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Failed Frontlash: How Liberals Furthered the Case for Mass Incarceration

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

The response to the Civil Rights Movement initiated one of the most punitive interventions in United States history. Beginning with the Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965 and onward, the state took on a new role in crime and drug control. State and federal governments revised their criminal codes, imposing mandatory minimums and effectively abolishing parole. Moreover, juveniles were now incarcerated in adult prisons, chain gangs returned—as did a malicious policy of felon disenfranchisement—all while prison rates soared, increasing six-fold between 1973 and the turn of the century.


Vesla Mae Weaver’s work—particularly her use of “frontlash”—offers some important clues to understanding the punitive impulse.  According to Weaver frontlash is “the process by which formerly defeated groups may become dominant issue entrepreneurs in light of the development of a new issue campaign.” Put another way, frontlash is “the process by which losers in a conflict become the architects of a new program, manipulating the issue space and altering the dimension of the conflict in an effort to regain their command of the agenda.” Weaver explains the punitive turn during and following the Civil Rights Movement as a textbook example of frontlash.


Line Edit: Moderation in the Pursuit of Justice is a virtue.

Political actors “that had fought vociferously against civil rights legislation” understood that they could no longer win their battle unless they re-framed the issue. As such, said actors “shifted the locus of attack” by injecting crime into the agenda. Crime became a new way to see civil rights and big tent liberalism. Moreover, rising crime came to be seen as a function of civil rights activism and a culture of permissiveness. But first, according to Weaver, frontlash needed two pivotal “focusing events” to help mount its counterattack. Increasing crime and riots would prove to be ideal focusing events to help re-frame the issue to more Conservative ends. Leaders such as Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Richard Nixon successfully melded fears regarding crime to anxiety about ghetto revolts and racial disorder. Riots and racial disorder—initially and rightly understood as a problem of minority disenfranchisement—came to be redefined as a crime problem. As the frontlash agenda gained traction, issues of race and crime came to be conflated with alarming frequency. So much so that a scholar studying this convergence in popular media argued: “discourse about crime is discourse about race.”

Ultimately, crime and drugs became a symbol for other societal anxieties. As Kenneth Meier and James Marrone have both argued, crime and drug policy are best categorized as “morality politics,” as policies that “redistribute values rather than income.” In the case of frontlash, and later as I argue—blacklash—morality politics and the redistribution of national values are on full display. Both historical incidents came to be framed as issues of order, decency, and public safety. Unfortunately, neither were framed as issues of fairness, justice, and public health.

Weaver argues that there are two phases to any successful frontlash program: issue dominance and issue capture. Following a series of urban riots touched off by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Conservatives established issue dominance, advancing the causal narrative which tied civil rights activism to rising crime and urban riots. Next came issue capture: by repurposing the issue of civil rights as a question of law and order, Conservatives had successfully re-framed the debate on their own terms. More troubling is what came after issue capture. According to Weaver, “strategic pursuit will usually ensue.”

Indeed, Liberals pursued the new political utility of law and order politics rather than leave themselves vulnerable to charges they were “soft on crime,” or for that matter, drugs. Strategic pursuit, as we can see, narrows the set of alternative solutions and policy prescriptions. As Liberals began to beat the drum of law and order, they effectively constrained the policy choices available moving forward. Even LBJ began following advice given to him by a close advisor: “start acting less like a social worker and more like a cop.” Suddenly, the federal government took a new, active role on crime and drugs. For the first time federal officials acknowledged an obligation to be actively involved in what previously had been considered a problem for respective states. The national gaze had officially turned away from an ethos of fairness and rehabilitation towards more punitive measures.  Most devastating, Liberals’ new posture lent further credence to Conservative narratives about drugs and crime.

Frontlash has much to teach drug historians and scholars of mass incarceration. It has changed my view of drug policy and the cultural mechanics of drug reform. In particular, Weaver’s assertion that scholars should not view civil rights and criminal justice as separate narratives or historical trajectories is instructive. The legacy of civil rights looms large in the histories of the modern War on Drugs and the rise of the carceral state. Programs responding to civil rights—in the case of frontlash—and organizing tactics carried forth from the movement—in the case of blacklash—both played a role in furthering the case for more police and harsher sentencing. Certainly, frontlash operatives used civil rights activism to explain rising crime and riots in urban streets. Later, anti-drug activists and drug warriors—veterans themselves of the civil rights movement—used organizing tools sharpened during the movement to win more police and harsher sentencing to combat the specter of crack in their districts. Reformers like Charles Rangel of Harlem and Wendell Foster of the Bronx saw their mission as an extension of civil rights activism, using the same tactics to effect change, only this time to incarcerate their brothers and sisters of the much-maligned underclass. Bitter with memories of bearing the brunt of frontlash accusations tying civil rights activism to rising crime and racial disorder, old heads like Foster sought to distance themselves and the rest of the “decent” blacks from the growing underclass. Crack and the underclass—not lynching, discrimination, and bigotry—were now the new enemies of racial progress and social uplift. If the urban underclass needed to be scapegoated and forcefully removed from urban streets to secure the tenuous ties to white authority and opportunity previously forged under the civil rights movement, so be it.

Frontlash holds another important lesson for drug historians: don’t dismiss crime. Too often, drug historians don’t take crime statistics, or for that matter science, seriously enough. The New Jim Crow Thesis all but dismisses rising crime as a partial explanation for the rise of law and order politics. Frequently, drug historians cite that crime statistics are unreliable, hard to measure, and often, heavily exaggerated. While these criticisms are likely well founded, they also miss the point. Exaggerated or not, the reality that citizens believed rising crime to be a pressing issue threatening the social order and their safety matters. And, crime did get worse. Particularly in cities. Regardless, as Weaver argues, “the perception of a crime wave can be even more important than reality.” Indeed, it is not worth haggling over whether crime rates did or did not rise, or by how much. We would be better served to investigate why crime and drugs came to be politicized and how both issues came to be framed. In our eagerness to dismiss crime, Weaver suggests, many of us have “thrown the baby out with the bathwater.”

Crime and drug use on Bronx streets looked, felt, and was very real to the residents trapped in its crosshairs. Their frustration, manifested in the form of marches, petitions and protests were also real. So too were calls made by Charles Rangel, Chair of the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, for police and the criminal justice system to help residents “take back” their streets from pushers and addicts. Unfortunately for Rangel, many of these calls fell on deaf ears. Conservative policies of benign neglect had long rendered his district and others like them non-entities. Seeking to reverse this trend and reclaim the issue, Rangel and other prominent urban-based Liberals sought to mount a frontlash attack of their own. What they needed though was a focusing event to galvanize support and provide a window of opportunity to reframe the debate for urban districts. 


The death of Len Bias of cocaine-related cardiac arrest offered the focusing event of the subsequent crack panic. A high profile, ultra-religious, All-American basketball player, Bias offered up a cautionary tale for the War on Drugs. His death captured widespread popular attention, making it possible to have a national discussion regarding the specter of crack and urban decay. Moreover, it afforded Liberals an opportunity to seize upon the drug issue and take the offensive. A new and increasingly pervasive drug coupled with the overdose of a well-known, well-liked athlete would serve just as well as crime and riots. As such, Liberals sought to defeat policies of benign neglect and to highlight real problems of urban disinvestment and increasing joblessness, not to challenge law and order politics. Herein lies their mistake.

Much as Conservatives used civil rights and repurposed the issue to their own ends of law and order, Liberals sought to repurpose law and order politics to challenge the failures of benign neglect and to increase access to funding and resources for their own underfunded districts. In effect, Liberals attempted to use law and order politics as an argument for more attention, funding, and reform efforts aimed at long-ignored urban districts. They pointed directly to rising crime and drug use as evidence that benign neglect had failed. Conservative inaction offered no solution at all. But, by using Conservative rhetoric to challenge policies of benign neglect, Liberals unwittingly reinforced and strengthened punitive logic as a solution and as a causal narrative.

Almost immediately after the Bias overdose in June of 1986, Charles Rangel and others began calling out the Reagan Administration for ignoring the rising tide of crack. Conservatives, not Liberals, were now the ones “soft on crime.” Pointing to crack and the drug trade as threats to social and racial progress, men like Rangel and Foster reinforced the racialization and urbanization of street crime and drug use in the public eye. As such, more nuanced arguments geared towards more effective policing through foot patrol and community outreach fell by the wayside. Instead, urban districts got more police who treated all residents the same—often like criminals—and nonviolent drug addicts now warranted harsher sentencing than many child molesters, rapists, and in some cases, murderers. Unable to establish issue dominance or issue capture, Liberal frontlash in the Crack Era failed miserably.

History is often a matter of contingency. Failed frontlash of the Crack Era raises questions about what could have been an opportunity to reframe New Deal, Fair Deal, and Great Society arguments about the need for purposeful government action. Before the days of Conservative frontlash, a wide consensus held that government can and should solve social problems. Consider the prescriptions of the Eisenhower Commission: “Warring on poverty, inadequate housing and unemployment, is warring on crime. A civil rights law is a law against crime.” Law and order policies were not inevitable, nor are they deeply entrenched in our history. As such, they could have, and still can, be reversed.


“We Will Bankrupt Ourselves in the Vain Search for Absolute Security.” – Dwight Eisenhower

The Crack Era stands as a missed opportunity to reverse course. Unwilling to remain vulnerable to attacks that they were defending or coddling criminals or “soft on crime,” Liberals did not mount an attack upon law and order policies, but rather, attempted only to mount an attack on policies of benign neglect by using law and order arguments. Thus, no fundamental re-framing of the debate took place. Rather than discuss rising crack use within the context of urban decay, crack and its sellers and users came to be scapegoated for an entire milieu of urban social and economic problems. The crack epidemic also offered proof that any further aid would further perpetuate the “cycle of pathology and dependence.” No national discussion would be had on how the underclass and modern ghettoes came to be. Rather, the national discussion turned to the insidious effects of both the underclass and crack, and the need to contain both.

Soon, prominent Liberals came to calling crack pushers and users “scum” and “subhuman,” demanding that they be taken off the streets, warehoused, and contained. After all, Liberals had already made this decision on the heels of frontlash. Senator and Democrat Robert Byrd explained it best: “We can take the people out of the slums, but we cannot take the slums out of the people. Wherever some people go, the ratholes will follow.” Those people, the underclass, became the problem, not policies of benign neglect. Rather than reform urban districts with funding as encouraged by the Eisenhower Commission of years past, the new common sense solution revolved around policing and containment. Liberal Lion Ted Kennedy got in line: “Along with the civil right to vote, go to school, and have a job is the right not to be mugged, robbed, or assaulted.”

Vesla Mae Weaver laments that “crime became an excuse for not expanding civil rights and social justice” as a direct and final result of frontlash success. This did not have to be so. Crime and drugs should have been offered up as concrete evidence of the need for more expansive civil rights programs across lines of race, addressing the larger problem of poverty and joblessness in urban districts. A more aggressive attack upon law and order policies and culture of poverty explanations more generally might have yielded a re-framing of law and order policy at a crucial moment in its trajectory. A platform built around poverty and the structures of inequality might have successfully continued the failed final plank of the Civil Rights Movement’s war on poverty. Such a platform may have moved the nation towards a more productive crime and drug policy which considers both the role of poverty and fairness in criminal justice. Instead, failed frontlash of the Crack Era wrought further investment in failed law and order solutions by way of federal mandatory minimums. Under the successful frontlash treated by Weaver, the federal government took on a new role in the policing of crime and drugs. Under the failed frontlash of the Crack Era—or what I call blacklash—the federal government expanded its role policing crime and drugs yet again, this time by taking a heavier hand in sentencing, as well as policing.


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