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In addition to the current extraordinary number of people behind American bars, the other key feature of our current carceral state is the very high concentration of non-whites in that population. That concentration of non-whites has grown significantly since the 1960s, when whites constituted nearly two thirds of American prison population; today, they are only a bit over one-third. Since 72% of Americans are white, the distinction in terms of incarceration rate is far more stark: among white men, the current imprisonment rate (counting only sentenced prisoners) is 4.7/1000; among Latino men it is two-and-a-half times that (11.3/1000); and among black men, it is six times as high as for white men (28/1000).

Naomi Murakawa, a political scientist and associate professor of African American Studies at Princeton, has written an interesting book that blames both features on American liberals—in particular Harry Truman, Ted Kennedy, and Bill Clinton (and Lyndon Johnson and Joe Biden)— and American liberalism. In The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison American, 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.” (page 3)


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