September 10, 2021
From Spectre Journal

[1] John Clegg and Adaner Usmani, “The Economic Origins of Mass IncarcerationCatalyst, 3 (3) Fall 2019: 9-53. Jack Norton and David Stein, “Materializing Race: On Capitalism And Mass Incarceration” Spectre October 22, 2020.

[2] These political costs of overlooking crime are compounded in communities with high rates of victimization, since the latter can itself undermine the social solidarity necessary to fight mass incarceration.

[3] Lisa Miller calls this “racialized state failure” (Miller, Lisa L. “What’s Violence Got to Do with It? Inequality, Punishment and State Failure in US Politics.” Punishment and Society 17, no. 2 (2015): 184–210.) See for calculations.

[4] An American is about 3.8 times more likely to be a victim of homicide than a European.

[5] For instance, Policing the Crisis, a work that Norton and Stein favorably cite, explores a period of racialized public anxiety about crime in Britain that has both similarities and important differences to the period preceding mass incarceration in the US. Yet although Stuart Hall and his co-authors do criticize a media-driven “moral panic” about mugging, one that involved both racism and misuse of crime statistics, they don’t deny that violent crime was on the rise (albeit much less than in the US at the same moment), nor that there were stark racial disparities in offending, both of which they (like us) attribute to relative economic deprivation. They further underline that crime is a “real, objective problem for working people trying to lead a normal and respectable life” (p. 149) and that popular anxieties about crime were not “the product of a conspiracy on the part of the ruling classes and their allies in the media” (p. 176).

[6] We would add that it has also been influential on the left, as one can see from the other criticism of our article published by Spectre (1, no. 2), by Peter Ikeler and CalvinJohn Smiley, which is largely a defense of The New Jim Crow. Because there are few overlaps with Norton and Stein, we will address those criticisms in a separate response.

[7] On the relationship between austerity and racism Gilmore writes that “Racist and nationalist confrontations heightened, driven by the widely held—if incorrect—perception that the state’s public and private resources were too scarce to support the growing population.” She also cites the “layoffs of thousands of aerospace engineers” in 1970s California as “an important foundation for invigorating active consciousness of a normative racial state”, suggesting that these layoffs might help to explain the popularity of “law and order” politics (p. 40).

[8] In Gilmore’s view this is “a product of mixing the Thirteenth Amendment with thin evidence”, as well as overemphasizing the role of private prisons in the prison boom.

[9] In questioning David Roediger and Pem Buck’s notion of white prisoners as collateral damage (a “reserve army of whiteness”) Gilmore appears to defend the idea of a “convict race” — that black and white prisoners, who share the same fundamental interests, are pitted against each other by prison managers to more effectively control them.

[10] It is possible, as Gilmore suggests, that some of this later observed increase in offending was driven by the “crack down” itself, due to a negative impact of mass incarceration on economic prospects and social cohesion in the most impacted neighborhoods. But this theory is not particularly consistent with the fact that crime rates plummeted from the mid-1990s even as prison populations continued to rapidly increase.

[11] For data sources and code to replicate, see:

[12] Gilmore pits her own account against what she refers to as “the dominant view” that public anxiety about crime drove the prison boom (see e.g.  Zimring et al.,: “The sharp changes in levels of imprisonment in California are universally acknowledged to be a result of shifts in the importance of public opinion in the creation of penal policy”). Gilmore (in contrast to Norton and Stein) also explicitly rejects the theory that there was a media-generated moral panic about crime, arguing that the media made it perfectly clear to California’s citizens that crime was falling in the early 1980s.

[13] According to Gilmore, California legislators in the early 1980s were faced with the problem of “how better to guarantee potential prisoners”, to which their solution was to pass new and tougher laws whose purpose was “legitimizing the prison expansion and operation program of the state’s fastest-growing department” (pp. 95, 110). Here it is hard to distinguish Gilmore’s account from the “conspiracy” view she elsewhere rejects.

[14] Mike Davis, City of Quartz (Verso 1990), pp. 272-292, and Donna Murch, “Crack in Los Angeles: Crisis, Militarization, and Black Response to the Late Twentieth-Century War on Drugs.” The Journal of American History 102, no. 1 (2015): 162–73. Both Davis and Murch see that pressure as stemming particularly from “middle class” or “elite” African Americans in LA. See below for our own findings with respect to this interpretation.

[15] See, e.g., Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Race, Prisons, and War: Scenes from the History of U.S. Violence,” Socialist Register (2009). Gilmore’s new book, Change Everything: Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition (forthcoming 2022) also promises to treat explicitly the problem of “interpersonal violence.”

[16] Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism, Semiotext(e), 2018.

[17] For calculations and sources, see At times Gilmore appears to acknowledge that “the prison fix” was a failure, but her argument implies that it would have been reasonable for a significant group of actors (presumably economic or political elites) to imagine that it could ever have succeeded. That is hard to credit in light of these numbers.

[18] Michael Flamm, Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s, Columbia University Press 2005.

[19] “Racism is the dogma that one ethnic group is condemned by nature to congenital inferiority and another group is destined to congenital superiority.” Ruth Benedict, Race and Racism (Routledge, 1942), p 97. “Race” in this definition suggests something innate and unchangeable, but it should be noted that culturalist versions of racism allow for more variation.

[20] Barbara and Karen Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (Verso 2012).  More simply, for William Julius Wilson racism is “an ideology of racial domination” (The Bridge over the Racial Divide (Berkeley 1999), p. 14).

[21] See Gilmore 2002, p. 268, FN 7, which offers these two explanations for racial inequalities in home ownership

[22] Following Fields, one might prefer to call these as the effects of racism, since using the term “race” to denote a fixed cause in the world would seem to reify it. But one advantage of the language of social scientists is that not all race-based inequality is necessarily the result of racism. For instance, in the United States, the indirect effect of race ultimately has its origins in the fact that black Americans were enslaved. Barbara Fields has argued that black enslavement was not a result of settler racism but rather the result of the relative powerlessness of black Africans viz-a-viz Native Americans and indentured whites (Fields, “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America”, New Left Review I/181 1990). In this account racism was the effect of enslavement, but not its cause. If this is right, it would not be correct to describe the “indirect effect” as the effect of “past racism” alone.

[23] Though here, because better data are not available for the 1940-2020 period, we were limited to using educational attainment as a proxy for class. In general, the relative size of the direct and indirect paths will depend on how one defines class. This is yet another reason that one cannot avoid conceptual distinctions between them.

[24] We are now at work on a book, entitled From Plantation to Prison, which makes this argument in more detail, drawing on a broader comparative and historical dataset.

[25] Of course, it cannot be the ultimate explanation for it. As we argue again later, this would require working-class racism to be some kind of ‘uncaused causer’ rather than a rationalization of the hierarchies of the American labor market, and ultimately slavery.

[26] See pp. 18-19 of Wilson, William J. Power, Racism, and Privilege. New York: Free Press, 1973.

[27] The difference between the life expectancy of black and white women has also been steadily falling over the past decade (for people aged 65 and up the difference has already been effectively eliminated), due to rising mortality among middle-aged white women and falling mortality among black women. Of the 16 international classification of diseases (ICD-10) categories for which age-adjusted death rates of adult black and white women in the US can be reliably compared, 7 currently show higher mortality for white women, including diseases of the nervous, digestive, and respiratory systems, as well as mental disorders and external causes. White women also have higher mortality from suicide and drug and alcohol-related causes. See

[28] While all these authors have pointed to ways that white workers materially and/or psychologically benefit from racism (albeit individually or in the short-term) a number of authors have attempted to empirically estimate wage premiums that white incumbents receive from racial restrictions in job-access: Edna Bonacich, “Advanced Capitalism and Black/White Race Relations in the United States: A Split Labor Market Interpretation.” American Sociological Review 41 (1976); Rhonda M. Williams, “Capital, Competition, and Discrimination: A Reconsideration of Racial Earnings Inequality.” Review of Radical Political Economics 19(2) (1987); and Carter A. Wilson, Racism: From Slavery to Advanced Capitalism (Sage 1996).

[29] Cited in Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley (New York: Random House, [1952] 1972), p. xxx.

[30] One obvious difficulty for accounts like Norton and Stein’s which emphasize the racist attitudes of white Americans is that the punitive turn occurred amidst significant attitudinal progress.

[31] We specifically argued that “[l]ess people would be languishing in American prisons had the Left won the battles it lost, but the struggles of the 1960s were not decisive.”