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The Penology of Racial Innocence: The Erasure of Racism in the Study and Practice of Punishment


  • The authors wish to thank Alexes Harris, Michael McCann, Christopher Parker, Dara Strolovitch, Jack Turner, and four anonymous reviewers for their insightful and constructive feedback. The authors are listed in reverse alphabetical order; each contributed importantly to the development of this article. Please direct correspondence to Naomi Murakawa, Department of Political Science, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195-3530; e-mail:


In post–civil rights America, the ascendance of “law-and-order” politics and “postracial” ideology have given rise to what we call the penology of racial innocence. The penology of racial innocence is a framework for assessing the role of race in penal policies and institutions, one that begins with the presumption that criminal justice is innocent of racial power until proven otherwise. Countervailing sociolegal changes render this framework particularly problematic. On the one hand, the definition of racism has contracted in antidiscrimination law and in many social scientific studies of criminal justice, so that racism is defined narrowly as intentional and causally discrete harm. On the other hand, criminal justice institutions have expanded to affect historically unprecedented numbers of people of color, with penal policies broadening in ways that render the identification of racial intent and causation especially difficult. Analyses employing the penology of racial innocence examine the ever-expanding criminal justice system with limited definitions of racism, ultimately contributing to the erasure of racial power. Both racism and criminal justice operate in systemic and serpentine ways; our conceptual tools and methods, therefore, need to be equally systemic and capacious.