In Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s shimmering portrait of 1980s New York, Sherman McCoy’s father offers his son the following advice: if you want to live in the city, “you’ve got to insulate, insulate, insulate” yourself from crime and disorder. “The cynicism and smugness of the idea struck Sherman as very au courant,” Wolfe writes. “If you could go breezing down the FDR Drive in a taxi, then why file into the trenches of the urban wars?”
Academics are hardly less self-interested than Wall Street bond traders like the fictional McCoy. Indeed, scholars who hope to thrive in the American historical profession should “insulate, insulate, insulate” themselves from unfashionable topics—especially the crime crisis that plagued American cities in the last third of the twentieth century. If you can earn honors and accolades by condemning the carceral state and “warrior policing,” why venture into the vexing subjects of predatory crime or the crime-control strategies of the police?
Problem is, from the 1960s to the 1990s, urban crime was among the most significant domestic issues in the United States. It was an urgent matter of national concern, contributing to the changing complexion of our cities and to a political realignment that shapes our politics today. Yet scholars of recent U.S. history tend to downplay crime, either by minimizing its significance or by overzealously criticizing cops and the courts.
The reason for this is obvious, though rarely expressed. Left-wing intellectuals do not want us thinking too much about urban crime. When crime throws American cities into disarray—as has happened before and in some places is happening now—it is a bad look for the Left.
Start with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, one of the most influential scholarly books of the twenty-first century. Mass incarceration, Alexander writes, “is a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racial control,” designed perpetually to harm people of color—a “racial caste system.” Yet Alexander’s book should be infamous for its well-documented flaws. She defines “mass incarceration” as broadly as possible to make the problem seem worse than it is—she considers those on probation or parole, or awaiting sentencing, to be “incarcerated.” She doesn’t point out that in the early 1960s, violent crime began rising sharply along with nonviolent drug crimes. She doesn’t acknowledge that nonwhites drove the three-decade crime climb, or that urban African Americans are more likely to be victimized by crime, which is why many blacks supported the punitive crime measures she decries.
If you are reading this and struggling to understand how someone could write a scholarly bestseller about police, courts, and prisons, without also discussing violent crime, I have bad news for you: The New Jim Crow is no outlier. Elizabeth Hinton, a Yale historian and the author of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, discusses the expansion of America’s carceral state but mentions criminals only in passing. Between the 1960s and 1980s, she says, fears about crime were overwrought. Changes in the reporting and compiling of crime statistics—along with biased media coverage and political fear mongering—allegedly “skewed perceptions of violent crime.” Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, on the Attica prison riot, is a better book—it won the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes—but she puts America’s “crime problem” of the 1960s in scare quotes, as if to suggest it wasn’t real. In 2015, the flagship Journal of American History published a vainglorious special issue on “Historians and the Carceral State” that featured only left-wing perspectives.
Of all the subfields in American history, scholarship on the criminal-justice system may be the most politicized. It is dominated by gatekeepers who mostly see things the same way and resist outside interpretations.
Just consider who receives such prestigious Harvard fellowships as those awarded by the Charles Warren Center, which, a few years ago, hosted a symposium on crime and punishment. One beneficiary was Michelle Jones, who had just been released from the Indiana Women’s Prison, after serving 20 years of a 50-year sentence for murdering her four-year-old son. While imprisoned, Jones earned a bachelor’s degree. Her supporters said that she did surpassing academic work under adverse conditions. Maybe so. But she did not hold a Ph.D., as the fellowship required. And while I don’t wish to be unkind, Jones’s writing teems with the eye-glazing verbiage that characterizes so much anti-racist scholarship today: “It is important to unearth subjugated knowledge of people incarcerated in institutions in order to complicate the dominant narratives that proclaim and sustain mass incarceration as a worthy project,” she writes.
I understand the power of personal redemption and approve of charities and advocacy groups that help people rebuild their lives. But these are not the missions of a university research center. In a healthy academic climate, most people would understand that Jones’s elevation, while not uncomplicated, was profoundly anti-meritocratic.
Sins of omission abound, too. Last year, Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College, submitted a book manuscript to Columbia University Press. “The Great New York City Crime Drop: Told by Cops Who Were On the Job” is an oral history that tells how New York City went from being one of the most dangerous and frightening big cities in America to one of its safest, thanks in part to revitalized and proactive policing. Moskos’s manuscript received two positive peer reviews and seemed destined for publication. But some members of Columbia University Press’s Faculty Board didn’t share his conclusions. In a departure from ordinary procedure, they insisted the manuscript receive an additional “critical” review. Four months later, the board accepted the findings of the negative appraisal, while ignoring the recommendations of the complimentary ones.
It is not a big leap from saying that mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow to claiming that American police departments grew out of slave patrols. (I call this the new Voguish Slogan.) Since that vertiginous year 2020, various activists, academics, and politicians have tried tracing the origins of American policing to slave patrols, even though most of the nation’s 18,000 police forces were created after the Civil War. Even Harvard professor Jill Lepore, a prolific and impressively credentialed historian, drew connections between slavery and policing in a New Yorker article, “The Invention of the Police.” Everyone makes mistakes, but Lepore made a whopper: she misread a 2016 study to suggest that “two-thirds of Americans between the ages fifteen and thirty-four who were treated in emergency rooms suffered from injuries inflicted by police and security guards, about as many people as the number of pedestrians injured by motor vehicles.”
Ponder that for a moment. If 66 percent of the ER visits made by young men were due to police or security guard violence, that would mean that cops were brutalizing many millions of people annually. British journalist and author Louise Perry spotted the error and did her own rough estimate of the rate of ER visits in the U.S. that resulted from such violence and arrived at a minuscule figure of 0.2 percent. (Peter Moskos suggested 0.1 percent).
How, you may be asking yourself, could a scholar of Lepore’s stature make such a blunder? How did this mistake escape her fact-checker, copyeditor, and editor, thereby making its way into the nation’s most venerated liberal magazine? Here’s a clue, perhaps: a recent study asked people who identify as “very liberal” to estimate how many unarmed black men the police killed in 2021. Forty percent of respondents thought that it was over 1,000. A significant minority (about 12 percent) guessed 10,000 or higher. The actual number: 11. No wonder American police are bedeviled by a crisis of trust and legitimacy.
About 40 years ago, Michael Janofsky, a Miami-based newspaper reporter, was applying for a job at the New York Times. His final interview was with Abe Rosenthal, the paper’s legendary but imperious editor. Rosenthal asked the young man if he had any questions. Adam Nagourney, in his wonderful recent book The Times, picks up the story:
“I’m curious,” Janofsky responded. . . . “The paper has so many reporters filing stories from so many places around the world. How do you decide each day what readers are interested in reading on the front page?”
Rosenthal did not pause. “We tell them what they should be interested in,” he said.
Gallup has just released a poll showing that 63 percent of Americans regard our current crime problem as “serious” or “extremely serious.” Activist academics and mass incarceration scholars want to change that. They want the public to be interested, instead, in systemic racism, and in making the sacrifices they say are necessary for racial justice. Whether their stance is cynical or smug is up for interpretation; but it is certainly au courant.