An Interview with Historian Heather Ann Thompson (Part 1)

An Interview with Historian Heather Ann Thompson (Part 1)

2010 was an important year for scholarship documenting the history of the carceral state. In January, legal scholar Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America arrived the next month. Heather Ann Thompson’s seminal article on mass incarceration, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History” also appeared in the December issue of the Journal of American History. In this interview, Thompson talks with Austin McCoy about her scholarly trajectory, the impact of her article, new scholarship’s impact on U.S. political history, inner city violence, and her forthcoming book on the 1971 Attica prison uprising, Blood in the Water: The Attica Uprising of 1971. Thompson has also co-edited special issues on mass incarceration in the Journal of American History and the Journal of Urban History. [Editor’s note: McCoy’s discussion with Thompson has been lightly edited for length and clarity]

Part 1

Austin McCoy: It would be great if our readers understood your scholarly trajectory. How did you go from writing your first book, Whose Detroit?: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City to working on your forthcoming book on the 1971 Attica prison uprising?

Dr. Heather Ann Thompson, Professor of History, University of Michigan
Dr. Heather Ann Thompson, Professor of History, University of Michigan

Heather Ann Thompson: That’s a great question. When I wrote Whose Detroit?, I considered myself a scholar of black politics, black activism, and civil rights. So, when I decided I was interested in Attica, I was really coming at it from that vein. I had seen the Eyes on the Prize episode on Attica and I thought, “Wow. What is this story?” I thought about writing it as a civil rights story. I was not thinking about prisons. I was not thinking about incarceration. That was not on my radar at all. Nor was it on anyone’s radar who was writing about cities in that period. It was not until I started to research Attica that it occurred to me that something happened after 1971, when the Attica rebellion is put down, that we get the most draconian carceral state in the world. And how could that be, considering that Attica was fundamentally about prisoner rights? There must be a connection here, I thought.

This bizarre epiphany forced me to stop working on Attica and pursue the question of what do the 1960s and 1970s have to do with the rise of the carceral state. That inquiry became “Why Mass Incarceration Matters.” And that became my attempt to say, all of us working on urban and labor and political history of the postwar period have missed this elephant in the room, which was probably the most important policy shift. Mass incarceration was where all of the money and political energy was going. It cleared our cities of folks who were already the most marginalized. And somehow, while we were trying to explain the collapse of the city, shifts in the economy, and the rise of the right, we had completely missed mass incarceration. That is when I became more interested in prisons, crime, and punishment. Yet, it was really through civil rights history, and the history of black politics, that I came to this completely by surprise.

AM: Why do you think we all missed that?

HT: Because prisoners throughout history are the most hidden away and most marginalized citizens. So historians, by nature of what we do, tend to gravitate toward sources that are obvious and resources that are more available. Mass incarceration would have been a story that was harder to address. It is not that we are too lazy to do it. It was just harder to see it. Frankly, the real reason is that mass incarceration was so insidious. The build up to the carceral state was so insidious because people were disappearing. I graduated high school in 1981. I could see my friends starting to go to prison. I saw the drug war happening. I could see it begin to erode my community. But we all could not see the big picture. So, we all thought, “He should’ve thought better before he sold that dime bag.” We personalized it. It was not until we got to this tipping point, where all of a sudden, we began to think that it just cannot all be about personal bad choices. We missed it in part because incarceration was just so personalized and it developed slowly. So that does not explain why historians missed it exactly, but I do think it explains why the nation missed it.

AM: For me, I was familiar with some of the older literature like Michael Flamm’s book (Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s), but your article, then Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and then Khalil Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness made me realize mass incarceration was an issue and a structure that needed to be addressed and explained.

HT: You mention Flamm’s book, and that is really important. It is not like no one was talking about crime, or about crime in relation to the rise of conservatism. We just had accepted it as a given. And even in Flamm’s book, he begins with the premise that crime is out of control. And so of course, voters respond to that. And it was not just Flamm, Jonathan Reider and Fred Siegel also talked about crime in their books.1 The literature came about in the ’80s because this period was crime-ridden, and then people projected that crime trend back in the 1960s. They inadvertently did what politicians of the time did, which was to conflate urban unrest with crime.

When I went back and looked at the data, it was sort of a shock to me. The murder rate in 1965, when President Johnson is alarming everyone about rising crime, was by no means historically remarkable. We had much higher crime rates in other moments in American history. At the recent National Academies panel that I was on, we actually broke this down, and we realized, wow, this really was a choice. That National Academies report is powerful because this consensus document, done by multiple disciplines, from multiple political walks of life, all agree on one thing: We chose this for political and policy reasons. We did not choose this because of a crime imperative. That’s huge. Because it means we can unchoose it. But it also means that this was a political decision. And, of course, historians have been instrumental in locating that that was the case because we’re the only ones who have a sense of change over time.

AM: You talk about unfreedom and the implications of studying the carceral state deeply and historically. It sounds like the carceral state literature is contributing to histories of racialization. Can we use this history to teach the history of race in this country?

HT: I think so. I think we cannot teach race in this country unless we think about carceral frames. It doesn’t have to be prison, per se, right? Prisons in that sense are a limiting frame. I had to think in new ways. Really, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters” was not a call for everyone to start studying prisons. It was really a call to start studying what criminalization, isolation, and detainment of other individuals does to a society. What are the implications of that? How do you study race really without thinking about how the carceral state works? If you look at institutions, everything from Indian schools, the foster care system, the welfare system, prisons, and policing; these are apparatuses of the carceral state because it is all about how you most effectively marginalize a given group.

AM: One of the major contributions of the new work on the carceral state is its intervention in the literature explaining “the rise” of conservatism in the postwar U.S. You and other scholars like Elizabeth Hinton, Donna Murch, and Naomi Murakawa argue that we need to pay attention to liberals and the Democratic Party’s role in the construction of the carceral state. But, this comment of yours struck me: “In ways deeply ironic, however, the very law-and-order era that the Democratic party of the 1960s had actively, and even proactively, ushered in when it had created entities such as the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), would be the party’s undoing.” Do you still think this is ironic, especially considering Murakawa’s argument that the Democratic Party articulated a liberal law and order politics after World War II? How has our overall understanding of post-WWII liberalism changed by the mass incarceration literature?

Otto Kerner, chair of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, meeting with Roy Wilkins (left) and President Lyndon Johnson (right) in the White House, July 29, 1967. (LBJ Online Photo Archive/Wikimedia)
Otto Kerner, chair of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, meeting with Roy Wilkins (left) and President Lyndon Johnson (right) in the White House, July 29, 1967. (LBJ Online Photo Archive/Wikimedia)

HT: Timing is really interesting here. When I put that on Johnson’s doorstep in “Why Mass Incarceration Matters,” to my mind, and maybe I’m correct, no one had said that before. Naomi Murakawa’s book (The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America) was not out yet. And Vesela Weaver hinted at it in her “Frontlash” article by pointing out that this was more bipartisan than we realized. But, she really located this in the Dixiecrats and in the more Southern reaction to civil rights. So when I just did the math, figuring out when did this start, and then when I began to really look at Johnson’s rhetoric, I was frankly a little surprised myself. One could have still looked at that and said, “Well, he is just trying to steal the Republicans’ thunder.” Well, it is not that the Democrats were the architects of the war on crime, they were just trying to play catch up to the Republicans. I think Naomi’s book is profound because she argues that there was nothing reactive in the liberals’ embrace of the war on crime. They proactively started it. I think we know more than we did when I wrote that article. The literature confirms it.

But I also think that when I meant irony, I didn’t think it was ironic that the liberals would do that. I think the liberals’ relationship to race from the New Deal forward has been deeply and profoundly problematic. One can’t teach the New Deal in any other way. One can’t imagine things like federal housing policy or anything else without understanding the liberal complicity in racial inequality. Liberal complicity is deep. It’s historic. And the carceral state is the latest chapter.

So, that’s not what was ironic. I simply meant what was ironic that this support of law and order would ironically nix Democrats from their own position of power because of the structural way in which mass incarceration ended up unfolding. Specifically, through prison gerrymandering, because so many incarcerated people were being counted for political power in overwhelming Republican districts. This tended to give Republicans more power than Democrats. Democrats actually lost political power because of the rise of mass incarceration.

I’m making two points: They do lose power. But, would they have voted for a profoundly different carceral policy had they been elected? The answer is unequivocally no. All we have to do is look at the Clinton administration. The 1994 Crime Bill was the most draconian crime bill we really had to date. You cannot understand the drug war that Michelle Alexander is calling attention to. The devastation of the drug war is not really of the 1980s, it is really in 1994. That is where you get some of the worst sentencing laws, the most important funding of SWAT, and the militarization of police forces. Johnson starts it. Reagan continues it. Everyone’s hands are dirty in the story. But, as for the liberals, that should not surprise us because this is but the latest chapter in liberals’ profoundly troubling relationship to the black citizenry.

Further Reading

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press, 2010.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” The Atlantic (October 2015).

Muhammad, Khalil Girban. The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Murakawa, Naomi. The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Thompson, Heather Ann. “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History,” Journal of American History 97: 3 (2010): 703-734.

Thompson, Heather Ann. “Empire State Disgrace: The Dark, Secret History of the Attica Prison Tragedy,” Salon, May 24, 2015.


  1. Jonathan Reider, Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985); Fred Siegel, The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A., and the Fate of America’s Big Cities (New York: Free Press, 1997). Return to text.

Austin C. McCoy is a Phd Candidate in History at the University of Michigan. He is writing a dissertation on progressives' responses to plant closings and urban fiscal crises in the Midwest during the 1970s and 1980s.

1 thought on “An Interview with Historian Heather Ann Thompson (Part 1)

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      Great interview! I can’t wait for this book to come out. I believe Governor Cuomo wants to close Attica and this book is going to seriously spark that discussion again and turn Attica prison into a museum.

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