Don't Be Distracted: The "Soft on Crime" Narrative is a Racist Dog Whistle

By , CPE Staff

Election cycles in the U.S. are long, and, it could be argued, never really end. Candidates are already going into primaries as well as testing general 2024 messaging, with some leaning into a familiar and misleading trope: The idea that their opponents are "soft on crime."

Never mind the documented drop in violent crime across the country, from Little Rock to Chicago; the politicians, pundits, and moneyed powerful who benefit from telling people to be afraid are doing so again, because that fear serves them. As always, though, and as with so much in politics, much is left unspoken.

The immediate subtext to the soft-on-crime narrative is pure fear-mongering: Only if you're afraid enough to vote for those promising to be "tough" on crime can you expect your government to maintain public safety–usually by increasing police funding and allowing law enforcement free rein. The foundation of the narrative is deeper, though, and has shaped the country's ideas of crime and punishment since before there was a country: Black people are the threat, and White people are the public deserving of safety.

Stepping back from the racist scare tactics, however, reveals the broader and more accurate picture: For millions of people, the police are the threat.

Consider a handful of examples: 

Were those people, all of them Black, made safer by the presence of police? Were their children? A family now mourns because of a banana and some grapes, more children now live in the aftermath of having seen their parents assaulted–or having been assaulted themselves–and whole communities continue to live with previous traumas and the certainty that it's only a matter of time before the next act of police brutality. Whole communities for whom the phrase "public safety" has always been code for violent dehumanization for the sake of control.

In the context of a nation marked by rampant anti-Black violence, the early efforts of some law enforcement and elected leaders to increase accountability in policing and begin redesigning public safety should be acknowledged as vital first steps; too many leaders have chosen, for too many years, to justify brutality and shield officers from scrutiny. But first steps are exactly that, and first steps are not enough. CPE's goal is transformational change, and that will require much more than press conferences or politicians' dog whistles.

We need to be clear as the 2024 election cycle continues: The soft-on-crime narrative isn't about crime. It's an expression of the White supremacist imperative to control Black people. Systems that serve that end do not and cannot produce genuine public safety. 

Now, as always, the people of this country do not need expanded systems of punishment, bigger police forces, and fewer restraints on officers' behavior; they need–as they always have–systems of care that allow them and their communities to thrive. 

The road to public safety systems that are just, equitable, and responsive to communities' needs is long and demands unwavering commitment; the acknowledgment of wrongdoing and launching of investigations are vital first steps on that road. The effort to frighten White voters with soft-on-crime rhetoric, on the other hand, serves to advance a violent status quo at the terrible expense of people's lives. 

At CPE, we are wholly committed to ensuring that acknowledgment and investigations are only the beginning of real accountability, and that both soft-on-crime rhetoric and the racist policing it supports are consigned to history.