It's a tough contest, but Donald Trump just spread his most poisonous lie yet in his race to become the führer of the 21st century. It's a deep-held myth that festers right at the root of America's most insidious, divisive challenge: the fear of black crime.
On Nov. 22, Trump tweeted a graphic claiming to break down murders by who committed them: black, white, police. One number stuck out in the graphic listing its "source" as "Crime Statistics Bureau: San Francisco": "Whites Killed By Blacks: 81%." The graphic also shows a masked, muscular young black man pointing a gun.
Trump wants his angry, scared followers to believe that black people are hunting down and killing white people in droves. Of course, the graphic is no more accurate than a Klan flyer: FBI data show that, in 2014, white people committed 82 percent of white homicides, consistent with recent decades.
Trump's tweet, still in his timeline with no correction, is a sick scam. The graphic was first tweeted by an account using a neo-Nazi symbol; the Crime Statistics Bureau doesn't exist. The vast majority of people are killed by someone of their own ethnicity. America has a crime problem, period. It always has.
This is an old trick, but not usually played as blatantly. The Republican Party has two-stepped with fear-of-black-crime rhetoric for white votes since President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and the GOP's new southern strategy of playing to white bigotry became a thing. Remember George Bush I's "Willie Horton" ad that scared white voters into thinking that Democrat Michael Dukakis wanted to free black men who were repeatedly raping white women?
Bush's campaign manager was the now-deceased Lee Atwater, who honed the strategy of scaring up the bigot votes with fearful rhetoric. He explained in a 1981 interview how racist campaigning had to be more subtle by then. "You start out in 1954 by saying, 'N–gger, n–gger, n–gger.' By 1968 you can't say 'n–gger'—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now (that) you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is (that) blacks get hurt worse than whites," Atwater said on tape.
Atwater's deputy was a young Haley Barbour, who rode the strategy to the top of the Republican National Committee and, later, used a wink-wink quip comparing Head Start with whorehouses to become governor of Mississippi. A later RNC chairman, Ken Mehlman, publicly apologized in 2005 for the GOP's strategic use of racial polarization, but Barbour never has.
Meantime, the continual barrage of race-coded messages—see the anti-Initiative 42 TV ad about that scary Jackson judge, which one GOP candidate slipped and admitted was "black"—has desensitized many Americans to the strategy. So we graduate down to Trump, who says Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals, tweets lies about black-on-white crime, and wants to register all Muslims in America, a la Hitler.
Beyond a troll for racist votes, this hideous ploy is designed to get white folks to keep doing what many already do: Live and school kids separately; support drug-war policies that fill prisons disproportionately with people of color; accept massive arrests for minor crimes in certain neighborhoods; blame unarmed black victims for harsher policing; fight to keep tax dollars from helping end poverty that segregation created; and reject any effort at ensuring that majority-black schools have adequate funding because those people should figure it out their own damn selves. Root causes don't matter, we're told.
Black-crime rhetoric is as low as those guys can pander, with our history of white supremacy and the violence it takes to sustain it, from slave torture and rape, to public lynchings, to support of KKK efforts to terrorize black people trying to claim rights. Blaming the people most victimized by historic crime is yet another way to dehumanize: They're (supposedly) the most criminal now so they deserve the blame. Really?
America's long, often-legal reign of terror has certainly had residual effects of creating conditions, especially poverty, proven to breed more crime. It's remarkable that more Americans don't want to yank out the poisonous roots of today's crime, if for no other reason than to make all of us safer. Sadly, it seems more important to continue the sickness that caused it in the first place.
Racism in America has always relied on white people being afraid that black people are going to hurt us. We're taught that it's not because of what whites have done to them, or still do—see videos of LaQuon McDonald's murder in Chicago, Walter Scott in South Carolina or the black kids at the Texas pool—it's because they're the violent ones. The proof is on The Donald's Twitter feed.
Or, read a book. Over the last century, one after another pseudo-intellectual academic has been rewarded handsomely for trotting out "science" that "proves" people of color are intellectually inferior—or even more "mesomorphic"—thus born to be criminals. Much of the pablum appeared in smart-sounding books the Citizens Council distributed in our state to justify segregation.
It didn't stop there. Two Harvard professors supported by conservative think tanks, Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, wrote a best-selling 1994 book, "The Bell Curve," arguing that many black people are so "cognitively challenged" that investing in crime prevention, public education and poverty reduction wouldn't do any good; the answer is locking away stupid, violent people—often people of color with low IQs.
Their premise, developed with a cadre of other respected scientific racists, was roundly debunked because they ignored evidence of any conclusion other than mass incarceration and defunding social services. Still, their beliefs led to a stunning amount of criminal policy in recent decades, not to mention Trump's style of racist rhetoric.
The first Bush administration, for instance, appointed drug czar William Bennett, who was cozy with pseudo-academics predicting a multiplying wave of unstoppable young, black "super-predators" terrorizing the nation by 2000. They were flat wrong: Crime has steadily dropped since the 1990s, including among young black men, even as these ideas fueled harsher juvenile-justice policies that actually increase recidivism.
They also pushed blaming "the black family." I like to ask: "So why do you believe the black family doesn't do enough?" Silence is the answer because "well, they're black" isn't something many whites, at least pre-Fuehrer Trump, are still willing to say publicly.
Repeating the lie that "the black family" is accepting of crime, of course, is as racist as saying that black people are more criminal by nature, or that white supremacy has nothing to with today's crime.
Our job is to challenge these cycles of nonsense; none of us win if we're stuck in them. Except, maybe, a hateful, dishonest reality-show star named Donald Trump.