Opinion | ‘Law and Order’ previously worked for the GOP. This crime boom could be different.
New York staggered from one horrific crime after another, like the murder of Charles Gallagher, a physics professor at Columbia University, who was found dead in Central Park. Time Magazine noted that Gallagher’s murder was a reminder that the park was “a sunny refuge for birds and bird watchers like Charles Gallagher during the day, [has] was for a long time a jungle-like hiding place for muggers, robbers and perverts after dark. ”Even more terrifying was the murder of Bertha Haas, a 68-year-old Bronx widow who was beaten, raped and strangled in her own home.
Such tragedies had a cumulative effect. A 1966 poll found that nearly half of all white Brooklyn residents felt unsafe walking outside after dark; 40 percent said they sometimes stayed home or waived social obligations because it was “too unsafe” to go outside; 74 percent were “rather concerned” or “very concerned” that their homes might be broken into.
There was a clear racist overlay in public perception. About one in five white New Yorkers admitted that they would feel “personally concerned” if a black man crossed the street and walked up to them.
This story was repeated across the country. As early as 1964, Alabama Governor George Wallace, an avowed segregationist and white racist who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, stunned political observers when he produced a large number of numbers in the Wisconsin primaries. Though incumbent President Lyndon Johnson won the state with ease, Wallace’s appeal in the urban and suburban neighborhoods of the white ethnic group was unmistakable. “If you get a hit on the head in the street in a city today,” he warned rally goers, “the man who hit you in the head is out of jail before you get to the hospital.” “Someone out here Philadelphia? ”Asked Wallace on another occasion. “You know, they can’t even host night football games anymore because of the difficulties between races. And that is the city of brotherly love! “
Alabama Governor George C. Wallace speaks in front of a Confederate flag AP photo in 1964
At a rally in Milwaukee in front of 700 working class voters – most of them Serb, Polish, Czechoslovak, and Hungarian – Master of Ceremonies Brono Gruber, a military veteran and neighborhood bar owner, made local crime targeted specifically at blacks: “I live on Walnut Street and tonight, three weeks ago, a friend of mine was attacked by three of your compatriots, or whatever you want to call them … They beat up old ladies of 83, rape our women. They attack people. They won’t work. You’re on discharge. How long can we tolerate this? Did I go to Guadalcanal to come back to something like that !? “”
Wallace was able to combine neighborhood integration concerns and crime because they were one and the same in the minds of many white voters. LBJ’s Wisconsin agent for the vote, Governor John Reynolds, had earned scorn in working-class neighborhoods for his successful advocacy of a state open housing law that cracked down on segregated rents and restrictive home sales.
White backlash about crime and race wasn’t entirely separate from reality. Racially restrictive housing laws – enforced through a complex web of regulations enacted by federal mortgage lenders – have banned black Americans into the worst, cramped (but, paradoxically, most overpriced) housing stock. The lack of basic public services such as reliable garbage collection, building inspection and quality schools in these neighborhoods turned residents into second class citizens.
Discrimination has created a vicious circle. With discriminatory rental and mortgage practices severely limiting their housing options, black residents had little recourse when landlords consolidated and divided their properties, resulting in a more cramped and rundown housing stock. Boarded up, abandoned buildings seemed to line every block, as landlords often found it more beneficial to pack more tenants into one property than to pay property taxes and maintenance for two. Indeed, such decline attracted a disproportionate number of drug dealers, vagabonds, prostitutes and vandals. In short, when residents of white ethnic enclaves in Gary, Indiana or Milwaukee, Wisconsin pointed with fear at the surrounding black neighborhoods, they reacted from real experience.
In Canarsie, a working-class enclave in Brooklyn inhabited mostly by second-generation Italian and Jewish families, residents were spellbound by the crime and violence that seemed to be burning a hole in adjacent neighborhoods. “The neighborhood was totally destroyed when the blacks moved in,” one man told a sociologist. “Buildings started to burn and we had more crime.”
The problem, of course, was that many white working-class voters could not separate race and crime. As neighborhood integration and political wars over school bus traffic continued to spark white backlash, crime became a convenient shortcut for racial fear that Republican politicians used to divide and conquer the electorate.
If you fast forward to the 2020s You see a completely different landscape. Race remains an important part of our politics, but in a country significantly more diverse than 50 years ago, where we are re-examining every facet of our national history and our civic framework, cultural wars over “critical racial theory” can be more resonant placeholders for Race than for crime.
More specifically, tremendous demographic changes over the past 50 years have resorted the American population. Today’s swing voters are affluent suburbanites, not working-class residents of transitional neighborhoods. The places where violent crime is increasing – cities namely – are deep blue and are unlikely to change. The places where violent crime is not on the rise – namely suburbs – are the new political battlefield.
Polls consistently show that while the majority of Americans believe crime is a very, or even the most serious, problem in the country (59 percent in a recent Washington Post / ABC poll), very few believe it is a problem is where they are actually living (only 17 percent). In a highly isolated media environment, it is easy to see how conservative viewers of Fox News could be led to believe that Joe Biden’s administration led to “American massacre.”
Police officers patrol the New York subway in May 2020. | Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / Getty Images
But voters aren’t as dispersed as they were in 1970. It’s the educated suburbs that are up for grabs now, and voters there just don’t face violent crime on a daily basis like working-class Democrats in Brooklyn or Milwaukee half a century ago. If they don’t see crime as a threat to them personally, will that motivate their decisions in November 2022? The historical records suggest that this is not the case.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that some of the urban voters hit by today’s rise in crime may not be winning. Studies show that low-income non-white families are much more exposed to violent crime and are more likely to perceive it as an imminent threat. Republicans have advanced on Latino voters, and in recent months it has become clear that the racial justice awakening over the past year has obscured a more complicated reality about the black electorate that is diverse – not a monolith – but generally concerned about crime and the Greet a greater police presence on the streets if this presence protects their safety.
In theory, working class blacks and Latino Americans, especially more conservative men, could prove today’s anti-crime-versus-crime voters. But the GOP seems ill-equipped to take advantage of this opportunity. The party’s open acceptance of white nationalism is likely to put a limit to this support, and its association with the January 6 insurrection makes it a poor, or at least compromised, messenger; Democrats could easily label Republicans as the real suppliers of violence in American society.
Indeed, polls show that voters are equally divided over which party they think is best equipped to tackle crime – barely the clear advantage Republicans enjoyed 50 years ago. While it was easy and intuitive to blame Democratic mayors and governors – not to mention Lyndon Johnson – for the dissolution of the nation in the 1970s, it’s not at all clear that today’s voters are Democrats for an increase in violent crime will be punished. People could also decide that the crime surge was an unfortunate aftershock of the pandemic, especially if the rate subsides in the coming months.
The 2022 election cycle is still a long way off, and things are changing rapidly in politics. However, judging from history and surveys, crime cannot deliver the winning message the GOP is looking for. Yesterday’s swing voters are not today’s swing voters, and law and order in 2021 will not mean the same thing as it did in 1971.