Race, Violence and the Failure of the American State

Race, Violence and the Failure of the American State

Lisa L. Miller

It has become fashionable among American liberals to condemn the American state for its great penal experiment that has left nearly two million Americans in prisons and jails and exposed Black Americans, in particular, to both imprisonment and high levels of aggressive, and sometimes lethal, police violence.  The Clinton crime bill of 1994 is just the most recent public policy to be pilloried by left-wing pundits and activists for contributing to, what has come to be called, “American exceptionalism” in imprisonment, and the deep racial disparities therein.

But condemnation of the US criminal justice state has almost entirely eclipsed a related and equally disturbing exceptionalism: the disproportionately high rates of serious violence in the US, relative to other democracies, and the staggering racial disparities in violent victimization. Scholars studying America’s exceptional penal expansion and racial disparities have largely ignored serious crime, treating imprisonment as a new form of a racial caste system, or as the consequence of a popular democratic system overly accountable to a punitive and mercurial American public.

This is a mistake. My new book, The Myth of Mob Rule: Violent Crime and Democratic Politics, explores crime as a politically salient issue across the US, the UK and the Netherlands and reveals that serious violent crime in the US is an extreme outlier and that Blacks, in particular, are victims of murder at shocking rates. The lowest overall homicide rate in the US since the end of the Second World War is higher than the highest rate of homicide in all of Europe over the same time period, and Black Americans have consistently been victims of murder at rates roughly five to six times that of Whites.

Linking American exceptionalism in violent victimization to its harsh criminal justice system reveals a far more tragic reality than a focus on police, courts and prisons alone: the racialized failure of the American state. There is no single definition of a failed state but, at a fundamental level, it is unable to deliver on the most basic of positive goods: security from violence. The United States, in general, has failed to provide the conditions that mitigate homicidal behaviour in relation to its rich, industrialized peers, and it has also failed to insulate the polity from aggressive state repressive practices. For Black Americans, this failure is staggering.

My work suggests that two intersecting and reinforcing features of the American state contribute to high rates of exposure to both state and street violence in the United States: the highly fragmented character of American political institutions, and a powerful and racialized political narrative of national anti-statism.

I am hardly the first to claim that American political fragmentation helps explain the limited social welfare politics in the US (see the work of Theodore Lowi, Desmond King, David Soskice, and William Riker, for example), but it is not clear we have fully appreciated the extent of the institutional fragmentation, or the surfeit of veto points it generates. These veto opportunities permit powerful political minorities to deactivate, immobilize or otherwise incapacitate the national government in responding to fundamental social risks, such as violence, but also, chronic joblessness, poverty, ill-health, environmental hazards and so on, even when the electorate wishes the state to do so. American fragmentation itself, in fact, is exceptional in the democratized world.

Moreover, there has been little systematic work on the extent to which a long-standing, anti-statist political narrative that opposes policy-making from the centre has successfully exploited this fragmentation for the express purpose of restraining the state from expanding social welfare benefits. While this strand of political activism in the US is nearly as old as the republic, its most insidious use has been when, what Desmond King and Rogers Smith refer to as “anti-egalitarian forces” seek to block or limit federal policies that would benefit the worst off – that is, the poor, generally, but African-Americans specifically.

The result is that, by the late 20th century, a raging violent crime wave collided with veto points and a racialized anti-statist narrative to produce a relatively weak and incapacitated state with respect to provisions aimed at reducing social risks, and an expanding, increasingly lethal and muscular criminal justice state.

These seemingly contradictory elements of the U.S. state – weakness and muscularity – are reconciled through a process that I refer to as lowest legislative common denominator politics, in which the veto points of American politics force the winners of national elections to negotiate with the losers as to which of their preferred policies will pass through the juggernaut of American political institutions. With respect to crime, few politicians will outright oppose increasing police and prison resources when violent crime is running rampant; increasing social welfare policy output, however, is likely to fall prey to one of any number of veto points, such as the counter-democratic Senate, separation of powers, or weak party discipline in unitary government. The only surviving policies are punitive in nature.

An example from the Clinton administration illustrates this phenomenon. While President Clinton has been criticized by liberals for a harsh crime bill and a punitive welfare reform law, it is worth recalling the other policies that were part of the President’s Democratic platform that failed to pass through the congressional juggernaut: health care reform; child care programs; economic stimulus; campaign finance reform (twice); and an increase in the minimum wage.

The Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 passed, however, as did the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which “ended welfare as we know it.” Together these two acts increased sentences for federal offenders, eliminated federally guaranteed cash assistance to poor families with children and perpetuated racial stereotypes about criminal offenders and welfare recipients. In other words, Clinton’s opponents successfully blocked his more ambitious proactive social legislative proposals while simultaneously smoothing the legislative pathway for his more reactive, punitive ones.

In the end, the problem of American policing and imprisonment is less that of an over-zealous state and more that of an under-empowered one. High risk of murder, coupled with high risk of police encounters and imprisonment, are features of the U.S. state’s ongoing failure to secure its citizenry from violent crime through the myriad of comprehensive social policies that other Western democracies have produced, and then responding to crime waves with singularly punitive policies. Americans are easily seduced by anti-statist arguments but perhaps the current political economy can help to reveal that the greatest threat to American democracy is not that the state does too much but, rather, that its fragmented nature, coupled with anti-statist rhetoric often used against Blacks, too often fails to help produce basic public safety.


Lisa L Miller is Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University and, during 2015-16, Winant Visiting Professor of American Government at the University of Oxford. Her many publications include The Perils of Federalism: Race, Poverty and the Politics of Crime Control (Oxford University Press, 2008) and the just published The Myth of Mob Rule (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Image: Fibonacci Blue CC BY 2.0