It should come as no surprise that in America language precedes policy. Prior to many policy changes, there is a campaign of persuasion using vivid words and images that portray what will happen if a given law or loophole isn’t enacted or changed. Many people justify their position through words that inspire hope, dread, or fear.
This should come as no surprise as language was used to justify slavery by painting a picture of persons of African descent as subhuman. How else could the country be convinced that the mass murder, torture, psychological and spiritual abuse of generations of Black people was justifiable other than by altering the public’s perception of them?
The medical profession itself used racist belief systems to justify immoral experiments on Black people such as the Tuskegee experiment. Even today, when Black people enter medical spaces, many doctors have confessed to harboring some level of bias toward them, and white medical trainees have admitted to believing racist troupes such as Black people have thicker skin, meaning they are less in need of pain management.
In the 1980s, images of the Black “welfare queen” and the infamous Willie Horton political ad tapped into tropes about Black laziness and criminality which helped pave the way for predictions of crime waves carried out by young, Black superpredators. Lawmakers across the country amplified these ideas and introduced zero-tolerance policies and tough-on-crime laws that fueled mass incarceration and devastated a generation of Black families.
The “superpredator” language and policy agenda was not specific to White or Republican lawmakers. The 1994 Crime Bill which helped to cement the modern reliance on policing and incarceration was signed by a Democratic president and, as James Forman reminds us in his Pulitzer-winning book, “Locking Up Our Own,” Black politicians often helped lead the charge. Black mayors, clergy, and community leaders desperately wanted an end to the drugs and violence in their cities and many saw ramped up law enforcement as a natural remedy (not realizing its full long-term impact). At the same time, most did not simply ask for enforcement, but pushed for major investments in jobs, housing, education, and healthcare. What they got was stop-and-frisk, aggressive sentencing, and a new cohort of district attorneys who made their political fortunes by touting near-perfect conviction rates.
Decades later, we have learned important lessons about how to reduce violence and the expansion of community-based violence intervention programs in cities all over the country has demonstrated impressive results. For example, New York’s dramatic decrease in shootings over the last 15 years has been attributed to an expansion of community-based intervention strategies and the NYC Crisis Management System. The key principle that undergirds these models is that, even in the cities that suffer from high rates of gun violence, less than 1% of the population is responsible for the majority of shootings. Effective community-based programs focus on the tiny percentage of individuals at highest risk to shoot or be shot and work to prevent shootings from happening in the first place.
The most effective efforts coordinate a comprehensive community-based strategy through a citywide infrastructure, which links to public health, economic development, public safety and community-based agencies. Key evidence-based violence strategies include various forms of street outreach and case management, hospital-based intervention, trauma-informed therapy, and a range of wraparound services that help individuals escape cycles of violence in their lives. All those approaches, when adequately resourced and implemented with fidelity, have proven to significantly reduce rates of both fatal and nonfatal gun violence – typically between 30% and 60%.
Notably, these approaches primarily view violence as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice one. Again, language and framing matter. Take a moment to imagine the crack epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s: be honest and describe the race of people you see in your mind. Now take a moment to imagine the opioid epidemic of the past decade. What color are the faces you are imagining?
In the minds of the general public, because the scourge of crack cocaine has traditionally been seen as a Black problem, it has been treated as a criminal justice issue; meanwhile, the opioid epidemic has been seen as a largely White problem and treated as a public health issue. Black people get jail while White people get treatment.
What we’re asking for here is simply that Blacks and Latinos be seen as fully human and that the most effective and humane remedies be used for helping to preserve our lives.
Given the power of language to shape policy, many of us who work every day to bring peace to our communities are concerned about the resurgence of “tough on crime” rhetoric from local, state, and federal politicians. We are not talking here about the insurrectionist wing of the Republican Party (who claim to “back the blue” while failing to investigate the invasion of the U.S. Capitol or honor the police who defended them against it), but about the Democrats and commonsense Republicans who actually care about Black and Brown lives.
For instance, former police officer, Brooklyn Borough president and mayoral candidate Eric Adams has called for a return of plainclothes, anti-crime officers, a controversial program that some say led to racial profiling and criminalization of people of color. Other candidates and mayors may similarly be considering how to respond to crime in their communities.
For context, we should remember that the COVID pandemic fueled a sharp rise in gun violence in 2020 and the White House provided guidance that $350 billion in American Rescue Plan could be used by cities, counties, and states to combat this epidemic. While the guidance explicitly names “evidence-based community violence intervention programs” as an appropriate use of funds, the White House has also emphasized it can be used for expanding law enforcement. The large majority of cities seem to be opting for the latter.
Again, as we saw in the 1990s, even Democratic mayors, county administrators, and governors of color are doubling down on policing and incarceration. Part of the reason for this is that the vast majority of lawmakers do not live in the neighborhoods being disproportionately affected by gun violence. For this reason, they tend to focus on remedies that they believe will address the middle-class mass shootings in suburban schools, stores, and movie theaters (places where they can imagine themselves and their own families) rather than be swayed by the voices of poor Black and Brown residents who lack the political clout to demand the types of policies and investments that could save their lives.
What these politicians should understand, however, is that community-based violence intervention is extremely popular among the public as a policy solution when it is offered. According to a May 2021 poll conducted by Lake Research Partners, voters strongly support the federal government providing funds for state and local jurisdictions to implement community-based intervention services aimed at reducing gun violence. Fully 68% support this proposal compared to 24% who oppose it and just 8% who are undecided. In fact, support for funding community-based intervention services transcends all the demographic and attitudinal divides typically seen in survey data, including crossing partisan, racial, ethnic and regional lines. More than 8 in 10 Democrats (85% support to 10% oppose) support this approach, as does a majority of Republicans (56% to 39%).
The recent uptick in gun violence provides politicians a new opportunity to learn from the past. They can either invest in humane solutions that work or they can default to the destructive and ineffective “tough on crime” approaches that perpetuate cycles of community and police violence in our most vulnerable neighborhoods.