Read more on how the Democratic Party has changed.
The destructive relationship between institutional racism and the criminal justice system is the great moral and political crisis facing American society. With the upcoming election in sight, it is useful to examine this relationship within the lens of the Democratic Party and the way it has come to address these issues, especially over the past half century.
National tensions surrounding issues that have been politely labeled “police-community relations” take shape in a larger context of resurgent anti-black racism, the rise of white nationalism, and the 2016 presidential election, whose fault lines have been irrevocably shaped by race.
These fault lines can be traced back to the civil rights movement’s heroic period when Lyndon B. Johnson’s dreams of a Great Society ran aground amid a shifting national landscape that placed anti-black racism as the key to party realignment between Democrats and Republicans and helped usher in modern-day racial politics. The conventional narrative largely focuses on Richard Nixon’s rhetoric of “law and order,” identifying this singular phrase as the start of “dog whistle” politics, where racially inflammatory policy sentiments were tucked in coded appeals that would be used by both Ronald Reagan (“welfare queens”) and George H.W. Bush (Willie Horton ads).
However, the origins of the modern black community’s star-crossed relationship with the criminal justice system, one that has triggered dozens of Justice Department investigations uncovering institutional racism in major cities, can be traced back to LBJ’s Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965. As historian Elizabeth Hinton brilliantly details in her landmark new study From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, the criminalization of black bodies in the postwar era has been, until recently, a decidedly bipartisan affair.
Democrats, beginning with President Johnson, attempted to deflect charges of being soft on crime by leading efforts to increase the punishment, incarceration, and jail time of an inmate population largely understood to be black and brown. Johnson’s “War on Crime” provided, for the first time in American history, federal support to states for “stopping” crime.
Richard Nixon’s declaration of a “War on Drugs” provided fresh funding for a largely invented problem. New York’s liberal Republican governor and Nixon rival, Nelson Rockefeller, further upped the ante by innovating mandatory minimums for even minor drug crimes that would greatly accelerate the number of non-violent inmates serving lengthy, at times life, sentences.
Democrats during the Reagan Administration vigorously supported anti-crime bills whose ultimate consequences unfairly punished black drug defendants (who used and trafficked crack cocaine) more harshly than their white counterpart (who used and trafficked powdered cocaine).
Bill Clinton’s “Third Way” in the 1990s doubled down on these policies, in the process sending more black men to federal prisons than Ronald Reagan. Clinton’s crime bill, which imposed harsh federal sentences on drug crimes and provided unprecedented resources to hire 100,000 new police officers nationwide, worked in cruel tandem with welfare reform. Ending “welfare as we know it” not only placed strict time limits and work requirements on public assistance recipients who were disproportionately black and Latino women. It institutionalized harsh new punishments for ex-offenders, cutting them off from food stamps, public housing, and many areas of employment. In short, the Democratic Party, for decades, helped to institutionalize national policies that, in effect, criminalized large parts of the African-American community and cut ex-offenders off from any opportunity to rehabilitate themselves, find employment, and reunite with their families.
The Department of Justice’s report on racist police practices in Baltimore serves as a capstone to the Democratic Party’s new approach, one that has been largely buoyed by the Black Lives Matter movement that erupted in the aftermath of a spate of highly publicized shooting deaths of black people at the hands of law enforcement. The Baltimore report documents a system of racial profiling, harassment, illegal personal and vehicle searches, drug arrests, and brutality in eye-opening detail. The report also documents the ways in which police officers violated black people’s constitutional right of free speech by arresting folks, including innocent bystanders, who dared to raise public criticism against law enforcement.
The DOJ’s recommendations include ending illegal practices, more officer training, and better resources to foster close relationships between the police and residents. While President Obama has been criticized for not speaking out forcefully enough against police violence toward blacks, both of his handpicked attorneys general have been on the cutting edge of the Democratic Party’s new approach to race and criminal justice, one that acknowledges systemic bias while praising law enforcement as heroic public servants.
Black Lives Matter activists have argued that this perspective ignores the way in which inequality is sewn into the structure of the criminal justice system. “A Vision for Black Lives,” a panoramic policy agenda authored by a coalition of Black Lives Matter activists, does just that by offering almost 40 separate recommendations aimed, not simply at changing the criminal justice system, but at transforming America’s democratic institutions that continue to actively discriminate against blacks. On this score, the agenda calls for eliminating racial bias in prisons at the federal, state, and local level, and redirecting federal resources from prison-building and police task forces into community building, drug rehabilitation, mental health facilities, as well as education, employment, and environmental resources.
President Obama, whose Justice Department under Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch has taken important, pro-active steps to eliminate institutional racism, has tried to offer both words and deeds in favor of reform. In the aftermath of the Dallas Police shootings, during a peaceful protest against the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Obama praised officers for doing honorable work while acknowledging that they are often asked to tackle problems of segregation, poverty, and mental health that transcends their job descriptions. During a subsequent presidential town hall, he failed to broker an honest discussion between police and community activists, instead reframing the problem of state violence against blacks into one of law enforcement safety. Obama has been on surer ground in his efforts to grant mercy to those serving long sentences for drug crimes, including his recent commutation of 214 people, 67 of which were serving life sentences. With this act, Obama has commuted more people than the last nine presidents combined.
Yet many still consider this progress too slow, especially since thousands of deserving inmates await similar measures of mercy. Obama has been rightfully criticized for refusing to grant pardons—the most merciful action a President can do, since it restores ex-offenders’ full citizenship rights—despite pleas from inmate advocates and the President’s own stated hopes for reforms.
The recent Democratic Convention in Philadelphia made history by nominating Hillary Clinton to be President of the United States. Clinton’s speech, where she publicly acknowledged the need to eliminate institutional racism in America, reflects a Democratic Party in transition. The Reverend Doctor William Barber, leader of North Carolina’s local civil rights struggle, which has been dubbed the “Moral Mondays” movement, spoke on the convention’s last day, describing efforts to eliminate racism, injustice, and acknowledge that Black Lives Matter formed the beating heart of American democracy. Barber’s and Clinton’s speeches, one from a grassroots civil rights activist and the other from a major politician, illustrates the potential for dramatic change in a party that is only now being pushed to acknowledge and accept its own culpability in our current racial crisis. The political consequences of this shifting perspective on race and the criminal justice system will play out beyond the current presidential election. If the Democratic Party aligns with racial justice progressives to end draconian policies that led to mass incarceration, they may be able to sustain and build on the Obama coalition. If not, they will lose millions of millennial voters of color and white allies who recognize that the criminal justice system’s status quo is both unsupportable and immoral.