Social Control: How Racism Shaped Modern Crime Policy

by Brendan Kennedy

It’s hard to tell with the absurdity and partisanship of today’s news, but this decade may very well be remembered as the most consequential decade for race relations since the 1960s. The housing crisis and recession hit minorities harder than anyone else, voter suppression was elevated to a new level thanks to reductions in protection at almost every level of government and, of course, America elected its first black President.

Minority communities have lived through the impacts of criminal justice policy, while the rest of the nation remains largely ignorant of them.

The driving force behind recent racial protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, however, has been crime policy, mass incarceration, and high-profile incidents of deadly force and police brutality. And while these protests have exposed tensions that have simmered for decades, critics of the protests too often miss the history at play. Minority communities have lived through the impacts of criminal justice policy, while the rest of the nation remains largely ignorant of them.

In the coming weeks, I plan on using this space to dig deeper into the concerns of minority communities and the history of crime policy in America. This week, I want to look back at the ideological and political origins of modern crime policy. In order to understand the origins of the modern civil rights struggle, we have to look back at the end of the one that took place in the 1960s.

Rather than a “backlash”, where these figures would have attempted to roll back civil rights legislation, “frontlash” meant using the context of the 60s to promote a new national priority- one which conservative politicians could define, solve, and own.

It is no coincidence that modern crime policy became a federal priority directly after the civil rights movement of the ‘60s. Numerous scholars have identified a distinct political and racial nature of these policies. One, Vesla Weaver, describes how the focus on federal crime policy constituted what she refers to as “frontlash”. Conservative politicians had largely lost the battle on civil rights. Rather than a “backlash”, where these figures would have attempted to roll back civil rights legislation, “frontlash” meant using the context of the 60s to promote a new national priority- one which conservative politicians could define, solve, and own.

The ‘50s and ‘60s had seen racial protests ranging from civil disobedience to riots, as well as Supreme Court decisions expanding defendant rights and President Johnson’s War on Poverty. The new conservative banner was that liberal policies of the past decades weakened law enforcement while encouraging crime. And, in order to take advantage of the momentum of white conservative anger at civil rights, discussions of crime quickly became centered around race. 


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The “frontlash” around crime became based on the idea that the civil rights movement was inherently violent and criminal. L.A. Police Chief William Parker called civil rights a “terribly vicious canard which is used to conceal Negro criminality.” J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, asserted that “the net effect of the charge of ‘police brutality’ is to provoke and encourage mob action and violence.”  The civil rights movement, they argued, was a farce, and civil rights leaders were finding excuses to urge their followers to break the law. Civil disobedience and riots were no different in their eyes, as they both were masked ways to promote lawlessness and criminality. “Mob violence,” one congressman from Georgia said, “is a direct outgrowth of the philosophy that people can violate any law… with which they don’t agree.”

The most popular was a portrayal of crime as a result of moral decay, to which minorities were supposedly more susceptible.

In this way, politicians began to play into white conservatives’ worst fears about the civil rights movement. As politicians continued to link civil rights with violence, a narrative of black criminality arose. Social science research soon emerged to fill the demand. The most popular was a portrayal of crime as a result of moral decay, to which minorities were supposedly more susceptible.

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Art by Danielle Trevino

One such theory came from Marvin Wolfgang, who proposed the subculture of violence theory. He argued that certain cultures had adopted a culture where criminality is accepted and praised, describing how such a subculture thrived in lower classes, and was “especially comprised of males and Negroes”. Another prominent theory, that of social control, was advanced by Travis Hirschi. It argued that crime was more common in communities with weak social bonds. Though he did not focus on race, he did note a higher level of crime among minority groups. After considering and discounting several possible explanations, he simply concluded that “there is a Negro-white differential that cannot be removed by statistical analysis.”

Despite evidence that high crime and social deficiency in minority neighborhoods were symptoms of poverty and segregation, crime policies in the Nixon era were crafted around theories like Wolfgang and Hirschi’s. These policies sough to exert control over minority groups which had been consistently painted as inherently violent and criminal. Conservative politicians, licking their wounds after the civil rights movement and liberal policies of the ‘60s, had successfully used white anger and shrewd politics to change the narrative, and their racially charged push for federal crime policies served as the first step toward the racial tension that we see today.


Brendan Kennedy is a senior at Trinity University double majoring in Political Science and Spanish, from Dripping Springs, Texas.


The views expressed in this article are those of the writer, The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

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