Tag Archives: National Politics

From Community Action to Community Policing: The Ford Foundation and the Urban Crisis, 1960-1975

By Sam Collings-Wells

On July 16, 1970, McGeorge Bundy circulated a letter to various US Senators informing them of the Ford Foundation’s “major new program to help strengthen and modernize the exercise of police function in urban areas.”[i] He was referring to the establishment of the Police Foundation, an independent organization which was allocated an enormous $30 million for action-orientated research into new policing strategies and technologies.[ii] Internal program documents repeatedly stressed that the principal purpose of this new entity was to stimulate “change in police function,” not by funding the purchase of additional hardware but instead by “bringing the police closer to the community” and fostering “mutual cooperation between police officers and community residents.”[iii]

The Ford Foundation’s leap into the realm of community policing during the early 1970s has largely been neglected by historians. This is surprising, particularly given that the organization’s role in pioneering the community-based antipoverty strategies of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty has been well documented. Scholars from Alice O’Connor to Joshua Zeitz have demonstrated how the urban community action experiments pioneered by Ford during the early 1960s formed the basis of the “maximum feasible participation” clause of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act.[iv] Yet in these works the Ford Foundation appears only briefly, surfacing as the progenitor of the controversial Community Action Agencies before largely disappearing from view.

This lack of attention to the Ford Foundation’s later efforts in the realm of law enforcement has obscured its role in fraught city politics of the 1960s. Keeping our focus on the organization throughout the decade allows us to track the evolution of its urban policies, which shifted from an antipoverty strategy of “community action” to a law-and-order based program of “community policing.” Despite their obvious differences, these two projects shared a core belief in the efficacy of operating at the level of the “community.” In fact, the Police Foundation’s attempts to better integrate law enforcement into the fabric of local neighborhoods drew on the antipoverty strategies Ford had pioneered earlier in the decade. And crucially, uncovering these connective tissues serves to buttress Elizabeth Hinton’s recent thesis that the transition from War on Poverty to the War on Crime was less a decisive rupture than an organic evolution.[v]

New Haven Government Center, New Haven, Connecticut. Model A. Façades facing New Haven Green. Street level view, Rudolph Paul, 1968, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Tackling the urban crisis at the level of the community was central to the Ford Foundation’s antipoverty efforts early in the decade. Beginning in 1960, the Foundation’s “Gray Areas” program initiated a series of grants to community corporations in five cities—Boston, Philadelphia, Oakland, New Haven and Washington D.C—which were tasked with formulating an integrated response to inner-city deprivation.[vi] What distinguished this approach from previous antipoverty efforts was its emphasis on engaging poor residents in the formulation of solutions. While in practice the program achieved differing levels of participation, leveraging community associations to democratize the planning and provision of social services remained its core innovation. Local schools often served as the locus of this activity, keeping open their doors after-hours and on weekends for adult education, remedial reading, and various “community building” exercises.[vii]

Other Ford Foundation grants also sought to mobilize the community in the service of urban renewal. The most notable of these was that made to Mobilization for Youth (MFY), an agency located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side which had begun as a traditional anti-delinquency program carried out by a local settlement house tackling gang violence. After receiving Foundation funding in 1960—and under the influence of sociologists such as Leonard Cottrell, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin—MFY was gradually nudged in the direction of greater local participation; by 1963 it had stopped working with existing neighborhood organizations and begun recruiting unaffiliated poor individuals from the Lower East Side.[viii] It was this aspect of the program which would be imported into Lyndon Johnson’s Economic Opportunity Act the following year, Title II of which mandated the “maximum feasible participation” of the poor.

War on Poverty Baltimore Community Action Agency, Thomas J. O’Halloran, May 28, 1965, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Yet as both the MFY experiment and LBJ’s War on Poverty demonstrated, mobilising the poor in this way could hardly occur without generating controversy—particularly when the fraught issues of housing, jobs, and poverty interacted with the cresting civil rights movement in the North. By the middle of the decade MFY’s organizers were coordinating a series of rent strikes, boycotts, and protests, none of which endeared the organisation to established local power structures. Soon MFY found itself fighting off charges of communist infiltration and inciting riots.[ix] Similar tensions arose within the Gray Areas program, with communities of color utilizing the new structures it had put in place to press their complaints against city hall. This mirrored the arc of Johnson’s War on Poverty, where local Community Action Agencies (CAAs) clashed with mayors and local police departments. As maximum feasible participation soured into “maximum feasible misunderstanding,” many at the Ford Foundation became embarrassed by their trail-blazing role in the most contentious aspect of Johnson’s War on Poverty.[x]

This backlash to Johnson’s Community Action Agencies ensured that by the time McGeorge Bundy arrived at the Ford Foundation as president in 1966, the organization was already quietly abandoning the more radical aspects of the “community action” approach. As signaled by its pioneering use of Community Development Corporations (CDCs) in Robert Kennedy’s Bedford-Stuyvesant regeneration project, the Foundation began to focus less on the process of community participation and more on the end-goal of attracting business, capital and middle-class residents back to deprived neighborhoods—a precursor to the neoliberalization of urban governance during the late-1970s and 80s.[xi] Despite this shift, however, the Foundation did not banish the participatory impulse of the earlier community action approach altogether. Instead, by the late 1960s it had migrated into the Ford Foundation’s new emphasis on law enforcement—an emphasis which by this time was dovetailing with broader national political shifts.

Nixon’s the one!“, poster, 1968, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

With Richard Nixon elected in 1968 by capitalizing on widespread concerns over “law and order,” policing appeared to offer the Foundation a powerful, non-controversial avenue for involvement in the urban crisis.[xii] Instead of tackling the root of unrest through community-based antipoverty programs, the Foundation would now focus on controlling the symptom of urban malaise through improved policing strategies. Yet in making this transition the Ford Foundation hardly acted as the President’s cheerleader. Rather, it sought to inject what they saw as a much-needed grassroots emphasis into Nixon’s “top-down” war on crime. This was reflected in the stated ambition of the Police Foundation, which hoped to “[c]ontribute significantly to the movement away from the centralized and quasi-military models of patrol operations to more flexible neighbourhood based patrol operations which are more responsive to varying community needs and values.”[xiii]

The main function of the Police Foundation was to provide financial assistance for a number of (primarily urban) police departments to initiate local experiments and demonstration projects. These were aimed at redefining law enforcement functions, altering the way in which effective policing was assessed by focusing more closely on police-community relations.[xiv] In Cincinnati, for instance, a major impact grant funded an experiment that placed small police teams permanently in specific neighborhoods. Known as community sector team policing (or ComSec), this approach sought to encourage “mutual cooperation between police officers and residents,” with the ultimate aim of “controlling crime by increasing community cooperation.” Similar experiments were undertaken in New York City, Dallas, Kansas City and Sacramento.[xv]

Community action had thus evolved into a form of community policing, which sought to control urban unrest by stitching structures of surveillance into the social life of the neighborhood itself. The ComSec program not only encouraged private citizens to involve themselves in crime prevention by reporting it to trusted officers, but actually sought to blur the distinction between police and community by instructing officers to work in plain clothes and interact regularly with the neighborhood. And as a report on the Dallas Police Department’s program noted, this would help identify the “basic needs of the community” through “restructuring police services to respond to those needs.”[xvi] This reached its apotheosis in Dayton, Ohio, where the Foundation funded the establishment of a Joint Task Force which paired both citizens and police officers together to work towards to tackling civil disorders, prostitution, and drug abuse. Its explicit purpose was “to involve citizens in police policymaking.”[xvii]

Ford Foundation Headquarters atrium, New York, New York, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Ford Foundation was still seeking to develop communities, then, but the focus of this effort shifted. Rather than building a community around the school-house—as had occurred during the Gray Areas program—the Foundation now sought to construct one around the police station. The rhetoric and practices of “community self-help” and “grassroots empowerment” were co-opted to accommodate shifting political currents, inflecting these shifts in turn with its own peculiar emphasis on local participation. By the 1970s, one strand of this had led to the market-orientated emphasis of Community Development Corporations; the other to the law-enforcement community work of the Police Foundation.

Together, these two strands worked reciprocally to pave the way for the neoliberalization of urban governance during the 1980s. They did so by helping to replace a liberal strategy of federal spending linked to community mobilisation with one focused on attracting business investment–and more effectively policing disordered urban spaces that remained. A constant throughout these shifts was the analytical base-unit of the urban “community.” The difference was that these communities were not only starved of external assistance by the retrenchment of the welfare state, but also found themselves subject to efforts to direct their own internal resources towards surveillance and coercion rather than empowerment and mobilization.

ProfileSam Collings-Wells is a first year PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. His research examines the historical intersections between community development, modernization, and policing in cities around the world. Twitter: @Sam_cw_

Featured image (at top): Woolworth store on 14th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., an area affected by the 1968 riots, November 6, 1972, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

[i] Letter from McGeorge Bundy to Mike Mansfield, (July 16, 1970), Ford Foundation Archives (FF), Office Files of McGeorge Bundy [OFMB], Series II: Subject Files, FA617, Box 17, Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), Sleepy Hollow, New York, p. 1.

[ii] Ford Foundation, Annual Report 1970, (New York: Ford Foundation, 1970), pp. 8-9.

[iii] National Affairs, “Police Foundation: Progress Report,” (1973), Catalogued Reports, Reports 1-3254 (FA739A), Box 105, Report no. 002445, p. 6.

[iv] Robert Halpern, Rebuilding the Inner City: A History of Neighborhood Initiatives to Address Poverty in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995); Joshua Zeitz, Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House (New York: Viking, 2018). See also Alyosha Goldstein, Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action during the American Century (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012).

[v] Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[vi] Ananya Roy, Emma Shaw Crane, and Stuart Schrader, “Gray Areas: The War on Poverty at Home and Abroad,” in Roy and Crane, eds., Territories of Poverty: Rethinking North and South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015).

[vii] Alice O’Connor, “Community Action, Urban Reform, and the Fight against Poverty: The Ford Foundation’s Gray Areas Program,” Journal of Urban History, Vol. 22, No. 5 (July 1996), pp. 586-625.

[viii] Goldstein, Poverty in Common, pp. 123-124.

[ix] Tamar W. Carroll, Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty, and Feminist Activism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

[x] Daniel P. Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty (New York: The Free Press, 1969).

[xi] Ferguson, Top-Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); Tom Adam Davies, “Black Power in Action: The Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, Robert F. Kennedy, and the Politics of the Urban Crisis,” Journal of American History, Vol. 100, No. 3, (December 2013), pp. 736-760.

[xii] Lawrence O’Donnell, Playing With Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics (New York: Penguin Press, 2017).

[xiii] “Police Foundation: Progress Report,” p.16.

[xiv] The Ford Foundation, A More Effective Arm: A Report on a Police Development Fund, Newly Established by the Ford Foundation (New York: The Ford Foundation, 1970).

[xv] “Police Foundation: Progress Report,” pp. 6-8.

[xvi] The Ford Foundation Information Paper, Appendix B: “Summary of Grants, Foundation-Administered Projects and Publications,” (1973), Catalogued Reports, Reports 1-3254 (FA739A), Box 105, Report no. 002445, p. 1.

[xvii] The Ford Foundation Information Paper, Appendix B, p. 3.


Member of the Week: Hong Zhang

Hong PictureHong Zhang

Associate Professor of History

University of Central Florida

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

My current research focuses largely on the history of Tianjin in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Located about 120 kilometers southeast of Beijing, Tianjin is one of the four centrally administered province-level municipalities in China and the second largest city in north China. The city rose to political and economic prominence mainly during the late nineteenth century. The Convention of Peking of 1860, which concluded the Second Opium War between China and Anglo-French powers, sealed the fate of Tianjin and turned it into a treaty port and opened it up to foreign consulates and entrepreneurs. Concomitant with the designation of Tianjin as a treaty port in 1860 was the launching of the national reform movement by the Qing government, which soon appointed prominent proponents of the movement as governor generals of Zhili (now Hebei) province headquartered in Tianjin, who turned the city into a political and economic stage in north China to implement the modernization projects. Tianjin thus became a center for extensive military and economic reforms in north China. The co-existence of foreign commercial and cultural activities and Chinese endeavors as well as the interaction between the two moved Tianjin out of the shadow of Beijing and turned it into a pole of modernity and into a city that was more modern in its facilities and infrastructures than Beijing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I am especially interested in the transformation of Tianjin as a result of the interaction, negotiation, and competition for influence and power between foreigners and Chinese.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I am teaching History of Chinese Civilization and Modern China this semester. My Modern China class relates well to my research. Standard history textbooks on modern Chinese history tend to focus heavily on wars and political upheavals, very often with only a brief allusion to the dynamic urban culture of the Republican era. However, political turmoil, warfare, and urban ills failed to represent the whole picture. A closer look at Tianjin of the Republican period reveals a cosmopolitan, multi-colored, and dynamic city. My teaching balances political events with cultural and social happenings and incorporates copious visual materials which constitutes a significant part of my research on Tianjin. For example, Beiyang Huabao, a pictorial published in Tianjin between 1926 and 1937, provides vivid images and rich materials on Tianjin in particular and on Republican urban China at large. Its colorful pages demonstrate the juxtaposition between things indigenous and things Western. My students  very much enjoy a look into Republican urban China through the visual lens.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

My article titled “Yuan Shikai and the Significance of His Troop Training at Xiaozhan, Tianjin, 1895-1899” was published in the Chinese Historical Review last month. I became interested in the topic while doing research on Tianjin. This article explores Yuan Shikai’s troop training at Xiaozhan and its impact upon Yuan’s military and political careers and activities. China’s humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 shocked a number of high-ranking government officials into seeking ways to establish a truly modernized army in the Western fashion. Yuan Shikai, a much maligned political figure in modern Chinese history due especially to his ill-fated move to turn the Republic of China into a new imperial dynasty, was appointed commander in charge of troop training at Xiaozhan, Tianjin. Yuan’s military endeavors at Xiaozhan created a powerful army, earned him the loyalty of capable generals, and paved the way for his eventual rise to not only military but also political power. Recently, the Tianjin municipal government has rebuilt Yuan’s troop training site and named it the Xiaozhan Troop Training Park. The park has been open to the public since 2008. The local government has also made the site part of its “Viewing Tianjin Through the Lens of Modern China” Project. Like other recently rebuilt historical sites in Tianjin, the Xiaozhan Troop Training Park attempts to underscore the city’s political and military prominence in modern Chinese history.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

I believe I can learn a lot from young scholars in urban studies. Since urban history can be approached from many different angles/perspectives, it is important to keep an open mind, read extensively, and follow the latest theories and arguments in related fields.

In addition to your research, you have taken on two translation projects. How did that come about, and do you have any advice or wisdom for scholars who might be interested in translating scholarly work?

I translated two scholarly articles, “Mothers and Sons in Warring States and Han China, 453BCE – 220 CE” by Miranda Brown and “Shifting Identities: Courtesans and Literati in Song China” by Beverly Bossler, into Chinese, which were included in Women’s Studies: A Collection of Contemporary Western Studies on Chinese History published by Shanghai Guji Chubanshe in 2012. Because of my research interest in gender studies, the editor approached me with the translation project. The translation, however, entailed much more work than I expected. The two English articles examine mother-son relations of the Warring States and Han periods and courtesans of the Song Dynasty while my work on women in China focus more on the contemporary period. Consequently, the translation work also meant conducting a lot of research on the history of ancient Chinese women. It was fun and enlightening but also time-consuming. So, one probably ought to think twice before taking on a translation job, especially if it does not relate directly to one’s own research area.

Rethinking Partisanship in the Postwar United States

By Charlotte Rosen

In 2016, two Black Lives Matter activists made headlines when they confronted Hillary Clinton at a private fundraiser in Charleston, South Carolina. Holding a sign that contained the words “We have to bring them to heel,” Ashley Williams called on Clinton to “apologize to Black people for mass incarceration.” The sign referenced a statement Hillary Clinton made during her husband’s reelection campaign, where in praising President Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, she referred to the primarily Black working-class youth being targeted by the punitive crime legislation as “super-predators.” Clinton added, “We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.” During Williams’s action, Clinton became visibly flustered, frustrated, and then patronizing, accusing Williams of not wanting to hear the facts. Attendees in the video can be heard expressing their displeasure with Williams, saying things like “that’s rude” or “this is not appropriate.”[1]

Embedded in the audience’s irritation with Williams’s confrontation is a pervasive yet misleading historical interpretation of American politics in the post-WWII United States. In its most condensed form, this interpretation of postwar partisanship portrays Democrats and Republicans as polar, warring opposites: Democrats are pro-civil rights, in favor of robust social welfare programs, and egalitarian, while Republicans are hostile to racial, economic, and gender equality and enemies of big government social provision. Historically speaking, such a paradigm presents an “all-roads-lead-to-Reagan” narrative that interprets mass incarceration as the result of the New Right’s victorious ousting of a dying New Deal liberal order.[2] To expose the Clintons’ role in escalating the current crisis of racialized policing and imprisonment, as Williams did, disrupts this powerful historical construct of American partisanship. Two parties and their constituencies that once appeared at historic odds over racialized law and order politics now appear as all too comfortable accomplices in its harmful escalation.

Pointing out unsavory or bad faith liberal policymaking is far from a foreign project for urban historians. From detailing the structural shortcomings of the New Deal’s pro-growth economics, mapping the government’s many-handed facilitation of racially unequal housing markets and urban development policies, and outlining the ways liberal welfare programs criminalized working-class Black and Brown communities, the literature is robust and shows no signs of slowing. Yet, unspoken but powerful discursive boundaries between liberals and conservatives have shaped the way urban historians conceptualize power in the post-World War II era. Bad liberal actors or liberal constituencies are not hard to find in histories of postwar metropolitan inequality, but we have qualified their politically harmful actions as unintended, tightly bound to local or regional metropolitan contexts, and ultimately still not on par with conservatives. Even when expertly dissected, our core lens for understanding postwar history often remains one of partisan difference, with Democrats and Republicans’ epic battles driving our understanding of major political outcomes.[3]

Recent urban historical literature on the development of the postwar metropolis and rise of mass incarceration suggests that the framework of postwar partisanship obscures more than it clarifies. Specifically, this framework has erased an equally if not more important legacy of convergence between white conservative and liberal politicians and constituencies around core ideologies like the sanctity of private property rights, belief in the myth of meritocratic individualism, and the social and political decency of law and order policing.[4] Embedded in this bipartisan ideology is an ostensibly race-neutral and uncontroversial political economy that actually structurally disadvantages working-class Black and Brown communities through criminalization and exclusion. As common sense values for both postwar Republicans and Democrats, property ownership, consumer choice, and law and order stymied racial integration and legitimized new formations of racial subjugation in the late postwar period. By making it harder for analysts to see these norms as bipartisan – and therefore more powerfully entrenched in United States governance and political systems – a rigid partisan framework actually limits our ability to identify the mechanisms that keep white supremacy and capitalism churning in the post-Civil Rights era. As Matthew Lassiter contends, with “red-blue binaries” serving as the “hegemonic framework” of postwar US political history, we miss the unpleasant fact that a “supermajority” of white people found common ground in resisting racial integration.[5] And as Naomi Murakawa notes in The First Civil Right, partisan frameworks reductively paint racial inequality as the product of external “white animus” amid an otherwise “non-racial backdrop,” critically missing the shared norms and ideologies that reproduce hierarchies of racial difference in US political institutions and administrative structures.[6]

Scholarship on the postwar metropolis, and specifically the development of the suburbs, reveals the limits of the partisan binary. On the one hand, this literature has demonstrated that the New Deal era mass production of segregated white middle class property owners did not lead to a clear-cut partisan politics. Although once considered bastions of the New Right, it is now clear that suburbs served as ready incubators not just for conservatism but for more centrist and even diehard liberal political cultures. Yet, despite their differences in political party preference, white suburbanites of all stripes coalesced around a belief in the political purity of individual property ownership and the colorblind myth that they had earned prosperity through hard work instead of systemic white racial privilege. Suburbanites’ investment in the politics of homeownership produced what Matthew Lassiter calls in The Silent Majority a “bipartisan political language” of private property rights and white “suburban innocence” that resonated with both staunch conservatives and a more “volatile center” whose partisan preferences have been historically up for grabs.[7] Indeed, the electoral success of racially moderate and pro-growth New Democrats such as Bill Clinton or the more recent success of Doug Jones in the Sunbelt south remind us that suburban areas normally deemed loyal Republican strongholds were and remain electorally competitive. Even bleeding heart liberal suburbanites, whose partisan affiliation remained firmly Democratic in the postwar period, infused their party with the same free market meritocracy and individual property rights ethos of New South politicians. As Lily Geismer argues in Don’t Blame Us, although suburban liberals outside Boston led seemingly progressive campaigns for fair housing or metropolitan school integration, their foundational belief that their homes were the product of individual effort made their support for civil rights contingent on whether proposed reforms protected their property values and attendant racial privileges. Their perception of markets as fundamental so long as they were stripped of formal discrimination led them to repeatedly push for individualist solutions over ones that would meaningfully address historic structures of racial discrimination.[8]

In highlighting points of ideological convergence among white suburbanites, histories of postwar metropolitan space disrupt traditional narratives of partisan difference. Through zeroing in on what white suburbanites and their politicians actually do, rather than merely taking proclamations of party affiliation at face value, this literature reveals a more central and axiomatic bipartisan commitment to the historical fiction of meritocratic individualism, free markets, and private property as all-encompassing pathways to freedom. In doing so, this body of work actually helps us to make clearer sense of why racial inequality persists in our post-Civil Rights era. Although facially race-neutral, in practice these bipartisan ideologies enshrined racial hierarchies in politics, policymaking, and private markets by masking structural inequality and white complicity. Rather than rooting our analysis of postwar political development in party rhetoric or electoral gains and losses, studies of postwar metropolitan space uncover a more diffuse – and therefore more durable – bipartisan project of institutionalizing racial difference and protecting capitalism. Perhaps most pressingly, they presage the political perils of the Democratic party’s continued appeals to this white, middle-to-upper class suburban center. As Lily Geismer and Matthew Lassiter wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, such a strategy nourishes an unequal status quo and alienates the very working-class voters that are central to Democratic Party success.[9]

Histories of the postwar carceral state similarly suggest the ineffectiveness of partisan framing for making sense of mass incarceration. Naomi Murakawa, Elizabeth Hinton, Heather Ann Thompson, and Heather Schoenfeld dismantle common presentations of liberalism as a progressive foiPl to conservative law and order by revealing postwar Democrats’ expansive role in generating the racialized carceral state. Far from merely reacting or submitting to conservatives’ crime and punishment hysteria, postwar liberals laid the groundwork for the later mass imprisonment of Black communities.[10] Perhaps most shockingly, they did so not merely by bulking up the state’s criminal justice arms but by infusing punitive frameworks into often celebrated liberal social welfare programs. As Elizabeth Hinton demonstrates in From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, postwar liberal administrators embedded racist assumptions about Black “cultural deficiencies” into flagship liberal welfare legislation, such as in President Kennedy’s Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act of 1961 and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and War on Crime, that constructed African American youth as pathologically criminal.[11] The result was that liberal administrations, and Johnson’s in particular, increasingly steered antipoverty programs towards more punitive forms of state intervention in majority Black neighborhoods that swapped social workers and community programs for law enforcement and militarization.

Johnson’s punitive “merger” of welfare with crime control reached its peak in the Safe Streets Act of 1968, which pumped $400 million via the newly created Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) into state governments for the purposes of modernizing local law enforcement and heightening the surveillance and social control in Black urban areas.[12] Nixon would go on to channel LEAA funds in ways that expanded the state’s capacity to criminalize the Black urban poor, and Reagan’s War on Drugs would implement some of the most harmful and racist carceral policies of the era. But scholarship on liberal law and order demonstrates that conservatives in many ways appropriated and expanded upon a liberal project of punitive anticrime policies, namely that of replacing robust social welfare administration with law enforcement, making the rise of racialized mass incarceration a distinctly bipartisan project.

Although mainstreaming knowledge about liberal complicity in mass incarceration and spatial segregation is crucial, the point is not that we should only blame liberals, but rather that partisan frameworks more generally limit our ability to see the causes and mechanisms of postwar inequality clearly. Julilly Kohler Hausmann’s study of welfare and criminal justice policymaking in the 1970s comes closest to modeling a post-partisanship framework by showing how grassroots constituencies and legislators on both sides of the aisle accepted as true the claim that “most criminals were governable only through punishment and incapacitation, and state efforts to rehabilitate them were futile and counterproductive.”[13] This is not to say, of course, that Republicans and Democrats are perfect mirror images of one another when it came to racialized crime politics; there remain critical differences between the two parties and their development over time that consequentially shaped the development of the racialized carceral state. But decentering partisanship cuts through the false binaries of the Democratic Party’s innocence and the Republican Party’s singular cruelty by making the historically co-constituted embrace of racialized law and order politics visible.

Beyond forcing us to contend with the real impact of this bipartisan “common sense,” decentering partisanship also means grappling with the messier historical forces that fueled carceral state expansion and the white supremacist metropolis. Even as this scholarship challenges an easy narrative of white elite culpability for mass incarceration or spatial segregation (bipartisan or otherwise), it also highlights the insufficiency of partisan frameworks to properly account for contemporary crises of inequality. For example, Kohler-Hausmann shows how harmful policies such as mandatory sentencing ironically have their roots in prisoners’ complaints about harm done by indeterminate sentencing. Similarly, James Foreman’s Locking Up Our Own describes how Black lawmakers in Washington D.C. supported punitive anticrime policies as an extension, rather than repudiation, of their civil rights commitment to the “protection of black lives.”[14]

Scholars of the suburbs have also rightfully refuted presentations of postwar suburbs as all-white and elite spaces, and in doing so have explored nonwhite suburbanites’ more complex relationships to property ownership and suburban political culture. Black suburbanites, whose population ballooned nationally in the postwar period, often acquired homes in suburbs out of a desire to escape the white supremacist spatial terrain of the city, achieve upward mobility, and build Black community, even as they faced continued racial barriers in the suburbs.[15] The fact that Black suburbanites’ pursuit of property often led them to strengthen rather than dismantle the unequal racial and class logics embedded in real estate markets cannot be understood absent a deeper analysis of property ownership as a means of liberation in African American communities. As Nathan D. B. Connolly contends in A World More Concrete, Black property ownership must be contextualized within a longer history of racialized political exclusion and structural violence that made property ownership one of the only means of a still limited Black political power.[16]

In other words, that the carceral state or metropolitan disparity is not the straightforward product of political conspiracy, and instead is the result of a more complex and historically-situated series of institutional legacies, unintended and intended policy outcomes, and political decisions, suggests partisanship’s constraints in telling this story. Decentering the explanatory power of partisan polarization, then, also allows us to better grasp how institutionalized and racist frameworks around law and order policing and Black criminality amplified some policies over others in ways that could coopt the intentions of more transformative reforms.

Once untethered from expectations about partisan political behavior, our narratives become less about revealing that liberals were racist or elitist or warmongers too—although such work has and continues to be vital— and more about diagnosing the shared ideologies, norms, and frameworks that keep white supremacy and capitalism afloat regardless of whom is in office. Even in our current moment, where Trump’s daily and terrifying legitimization of fascism and white nationalism might suggest a renewed need for partisan analysis, disrupting partisan frameworks is critical. Decentering partisanship reminds us that our work will not be done when Trump leaves office or when pundits deem the most visible manifestations of racial violence eliminated. As historian Dan Berger warns in his trenchant critique of the “First Step Act,” the much-celebrated bipartisan prison reform bill passed last November, the historic maintenance of a bipartisan “middle ground” that preserves the sanctity of policing and prisons ensures that reform efforts barely undo the carceral status quo and often serve to bolster it through repackaged forms of surveillance and criminalization.[17] Although it might be tempting to dig into narratives of postwar partisan polarization, approaching this same history with an eye for shared assumptions and bipartisan collaborations – what goes unquestioned or appears as orthodoxy to the majority of those involved – will offer a more clarifying, if less politically sexy, narrative of American state governance.

In clarifying where and how “liberalism and conservatism overlapped,” urban historians and historians of the carceral state should see our scholarship as ground zero for reconceptualizing the bigger postwar historical narrative of United States politics. This does not mean ignoring real partisan difference or discarding deep analyses of party politics entirely. The discrete political agendas of Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, or northeastern liberals and southern segregationists, continue to deserve analysis. But a bipartisan lens is crucial for making sense of the postwar era’s most defining markers of institutional racial and economic inequality, including the crisis of mass incarceration, rampant resegregation of public schools, the return of Gilded Age levels of income inequality, and much more. With scholarship on the postwar carceral state and metropolitan politics as our guide, urban historians should see partisan convergence not merely as added historical complexity but as a framework for theorizing – and potentially reimagining—20th century American state power.


Charlotte Rosen is a doctoral student at Northwestern University studying US urban history. She is currently researching crime and prison politics in late-twentieth-century Pennsylvania. Prior to graduate school, Charlotte worked for a housing justice nonprofit in the Bay Area. You can find her on Twitter @CharlotteERosen.



Featured image: Black Lives Matters activist Ashley Williams confronting Democratic Candidate Hillary Clinton during a South Carolina fundraiser in February, 2016. Image originally featured here.

[1] “Mrs. Clinton Campaign Speech,” January 25th, 1996, C-SPAN, https://www.c-span.org/video/?69606-1/mrs-clinton-campaign-speech; Eugene Scott, “Black Lives Matter Protestors confront Clinton at Fundraiser,” February 25th, 2016, CNN.com, https://www.cnn.com/2016/02/25/politics/hillary-clinton-black-lives-matter-whichhillary/index.html.

[2] Matthew Lassiter, “Political History Beyond the Red-Blue Divide,” The Journal of American History 98, no. 3 (2011): 761.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matthew Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); Lassiter, “Political History Beyond the Red-Blue Divide;” Julilly Kohler Haussman, Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017); Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[5] Lassiter, “Political History Beyond the Red-Blue Divide,” 763.

[6] Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right, 8.

[7] Matthew Lassiter, The Silent Majority, 1, 304, 319.

[8] Lily Geismer, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014). See also Lila Corwin Berman, Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[9] Lily Geismer and Matthew Lassiter, “Turning Affluent Suburbs Blue Isn’t Worth the Cost,” June 9th, 2018, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/09/opinion/sunday/affluent-suburbs-democrats.html.

[10] Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime; Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right; Heather Schoenfeld, Building A Prison State: Race and the Politics of Mass Incarceration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018); Heather Ann Thompson, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History,” The Journal of American History 97, no. 3 (2010): 703–34.

[11] Hinton, 39.

[12] Hinton, 98, 103-135.

[13] Julilly Kohler Haussman, Getting Tough, 210.

[14] James Forman, Jr., Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), 11.

[15] Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 8.

[16] Nathan D. B. Connolly, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014)

[17] Dan Berger, “What the Latest Bipartisan Prison Reform Gets Wrong and Why It Matters,” November 16th, 2018, Truthout.org, https://truthout.org/articles/what-the-latest-bipartisan-prison-reform-gets-wrong-and-why-it-matters/.