NYT’s “Black Voters Want More Cops” Reporting Genre Cynically Conflates Desire for Public Safety With Demands for More Policing, Longer Sentences
Artisanal, earth-tone, finely-tuned copaganda for white liberals.
The New York Times has mastered a very specific, very cynical genre of writing: using voters of color as a hacky bludgeon to promote a return to pre-reform carceral ideology. This genre is consistent with the publication's decades of reporting output and, more urgently, serves the Times’ partisan function as making otherwise cruel and reactionary Democratic Party policies seem inevitable and necessary to its squeamish white liberal readers.
Let’s examine a recent example of this trope, Democrats Face Pressure on Crime From a New Front: Their Base (6/3/22) by reporter Alexander Burns. Though ostensibly straight reporting, the piece is functionally an editorial making the basic argument—an argument similar Times reportage has made time and time again over the past two years—that Democratic electeds are forced by circumstance and demographic reality into not only abandoning meaningful police reform, but veering into right-wing, 1990s-style Tough on Crime politics. This is not because these policies serve wealthy donors, real estate interests, or help pander to suburban white voters—all of whom are more likely to support long prison sentences and bloated police budgets than voters of color—but, instead, because the Times is responding to an entirely organic demand of grassroots support for more police by voters of color. To achieve this, the Times employs two very clever propaganda tactics that are worth isolating and dissecting:
(1) Conflating polls showing communities of color identify public safety as their highest priority with claims that those communities are endorsing more policing, more enforcement of petty crimes, and tougher sentences. A well-documented, indisputable political preference on the part of black and brown voters to curb gun violence, theft, and other serious crimes through, rhetorical sleights-of-hand, becomes a policy preference for more bloated police budgets, greater enforcement of broken windows, and more people in jail—a massive leap the Times never even tries to make, much less lands successfully. “A study published in April by the Pew Research Center, Burns writes, “found that Black Americans were likeliest to name violence or crime as the top concern facing their communities, followed by economic issues and housing.” The leap from a top concern being “violence and crime” to full-throated support for more policing and longer sentences is simply asserted through sloppy inference. The fact that reformers and abolitionists have been making the argument for decades that more policing and longer sentences are not shown to actually reduce crime—but instead, investment in schools, parks, public infrastructure, mental health care, recreation centers, and social welfare improves public safety—is simply ignored. As are these same voters of color, whose voices the Times is supposedly championing, when they support robust socialist policies to tackle crime. The only “solution” preferred by black and brown voters the Times highlights is a vague preference for “public safety,” which we are told is only achieved by more cops and longer sentences. A whole complicated and highly contested terrain is glossed over for a two-dimensional narrative of cop-loving minority voters.
(2) Conflating electeds of color with the preferences of their entire communities. This mode of simplistic tokenizing ignores the nuances and complexities of black and brown communities’ relationship with policing and public safety entirely, providing a cheesy narrative of widespread support among communities of color for current Democratic plans to bloat police budgets while playing lip service to superficial reform. Other factors that explain why electeds, of color or otherwise, may be drawn to Tough on Crime policies and rhetoric—namely, the pervasive influence of real estate interests or partisan expediency—are ignored entirely. The fact that Eric Adams is black is seen as making him representative of the entire black population of New York, whereas the fact that Adams raised almost four times as much as his next closest black opponent, Maya Wiley—largely through a flood of real estate money—is left unmentioned. Political preferences of Democrats are presented in a wide-eyed Schoolhouse Rock-ese.
None of this is to say that these candidates and electeds don’t have a great deal of organic support: Indeed, Adams as Borough President of Brooklyn for six years amassed a sizable following through old fashion retail politics. But, as anyone who’s studied the influence of big money on American politics will tell you, this doesn’t tell the whole story, and the assumption by the Times that it does is simplistic bordering on childish. Lots of local politicians are liked by their constituents—raising millions of dollars to win major elections requires appealing to another constituency: the wealthy and those who own land in large metro areas. This constituency has a great deal of influence in sorting out which candidates of color rise to the top, as does influential local media that shares Real Estate’s preference for heavy policing as an answer to crime. Certainly these forces should at least be mentioned when analyzing the policy preferences of well-funded candidates. Instead, a century of political science showing the influence of donors and local media is thrown out the window.
In this telling, Democrats are compelled to back a return to pre-reform days by populist demands from below. The data, such that it is, shows a much messier picture. As Vox noted in 2020, a “close review of innovative research from Johns Hopkins and Yale University’s Portals Policing Project and Black Futures Lab’s Black Census Project broadly indicates that black people desire more community investment alternatives, more police transparency and accountability, and an end to police racism and brutality. In other words, they want a systemic, nuanced, and meliorating approach—not an either/or.”
It goes without saying that all of the non-carceral solutions to crime overwhelmingly supported by black voters were not mentioned as urgent policy priorities for Democrats, only a vague preference for more police and longer prison sentences. Which is to say, the “solution” that aligns with the interests of wealthy white liberals.
To the extent that black voters do want more policing, the idea that this is due to a total failure to provide any other mechanism of addressing crime is never explored. The idea that better schools, equality, greater social trust, welfare, mental health support, and robust support for early childhood development are even an option is entirely foreclosed on by our morally and intellectually stunted Times reporters. Black communities are drowning and our leaders are throwing them barbed wire to grab onto. So, when framed a certain way, these underserved communities will tell pollsters, “Sure, I’d prefer barbed wire to drowning,” and this becomes a story about the unquestionable merits of only offering barbed wire. No other alternative to reducing crime is entertained, much less centered or championed or made urgent by Times reporters.
Burns casually alludes to a partisan motive, noting that three different “centrist” groups recommend Democrats double down on pro-police posturing in service of the midterm elections. Again, any potential ulterior motive beyond simply winning elections is ignored: Their advice is assumed to be entirely in good faith, and the fact that they’re entirely corporate, Wall Street, and real estate funded simply doesn’t factor into any of Burns’ analysis. Political ideas simply exist as unique and discrete political currents outside of money or public relations.
All of this nuance is lost, any other consideration beyond surface level identity politics is omitted; every single one of the well-documented, non-carceral policy preferences among voters of color for addressing crime—better schools, cleaner neighborhoods, greener spaces, more robust social safety net—is ignored entirely. Only the policy preferences of voters of color that vaguely overlap with those of the Times’ rich, white readers—more policing and longer sentences—are given weight, importance, Seriousness. It’s this “solution,” mysteriously, that is exclusively homed in on, isolated, and made the alpha and omega of addressing crime by elite U.S. media. Amazing how that worked out.