How Trump’s concern trolling about Black crime is a trap for well-meaning progressives
In a sign of things to come for Black communities under the new administration, President Trump threatened federal intervention to address the “carnage” that is Chicago’s gun violence in a tweet last Tuesday night:
If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible “carnage” going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 25, 2017
Though what he meant by “send in the Feds” is still unclear, Trump has used Chicago’s violence in the past to justify “tough on crime” policies that cause even further harm to the very communities experiencing the brunt of this violence. One can expect his threatening fix to once again be just more anti-Black violence in a cheap disguise.
The President has been consistent in expressing faux concern about poor Black and brown neighborhoods. Again referring to it as “carnage,” Trump emphasized in his inaugural address last week the plight of “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities” as he vowed to stop “the crime, the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen so many lives and robbed our country of so much potential.”
Trump’s concern for these communities is clearly a lie, and it deserves to be pointed out as such. But in the coming weeks, those opposing him will be tempted to combat these lies with a deception of their own: by distancing themselves from the most abused and pretending it is in service of ending abuse.
When Trump expressed faux sympathy for “the Blacks” in inner-cities in the second debate with Hillary Clinton, it prompted a wave of retorts from the left truthfully proclaiming that not all Black people are poor or come from poor communities. While this is undeniable, underneath this knee-jerk reaction lies an unwillingness to reckon with the fact that those who have their issues ignored the most in conversations about Black people in America, and to the most detrimental results, are always the Black poor. When we have barely engaged these things at all to begin with, drawing attention away from them just to prove a blatant racist wrong has its consequences.
If we engage concern trolling in the age of Trump, we should know that there is a difference between saying, “all Black people are not criminals from poor backgrounds” and “all Black people are not criminals from poor backgrounds, but we need to talk about how all Black poor are criminalized and all Black criminals are treated as subhuman.” We should recognize how it’s not just Trump’s demonization of “the (criminals), the gangs, and the (drug dealers)” that is an issue, but our own inability to see ourselves in them, too.
The problems with this progressive-led distancing from the most ignored in a proclaimed effort to combat their suffering can be observed in a variety of situations. We still focus on sentencing disparities for “non-violent criminals” to argue the system is racist, as though sentencing in violent crime isn’t also racist and in need of being addressed. Because the plight of people deemed violent is less easily identifiable under this violent system, we coalesce more easily around those who can be positioned as possessing an innocence the system acknowledges.
We focus on “political prisoners” in critiques of prison as though imprisonment isn’t inherently political. “Regular” prisoners, those who make up the obscene numbers behind “mass incarceration” narratives, are less acknowledged and rarely individually fore-fronted.
We still do little to nothing to actually ensure prison abolition, because, deep down, we think some people deserve to live in cages. We flirt with police reform instead of alternatives to policing as though policing as we know it does not always harm those who have and no capital and no voice in this system.
Until we can at least discuss how the way we treat all criminals, all poor, all prisoners ultimately harms all Black people, we don’t need to create any more distance between ourselves and them. When we appeal to be recognized on the terms set by this system, we always throw away the most vulnerable. But because many of us haven’t really stopped believing we deserve better treatment, we continue to create this distance anyway.
As Adam Serwer at The Atlantic explains, Trump’s history of concern trolling about the state of “inner cities” (which he ignorantly conflates with the Black poor) and his over-exaggeration of Black violence within them follows “a long line of rationalizations for discriminatory policy wrapped in the language of concern for its targets.” These very reasonably emphasized struggles are easily weaponized in order to legitimize extreme fixes that ultimately exacerbate the violence.
If Trump is the only consideration, attention to the problems of the Black poor is all the things many have said—a use of racist stereotypes and dog whistling, and pathologizing exaggerations. But it is long past time to begin considering more than just those who explicitly oppress others in conversations about oppression.
Though Trump’s lies about the problems of poor Black communities and his solutions will not help, neither does deflecting attention from the plight of the Black poor and criminalized. Proposing to make their problems worse is the issue. Centralizing their problems in our conversations is not.
The problem isn’t Trump misidentifying where we need to focus, the problem is that he will always misuse this focus. Our job is to use it correctly.