The First Civil Right

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The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America
Naomi Murakawa- book cover.jpg
Author Naomi Murakawa
Country United States
Published 11 August 2014[1]
Publisher Oxford University Press
Pages 280
ISBN 9780199892808

The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America is a 2014 non-fiction book by political scientist Naomi Murakawa, who is a professor of African American studies at Princeton University.[2] The book addresses causes of the rapid increase in U.S. incarceration rates since the 1970s and of racial inequality in the U.S. prison system. Specifically, Murakawa traces the role of liberal politicians, particularly national-level Democrats, in shaping racially unequal incarceration policies. For the book, Murakawa was awarded the Michael Harrington Book Award by the New Political Science section of the APSA in 2015.[3]

Murakawa's approach specifically "discounts intentions, recognizing that racial power is not necessarily exerted by will."[4] Instead the book investigates differing forms of racism and how they have functionally influenced the U.S. prison system.[4]

According to Murakawa, Democratic efforts to professionalize the U.S. justice system in response to racial bias in policing effectively contributed to that racially discriminatory policing and imprisonment practices. Examples discussed include the Boggs Act of 1952 and the Narcotic Control Act of 1956 which both created mandatory sentencing, a policy that would entail racial inequality during the War on Drugs.[5] More recently, Bill Clinton's 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill, which was heavily supported by Joe Biden, expanded the federal death penalty and minimum sentencing, which has been disproportionately applied to racial minorities. Minimum sentencing and drug laws have also significantly increased incarceration rates for nonviolent offenders.[6][5][7]

Murakawa notes that the term "the first civil right" was first used in the Truman administration to refer to the right to be protected from violence, specifically Black protection from White supremacist violence, but the term was later popularized by Nixon to implicitly mean protection of White people from Black people.[6]


  1. ^ "The First Civil Right". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 7 February 2015. 
  2. ^ "Naomi Murakawa". Center for African American Studies, Princeton University. Retrieved 7 February 2015. 
  3. ^ "Naomi Murakawa receives Michael Harrington Book Award". Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Retrieved 9 March 2016. 
  4. ^ a b Osterweil, Willie (6 January 2015). "How White Liberals Used Civil Rights to Create More Prisons". The Nation. Retrieved 7 February 2015. 
  5. ^ a b Russell, Thadeus. "Did Liberals Put Black America Behind Bars? (Opinion)". Newsweek (6 January 2015). Retrieved 7 February 2015. 
  6. ^ a b Goldstein, Dana (15 January 2015). "Blame Liberals". The Marshall Project. Retrieved 7 February 2015. 
  7. ^ Konczal, Mike; Covert, Bryce (24 September 2014). "The Score: Why Prisons Thrive Even When Budgets Shrink". The Nation. Retrieved 7 February 2015. 

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