The victories of the Civil Rights era have been undermined by a “laissez-faire racism” that continues the historic criminalization of people of color, an American Society of Criminology (ASC) panel was told Thursday.
Lawrence D. Bobo, dean of Social Science at Harvard University, said the rhetoric used by President Donald Trump and his supporters during the recent midterm election campaign to warn of a so-called invasion by Central American “criminals” was the most recent example of the prejudice that continues to distort American justice.
“Racial inequalities have morphed into a new modern era of laissez-faire racism,” which is no longer tied to the institutional racism that once infected education, employment, politics and other areas of American life and has since been outlawed by civil rights legislation, said Bobo, the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard.
He was speaking to a packed plenary session at the annual ASC conference, attended by justice practitioners, students and researchers from throughout the U.S. and abroad.
“American culture is deeply disfigured by white supremacists,” he said at the Atlanta meeting, noting that the tough-on-crime strategies of recent years which disproportionately affected Americans of color had been supported by politicians of both parties.
Bobo welcomed Trump’s long-awaited endorsement this week of a bipartisan justice reform bill that would reduce sentences for some federal offenders, but he said the nation’s leaders needed to move from tinkering with reforms to a system-wide effort to remove the racial biases and inequalities that have long been a critical part of crime control.
“We’re in a fluid moment,” he said.
Bobo observed that even though incarceration was at a 26-year-low and crime rates were declining, disproportionate numbers of African Americans and Latinos remained under the purview of the justice system.
His bleak assessment was underlined by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Heather A. Thompson of the University of Michigan, who told the audience that white supremacist views were “baked into the DNA” of American life and politics.
According to Thompson, it was “whites’ drive to maintain power” over nonwhite populations⸺particularly Native Americans and freed slaves⸺that “determined the high rate of criminalization” of those groups.
“There are huge lessons to be reckoned with” from two centuries of U.S. history during which “people of color have always been associated by whites as sources of trouble and disorder,” she said.
Echoing the views of Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” Thompson said the end of slavery forced white leaders to use police and other parts of the justice system to reduce any political competition from African Americans that would challenge their power.
“Racism and disproportionality are not a byproduct of our criminal justice system,” she said. “[They] are core and fundamental to that system.”
Thompson won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.”
Stephen Handelman is executive editor of The Crime Report.