Historians reframe mass incarceration: Professors Hinton and Terry present at history Speaker Series

Emma Colacino and Claire Goldberg

Guest speakers Professor Elizabeth Hinton and Professor Brandon Terry discussed the rise of mass incarceration in the sixth installment of the Upper Division (UD) speaker series: “How did we get here?: Race and the Rise of Mass Incarceration” on Thursday night. The event was moderated by Eli Scher (12), Nya Marshall (12), and History teacher Dr. Lauren Meyer.

Professor Hinton, who is one of the leading experts on criminalization and policing in the U.S., is an Associate Professor in the Department of History and the Department of African American Studies at Yale University, according to the Speaker Series website. Professor Brandon Terry is an Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies and Social Studies at Harvard University, where he earned his BA from and graduated magna cum laude. Terry also earned his PhD in Political Science and African American Studies from Yale University.

In the event, Hinton described mass incarceration as part of a historical tendency in the U.S., where new forms of incarceration emerge every time the bounds of citizenship are expanded to marginalized groups, she said. “Just as we dismantled Jim Crow laws and passed the voting rights act in the 1960s, Johnson declared the War on Crime,” she said. The War on Crime, part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, birthed mass incarceration by creating a role for the federal government in funding prisons and policing, she said.

Backlash against movements for racial justice enabled federal policy makers to turn ordinary street crime into national security threats, fueling the carceral state, Terry said. “Policy makers took an ordinary mugging and treated it as if a Black person was trying to overthrow the government,” he said. “This was really the start of militarizing the police and treating standard street violence with over the top military responses.”

In expanding the lens of mass incarceration back to the 1960s to include Johnson’s War on Crime, Hinton reveals how both liberalism and conservatism played a crucial role in creating the rise of mass incarceration, history teacher Dr. Lauren Meyer said. The bipartisan dimension of mass incarceration demonstrates how it is the result of a structural inequality, rather than bad policies, Hinton said. 

The speakers also explored the relationship between violent and nonviolent expressions of protests, and how one depends on the other. Terry spoke about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his ardent defense of non-violence. “Oftentimes King’s power depends on this delicate dance between the violence of the oppressive order and the violence of Black folks defending themselves,” Terry said. “He’s trying to walk a narrow tightrope of keeping those at bay, while transforming the society through this practice of reconciliatory demonstration.”   

This narrative clearly contradicted the traditional narrative taught in school that violent protests are bad, Sasha Snyder (12) said. “The speakers seemed to imply that nonviolent protest relies on violence as a threat,” she said. “I think this is a provocative idea, which I had not really considered, but the more I thought about it the more it made sense.”

This portrayal of MLK brought more nuance to the conversation of criminal justice, Ericka Familia (12) said. “They showed how MLK really paved the way for people to be able to defend the dignity of ordinary Black people who found themselves on the wrong side of the law, because he encouraged breaking laws of an unjust social system.”

Hinton also addressed Black community members’ calls for more policing. Hinton discussed a term she coined as “selective hearing” where out of all the demands made by Black communities, the only policies put into place are the punitive ones such as harsher sentencing. 

Walker McCarthy (11) had not considered how politicians could either unintentionally misinterpret the demands of a community, or intentionally misinterpret the demands of a community based on their own political interest and goals, he said. 

Black community members’ call for more policing is often a last ditch effort for order, Hinton said. “By the 1980s, communities [of color] had suffered from disinvestment in their local municipalities that the police were the last institution standing,” she said. “If your son is addicted to crack cocaine and is posing a threat to you, you don’t have the option to seek treatment. If you’re in danger, the only social service provided to you as a poor person of color is calling the police.”

Marshall was interested to hear about Terry’s answer to this question, which explained that over time, mass incarceration has become a more taxing process with longer sentencing, she said. 

However, Terry explained that Black community members can call the police on members of their community or family without understanding the consequences of incarceration. “When people call on the police for their own families, they are not expecting to sentence their family to a lifetime of poverty,” he said. 

This example stood out to Scher because it captured how Black people can run out of options due to systemic inequalities. “Regardless of how you stand on these issues, Terry showed how incarceration acts on poor Black communities in a way that makes you ready to fight for change.”