When crime throws American cities into disarray—as has happened before and in some places is happening now—it is a bad look for the Left.
Start with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, one of the most influential scholarly books of the twenty-first century. Mass incarceration, Alexander writes, “is a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racial control,” designed perpetually to harm people of color—a “racial caste system.” Yet Alexander’s book should be infamous for its well-documented flaws. She defines “mass incarceration” as broadly as possible to make the problem seem worse than it is—she considers those on probation or parole, or awaiting sentencing, to be “incarcerated.” She doesn’t point out that in the early 1960s, violent crime began rising sharply along with nonviolent drug crimes. She doesn’t acknowledge that nonwhites drove the three-decade crime climb, or that urban African Americans are more likely to be victimized by crime, which is why many blacks supported the punitive crime measures she decries.
If you are reading this and struggling to understand how someone could write a scholarly bestseller about police, courts, and prisons, without also discussing violent crime, I have bad news for you: The New Jim Crow is no outlier. Elizabeth Hinton, a Yale historian and the author of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, discusses the expansion of America’s carceral state but mentions criminals only in passing. Between the 1960s and 1980s, she says, fears about crime were overwrought. Changes in the reporting and compiling of crime statistics—along with biased media coverage and political fear mongering—allegedly “skewed perceptions of violent crime.” Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, on the Attica prison riot, is a better book—it won the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes—but she puts America’s “crime problem” of the 1960s in scare quotes, as if to suggest it wasn’t real. In 2015, the flagship Journal of American History published a vainglorious special issue on “Historians and the Carceral State” that featured only left-wing perspectives.
Of all the subfields in American history, scholarship on the criminal-justice system may be the most politicized. It is dominated by gatekeepers who mostly see things the same way and resist outside interpretations.