On the recording, tweeted out by political commentator and podcast host Benjamin Dixon, Bloomberg can be heard defending the infamous stop-and-frisk policy that targeted, often without cause, young black and Latino men in New York. “You can just take the description, Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops,” he said. “They are male minorities, 15 to 25. That’s true in New York. It’s true in virtually every city.”
Given the importance of the black vote for any successful Democratic presidential candidate, Bloomberg’s campaign quickly issued a statement, highlighting the apology he offered near the start of his campaign and claiming he now recognizes the harm that the policy caused on black and Latino communities.
Bloomberg has repeatedly said he should have acted “sooner” and “faster” once he realized that stop-and-frisk was ineffective. This implies Bloomberg saw the disparity in stops, the racial harassment and the police violence as all unfortunate and unforeseen byproducts of an otherwise neutral crime-control policy. Discussions in the media often support this narrative, assuming stop-and-frisk was simply a good-faith anti-crime policy gone wrong, a data-driven effort to reduce crime and keep people safe. The idea is Bloomberg couldn’t have known, and anyone tasked with the serious responsibility of keeping New Yorkers safe would at least understand his decision.
Bloomberg’s conversion narrative — the idea that he was slowly convinced by the data that stop-and-frisk was harmful — is undermined by an admission from the architects of stop-and-frisk. In their original 1982 Atlantic article, on which stop-and-frisk policing is based, political scientist James Q. Wilson and criminologist George L. Kelling argued that small crimes, or even disorderly people, should be heavily policed. If they weren’t policed, their disorder would inevitably escalate into larger criminal violations. Wilson and Kelling were open about the fact that civil rights violations and targeting of the vulnerable was a likely outcome of implementing their theory. That is, Wilson and Kelling knew black and brown folks were likely to be targeted but advocated for the policy anyway.
Don’t take my word for it, take theirs:
“How do we ensure that age or skin color or national origin or harmless mannerisms will not also become the basis for distinguishing the undesirable from the desirable? How do we ensure, in short, that the police do not become the agents of neighborhood bigotry?We can offer no wholly satisfactory answer to this important question. We are not confident that there is a satisfactory answer except to hope that by their selection, training, and supervision, the police will be inculcated with a clear sense of the outer limit of their discretionary authority.”
Yet they saw the violations of the civil rights of African Americans and Latinos as a small price to pay for the illusion of safety for white people these violations brought. And in place of constitutional protections, they offered “hope.”
Stop-and-frisk produced the exact kinds of racial inequality that theorists predicted: At the program’s peak in 2011, nearly 90 percent of those stopped were black and Latino, and nearly 90 percent were innocent, according to the ACLU of New York. Yet, until he needed something from the community he persecuted, Bloomberg remained impervious to evidence about the policy’s ineffectiveness. Scholars have long argued the policy did not work as crime control. It does, however, help socialize black and brown men into an understanding that they will be treated as second-class citizens. Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, a Brown University sociologist who studies the criminal justice system, calls the routine humiliations of acts like stop-and-frisk “racial degradation rituals” that help justify broader patterns of racial inequality.
Bloomberg, who took office in 2002 and inherited stop-and-frisk from his predecessor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, until very recently supported the massive ineffective, and arguably unconstitutional campaign of racial degradation. In 2013, a federal court order ruled that the policy violated the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful searches and the 14th Amendment’s equal protection guarantees. Rather than follow the court’s decision, Bloomberg doubled down on the policy, claiming, “I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little,” and challenged the court’s decision. The challenge was dropped when New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who made opposition to stop-and-frisk a central pillar of his campaign, took office in 2014.
Unlike the many innocent New Yorkers subjected to the humiliations of stop-and-frisk, Bloomberg faced no personal penalties. His daily commute was never interrupted by police officers calling him a “f--king mutt” and threatening to break his arm. Bloomberg doesn’t have to deal with the lasting anxiety that follows being unnecessarily harassed by the police. And Bloomberg probably never had to teach his kids that disobeying an unlawful order from a cop could get them killed. The black and brown communities that were the targets of this systematic harassment get to handle the fallout of this unlawful policy, and a belated apology.
Many in the media have reluctantly come around to the thesis, forwarded by black and brown journalists and commentators from the start, that much of President Trump’s appeal relies upon his willingness to use racist rhetoric and defend those who traffic in overt racism. The president’s repeated racial appeals and his reliance on advisers like Stephen Miller, whose policies draw on white nationalism, have been condemned because of their explicit appeals to a kind of racial rhetoric that has been stigmatized by polite society. And indeed, during his 2016 campaign, Trump (incorrectly) argued that stop-and-frisk was effective and should become national policy.
Bloomberg has positioned himself as a kind of anti-Trump candidate throughout his campaign. Yet, Bloomberg’s long-standing support for stop-and-frisk shows a fundamental continuity and commonality between Bloomberg’s and Trump’s thinking on race and crime. Until Bloomberg’s comments were leaked, he could at least claim the rhetorical high ground, avoiding Trump’s signature openly racist bluster.
Now, at least on stop-and-frisk, it appears the two candidates only offer a difference of degree, not kind.