The largest one-time release of federal prisoners in U.S. history took place over Halloween weekend, and hardly anyone, it seems, got scared. Most of those released were men of color—African Americans and Latinos who were convicted of low-level drug crimes and benefitted from a decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to retroactively apply new sentencing guidelines to current prisoners. Forty-six of those prisoners, including the mother of Denver Broncos star receiver Demaryius Thomas, saw their sentences commuted by President Obama. They were freed along with more than 6,000 others.
This is the kind of move that, a couple decades ago, would have inspired long, throaty outrage from tough-on-crime advocates on both the right and left—especially on the eve of an election year. Instead, nary a peep was heard from the presidential candidates on either side of the aisle. Senator Ted Cruz spoke up about it, while also pointing out that he favors some sentencing reforms. Hillary Clinton’s racial-justice platform rollout began on the Friday before Halloween, and while she did not mention the mass release specifically, she spoke supportively of “banning the box” to stop asking about criminal histories on job applications and other measures to help former inmates adjust to life on the outside. “It leads to repeat offenses. It creates a culture of hopelessness,” she said. “People who have paid their debt to society need to be able to find jobs, not just closed doors and closed hearts.”
There was one notable exception in the press. Politico framed its story on the prisoner release around the potential for it to backfire politically. Above a photo depicting President Obama during his historic July prison visit in Oklahoma, the headline read: “Has Obama set loose a new Willie Horton?” The quintessential black bogeyman had been revived, just in time for 2016.
One year from this past Sunday, we’ll elect a new President of the United States. With this campaign featuring the most vigorous debate on racial justice in recent memory, it would hardly be a surprise along the way to find Republicans reverting to the Willie Horton strategy: invoking a black (or brown) criminal to sink a Democratic nominee the way it did Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988. George H.W. Bush’s campaign manager that year was Lee Atwater, who articulated the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy more clearly and bluntly than anyone: “you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff” to refer to race, he said in one interview, rather than the more direct “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” We didn’t get to read or hear that interview until the new millennium, and well after Atwater’s death in 1991. By the time we did, Atwater’s move to tie the convicted murderer Horton to Dukakis, the Massachusetts governor under whose watch Horton was furloughed for a weekend in the summer of 1986 and did not return, was already the stuff of dark political legend. The following spring in Maryland, Horton had raped a woman twice and assaulted her fiancé. (He is still sitting in prison today serving out a life sentence.) Atwater famously remarked, “By the time we're finished, they're going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis's running mate.”
The attack, cynical and undeniably race-baiting though it was, worked. Later ads such as Senator Jesse Helms’s “White Hands” were further proof that Republican candidates didn’t have to say “nigger” to use black people to their advantage. It’s the essence of the Southern Strategy: Since the GOP had no interest in black citizens' votes, they used us as a tool to scare white voters further to the right, casting us as the people who are coming to kill you, or rape you, or take your job. This stuff goes back to racial stereotypes that emerged during and after slavery in this country, only its perpetuators now use a slightly more subtle approach. Slightly.
We've already heard echoes of the strategy in Donald Trump's warnings about the dark perils of undocumented immigrants—and in Chris Christie's recent efforts to make Black Lives Matter activists the bogeywomen and bogeymen for 2016. The New Jersey governor and low-polling presidential candidate, who's been relegated to Tuesday's undercard debate, alleged in an October interview on CBS’ Face the Nation that the Black Lives Matter movement exhibits “lawlessness” and is calling for the murder of police officers.
That’s a step beyond the utterly baseless “Ferguson Effect” theory, first referenced by St. Louis police chief Sam Dotson and embraced by Christie and Senator Ted Cruz, among other Republicans. It holds that increased scrutiny of and protest against police brutality is causing officers to be too reticent in their duties, resulting in an increase in crime—or, as Christie called it on Morning Joe, "the lawlessness that’s been encouraged by the president of the United States." It will be difficult to turn the Ferguson Effect into a Willie Horton equivalent, though—a fact highlighted last week when the “war on cops” narrative backfired. You might have heard about the Fox Lake, Illinois, police lieutenant whose recent shooting death was blamed on Black Lives Matter by various politicians and conservative media outlets? Well, we learned last week that he actually killed himself in a cockamamie plot to hide his own crimes. That officer wasn’t alone, either; at least two other cops have recently turned guns on themselves and fabricated shooters from their imaginations. It is fortunate that no innocent civilian was harmed or killed in the resulting manhunts for ghosts.
I can’t predict what kind of horrors the police will perpetrate in the coming election year. But I doubt that Republicans will find the Black Lives Matter movement to be an effective spook (pardon the double entendre)—it lacks the power and simplicity of a focus on a single criminal who stands for all things scary and non-white. The Republican candidates—particularly Trump—have already tried exploiting the shooting death of a young white woman in San Francisco as a symbol of what’s wrong with immigration, because her killer was an undocumented man born in Mexico. But so far, the killer's name has not entered the national discourse like Horton's.
A bogeyman with the potentcy of Willie Horton won't be easy to find. But Republicans will be needing one: After all, the right won't have its most prominent bogeyman of recent elections, President Obama, to kick around anymore. So they, or the eventual nominee, will almost surely pick a Horton for 2016. But first, conservatives will need to reckon with their own problematic black man, Ben Carson.
The famed neurosurgeon has been polling neck-and-neck with Donald Trump, and with that has come increased scrutiny. Since there is no political record to examine, we’re left to pick through Carson’s beliefs and his carefully manicured personal legend, one first immortalized in his 1990 memoir Gifted Hands. And his origin story has changed more times than Heath Ledger’s Joker. Just in the last few weeks, Carson’s tales of nearly stabbing a friend, protecting fellow Detroit high school students from post-MLK assassination riots, and a scholarship offer to West Point have all come under serious question, if not been outright debunked.
The stabbing story intrigues me most. It’s key to Carson’s religious redemption narrative, for it was after he allegedly came at his friend with a knife that he found God. But on another level, it is fascinating to see the most prominent black Republican ever in a presidential race catering to stereotype to save his ass. It's akin to black actors only seeming to be able to win Oscars for violent, sexualized, or subservient roles. As a fellow black nerd, I get it; there is both temptation and pressure to prove you’re tougher than you seem. But I never thought, post-Willie Horton, that I’d see a black candidate pleading with the Republican Party to buy his personal narrative of criminality.
This controversy won't likely doom Carson's candidacy. The Politico report on West Point, in particular, was so sloppily done that it empowered conservatives to rally behind the good doctor, the black conservative who rejected what they see as the Democrats’ ideological plantation. But in Carson, the right has stumbled upon a figure who could hurt them rather than be turned on the Democrats—and yet conservatives feel compelled to defend him, whether on policy or pyramids, partly because they're intent on showing they aren't racists; they have to stand up for their black guy. Yet more and more Republicans are undoubtedly waking up to the fact that Carson could wreck the Republican Party (not to mention the country) should he be elected president—or even nominated. The bogeyman—a whole different kind of scary man of color—could be on their side this time.
For more from Jamil Smith on the Republican Party and race, listen to the latest episode of Intersection, "The Loneliness of the Black Republican."