in 2012.

Michael Ralph is associate professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis and Director of Metropolitan Studies at New York University. He has published in Social Text, Souls, and South Atlantic Quarterly. He is a member of the Social Text Editorial Collective, the Souls Editorial Working Group, and the editorial boards of Transforming Anthropology and Sport in Society.

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