Campaign Fact-Check: Trump’s False Equivalence on Racial Disparities in Policing

Evidence leaves little room for debate or false equivalencies on whether people of color face disproportionate rates of mass incarceration.

When pressed to explain whether he believes “there are disparities in law enforcement,” Trump suggested there was no clear answer. a katz / Shutterstock.com

In a wide-ranging interview with the Washington Post editorial board, Donald Trump was unable to articulate a response to questions on his views on widely acknowledged racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

In response to a question by Fred Hiatt, the Post’s editorial page editor, about the fact that Black people are incarcerated at higher rates and treated differently by law enforcement than white people, Trump offered an almost undecipherable answer:

TRUMP: Well I’ve never really see anything that—you know, I feel very strongly about law enforcement. And, you know, if you look at the riot that took place over the summer, if that were stopped—it all, it mostly took place on the first evening, and if that were stopped on the first evening, you know, you’d have a much nicer city right now, because much of that damage and much of the destruction was done on Evening One. So I feel that law enforcement, it’s got to play a big role. It’s got to play a big role. But that’s a pretty good example, because tremendous amounts of damage was done that first evening—first two evenings, but the first evening in particular. And so I’m a very strong believer in law enforcement, but I’m also a very strong believer that the inner cities can come back.

When Hiatt pressed Trump to explain whether he believes “there are disparities in law enforcement,” Trump suggested there was no clear answer, stating, “I’ve read where there are and I’ve read where there aren’t. I mean, I’ve read both. And, you know, I have no opinion on that,” before changing the subject to the United States’ loss of jobs to countries like China and Mexico.

Evidence, however, leaves little room for debate or false equivalencies on whether people of color face disproportionate rates of mass incarceration. A 2014 report from the Sentencing Project, which works to address racial disparities in incarceration, stated that “while blacks and Latinos together comprise 30% of the general population, they account for 58% of prisoners” in the United States.

The report explained that high rates of incarceration have been perpetuated in part by “White Americans, who constitute a majority of policymakers, criminal justice practitioners, the media, and the general public, [overestimating] the proportion of crime committed by people of color and the proportion of racial minorities who commit crime.” These misconceptions have led to “the overrepresentation of people of color in prisons, jails, and under community supervision. A less common but more acutely tragic outcome has been the deaths of people of color due to distorted assessments of threat by police officers and armed civilians.”

The Sentencing Project also found that “Youth of color enter the system much more frequently than white youth and are more likely to be sentenced to harsher terms of punishment” within the juvenile justice system.

The mass incarceration of people of color says much more about racial disparities in policing than the racial makeup of who is committing crimes. A 2007 Department of Justice (DOJ) report found that while white, Black, and Latino drivers were equally likely to be pulled over by the police, Black and Latino drivers were significantly more likely to be searched, arrested, and threatened with use of force than white drivers.

New York City’s stop-and-frisk policies provide yet another example of discriminatory policing in practice. A 2014 study by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) analyzing the enforcement of stop-and-frisk policies over 12 years during New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration found that the New York Police Department (NYPD) disproportionately stopped young men of color, most of whom were later found to be innocent. “Young black and Latino men were the targets of a hugely disproportionate number of stops,” the NYCLU found. “Though they accounted for only 4.7 percent of the city’s population, black and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for 41 percent of stops between 2003 and 2013. Nearly 90 percent of young black and Latino men stopped were innocent.”

Data show that people of color are incarcerated at much higher rates for drug-related offenses, although the rate of drug use is consistent across racial groups. “Black people comprise 31 percent of those arrested for drug law violations, and nearly 40 percent of those incarcerated in state or federal prison for drug law violations,” according to the Drug Policy Alliance, which promotes alternatives to the War on Drugs. “Similarly, Latinos make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, but comprise 20 percent of people in state prisons for drug offenses and 37 percent of people incarcerated in federal prisons for drug offenses,” the organization explained in a fact sheet on how the War on Drugs has impacted communities of color.

An investigation conducted in 2015 by the Guardian further found that Black Americans were twice as likely to be shot by police while unarmed. According to the publication’s analysis, “32% of black people killed by police in 2015 were unarmed, as were 25% of Hispanic and Latino people, compared with 15% of white people killed.”

Later in Trump’s interview, columnist Ruth Marcus followed up by asking the candidate to discuss the “disproportionate incarceration of African Americans vs. whites” and whether it is “something that concerns” him.

Trump essentially suggested that if that were true, job creation would solve the problem. “That would concern me, Ruth,” Trump told Marcus. “But at the same time it can be solved to a large extent with jobs. You know, if we can rebuild those communities and create incentives for companies to move in and create jobs.”

While bringing jobs to impoverished communities may help alleviate some of the issues they face, it is hardly an answer to the systemic racism that perpetuates biased policing practices and disproportionate incarceration rates.

“It’s undeniable that the other half of the problem is about the way that our criminal justice systems operate and the biases that are often unintentional that guide police work, and the biases that are embedded in our laws and that disproportionately affect disadvantaged people of color and low-income individuals who are disproportionately people of color,” noted Nazgol Ghandnoosh, research analyst for the Sentencing Project, in a phone interview with Rewire. “So it is disappointing that [Trump] is unwilling to acknowledge that component of it.”

“Another aspect of it that he doesn’t touch on is improving our public infrastructure,” Ghandnoosh continued, “improving schools in those communities … we need to invest more in quality education in those communities, we need to invest more in public health in those communities, and it is not clear whether he would be willing to do that as the president.”

As Washington Post editorial writer Charles Lane pointed out in the interview, Trump’s proposed solution to the problems of racial disparities in criminal justice and urban poverty isn’t new. “It’s not as if no one has ever said before we should have economic zones, it’s not as if no one has ever said before we need incentives and taxes,” said Lane. “So I guess the question, then, is what’s different specifically about your approach to these issues from what’s been tried in the past, because a lot of effort has been put in just the direction you just described.”

But instead of providing substantive answers, Trump suggested that he would “be a great cheerleader for the country” and for “people in the inner cities” in particular. 

The Post’s editorial board penned a scathing account of the Trump interview, pointing in part to his answers on racial disparities as proof that “electing him will be a radical risk,” as Trump demonstrates a “breezy willingness to ignore facts and evidence.”

At at time when criminal justice reform has become an important issue on both sides of the aisle, Trump’s inability to answer basic questions about racial disparities in policing and incarceration is alarming.