The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America


Product Details

Oxford University Press, USA
Publish Date
6.13 X 9.36 X 0.71 inches | 0.82 pounds

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About the Author

Naomi Murakawa is Associate Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University.


"This brilliant book provides persuasive arguments and powerful analysis of how racial liberals deploy racial pity and 'neutral' administrative procedures to entrench images of black criminality and expand the US carceral state. Murakawa stands in the lineage of Angela Davis, Loic Waquant and Michelle Alexander in laying bare the disturbing contradiction between American ideals of criminal justice and American practices of state-sanctioned carceral violence against black people."
-- Cornel West

"Naomi Murakawa's indispensable, highly anticipated book convincingly challenges conventional wisdom about the origins of US 'law and order' society. Like other civil rights reforms, criminal justice policy was designed and successively expanded over the post-WWII decades by liberals invested in narrow, racially neutral processes and fair procedures, but largely indifferent to a world of broad, racially disparate outcomes. Protection from arbitrary violence - the liberal's first civil right - was the touchstone for a policy regime that continued to advance invidious associations of blackness and criminal behavior. Under this big tent, seemingly opposite racial politics converged to build the world's largest, most racially unequal, carceral state."
--Nikhil Pal Singh, New York University, author of Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy

"While most scholars agree that the roots of our current carceral state lay in law and order policies, Murakawa traces those policies to unlikely sources - the liberal Truman administration in its efforts to protect African Americans from mob and police violence. While the state did little to enforce such protections, it bequeathed our nation a criminal justice architecture that fueled mass incarceration. The First Civil Right not only overturns received wisdom, but reveals that 'racial liberalism' is not the solution but part of the problem."
--Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination

"Tackling one of the most important topics of our time, this sharply-argued, richly-researched, and tough-minded book exposes the roots of our carceral state. In highlighting ideology, liberal as well as conservative, as well as putatively neutral ideas and procedures, The First Civil Right compellingly marries policy analysis and studies of race to a penetrating account of officially-sanctioned racial cruelty."
--Ira Katznelson, Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, Columbia University

"With scrupulous attention to historical detail, Murakawa tracks the growth of the prison industrial complex" and "makes a powerful case...for viewing bipartisan solutions to present dilemmas with extreme skepticism."
-- James Kilgore, Truthout

"[A]n incredibly important and long overdue challenge to the idea that law and order conservatives exclusively conspired to build a prison nation... [A]n unprecedented examination of how liberal racism undermines and appropriates movements for social justice."
-- Sara Benson, Punishment & Society

"The best scholarship explores compelling topics, offers provocative, often counterintuitive arguments, and does so in a timely manner. Typically, political science research fails on one or more counts. Not so with Naomi Murakawa's The First Civil Right, which explores the policy and political underpinnings of U.S. mass incarceration. Given Murakawa's exhaustive research, she clearly began researching the book years ago. Yet it could hardly have arrived at a more opportune time."
-- Jeffrey Smith, Political Science Quarterly

"[A] big, important book on the carceral state that will be a touchstone for discussions of race, liberalism, and penal reform for years to come."
-- Marie Gottschalk, Perspectives on Politics

"[A] remarkable investigation into the historical relationship between postwar liberalism and the growth of mass incarceration."
-- Mike Konczal, Dissent

"The singularly ambitious contribution of The First Civil Right is that it meticulously documents the important role that the liberal 'law and order' ideology played in constructing the foundations on which the carceral state was built..L. Murakawa reminds us that liberals, too, were strategic actors in this period; in ignoring the political Left, we have missed 'liberal racial criminalization that thrived in the full light of day."
-- Amy Lerman and Vesla Weaver, Perspectives on Politics

"[A]n invaluable addition to the history of the carceral state... It is particularly in Murakawa's critique of death penalty abolition strategies that we see what the book ultimately argues for: a far more radical form of political will and activism than we have seen so far."
-- Yasmin Nair, AlterNet

"The brilliant insight of Murakawa's book is to locate today's enforcement of white supremacy in the tools devised by liberals for 'solving' the problem of violent, extralegal racism... procedural fairness, race-neutral machinery, and formal equality."
-- Willie Osterweil, The Nation