Punishing Race: A Continuing American Dilemma

Punishing Race: A Continuing American Dilemma

Punishing Race: A Continuing American Dilemma

Punishing Race: A Continuing American Dilemma


How can it be, in a nation that elected Barack Obama, that one third of African American males born in 2001 will spend time in a state or federal prison, and that black men are seven times likelier than white men to be in prison? Blacks are much more likely than whites to be stopped by the police, arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned, and are much less likely to have confidence in justice system officials, especially the police.

In Punishing Race, Michael Tonry demonstrates in lucid, accessible language that these patterns result not from racial differences in crime or drug use but primarily from drug and crime control policies that disproportionately affect black Americans. These policies in turn stem from a lack of white empathy for black people, and from racial stereotypes and resentments provoked partly by the Republican Southern Strategy of using coded "law and order" appeals to race to gain support from white voters. White Americans, Tonry observes, have a remarkable capacity to endure the suffering of disadvantaged black and, increasingly, Hispanic men. Crime policies are among a set of social policies enacted since the 1960s that have maintained white dominance over black people despite the end of legal discrimination. To redress these injustices, Tonry offers a number of proposals: stop racial profiling by the police, shift the emphasis of drug law enforcement to treatment and prevention, eliminate mandatory sentencing laws, and change sentencing guidelines to allow judges discretion to take account of offenders' life circumstances. Those proposals are all attainable and would all reduce unjustifiable racial disparities and the collateral human and social harms they cause.

A damning indictment of decades of misguided criminal justice policy,Punishing Racetakes a crucial look at persisting racial injustice in America.


This book is about racial injustice in the American criminal justice system generally and about racial disparities in imprisonment in particular. Racial injustices are, by definition, wrong. They do harm to individuals, and they do harm to America’s ongoing mission to ameliorate the persisting effects of slavery, racial discrimination, and bigotry.

Those effects persist, and that is not surprising. The first important federal civil rights legislation was enacted less than a half century ago, in 1964. Explicit appeals to race in elections disappeared only a decade later. Barely forty years have passed since George Wallace, in an openly racist campaign, in 1968 received 13.5 percent of the presidential vote and won five southern states. In 1966 Georgians elected as their governor a man, Lester Maddox, who was most famous for vowing to stand in the door of his restaurant, axe handle in hand, to greet black people who dared try to eat there. Constitutionally barred from reelection, Maddox was elected lieutenant governor in 1970.

Long before open appeals to racism disappeared from American politics, conservative Republicans fashioned the “Southern Strategy,” a deliberate attempt to focus on issues—initially states’ rights and later crime, welfare fraud, busing, and affirmative action—that everyone understood were coded appeals to whites’ antiblack animus, anxiety, and resentment. The roots of the Southern Strategy lay in the 1940s, but the term came into use only in the 1960s. Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964 was the first to implement the strategy in a national election. In retrospect few people deny that.

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