Thirty years ago this month, Donald Trump took out full-page ads in New York newspapers to call for the death penalty after five black teens were accused of raping and beating a woman in Central Park. The boys were exonerated 13 years later. Trump never apologized for contributing to the racially-charged hysteria over the crime. He called New York City’s multimillion-dollar settlement for the wrongful convictions “a disgrace” and told an interviewer that “maybe hate is what we need” in criminal justice.
On Monday, the Tweeter-in-Chief criticized Joe Biden for his role in the Clinton-era crime bill that, among other things, increased prison time for federal drug offenders.
“Super Predator was the term associated with the 1994 Crime Bill that Sleepy Joe Biden was so heavily involved in passing,” Trump tweeted. “That was a dark period in American History, but has Sleepy Joe apologized? No!”
Of course, had the term “Superpredator” been available in 1989, at the time of the arrests of the Central Park Five, Trump would have gladly used it.
In fact, it was Hillary Clinton who made the most infamous use of a word frequently associated with black juveniles who commit violent crimes. “They're not just gangs of kids anymore,” Clinton said in 1996. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called Superpredators. No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we must bring them to heel.”
Trump’s call for the execution of innocent black boys, Clinton’s invoking the “superpredator” — those are drippings from the same stew, the historically commonplace practice of politicians exploiting the public’s fears and prejudices.
Trump continues to perform the dark art, and his message has been consistent: The country changed under Barack Obama, the first black president, and not for the better. Trump frequently claims the country is facing invasion and disaster.
But he’s not alone in his cynicism and grim rhetoric. You should see some of the mail I receive about Baltimore.
Over the weekend, for instance, a reader in Howard County, who said he used to live in the city, reacted to the news that hundreds of teenagers had come to the Inner Harbor on Saturday night, drawing police attention. There were fights, and police made six arrests for destruction of property and disorderly conduct. No one was seriously injured, according to police. The Howard County man, who said he lives in Clarksville, apparently had just read my column about the importance of retaining bright college graduates to work in the city’s promising tech hub. Here’s what he wrote in response on Sunday morning:
“So now that the Wildling's (sic) have made their first Inner Harbor appearance, and Baltimore is once again a national embarrassment, I'm sure the graduating intellectuals will be taking a hard look at what our city has to offer. It's going to be a long hot murderous summer in Baltimore. But hopefully the wandering pack of vermin will decide to spend their summer reading the Healthy Holly books authored by the latest of our corrupt Mayor's (sic). When the tourists stop coming to the Inner Harbor, there will be no money for the cretins to steal, hopefully they will spend all their time murdering each other.”
Shocking? Not to me. I often receive harsh letters like this from readers, usually men, and usually men in the suburbs. The frequency picked up during and after the Freddie Gray spring of 2015, with letter-writers saying the city was a “lost cause,” in full free-fall, overwhelmed by lawlessness — and their terms were often racist, either directly or thinly veiled.
I don’t quote them in this space because there is enough of that rhetoric in social media and on talk radio, and it reinforces stereotypes about black youth, particularly the at-risk boys who need help, not scorn. (The Fraternal Order of Police president declared that some of the kids causing mayhem at the Inner Harbor were “criminals,” and he did this, I assume, before checking to see if any of them had records.)
As stated in this space a few weeks ago, everyone knows what Baltimore’s problems are. We need solutions, renewed effort, solid and consistent leadership, and more interventions to stop youth violence. We don’t need broad-brush invective from people sitting at computers 27 miles away.
I was not polite in my response to the guy from Howard County. I told him he sounded like a racist. He answered by saying he was “not a racist, a realist,” and argued that “liberal policies” were to blame for criminality, chaos and corruption. Asked to be specific, he came back with only the tired argument — one that I have heard several times since the Freddie Gray spring — that Democrats have been in charge of Baltimore for decades, an argument that ignores the fact that Republicans have had almost nothing to to do with the city for 50-plus years.
The guy from Clarksville signed off by saying “worthless thugs are breeding” and that “the only thing that can be done is for people to flee the city in droves.”
I feel unclean bringing these attitudes to your attention, but they exist — even in supposedly civilized and definitely affluent Howard County — and, as you can see, sometimes the rhetoric runs end-times dark. Given the state of public discourse, no one should be shocked.
But I am done with it. You won’t see these extreme views described or quoted here again. Baltimore is in a fragile state. It has problems. No one is happy with things as they are, and what happened Saturday night highlights an overload of frustrations and worries. Someday this will be a better city. There are many ways to make that happen. Ugly rhetoric is not one of them.