Committee: Michael McCann (co-chair), Jack Turner (co-chair), Naomi Murakawa
My dissertation, From Violence to Law-and-Order: The Making of Racial Innocence in Postwar America, engages “racial innocence” as a deep problem of American democratic life. Writing in 1962, James Baldwin identified racial innocence as the “crime” of being willfully untouched by the racial injustices that pervade American life. Beginning with this critical insight, I argue that racial innocence is not just something entrenched in the hearts and minds of white Americans, where Baldwin and contemporary scholars who take up his critique tend to locate it, but also in the very fabric of our political institutions, policies, and rhetoric.
Using American political development methodology, my dissertation investigates the law-and-order origins of contemporary racial innocence. For these origins, I unearth the liberal lineage of law-and-order politics in southern postwar political rhetoric and policy. Law-and-order politics is understood to be the construction of race conservatives seeking to maintain the prerogatives of Jim Crow racial violence or disingenuously capitalize on rising white anxieties after the race riots of the 1960s. But From Violence to Law-and-Order argues that law-and-order was in many ways at the beating heart of postwar liberalism that had newly awakened to the problems of southern racial violence. In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education and the upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s, the emerging law-and-order apparatus traveled south into the contentious waters of southern white resistance movements, ultimately taking up residence in a broadening range of state-level education, criminal justice, and social policy.
My study not only offers purchase on the centrality of liberal law-and-order for the development of southern postwar policy formations, but also on the political-institutional roots of national racial innocence – our willful blindness towards the structures of racial violence and inequality that continue to shape our schools, prisons, neighborhoods, and life chances.