In Monday night’s presidential debate, Donald Trump said, “Secretary Clinton doesn’t want to use a couple of words: law and order.” This is not exactly a statement that one would expect to hear from the man who encouraged his supporters to “rough up” a protester or threatened violence against Hillary Clinton. It is, however, a textbook appeal to what political commentators call “law and order politics,” the idea that we need to get tough on crime in order to make America safe and stable again.
Rhetoric about “war-torn” inner cities in need of massive policing isn’t new. Beginning with Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, it has become a mainstay of Republican politics. In his address to the Republican National Convention, Goldwater cautioned, “The growing menace … in our great cities, is the mounting concern, or should be, of every thoughtful citizen in the United States.” In the post-Jim Crow era, the large swaths of the American public that believed in segregationist policies didn’t simply disappear. Instead, they innovated. The same media that described MLK’s peaceful protests as “violent riots” transitioned to sensationalized reports of moral decadence and skyrocketing crime in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. By the time President Reagan had begun advocating for his War on Drugs, the transformation was complete: explicit appeals to racist rhetoric about black inferiority had been replaced by the more palatable and “colorblind” rhetoric of cracking down on the problem of inner-city crime, of drug dealers and “crack whores.”
Yes, Trump is correct that murders have increased in the past year (although they’re nowhere near as high as the peak in 1991). What he gets wrong is the cause. Trump theorizes that police are so afraid of popular backlash that they are unable to do their jobs. Yet, if our police are so “afraid to do anything” due to media attention on police brutality, then why are police killings of civilians on the rise? It appears instead that Trump has confused problem and solution. Murder has increased not in spite of, but rather directly because of the tough-on-crime policies enacted by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers such as “stop and frisk” and the war on drugs. While a full analysis of the war on drugs is outside the scope of this article, it is clear that it has vastly disrupted inner-city communities by disproportionately imprisoning black people for the same crimes as whites. For example, people of color are imprisoned at much greater rates for drug crimes, despite almost equal drug usage rates. Once released from prison, drug offenders are denied economic opportunity such as jobs and prevented from accessing public housing. It is this instability that led to the skyrocketing crime rates in the 90s and the increases in past years.
Rather than focusing on treating the symptom, we need to recognize that our current criminal justice system has failed Americans of color. Fact after fact illustrates the incredibly disparate impact of “tough on crime” policy. The United States currently imprisons a greater proportion of its black population than South Africa under Apartheid. In Washington, D.C., the final destination for one of the two candidates on the stage Monday night, a shocking three out of every four young black men will spend time in prison. If we are to create a criminal justice system that works for all Americans, political rhetoric must move from “law and order” to “equality and justice.”