Which of these two statements about policing and racism come from a Democratic politician and which from a Republican?
“The law too often feels like it’s being applied in a discriminatory fashion . . . communities of color aren’t just making these problems up . . . these are real issues. And we have to lift them up and not deny them or try to tamp them down.”
“So I also know that in this country, there is a significant number, particularly of young African-American males, who feel as if they’re treated differently than the rest of society. And here’s the bottom line, whether you agree with them or not, I happen to have seen this happen.”
Speaker one is President Obama, addressing the nation in November 2014 after a grand jury declined to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown. Speaker two is senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio during the town hall in South Carolina on Wednesday night. An audience member had asked Rubio how he would “address the issue of racism,” as manifested in the massacre at a predominantly black Charleston church in June 2015. Rubio answered by turning his attention to “law enforcement and police departments.” He began, as Obama often does, with a disclaimer that the “overwhelming majority of the men and women who serve us in law enforcement are incredible people, who, every single day, put their lives potentially on the line for our safety and for our security.” He then invoked an acquaintance—a “police officer and a young African-American male”—who has told Rubio that he has been pulled over “seven, eight times in the last four years and never gets a ticket,” according to the senator. “What is he supposed to think?” Rubio asked twice.
Rubio brought up this same acquaintance in an August interview on Fox News’ Kelly Files, but with different details: “I have one friend in particular who’s been stopped in the last 18 months eight to nine different times. Never got a ticket for being stopped — just stopped.” In his first version, Rubio left out the fact that the friend was a police officer, though that affiliation would seem salient. On Wednesday night, Rubio claimed that the friend “gets pulled over for no reason, never gets a ticket, no one has any explanation for why he’s being pulled over.”
Pulled over eight times and never once did an officer say why? The odds of such an uninterrupted string of unprofessional stops are low. The dashcam videos of allegedly racist traffic stops that have circulated recently all show officers behaving—initially at least—by the book. Now perhaps Rubio’s acquaintance has a 100 percent accurate view of his situation. But it’s also the case that officers say that when they pull over black drivers for traffic offenses, often the first thing they hear is “You only stopped me because I’m black”—even though, say, the driver was going 68 miles per hour in a 45-mph zone. The fact that Rubio’s acquaintance may be a police officer is no guarantee against racial misperception. Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams, formerly a sergeant with the New York Police Department, specialized in lodging phony racial complaints against the department and the NYPD commissioner. And if Rubio’s friend was never given a ticket, assuming that he was in fact stopped eight times over 18 months (or four years), perhaps the reason was that the officer wanted to cut him a break precisely because he was black.
Though researchers have shied away from the explosive topic of racial driving patterns, the few studies that exist suggest that blacks speed more and use seatbelts less often than drivers of other races. It’s just possible that Rubio’s friend has a heavy foot on the accelerator.
On Wednesday night, Rubio reiterated the claim that blacks “are being treated differently than everyone else” before taking his response in a more productive direction. He spoke about the academic underperformance of black and Hispanic children “growing up in broken homes and dangerous neighborhoods,” as if to suggest, however implicitly, that if blacks have more interactions with law enforcement, the reason may be behavioral, rather than police racism. Unfortunately, however, he shied away from calling for the reconstitution of the black family as the best solution to inner-city disparities, instead invoking a much-touted Harlem social-service program—a reflex that also recalls Obama’s preference for programs over fathers.
Rubio’s town hall performance was at least less deferential to the Black Lives Matter movement than his August Fox News interview. During that earlier interview, widely celebrated on the left, he claimed that the issue of racial disparities in the criminal justice system was a “legitimate” one. He also invoked the left-wing chestnut that black males in some communities “have a much higher chance of interacting with criminal justice than higher education”—as if that chance reflected anything other than criminal behavior, especially given the desperate crusade on the part of every college admissions officer in the country to admit as many remotely qualified black students as possible. But if Rubio slightly toned down the Black Lives Matter echoes on Wednesday, it is nevertheless not helpful to the cause of honesty regarding policing and race when a leading Republican candidate for the presidency fails to dispel the myth that we have a policing problem—rather than a crime problem—in the United States.
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