‘Tough on Crime’ and the Roots of Racist Ideas in America

Little Rock integration protest, 1959 © LoC

Editor's Note:

Ibram X. Kendi is an assistant professor of African American history at the University of Florida. He’s most recently the author of Stamped From the Beginning, and he joins Signature to trace the long lineage of racist ideas that continue to link blackness with criminality in America.

The timeworn political controversy over crime in America reappeared yet again last week. Former President Bill Clinton defended the 1994 “tough on crime” bill before protesters at a Philadelphia rally, and regretted the showdown the next day.

Throughout the 2016 campaign, Black Lives Matter activists have soundly attacked the defenders of the 1994 crime bill as part of their larger attack on the criminal justice system, and the racist ideas rationalizing the system’s racial disparities in everything from arrests, to incarceration rates, to deaths at the hands of law enforcement officials.

What are these racist ideas?

Black people commit more crimes. Black criminals act more recklessly and violently, causing police officers to respond violently. Black bodies and neighborhoods are dangerous, and should be feared.

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America narrates how and why these racist ideas came to be. Amid the larger history of Americans coloring human inferiority black, I narrate the history of Americans coloring crime black.

I chronicle how the earliest settlers were born into an English nation associating the African and Blackness and Christianity’s prototypical criminal — the devil. In the early seventeenth century, English dramatists were manufacturing Satan’s Black agents on earth (Remember Caliban in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest?). Captain John Smith, who steered the first British settlers to Virginia in 1607, was warning New Englanders in 1631 that Africans were “as devilish as any people in the world.”

The early associations between Blackness and the devil played out during the Salem witch trials in 1692 and 1693. In nearly every instance, fearful Puritans described the devil as a “Black man.”

The most spirited supporter of the trials, Puritan minister Cotton Mather, also spent the 1690s urging enslaved Africans to obey. Do not partake in evil and “make yourself infinitely Blacker than you are all ready,” Mather preached. By obeying, your “souls will be washed ‘White in the blood of the lamb.’”

It was considered a crime against society and God to resist slavery. When they ran away, enslavers tracked them as fugitives of the law. And then northerners typically feared these freed Blacks as lawless — a fear so great that proslavery Americans manipulated it during their anti-emancipation campaigns — a fear so great that southern White supremacists used it to justify their brutal installation of Jim Crow in the late nineteenth century.

Cesare Lombroso’s Criminal Man (1876) and Frederick Hoffman’s Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (1896) both “proved” the racist idea of natural Black criminality in their amazingly influential scientific texts. Criminality was a Black race trait, as evidenced by the higher Black arrest and prison rates from the 1890 census, Hoffman maintained.

No one really knew the actual crime rates — all the instances of all Americans breaking the law. But into the twentieth century, Americans accepted as statistical fact the racist idea of greater Black actual crime, only debating whether genes or environment caused it. They even accepted as statistical fact the false supposition that “the rate of increase in lynchings” represented “the increasing tendency of colored men” to rape White women, as Hoffman stated. Even President Theodore Roosevelt declared in 1906 that rape was “the greatest existing cause of lynching.”

As Black people started migrating away from the lynchers after World War I, northern segregationists resisted them moving into their neighborhoods, fearing the “immediate rise in crime and violence,” as a Detroit resident put it. Blacks were cordoned into neighborhoods that were reflexively viewed as America’s principal dens of crime.

By the 1960s, criminologists were talking about a Black “subculture of violence,” as Marvin Wolfgang and Franco Ferracuti argued in their classic 1967 textbook. Sociologists and Black men were theorizing about Black men supposedly raging from being emasculated by matriarchal single mothers — or those “welfare queens” as Ronald Reagan criminalized them in 1976. Two decades later, John J. Dilulio was warning of these poor Black single mothers producing juvenile “super predators” who “will do what comes ‘naturally’: murder, rape, rob, assault, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, and get high.”

These racist ideas raptured voters scared of the sensational Black criminals (and activists) over the last five decades. And they threw their support behind politicians pushing “law and order” and the “war on drugs” and toughness on crime and stopping and frisking—all the while chanting “Blue lives matter” after innocent Black lives were lost.

Finding alternatives to incarceration, fighting crime with jobs, studies showing that races commit drug crimes at similar rates, the relationship between violent crime and unemployment, anti-racist ideas of equality — they all seemed nonsensical over the racist course of American history. Americans had stamped ‘criminal’ onto Black faces from the beginning.