The New York Times continues its ahistorical “tough-on-crime” coverage as Trump and DeSantis attempt to outdo each other with racist dog whistles

At the Times, candidates implicitly demonizing Black people is reduced to a question of electability

A new story in The New York Times purporting to examine the so-called tough-on-crime postures embraced by former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ignores the racist history of that phrase and its accompanying policies. It is at least the second time the Times has used the expression “tough-on-crime” in its ongoing coverage of the Republican presidential primary without including historical context of how the phrase has been used to advance anti-Black racist policies and practices.

The Times headline reads: “DeSantis Burnishes Tough-on-Crime Image to Run in ’24 and Take On Trump.” The story’s lead art is an image of a smiling DeSantis flanked by Florida’s attorney general, also smiling, standing at a lectern sporting a “Law & Order” placard. The subhead informs readers that DeSantis is planning to challenge Trump on crime “from the right.”

DeSantis Burnishes Tough-on-Crime Image to Run in ’24 and Take On Trump

Citation From the New York Times' website, published March 29, 2023

The piece doesn’t exactly spell out what “from the right” means, though it does allude to measures like longer prison sentences for people arrested for selling illicit drugs. The authors also touch on the racial implications of previous sentencing reform, but they never draw a direct line between the policies DeSantis and Trump support and their logical consequence: Put simply, their proposals would result in more poor people, especially poor Black people, being locked in cages for longer periods.

That, inevitably, is the result of “tough-on-crime” policies. That’s what the phrase has always meant, and it’s what it means now. Instead of stating that plainly for readers, the Times dances around the subject, never using the term “race” at all, and discussing proposals to cage people, mostly Black people, entirely through the lens of electoral strategy.

Here’s how the story begins:

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has spent months shoring up a tough-on-crime image as he weighs a run for the White House, calling for stronger penalties against drug traffickers and using $5,000 bonuses to bolster law-enforcement recruitment to his state.

Now, Mr. DeSantis and his allies plan to use that image to draw a contrast with the Republican front-runner in the 2024 race, former President Donald J. Trump.

Mr. DeSantis and his backers see the signature criminal-justice law enacted by Mr. Trump in 2018 as an area of weakness with his base, and Mr. DeSantis has indicated that he would highlight it when the two men tussle for the Republican nomination, according to three people with knowledge of Mr. DeSantis’s thinking. That law, known as the First Step Act, reduced the sentences for thousands of prisoners.

It’s worth noting that the paper here completely adopts DeSantis’ framing, an emerging pattern in the Times’ Republican primary coverage. (DeSantis hasn’t yet officially announced as a candidate, but he is widely expected to in the near future.)

These opening paragraphs contain unambiguous value judgments about promising to increase incarceration rates, which all available evidence suggests disproportionately affect Black people. The terms associated with those ideas have positive connotations of power, strength, and fortitude — “tough-on-crime image,” “stronger penalties,” “bolster law-enforcement recruitment.” 

Several paragraphs down, readers are told that DeSantis has “privately” made plans to “hit Mr. Trump as soft on crime,” in the words of the Times.

The Times then continues to use DeSantis’ preferred framing, linking immigration to crime.

​​Public safety was an issue in Mr. DeSantis’s 2022 campaign, as it was for a number of Republicans. A person familiar with Mr. DeSantis’s thinking, who was granted anonymity because the person was not allowed to discuss private deliberations, said the governor viewed public safety as encompassing other policy matters, such as immigration.

This paragraph serves no purpose other than to denigrate immigrants by suggesting they are a threat to public safety under the paper-thin guise of providing insight into DeSantis’ campaign. As has been pointed out ad nauseam — though not in this story, crucially — undocumented immigrants are far less likely than U.S.-born people to be arrested for violent crimes. Beyond that, granting this source anonymity is almost certainly a violation of the Times’ policy, which requires that the information be “newsworthy and credible,” and that the paper is “not able to report [it] any other way.” Whether the information in that paragraph is newsworthy is debatable, at best, but it’s laughable that the Times couldn’t find another way to report on DeSantis’ demonization of immigrants. It is one of the most prominent features of his governorship.    

One of the most blatant historical absences in the piece comes in paragraph 21, which reads:

On Wednesday, Pedro L. Gonzalez, a conservative with a large online following who often attacks Mr. Trump from the right and defends Mr. DeSantis, tweeted that the man charged with assaulting a U.S. Senate staff member over the weekend was “released from prison thanks to Trump’s First Step Act” and linked to a Fox News story about the case.

The suspect in the assault appears to be Black, making Gonzales’ messaging an almost exact replay of the “Willie Horton ad,” which came to define racist dog whistle politics. The campaign spot was created by Larry McCarthy, a disciple of Fox News CEO and Chairman Roger Ailes, and painted Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis as ultimately responsible for a rape and home invasion Horton committed during a “weekend pass” from prison under a program authorized by the then-governor. It is virtually inconceivable that the Times’ reporters and editors failed to notice the similarities, given that the attack ad is perhaps the most famous political messaging in the last half century. Yet even this glaring historical parallel went unmentioned. (Horton maintains his innocence.)

The rest of the Times story continues in a similar vein, primarily asking whether Trump’s modest sentencing reform could be a liability that DeSantis could exploit. Again, the method through which DeSantis would exploit that “vulnerability,” in the Times’ phrasing, is through thinly veiled racist messaging — which the Times’ coverage elides.

Also left unexamined in the piece is Florida’s racist record on crime and incarceration, which is long and relatively well-documented. It’s worth adding the caveat that crime statistics are notoriously difficult to obtain in general, and even more so in Florida than other states. Only 0.3 percent of Florida law enforcement agencies reported crime data to the FBI in 2021, the lowest in the nation that year, according to Axios.  

When it comes to incarceration, and the racist outcomes derived from “tough-on-crime” policies, Florida also fares poorly. The state had disproportionately locked up Black people prior to DeSantis’ election in 2018, and all available evidence suggests it continues to do so under his leadership.

“The U.S. Census Bureau states that 17% of Florida citizens are Black, while the Florida Department of Corrections reports that 47% of men and women in state prisons are Black,” the ACLU reported in June of 2020. “The numbers don’t lie: racism and discrimination are prevalent in Florida’s criminal justice system and the disparities in Florida are greater than those across the nation.”

The Vera Institute of Justice provides additional historical context for Florida’s racist incarceration regime. “Since 1978, the Black incarceration rate has increased 51 percent,” the institute wrote in a fact sheet about Florida’s prisons and jails. “In 2017, Black people were incarcerated at 3.6 times the rate of white people.”

The Prison Policy Initiative adds even more granular data. The United States has a larger prison population per capita than any other country on Earth by a wide margin, and Florida outpaces the U.S. average: 795 people per 100,000 versus 664 nationally. Using 2010 Census data, PPI concludes that Black people are overrepresented in Florida prisons and jails, while white people are underrepresented.

While acknowledging the above caveat that crime data is difficult to assess, multiple studies show that, for all of Florida's racist approach to incarceration, the state continues to have high crime rates. New York has a lower incarceration rate, for example, but the two states had relatively similar rates of violent crime as of 2019, according to a study from Stanford. That study also found that Florida's homicide rate is 44 percent higher than New York's. Compared internationally, Florida has high rates of both violent crime and incarceration — as is true of virtually every state in the United States — suggesting the country's approach to what we label as crime is ineffective in its stated goal of improving public safety but extremely effective at controlling large elements of the population through imprisonment.  

What gets labeled as crime is also a political choice. It is not an accident that DeSantis' primary feud with Disney revolves around so-called culture war issues, rather than with the corporation's alleged pattern of wage theft — certainly a crime, but not one that registers under the racist implications of “tough-on-crime” rhetoric.

These data points are not difficult to find, but they are necessary context to understand the desired, inevitable impacts of “tough-on-crime” policies. Yet they are completely absent from the Times’ coverage, not only in this story but also in other recent Times coverage of DeSantis and Trump. 

DeSantis and Trump are trying to outdo each other in barely coded racist messages under the rubric of “tough-on-crime” policies, just like they are trying to outdo each other in anti-trans bigotry. Times readers deserve to hear that obvious truth stated clearly.