KELLY LYTLE HERNÁNDEZ, WHO GREW UP ON THE U.S.-MEXICO BORDER, is a historian and leading expert on race, immigration and mass incarceration. Her latest book, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965, chronicles how Los Angeles came to build the largest municipal jail system on Earth. A professor of history and African-American studies, Lytle Hernández was recently appointed interim director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. Here, she talks about her vision for the center, her research into the cost of mass incarceration in L.A., and what politicians really mean when they talk about “law and order.”
How did growing up on the border shape who you are and the work you do today?
I grew up when the Border Patrol was very active in community life. They patrolled the streets and transit stations, and it was common to see them yank people out of cars or buses or stop people on the street. I am not from an immigrant family, so I did not feel the deep, intimate fear that I would lose a loved one in that way, but it was clear to me that race was guiding this. People who fit a certain profile were taken off for questioning. As a black kid growing up during the rise of the war on drugs, seeing how we were aggressively policed around drug trafficking and gang activity and all that they suspected us of gave me a critical eye toward [the relationship between] the Border Patrol and Latinos. From a young age, I was curious about policing, incarceration and race, very broadly.
What sparked your interest in history?
Sitting by the armchair of my aunts, uncles and parents and listening to stories inflected with history and the past, and the weight of all of that, made me curious about telling origin stories. That’s history. And I just love the detective chase of going to find all of these records.
What does that chase feel like for you?
It’s a grand adventure. To most people, it looks boring — going through boxes and fingering through files, hour after hour. But then you’ll find a smoking gun or a nugget that opens up a whole new way of thinking about the past, and that keeps me going until I can find that one piece of evidence again. That rocks my world and makes me think anew about how we got to our present moment, why we got here, what are the dynamics that undergrid our world.
In City of Inmates, you write that mass incarceration is mass elimination. How so?
In the book, I’m having a conversation with the prevailing way we think about mass incarceration: that mass incarceration, as [civil rights advocate] Michelle Alexander brilliantly put it, is the new Jim Crow. It’s the most recent chapter in the unfinished black freedom struggle. First was slavery, then emancipation, which was extinguished by Jim Crow, and now, mass incarceration — i.e., the new Jim Crow. I’m in conversation with that, I’m borrowing from that, I depend upon that analysis in every way. And I want to add [how] nonwhite immigrant and native populations experience disproportionality in policing and caging and punishment. And how stories from three sectors, at minimum — black folks, native folks, nonwhite immigrants — are connected.
You write that prison labor built much of L.A. What projects can we still see today?
It’s a fascinating history — the fact that we walk on streets and enjoy parks that were first cut and built by incarcerated persons here in Los Angeles. Everywhere from Pico Boulevard to Figueroa to Sunset Boulevard to Griffith Park to Los Angeles High School to Olvera Plaza, [a lot of this] was built in the 19th century and the first three decades of the 20th century with prison labor.
What is the mission of your current research project, Million Dollar Hoods?
Very few people know that Los Angeles operates such a massive jail system. With Million Dollar Hoods, we’ve acquired an unprecedented set of law enforcement data to document how much it costs to run this system and how much is spent per neighborhood. In some [neighborhoods], more than $1 million per year is spent on locking up local residents.These are our Million Dollar Hoods. We’ve provided the first public and full list of the leading causes of arrest across the county. And while many people might think our jails are locking up very serious offenders who pose a harm to us, in fact, the leading charge in almost every Million Dollar Hood is possession of drugs and DUIs. We’re spending millions of dollars a year locking people up for addiction-related issues.
In South L.A., from 2010 to 2015, more than $500 million went to policing and incarceration?
We’re talking about half a billion that could have gone into our school system, our parks system, employment and training, counseling services, food for families, housing for the poor. We have lots of evidence that these things make stable families for children and thriving communities for all of us. It’s not that we don’t have the money. It’s that our priorities have shifted toward policing and incarceration, rather than social services and support.
“We’re spending millions of dollars a year locking people up for addiction-related issues.”
What do work and justice — your themes for the Bunche Center — mean to you?
Jobs and justice were the two prongs of the unfinished civil rights movement. If publicly engaged scholarship is to advance the well-being of black folks in the United States and around the world, focusing on jobs and justice is a good way to do that, and it also strengthens key community partnerships.
The Trump Administration stresses the need for “law and order.” How do you respond to that?
Historically, the call for law and order has been a call for the suppression of freedom movements. During the civil rights movement, there were calls for law and order to shut down the “illegal activities” of people such as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, who was arrested and criminalized for his activities. This rallying cry for law and order is nothing new. It’s not shocking that this president has utilized that rallying cry to try to tamp down or suppress the uprisings we’ve seen in recent years, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the “Dreamer” movement and many others.
Will this moment in history result in criminal justice reform or more “law and order”?
If we don’t take money out of policing and incarceration, it will remain our largest public expenditure at the local level. I don’t see a new future unless we get serious about investing in education, employment and housing — and building a floor beneath through which no human will fall.