The New York Times ignores racist history of “tough on crime” rhetoric in latest DeSantis coverage

The Times is pitching DeSantis as the “law-and-order candidate,” but fails to inform its readers about how that phrase and accompanying policies created mass incarceration

In a fawning Presidents Day article previewing the potential 2024 race, The New York Times described Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as the “law-and-order candidate” without explaining or contextualizing the racist history of that phrase and its use in political rhetoric. In adopting a race-blind approach, the Times is falling into exactly the type of trap that scholars of race and racism in the United States – who DeSantis has repeatedly attacked – have warned against.  

DeSantis, who has not yet announced a presidential campaign for 2024, has recently escalated his anti-Black, anti-LGBT policies and rhetoric, including appointing anti-civil rights activist Christopher Rufo to the board of trustees at New College of Florida. At the same time, the Republican governor has avoided mainstream coverage and quietly built an alternate, friendly media ecosystem exemplified by conservative sites such as The Florida Standard. For its part, the Times has sanitized DeSantis’ actions by analyzing them through the lens of electoral strategy rather than as acts of discrimination and oppression.

The Times’ favorable coverage of DeSantis comes amid the paper’s larger, institutional failures in its coverage of transgender people and the unrelenting attacks against their communities from reactionary politicians, right-wing media figures, and fascist street gangs. 

The February 20 article’s problems begin with its headline: “DeSantis Visits 3 States on Tour Meant to Show He Is Tough on Crime.” Already, the Times’ framing mirrors DeSantis’ own and could just as easily be the subject line of a press release from the governor’s communications shop. The subheading doesn’t undercut or contextualize the headline either: “In stops in New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois, the Florida governor appeared to be positioning himself as the law-and-order candidate in a G.O.P. presidential race he has yet to enter.”

DeSantis Visits 3 States on Tour Meant to Show He Is Tough on Crime

Citation From the New York Times, published February 20, 2023

A casual Times reader would have no idea from this story, but the phrases “tough on crime” and “law-and-order candidate” both have long, well-documented histories as barely disguised racist dog whistles in American politics. 

The rise of the civil rights movement in the decades after World War II fueled a racist backlash, but one that frequently sought to masquerade as facially race-neutral at a time when Black people in the United States began organizing in larger numbers demanding political and economic equality. Instead of campaigning on overt racism, politicians began linking Black people with civil unrest, riots, and crime more broadly.

By 1964, Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater realized he could stoke fears of perceived Black criminality using nominally colorblind language about “enforcing law and order” against “the license of the mob and of the jungle.”

His audience knew what he meant. “A lot of the rhetoric Goldwater would use wasn’t invested in racism, but it resonated with a conservative, Southern, white ear,” Dr. Keith Gaddie, chair of the political science department at the University of Oklahoma, told The Christian Science Monitor in 2020. “When he would say ‘law and order,’ that was interpreted in some Southern precincts as meaning, ‘I’ll keep Black people in line.’”

After Goldwater’s defeat, Republican President Richard Nixon took up the mantle of “tough on crime” in his pledge to wage a “war on drugs,” itself conceived as an overt attack on Black people by associating them with public disorder. In 1986, then-President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which instituted harsh mandatory minimum guidelines for drug sentencing, including discrepancies between crack and powder cocaine. The total prison population doubled over the course of Reagan’s time in office, hitting Black communities the hardest. (Democrats were often complicit or enthusiastic partners in these efforts; then-Sen. Joe Biden was an early advocate for policies that helped create mass incarceration in the United States.)

In short, to talk about “tough on crime” or “law and order” policies in the United States is to talk about race and racism. DeSantis and his audience knows this, just as Goldwater and his audience did. But this admittedly truncated history is completely absent from the Times’ coverage of DeSantis, which takes his rhetoric at face value. It’s as though these talking points appeared from nowhere rather than signaling the continuation of more than half a century of reactionary attempts to maintain a violently racialized hierarchy that places whiteness at the top.

Here’s how the Times’ story begins:

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a presumed but unannounced candidate for the presidency, barnstormed through three Democratic metropolises on Monday, appealing to embattled police officers and crime-concerned citizens with an address pledging more support for law enforcement and vowing to battle liberal-minded criminal justice reforms. 

Here, again, the Times immediately adopts reactionary framing. The reference to “embattled police officers” not-so-subtly endorses and reinforces the myth that there is a so-called war on cops. Those officers are paired with “crime-concerned citizens” as part of the opposition to “liberal-minded criminal justice reforms,” signaling to readers that efforts to rein in police power aren’t actually concerned with public safety. This narrative also echoes bogus claims that the United States is in the midst of a crime epidemic, a panic that was effectively stoked by right-wing media – with help from mainstream outlets including the Times – in the run-up to the 2022 midterms.   

The article continues:

The Presidents Day stops in New York and the suburbs of Philadelphia and Chicago were meant to tweak Democratic politicians who run those cities with denunciations of “woke” prosecutors and anti-police talk. Part Florida boosterism, part campaign stump speech, the three stops were also supposed to establish the Florida governor’s appeal with the kind of Republican-leaning suburban voters who fled President Donald J. Trump and must be pulled back for the G.O.P. to recapture the White House next year.

The Times’ grammar is a bit unclear in the first sentence, but the idea that the Democratic mayors of large cities engage in “anti-police talk” is absurd. New York City Mayor Eric Adams is a former cop and also ran against the left in a “tough on crime”-style campaign. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has spent her career covering for cops. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has funded the city’s police budget at record levels despite dismal homicide clearance rates.

This paragraph also introduces another colorblind archetype, “Republican-leaning suburban voters,” which virtually always functions as a coded way to describe affluent white families. The Times links this identity with the “crime-concerned citizens” from the first paragraph, implicitly centering white property-owners as the only class concerned with public safety. DeSantis’ appeals to this archetypical voter are presented solely in electoral terms, without any recognition of the role that racism plays in stoking this type of panic.

“We’re grateful to be here to deliver a very important message, a message about safe communities, the rule of law and about standing by the people that wear the uniform and put themselves at risk to protect us,” he told an audience of law enforcement officers at an Elmhurst, Ill., Knights of Columbus hall, outside Chicago, a city that has been demonized as lawless and ungovernable since Donald J. Trump’s 2016 campaign.

It is not a coincidence that DeSantis delivered his remarks in Chicago to the Fraternal Order of Police. The Times notes the FOP is a “conservative police officers’ union,” but this understates the case. Police unions, including the FOP, are swamps of far-right organizing and oppose even the most modest attempts at liberal reform and accountability.  

The rest of the piece includes criticism of DeSantis from Adams and Lightfoot and inconclusive data about recent crime rates. The Times gives the final word to Martin Greenberg, a SWAT cop in the Chicago suburbs who “said he was ‘inspired’ by Mr. DeSantis’s speech,” and his wife, who claimed the couple “won’t go downtown anymore.” 

The echoes of the crime panic that drove white reactionary politics in the 1960s onward are clear in DeSantis’ “law-and-order” message. The Times’ readers would be better served by an article that includes that crucial context.