Think We Should Go Back to the “War on Poverty”?

This Book Shows How It Was A War All Right—On the Poor

April 16, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


One of the things that I really wanted to show in the book is that, essentially, policymakers even in the 1960s in the midst of civil rights revolution decided that a generation of African American youth were criminals, that they were potential delinquents, that they were social dynamite. They were pre-criminals. They labeled them criminals before they’ve actually committed a crime… It’s another kind of blame-the-victim approach to domestic policy that we’ve seen again and again over the past half-century.

Elizabeth Hinton, The Tavis Smiley Show, September 12, 2016

If you want some deep truths about how the “war on drugs” began and how the U.S. became  the world leader in mass incarceration, read Elizabeth Hinton’s book, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America. Hinton takes us through the 1970s and 1980s, showing how the government’s “War on Poverty” became a war on the poor. She reveals the racist thinking used to justify this. And we see how Democrats and Republicans united to carry this out.

In 1964, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson launched the federal War on Poverty—which included things like food stamps, Head Start, Medicare, and Medicaid. Johnson touted this as part of a “Great Society” that was going to solve poverty and other problems. But at the very same time he began to launch some very repressive measures. In 1965, after a summer of uprisings in a number of cities, Johnson introduced the Law Enforcement Assistance Act, which signaled a new “War on Crime.” Hinton writes, “The punitive legislation offered a response to the threat of future disorder by establishing a direct role for the federal government in local police operations, court systems, and state prisons for the first time in American history.”

Soon, any thinking among policymakers that crime stemmed from racism, discrimination, and poverty was basically replaced with the view that what was needed was not social programs but more “law and order.”

Racists argued that no amount of economic and social changes would work because crime and violence were “hereditary” in Black people. There was a “progressive” version of this that said Black families had to “break the pathologies” perpetuated by poverty, which only led to further poverty and crime. 

Hinton writes, “The notion that a self-perpetuating ‘tangle of pathology’ characterized black families nevertheless emerged as a powerful, and malleable, explanation of persisting racial inequality after the passage of the Civil Rights Act [1964] and other egalitarian measures.” So even those who had said that poverty contributed to crime ended up putting the blame on the people. Some argued that a “culture of poverty” made it impossible for poor Black people to even benefit from social programs.

What evolved was a War on Crime that targeted Black people as a people—not the economic and social institutions (real estate, government, hiring, education, etc.) that kept the oppression of Black people going.

We saw the police occupation of Black neighborhoods, racial profiling and arrests—sometimes for minor drug crimes, loitering or curfew violations. Hinton describes, for example, the work of the Los Angeles Police Department’s CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) unit beginning in the 1970s: “The series of police sweeps the force conducted reached their height in the spring of 1988, when 1,000 officers swept through South Central in a caravan of patrol cars on a Friday night and made another round of sweeps the next day. More than 1,400 predominantly black residents faced arrest for traffic citations, parking fines, curfew violations, outstanding warrants, ‘gang-related behaviors,’ and drunk driving in the largest mass arrest in the city since the Watts uprising of 1965.”

Higher Black crime rates were then used as supposed “proof” that Black people were “inherently” criminal. Research and policy shifted from tying crime to discrimination, unemployment, and poverty to putting forward things like divorce rates, single parent households, and teenage pregnancy as the cause of crime.

Policymakers developed repressive measures based on the anticipation of FUTURE crime and criminals. In their view, Black youth were in a “pre-crime stage” so they needed to be targeted and criminalized—to be removed from society before they became criminals.

Hinton shows how through all this, the police were increasingly inserted into the lives of people—in schools, neighborhoods, housing projects. Teachers, social workers, and community activists were drawn into cooperating and participating in repressive measures—like identifying “troublemakers” to be monitored and arrested. And “anti-poverty” programs themselves increasingly cooperated with and became entangled with policing—which facilitated the normalization of police occupation in the community.

One lesson to draw from Hinton’s book is that those who try to draw a distinction between “good” War on Poverty programs and the straight-out fascistic repression of the Republicans are missing and covering over a very important point: WHOEVER is in power will enforce the oppression of Black people, in one way or another. The problem is the SYSTEM which must be gotten rid of and replaced with a whole new economic, political, and social system.



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