When politicians and corporate media speak of crime they are invariably talking about Black people as a group. The latest manufactured crime panic is following a very old and successful playbook. The dog whistle is very clearly heard by white people, who don’t need very much encouragement to indulge in their worst racist fantasies. Politicians feed the madness and then profit from it, making Black people the face of crime and then winning office as result.
In New York state, the incumbent democratic governor Kathy Hochul is having a closer than expected race against republican congressman Lee Zeldin. New York is a solidly democratic state, where a republican presidential candidate hasn’t won since 1984 and where republicans are in the minority in both houses of the legislature. Yet Zeldin is within striking distance after having made crime a centerpiece of his campaign.
In part, he can thank New York City’s Black mayor Eric Adams for this turn of events. Adams came into office attacking very modest bail reforms enacted in the state in 2019 and he specifically targeted Manhattan’s Black District Attorney Alvin Bragg. Bragg campaigned for office and won 84% of the vote by declaring that he would not ask for cash bail for low level offenses. This fair and sensible policy was attacked by Adams and his Black police commissioner who even emailed every NYPD officer telling them that Bragg made them unsafe.
Zeldin isn’t being labeled as a racist because Adams attacked Bragg with the same “soft on crime” argument first. So emboldened is Zeldin that he says he will remove Bragg from office should he win the gubernatorial race. Legal experts agree that the governor can’t fire an elected official with a pink slip, but the facts be damned when there are white voters in need of fear mongering.
In Pennsylvania the district attorney of Philadelphia, Larry Krasner, finds himself in a similar situation. He too adopted a policy against imposing bail for minor, non-violent offenses. Despite having been elected and re-elected, republicans in the Pennsylvania legislature have announced plans to impeach Krasner. Philadelphia does have a high murder rate but Krasner isn’t freeing murder suspects. The facts don’t count when fear can easily be whipped up, and petty larceny can be conflated with murder. When illogic abounds anti-Black racism is generally the cause.
It seems that many white people feel a need to be afraid. They can be convinced that Critical Race Theory is being taught in elementary schools, or that library books must be banned, or that their lives are in danger if a few Black people manage not to go to jail for a minor offense. Of course the very existence of Black people is always a cause for alarm and consternation and so the word criminal becomes a synonym for Black.
Eric Adams and other opportunistic politicians can create needless fear just as much as their white counterparts. Now Adams has been hoisted on his own petard as he has created a climate of fear that is harming the city’s image and obscures a simple fact. Violent crime rates in New York City are far below those of 20 and 30 years ago.
The crime panic madness plays out in Illinois as well as in New York and Pennsylvania. Right on cue, a plan to minimize the use of cash bail has spawned claims that cities like Chicago will resemble the dystopia of The Purge movie franchise in which criminals are allowed to cause mayhem without fear of the police.
How can America be changed for the better in any way when the bulk of its population seems to search out reasons to be afraid? Perhaps it is the settler mentality which makes everyone a potential enemy, but especially those from subjugated populations. After all they have to stay subjugated and if bail isn’t imposed for a minor crime then all hell just might break loose.
The need to police and to control others is endemic to this country. There is no reason for pre-trial detention, and that is all that cash bail amounts to. Innocent people are locked up for no reason other than that they are too poor to afford bail. The end of this practice for minor offenses is long overdue.
But it is no accident that this country leads the world in the mass incarceration of its citizens. The need to physically control Black people is foundational and isn’t easily overcome. Those politicians in New York who stand up to Adams and his ilk should be supported for doing the right thing. Unfortunately there are more political incentives for doing the wrong thing. Election day in 2022 will tell us how badly off we are in this regard.