U.S. Intellectual History Blog

African Americans, the Law, and Intellectual History: A Brief Review Essay

I originally intended to devote today’s post to exploring how African American intellectuals responded to the debates over “law and order” in the late 1960s. Instead, I’ll table that for next week and write a review essay of a few books and articles that, I think, can help historians make better sense of what’s going on in Ferguson, New York City, and elsewhere. This won’t be a complete list—if you have other suggestions, by all means mention them in the comments section. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t link to Tim Lacy’s open forum on intellectual history and policing as well. Meanwhile, this review essay will, hopefully, get folks started in the right direction.


It is interesting to note, by the way, how many prominent African American intellectuals spoke about police brutality through the course of the twentieth century. Not surprising, but interesting. Their writings and speeches remind us that this issue has long been a concern of African Americans. Martin Luther King, Jr. mentioned police brutality in his “I Have A Dream” speech. Malcolm X spoke on the issue numerous times.  Throughout the twentieth century, African American intellectuals have had to speak to national concerns about the power police across the nation had over vulnerable African American communities.

Khalil Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness (2011) argues for a new focus on the urban North at the turn of the twentieth century as an era that set the stage for how blackness and criminality became linked in the American mind. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise—Du Bois himself writes about the problem of the police and “Negro crime” in the American South in Souls of Black Folk in the chapter “Of the Sons of Master and Man,” commenting that “the police system of the South was originally designed to keep track of all Negroes, not simply of criminals; and when the Negroes were freed and the whole South was convinced of the impossibility of free Negro labor, the first and almost universal device was to use the courts as a means of reenslaving the blacks.”[1]

That brings us to an important point: we must consider the issue of African Americans and the police in national, regional, and local contexts. Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name (2009) is only the latest book to detail the plight of Southern African Americans, who were often forced into the penal system on dubious charges. Such a system not only provided cheap labor to the South but, in the process, crippled African American political agency. Of course, The New Jim Crow (2012) considers the question of African Americans and the modern day “carceral state” in ways that historians are just starting to tackle. No doubt this is due to the fact that the War on Drugs, the creation of the carceral state, and the militarization of police are such recent phenomena. But works such as Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America give concerns about the carceral state a context that stretches back long before the “long, hot summers” of the 1960s.

Murakawa argues that “two decades before Nixon’s anti-black law-and-order campaign, liberal law-and-order campaigns pursued “the right to safety” as the first step toward racial equality.”[2] As such, Murakawa argues for the problem of the carceral state as being one created by liberals and conservatives over the course of post-World War II American history. I can’t help but think about a classic in the field of American intellectual history, Contempt and Pity by Daryl Michael Scott, which also points to how intellectual thought across the ideological spectrum upheld ideas of black cultural pathology during the twentieth century. What these two books tell us is that only lazy thinking blames one part of the American ideological spectrum for racial rifts or the carceral state. I’m not arguing for a “pox on all their houses” interpretation of American history and race relations—but what we continue to need is a nuanced look at how intellectuals think about race and crime.

For example, Daniel Matlin’s On The Corner (2013) addresses how African American intellectuals debated the “urban crisis” of the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S. North. People such as Kenneth Clark, Amiri Baraka, and Albert Murray argued over not just how to respond to the crisis, but the parameters of the academic side of the debate. Murray, especially, fiercely criticized how social scientists such as Clark approached the problem of inner city crime. I also think books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle (2008) gives us an on-the-ground account of growing up in 1980s Baltimore at the height of the War on Drugs and the debates about the “underclass” living in the inner cities. Another fine book on recent history and issues of African Americans and the police is Robin D.G. Kelley’s Race Rebels (1994) which includes a chapter on the L.A. Riots of 1992. Please, if you haven’t checked out the fantastic series on Race Rebels please do so now. No doubt there is a sense of historical irony that The New Republic is facing its worst crisis as a publication, just as the very debates it helped foster in the 1980s and 1990s on crime, the underclass, and welfare reform all come to a head in conversations about police brutality and race relations in the United States.

Finally, the Journal of African American History devoted its Spring 2013 issue to the problem of law enforcement for African American communities. This special issue includes articles about police brutality and African Americans in the police force. The issue’s a reminder of the special mission the Journal of African American History has undertaken over the years. Not only is it a place for scholars of African American history to publish in, but the JAAH has often been used as a forum to speak to issues affecting African Americans and, by extension, all Americans.

This is only the start. But I hope you’ve found this review essay at least somewhat useful. Next week I’ll delve further into what intellectuals were saying in the late 1960s and 1970s about crime. At the same time, I’ll also argue that this relates to a larger question: the issue of social democracy and the American state in the late twentieth century.

[1] W.E.B. Du Bois. Souls of Black Folk (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003 [1903]) 127.

[2] Naomi Murakawa. The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) 2

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Hi Robert,
    Thanks so much for the review essay. I’m eager to dig into these titles, especially as I’m gearing up now to start writing the next diss chapter on how white liberal Republican governors in the manufacturing North (Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney, in particular) understood the urban crises of the 1960s. Looking forward to the next installment!

    • Thanks! And I think many of these titles will be helpful to you.

      And your dissertation sounds fascinating! What’s your overall theme?

      • Thanks, Robert. My project follows the rise and fall of so-called liberal Republicans from the mid-30s through the 1970s. I argue that pressure from labor and civil rights movements forced Republicans in the urban-industrial North to accommodate elements of New Deal liberalism.

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