Trump Is Not the ‘Uniter-in-Chief.’ Locking Up Black People Has Always Been Bipartisan

(INTELLIGENCER) November 16, 2018 — Politics breeds strange bedfellows and the Trump presidency is no exception. Few would have predicted in 2009 that Van Jones, who resignedthat year as an adviser to the Obama White House after his Marxist-activist past came to light, would less than a decade later become a cheerleader for a “law and order” racist. But Wednesday brought the news that Trump is supporting a bipartisan criminal-justice bill that, if made law, would reduce mandatory-minimum sentences for certain drug felonies and make retroactive the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, among other mandates. “[The First Step Act] rolls back some of the provisions of the [1994] Clinton crime law that disproportionately harmed [the] African-American community,” the president said, according to NBC News. “Give the man his due,” Jones tweeted on Thursday, “[Trump] is on his way to becoming the uniter-in-chief on an issue that has divided America for generations.”

Trump is becoming no such thing. Current-day polarization between Democrats and Republicans leads some to fetishize bipartisan cooperation. But to frame criminal-justice legislation in these terms is to misrepresent both the scope of the disaster and how it got so bad in the first place. The mid-century explosion of America’s incarcerated population was fueled by both parties. Close to a quarter-million people are now locked up in our prisons and jails, at a rate of 716 for every 100,000 residents — higher than any other country. Forty percent of these prisoners are black. Democrats and Republicans may diverge on several issues, but their zeal for shuffling black people in and out of cages has been mutual more often than it has not.

As a consequence, the bill — an earlier version of which passed in the House in May — less resolves some generation-spanning conflict than redirects energies that have often been in sync. History shows how it has played out. Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson laid the groundwork for the coming incarceration boom in the 1960s, when he married his War on Poverty to a War on Crime. Seeking to address racial inequalities that stemmed from centuries of chattel slavery and decades more of segregation and terrorism, Johnson commissioned an expansive report on how to promote order in black communities. Empowering law enforcement and integrating it with existing government agencies was central to the reports’ conclusions. “[The Crime Commission] recommended the creation of criminal justice planning agencies at all levels of government,” writeshistorian and Harvard professor Elizabeth Hinton. “It also encouraged the federal government to invest in the professionalization and modernization of police departments, both by improving the weaponry available to law enforcement and by standardizing crime-reporting methods.”