Will Democrats Finally Align With Racial Justice?

Roundup
tags: politics, election 2016, Racial Justice



Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently Stokely: A Life which received the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change National Book Award.

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. ...




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