What are the economic implications of racism?

September 19, 2023

In this week’s episode, Chris sits down with Elizabeth Hinton. Elizabeth is an American historian and associate professor of History and African American Studies at Yale University, as well as a Professor of Law at Yale Law School. Her research focuses on the persistence of poverty and racial inequality in the twentieth-century United States. Hinton’s book “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America” 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. There are 80 million people in the US, or 1 in 3 Americans, that have an arrest or conviction record. Mass incarceration prevents these millions of people from fully participating in society when released. Hinton and Hyams will discuss how we got to this point in America, how the lack of job opportunities contribute to the cycle of police violence and social unrest and what policy recommendations are needed to break this cycle.

- Hello everyone. I am Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed. My pronouns are he and him, and welcome to the next episode of "Here To Help." For accessibility, I'll offer a quick visual description. I am a middle-aged man with dark rim glasses, I'm wearing a black t-shirt. Behind me are books and LPs. At Indeed our mission is to help people get jobs. This is what gets us out of bed in the morning and what keeps us going all day and what powers that mission is people. Here to Help is a look at how experience, strength, and hope inspires people to want to help others. Indeed is a marketplace, we connect job seekers and employers, and in that work we have a front row seat to the global economy. And one thing that we see very clearly, as we like to say, is that talent is universal but opportunity is not. Systemic bias and barriers exist in access to opportunity that leaves marginalized people on the sidelines. And of all of these barriers, a criminal record is likely the most significant. An estimated 77 million Americans have an arrest or conviction record that is, one in three every working age adults. And unlike all of the other barriers that people face every day, gender, ethnicity, disability, it is entirely legal to discriminate based on justice involvement. And of course, the burden here falls most heavily on communities of color, where, for example, Black men are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses than white people. My guest today is Dr. Elizabeth Hinton, whose research is rooted in the history of policing and criminalization of Black people. Dr. Hinton is an American historian and Associate Professor of History and African-American Studies at Yale University as well as a Professor of Law at Yale Law School. Her research focuses on the persistence of poverty and racial and inequality in the 20th century United States. Dr. Hinton's 2016 book, "From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: "The Making of Mass Incarceration in America" 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. In 2021, Dr. Hinton published, "America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence "and Black Rebellion since the 1960s" which reframes our understanding of Black rebellion in the '60s and '70s through George Floyd in 2020. Dr. Hinton, thank you so much for joining me today.

- Thanks so much for having me, Chris. I'm thrilled to be here.

- One of the themes of your work is the cycle of backlash against communities of color that inevitably follows periods of progress. And one week after signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, LBJ declared a war on crime, the aftermath of which we're still dealing with today. Can you talk about this phenomenon and how this war on crime unfolded in the wake of what seemed like something positive?

- That's such an important question and I feel like to properly answer that we have to go back even further in time to kind of see this reaction, backlash as you called it, as part of a larger historical tendency in the United State. Which is that every time the federal government has expanded the bounds of citizenship and given new rights to groups of people, in both cases, African-Americans at the same time or immediately after we get new criminal laws and new systems of incarceration. So immediately after the Civil War, the abolition of slavery with the 13th Amendment, we get new criminal laws called the Black Codes in every former Confederate state that basically criminalized because of course, when enslaved Africans were enslaved they were not part really of the criminal legal system. After slavery all of these new laws that are basically about controlling Black labor in the sense that one could be arrested if one was not... If a newly freed person was not in contract with a white employer. So if you weren't in contract with a white employer, if you weren't working for a white person after emancipation you could be arrested and put into the growing system of convict leasing for private companies seeking to rebuild the South after the Civil War. And this system of forced labor, which some have called worse than slavery or slavery by another name really helped rebuild the southern states after the Civil War. So we get Emancipation Proclamation, we get the 14th Amendment, we get this extension of citizenship in 1865 through the 1870s, and we also get this new criminal system. You flash forward exactly 100 years as you said, Lyndon Johnson sends the Voting Rights Act to Congress in March '65. This is of course one year after the Civil Rights Act, which ended Jim Crow. This was the federal government's civil rights package. It's enfranchisement and electoral enfranchisement and civil rights. We didn't get... There was no economic component to the federal government's civil rights package. And Johnson's call for the war on crime and the Voting Rights Act and his poverty programs that same month in March '65 he also sends the Housing and Urban Development Act to Congress transforming the accessibility of housing for low-income renters. It all remained in question to a certain extent then. But the decision to begin for the first time in US history, to invest for the federal government, to invest in local police forces, coming after in the context of civil rights movement and alongside the Voting Rights Act is significant.

- At Indeed, jobs and employment is central to what we do. and it's so central to all of this history. Obviously slavery was all about control of labor as well as convict leasing and everything that happened afterwards. And in a lot of your work what you talk about is these cycles. And so the cycle of, and we'll get into, I really want to get into the language choice of the word rebellion versus how it was described mostly in the media as riots. But that the more help that was needed, the stronger the response and that response then ends up creating the snowballing effect which is given the fact that what people really wanted here was jobs and I think most people forget that the March on Washington was actually called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. We all think of the freedom part but jobs was very central to what the civil rights movement was all about. And yet what happened in mass incarceration and this militarization of police ended up actually making the access to opportunity so much worse and so much more unreachable for so many people. So I'd love to... I'd love to have you just talk a little bit about the role of employment and these sort of cycles that we've been stuck in for hundreds of years.

- Again and again, instead of addressing the socioeconomic inequalities, namely jobs, because that is the number one thing that communities are calling for. They say like, "Look, give me a job. "I'm unemployed, I have a college education, "I can't get a job. "I don't have a job, what am I supposed to do?" And there's no... There's no help, there's no new job creation programs for people. Instead, the response in lieu of those jobs is more investments into police, into expanding and militarizing police, which creates the cycle of what I call, police violence and Black rebellion that really begins in the 1960s when we get these new federal war on crime, these new federal investments into police. And that we still have it and that's kind of the what I call the crucible period, really '68 actually to '72. But we clearly haven't gotten out of that. Police... Violent political... Violent responses to police abuse have been a constant occurrence the United States through the remainder of the 20th century, through the '70s, '80s and '90s, and of course into our own time. It's something that I think beginning in Obama's second term with Ferguson through the summer of 2020 with the George Floyd protests have become kind of more a part of recent popular imagination. But it is because we still haven't made the necessary investments to address the root causes that make people feel as though they have no other recourse but to smash a window or but to grab a packet of diapers because they can get some for their baby and they need one and it's difficult to buy diapers especially if you are unemployed, right? So I think a lot of what I've tried to do in my work is identify the root causes and the paths not taken and how we might be able to prevent this or to break the cycle, I should say. To break the cycle so that it doesn't continue.

- And so one of the things that's really central is, it's in the title of your book in explicitly the word choice of rebellion instead of riot. And I want to talk about the importance of language and how it's used. And one thing that's really striking is just the difference about how we describe the same situations in the Black community and in with white people. And so we have the opioid crisis is thought of as a health crisis where crack is a criminal crisis. Our country's founding mythology starts with this idea of the Boston Tea Party, which is destruction of property for protest and yet Minneapolis in 2020 is a riot. And then you have also in certain circles that people like Kyle Rittenhouse referred to as a hero. So you spend some time and you make some deliberate choices. Can you talk about the choice of the word rebellion and the power of language and how we frame these problems.

- Protests for racial justice, whether violent or nonviolent historically gets criminalized. It really is like who gets to protest and what protests is seen as legitimate because of course in the nonviolent direct action, protests and boycotts in the South beginning really in the '40s, '50s, '60s, the immediate reaction is that, this is a criminal act. Martin Luther King you know was arrested hundreds of times. So any challenge to the kind of racial status quo is very often immediately labeled as criminal. After Martin Luther King Jr's assassination the attitude is, well, we've been trying now for decades to address racial inequality through nonviolent direct action, and that hasn't worked and now the proponent of non-violence as the kind of key to our freedom and liberation has been assassinated. And so in many ways this turned to property destruction, this turned to self-defense and fighting back for many was seen as kind of the logical next step when you've been trying non violence for decades and you haven't gotten any results.

- I want to have you talk a little bit about one of the towns that you spend a great deal of time on, which is Cairo, Illinois. For a lot of people who think they know even a little bit about the history. I mean, this is a story that sounds very much like 1950s Mississippi, and it's Illinois, it's southern Illinois, but it's Illinois, and it goes through the 1970s and it covers so much because it's also got sort of this terror and violence piece but also this nonviolent action in the form of this boycott. Can you just talk a little bit about the story of Cairo.

- I mean, it's like a horror... It's a horror movie of racial oppression in this town of about 4,000 at the southernmost tip of Illinois, as you said. So it's actually below the Mason-Dixon Line but it is in Illinois where white people were... It was... It was 4,000 people, they were just over 2,000. So white residents had the majority and basically used that because of the elections were based on majorities to keep Black people locked out of political and economic power. And Black people were living in extreme poverty in the town, they had no political representation, they could not get city jobs, employment was a real struggle and that was the status quo. Into the 1970s, white organizations, supremacist organizations mobilized to terrorize the Black residents in Cairo who were many of them segregated in a single housing project called Pyramid Courts, where very often white residents in this particular vigilante group would stand on the Mississippi levee and shoot at the residents in Pyramid Courts to the point that many people slept in their bathtubs for safety at night, children had to do their homework in the darkness. That was the level of terror that this community was living under. And eventually the Black residents said, "You know what, "we are going to arm ourselves to protect our families. "We are no longer going to... "We're going to boycott the white businesses in this town "because we are not going to give white business owners "money to then buy bullets to shoot at us." So the Black residents of Cairo accompanied their nonviolent direct action boycott that went on for years and that did eventually lead to the closure of most of the stores in Cairo's downtown district. But they also began to fight back when they were being shot at, they shot back, which is where you get that coverage of these Black militants are attacking white residents in this town. But the thing that... That for me is so important about Cairo, it is exceptional in many ways but it's also reflective because it really shows that racism is bad for everyone. Rather than just giving jobs to Black people and including... And making the city council and the kind of elite institutions in Cairo, the schools more inclusive. When the schools were finally forced to desegregate in the early 1970s, many of the white residents just created a new private school called Camelot and withdrew their students and put them in that school. But as a result of this racism, property values went down, as I mentioned, the stores closed, the white racists... Their continued racism hurt their own economic livelihood and yet they still clung to it. And today Cairo has a very small population. Most of the people who have been able to leave have left. It is now at this point, majority Black and it essentially the racism of the white people in the town essentially killed the town. And I think, again, this is, it's kind of a... It's a warning to us that... And it shows that racism is really bad for everyone and that if we are being more inclusive, having a more robust kind of economy is good for everyone. And just the story of Cairo shows us that racism kills, it killed the town and it's not good for people's livelihoods both personal and economic.

- Mass incarceration has so many different sort of tendrils in terms of its impact. One is obviously ripping a huge number of people completely out of society and then everything that Michelle Alexander talks about in New Jim Crow in terms of the disenfranchisement and everything that happens there. But also once they, the ones who are able to be released and reentry and we spoke before about Reuben Jonathan Miller and his incredible book "Halfway Home" and talk so much about the challenges of what happens when someone is released and how many barriers are set up that, number one, if you are not employed, that can end up sending you back. But how many barriers exist and how many not just the fact that employers can discriminate, but all of the other things that are set up in terms of access to housing and transportation, and there's just heartbreak... So many heartbreaking stories in his work there. So can you talk about the impact on employment of the system of mass incarceration?

- Yeah. And I think that is where the new Jim Crow concept, mass incarceration itself does... It doesn't... It's not quite Jim Crow, right? It's not relegated to the South and of course it ensnares white people too. It's not explicitly a system that's based on racial segregation as Jim Crow was. But really the civil status that many people are facing who have criminal convictions does look like the civil status that Black people were living under in the South, in the Jim Crow apartheid regime. So in the sense of the barriers that one encounters in employment, in access to public resources, again, in the moment that the prison population just is in astronomical proportions in the '90s in the '80s and especially the '90s, this is also the moment that federal policy makers prohibit or limit the public benefits that people with criminal convictions have access to. The resources that one needs to rebuild one's life after being released from prison, especially a prison system as it stands in the US that it may be called corrections, right? But it's not giving people the basic tools that they need and the support that they need to make it when they get out. Very often and I know that Reuben spoke with you about this, but you're getting... You're being released back into the same community that you were probably in when you got arrested without... You may receive some job training programs but you're not... It's a uphill battle to actually get a job, to get an employer to hire you. It's a struggle to find safe, decent housing and just the general counseling and support that one needs after being released from the violent trauma that is incubated in the US carceral system. So all of these things combined on top of a civil status, a civic status that gives you this kind of precarious, blurry experience or definition of citizenship, makes this a new system of domination and exclusion that looks very much like Jim Crow.

- One of the themes in some of your work is around, missed opportunities and that we've sort of stood on the brink of being able to do something and the war on poverty was, feels like the right idea and then these ideas came out of the Kerner Commission and the answer was, "Well, we don't want to... "We don't want to do that." And then even in 2020, it seemed for a brief period of time for about a year that suddenly people were maybe ready to actually make some change, only to have now seen in the last year this incredible backlash against DEI and so-called woke ideas. And in fact, you're an educator the amount of work going into right now preventing history being taught is kind of staggering. So I'd love to hear your thoughts on sort of these missed opportunities and what do you think it would take for an opportunity to not be missed at some point?

- I'm glad that you mentioned the Kerner Commission because that's what I always come back to. I mean, here was a moment when a moderate... A pretty moderate group of mostly white men at the behest of President Johnson came together and said, "Look, the problem in the US is this unequal society." They warn that the nation is moving towards two directions, one Black, one white, separate and unequal. And they say to President Johnson and his administration and federal policy makers, look, the war on poverty hasn't gone far enough. If we're serious about, it's not... I didn't like come up with these arguments in "America on Fire" out of thin air. I mean, it's in many ways, very much in line with what the Kerner Commission said. They said, these riots, as the Kerner Commission labeled them, are rooted in socioeconomic inequality and if we're serious about preventing them in the future, we need essentially a Marshall Plan for American cities. The Kerner Commission said, "First and foremost, "we have to mobilize both the private and public sector "for a massive job creation program "for low income communities of color. "We really, really need to provide people with jobs." That was first and foremost. There needs to be a major overhaul, a complete overhaul of public housing and a major overhaul of urban public schools. And instead of that job creation program that the Kerner Commission called for, we ended up getting this major job creation program for police when the war on crime gets a more permanent form in the first kind of major federal crime control legislation, the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, the continued reliance on policing and surveillance and incarceration over jobs and decent housing for people and educational opportunities hasn't worked. It hasn't kept many of our most vulnerable communities safer. It hasn't... It's compromised American democracy and that's really I think what a lot of the mobilizations in 2020 was about. That's in many ways what the slogan, "defund the police" was about and I think a lot of the backlash is, the continued resistance to putting in place the kinds of policies and supports I think most fundamentally are major jobs program that would help us realize a multiracial democracy in this country.

- Political and social will is one problem here but then there also have been a series of Supreme Court rulings over the years and Michelle Alexander outlines this very clearly that actually prevent race-based remedies when we have problems that are... There's disparate impact by race that is incredibly clear and demonstrated by every statistic in every area of the criminal justice system, housing, healthcare, education, all of those things. And yet there are structural legal barriers to race-based remedies. And so targeting, for example, poor people, there are more poor white people in America than there are poor Black people in America. I don't want to put you on the spot, but like how do we work around that with some of these challenges?

- I'm trying to work on that... To work around that in some of the work that I'm doing now in partnership with civil rights attorneys and public defenders using historical archives to actually prove discriminatory intent. One of the things that Michelle Alexander discusses this beautifully, the way that in the '80s especially the Supreme Court has made it impossible to prove racial discrimination. It's impossible to prove the way that you can prove it is through archival sources. So I'm trying to exploit what remains in our toolbox to actually show the way that many of these criminal laws and the sentencing in particular violates the people's equal protection clause under... These are... Many of these laws are unconstitutional and we can use the archive to prove that. That said, one, I think important aspect or important way that we might be able to think about meaningfully addressing the impacts of incarceration in general is through the education system. For all of the gross racial disparities that we see in the criminal legal system, if you are a white person without a high school diploma, you are much more likely to go to prison than a Black person with a high school diploma. So to me that says in some ways, like the best prevention is looking at some of our most underserved schools and our most poverty stricken areas and investing in those schools, make those schools, make those poor rural schools or poor urban schools look more like some of the amazing suburban public schools that exist in this country. And that to me seems to be one avenue to address some of these systemic disparities moving forward. So we have to take race into account but the class dimension of this, I think is also really key.

- Before we wrap up, I do want to ask what, so you said a little bit about some of what you're working on. Now what do you have a new project or what are you working on next that we have to look forward to?

- So I am kind of going back in some ways to my federal policy roots and looking at some of the policies in the Clinton administration that exacerbated racial inequalities within the criminal legal system and looking specifically at sentencing laws things like mandatory minimum sentences and how that drives racial inequality. I am in this kind of next leg of my work really trying to address that issue and thinking creatively how, as I mentioned, the historical archive does contain evidence that can help us prove discriminatory intent behind many of these laws. And for me I think that especially in our current judicial climate, is a promising new avenue to continue to address racism in the criminal legal system.

- Well, we always close with the same question and I'll just sort of frame it in the context of what we've been talking about. So what I normally say is, just looking back over the last few years since the start of the pandemic with everything that we've been through, what leaves you with some hope for the future? And I'll just sort of expand that to, given that all of the work that you do and looking at all of these things that are so unbelievably challenging and feeling insurmountable, what does give you hope?

- My students. I draw a lot of hope and inspiration from my students. I think that this, I'm really impressed with Gen Z and kind of the rising generation of young people who I think really want to bring about a more equitable, inclusive society. And I don't know whether or not I'm going to see that society in my lifetime, but I think that my children and my grandchildren and my great-great-grandchildren will hopefully be in good hands. So I find that's one of the things that really fuels me. I think that I have to find that hope and inspiration in my students who are so passionate about creating a better world.

- Dr. Elizabeth Hinton, thank you so much for joining me today and thank you so much for the incredible work and research and authorship and teaching that you do to help bring about hopefully a little more enlightenment.

- Thank you so much, Chris, for having me. This has been an absolute pleasure. I just wish we had more time.