On Sept. 26, a record number of Americans tuned in for the first presidential debate of the general election season. A number of issues were covered that pertain to justice, peace, and the mission of Sojourners. But I was especially struck by a very illuminating section of the debate, when the candidates were asked to speak to the issue of race relations in America.
NBC moderator Lester Holt asked each candidate:
The share of Americans who say race relations are bad in this country is the highest it's been in decades, much of it amplified by shootings of African-Americans by police, as we've seen recently in Charlotte and Tulsa. Race has been a big issue in this campaign, and one of you is going to have to bridge a very wide and bitter gap.
So how do you heal the divide?
Mr. Trump's direct answer to "how do you heal the divide?" was twofold: "law and order" and "stop-and-frisk."
The phrase "law and order" is well understood as racially coded language. Inherent in the phrase is the assumption of black crime, and the belief that white people need to be protected from it. Beginning as far back as 1968, with George Wallace and Richard Nixon's campaigns, "law and order" and the famous imagery of the "silent majority" was an appeal to white Americans, rooted in racial resentment and backlash against both the civil rights movement and the anti-war protests of the time.
Since then, the code language of "law and order" has remained rooted in racial fear and profiling. This tactic was famously used in 1988 with the "Willie Horton" ad, which suggested the idea of releasing a black man from prison for a weekend was dangerous to white people. It was used again in Trump's 1989 vilification of the Central Park Five. As political psychologists Mark Peffley and Jon Hurwitz explain, using this coded language over decades has had its intended effect. "When many whites think of punitive crime policy to deal with violent offenders, they are thinking of black offenders," they wrote.
As an effective way to bring back law and order, Trump suggested reviving the "stop-and-frisk" tactics, used in New York City under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and continued under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, would be an effective way to "bring back law and order."
Stop-and-frisk, as it was practiced in New York City, was ineffective in reducing violent crime. But it had an overwhelmingly disproportionate impact on young black and Latino men. The New York Police Department's data shows that 90 percent of stops conducted under stop-and-frisk were young men of color who had done nothing wrong. And the level of racial profiling went from discriminatory to absurd: In 2011, more young black men were stopped and frisked than there were young black men living in New York City. This suggests that many young men were stopped multiple times. That same year, weapons were found on 1.8 percent of black and Latino people who were stopped, but on 3.8 percent of white people who were stopped -- nearly double the rate.
Secretary Clinton, for her part, criticized stop-and-frisk primarily for not being effective. "Stop and risk was found to be unconstitutional. And in part because it was ineffective," she said. "It did not do what it needed to do." She did not explicitly condemn the racial profiling inherent in the policy. But then she turned the conversation to "systemic racism" which "still determines too much," including their treatment in the criminal justice system. Her solutions called for criminal justice reform, which would, among other things, include "mak[ing] sure that our police are using the best training, the best techniques, that they're well prepared to use force only when necessary." She said that "we have to make sure [the police] respect the communities and the communities respect them."
Clinton also spoke to the need for all of us to be empathetic to the concerns of police officers, including their mental health, personal safety, and the importance of training around the issues of implicit bias. Finally, she stressed the need to enact common sense gun safety laws.
In my opinion, those answers were in the right direction, but still have a distance to go to find real solutions.
Clear racial profiling and abusive treatment of communities of color does little to reduce crime or make people in the community feel safer. Instead, it provokes the opposite -- creating an aggressive environment of complete mistrust, confrontation, and anger. People of color who are stopped and searched over and over and over again, having done nothing wrong, rightly come to view the police as an oppressive, even illegitimate, force in their lives and communities.
Crime and violence are real problems, especially in poor urban communities of color, though crime rates have been falling all over the country since the 1990s. And the people who live in those communities do want to feel safer and have their communities' problems solved. But solutions will require a fundamental transformation in our perception of police officers, from "warriors" to "guardians." People want and need guardians, and long for community policing, but will resist warriors who treat them as the enemies in occupied territory. To propose a revival of "stop-and-frisk" as the centerpiece of a "law and order" strategy, and to then suggest that this is how we heal the racial divide in this country, is quite alarming.
At another point in the debate, Donald Trump defended his championing of the "birther" conspiracy theory, saying that he had done "a great service not only for the country ... in getting him to produce his birth certificate." Trump began his political career by leading the racist birther movement, and continued as the birther standard-bearer for five years after President Obama released the long form of his birth certificate. The birther movement sought to delegitimize and humiliate the first black president of the United States, trying to make President Obama into an "other" -- something African-Americans have seen historically applied to them from when they were brought to this country in chains.
Later, Trump defended his record on race relations by saying that his golf club in Palm Beach, Fla. doesn't exclude black people or Muslims from playing there. But Clinton brought up the story of Alicia Machado, former winner of the Miss Universe beauty pageant -- Trump reportedly used to call Machado "Miss Housekeeping" because she was Latina, something Machado said was profoundly hurtful and humiliating.
I have said that racism is America's original sin and that it still lingers. We saw that racial sin again in the first presidential debate.
All of us are made in God's image -- regardless of race, gender, ability, sexuality, religion, economic success, immigrant status, or body type. These issues are moral and theological, not just political. The policies we revive should be ones that encourage human flourishing and treating each other as images of God -- not ones that will put the image of God behind bars.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, is available now.