Crime, the Dangers of Racial Tropes, and the Limits of Racial Metaphors

“Why do people who deal drugs have more rights than people who try to get up and go to work everyday and take their children to school,” asked San Francisco’s Mayor London Breed in an interview with KQED, a San Francisco based media company.[1]  This was her response to a question about a previous statement saying that San Franciscans need to be “less tolerant of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city.”[2] When one reporter challenged her, Breed, the city’s first African American woman mayor, accused Honduran immigrants of being the ones primarily responsible for drugs and drug-related crime in the city.  After Breed described anecdotes of citizens living in the Tenderloin who have faced brutal and extreme instances of violence, including assault and murder, she doubled down on the claim that drug dealers have more rights than the average citizen.  According to her, when arrested, Hondurans exploit the law by claiming they are being targeted and racially profiled. Reed emphasized that they are breaking the law instead of being singled out because of their race.  Honduran immigrants being largely responsible for crime and drugs is simply, she said, “the reality.”

Breed later apologized, but the damage was done.[3] Reed’s statement represents the newest iteration of a well-worn strategy in American politics: dog whistle politics. Reed was not alone in deploying racial tropes during the 2022 midterm elections. This essay will review more traditional examples of dog whistle politics, specifically the ways white politicians primed crime[4] and fashioned “causal stories”[5] that deliberately, if implicitly, blamed crime and other social ills on the individual behaviors of a racialized “other.”  It situates these efforts within a broader historical and scholarly context, revealing how these appeals not only impact specific elections but also serves broader agenda setting purposes. It shows how racial appeals have been used to shift the discursive terrain of American social policymaking from one focused on complex structural forces to one fixated on individual behaviors.     

After drawing out the useful analytical insights of this rich literature, this essay then illuminates its analytic shortcomings, particularly its dismissal of actual crime and the politicization of it within communities of color. Although national data fail to show a significant increase in crime in 2021,[6] the devil is in the details. In 2021, at least 12 major cities broke yearly homicide records.[7]  That same year, homicides in Breed’s San Francisco rose from their pre-pandemic levels.[8]  As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported at the end of last year, “Philadelphia has recorded its 500th homicide this year, surpassing a bleak milestone for the second year in a row as the city’s gun violence epidemic continues at an unrelenting pace, leaving devastating loss and trauma in its wake.” It added, “While the total number of homicides recorded so far this year is slightly lower than last year’s record-breaking total, it’s a loss of human life the city has only twice recorded in its known history, and matches the record of 500 killings set in 1990, at the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic.”[9] The racial disparities in these tragedies is astounding. In 2022, Blacks constituted 77% of victims of fatal and nonfatal shootings in Philadelphia. That’s compared to just 7% of whites.[10]

Consequently, this essay explores the crime attitudes of communities of color and the anti-crime appeals of minority politicians. The data are somewhat counterintuitive, though not entirely surprising.  Despite urban rebellions and grassroots mobilization against the carceral state over the last several years, many African Americans and Hispanics support greater policing of their communities.  It ends by reflecting on the fundamental danger crime poses to American politics: its ability to unite erstwhile political opponents around punitive solutions and obscure the complex origins of the structural vulnerability to violence Black and brown communities endure.

Dog Whistles, Race Cards, and the New Jim Crow

We have learned much about the racial origins and consequences of mass incarceration in the United States. Michelle Alexander ties the prison boom to the unyielding American racial order.  “Following the collapse of each system of [racialized] social control,” she argues, “there has been a period of confusion—transition—in which those who are most committed to racial hierarchy search for new means to achieve their goals.”[11]  In response to the significant achievements of the civil rights era, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as substantial declines in overt racist attitudes among whites,[12] national Republican elites launched a “southern strategy” that exploited racial fears to woo white working-class voters from the Democratic party.  For Alexander, the “war on drugs” operated as the mechanism linking this political project to policy action and social outcomes.  Ronald Reagan instigated a moral panic over “crack,” which validated the over policing of Black and brown communities and inaugurated a new racialized caste system.[13]

Alexander’s jarring account raises a critical question.  How are both real racial change and real racial retrenchment both possible? Tali Mendelberg’s seminal The Race Card: Campaign Strategy Implicit Messages and the Norm of Equality clarifies much here by highlighting the role “implicit” racial messages plays in contemporary politics.[14] She explains that the “power of implicitly racial appeals” is due to the “coexistence of contradictory elements in American politics: powerful egalitarian norms about race, and a party system based on the cleavage of race.”[15]  She argues that “White voters respond to implicitly racial messages because they do not recognize these messages as racial and do not believe that their favorable response is motivated by racism.”[16] For an example, she cites the GOP’s use of Willie Horton, an African American convicted felon who committed violent offenses after being released on furlough in Massachusetts, during the 1988 presidential election.  George H. W. Bush’s campaign never used Horton’s image but their constant use of his name and references to his crimes echoed through the mainstream media. The Bush’s team drew upon deep-seated white fears and notions of black criminality to undermine support for the Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis who served as governor of Massachusetts when Horton was released. 

Ian Haney-López concept of “dog whistle politics” is also useful here.[17]  “Dog whistle politics” refers to “coded talk centered on race” that elites engaged in because the “hidden message it seeks to transmit violates a strong moral consensus,” what Mendelberg calls, “the egalitarian norm.” Consequently, those “blowing a racial dog whistle know full well that they would be broadly condemned if understood as appealing for racial solidarity among whites.”[18] Lopez argues racial dog whistles emerged as a conservative response to postwar liberalism.  When Republican elites spoke about the damages of New Deal programs and progressive ideals, they blew dog whistles that framed racial minorities as undeserving recipients of these programs.  Take, for example, Ronald Reagan’s famous description of a Black woman on public assistance: “Chicago welfare queen” with “eighty names, thirty addresses, [and] twelve Social Security cards [who] is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands.  She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names.  Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”[19]  He also used the word “buck” to describe a typical welfare con artist and summon the “threatening image of a physically powerful black man…who defies white authority and who lusts for white women.”[20] The goal of this strategy is clear: to subvert social democracy by making it the bête noire of working and middle-class whites. 

All together, these racial metaphors—the New Jim Crow, the race card, and dog whistle politics—tell us much about the transformation of postwar American politics.  Facing New Deal social democracy and intrepid anti-racist movements, conservatives waged their own surreptitious, though no less, audacious battle.  In pursuit of Republican political dominance and neoliberal policies, they aggressively deployed subtle racial cues.  To abort a new birth of freedom, they summoned old, deeply held white fears and stereotypes. And, according to Alexander, they succeeded.  They not only demolished the New Deal coalition and forestalled the advance of the civil rights revolution by “triggering a collapse of resistance across the political spectrum,” but they also “implemented new racial caste systems”[21] and, in the telling of Haney-López, undermined the middle-class.  

Unfortunately, its déjà vu all over again.  Because of the rise of the movement for Black Lives sparked by the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and accelerated by the death of George Floyd in 2020, the nation underwent a so-called “racial awakening.”  This activism along with urban rebellions across the nation initiated calls for systemic criminal justice reforms and elected pro-reform prosecutors and politicians across the country.  The recent mid-term elections featured an equal and opposite reaction: the recrudescence of racial appeals and “law and order.” To wrest control of Congress from Democrats and thwart the Biden agenda, Republicans returned to the old playbook: dog whistles, race cards, and the like. Although the red wave dwindled by the end, it’s important to survey the damage that was done. 

Take Wisconsin.  In the Senate race that featured white Republican Ron Johnson and African American Democrat Mandela Barns, the GOP primed the issue of crime and deployed racial appeals to undermine Barnes’ candidacy.  Despite inflation being a top concern of voters, 70% of digital ads in Wisconsin focused on crime, while only 15% focused on inflation.[22] Republican ads depicted the Democrat as “just plain dangerous.” A campaign mailer even doctored an image of Barnes by making his face noticeably darker and creating an ominous mood.[23] One ad began by asking, “Do you feel safe?”  It then linked Barnes’ policy preferences to “shootings,” “robberies,” “carjackings,” and “violent attacks on our police.” It ended with: “Mandela Barnes, he stands with them, not us.” The “them,” “our,” and “us” are subtle but clear: Mandela stands with Wisconsin’s criminal element and not with the law-abiding (white) majority.  

Republican campaigns in other states followed a similar strategy.  Nationally, the GOP spent $157 million on crime-related spots compared to $105 million spent on ads about the economy and inflation.  In Pennsylvania, the party spent $12 million on crime-related ads versus $2.5 million on spots about the economy and inflation.[24] This war chest purchased several dog whistles and race cards.  Although Republicans could not darken the images of white Democratic candidates, as they did with Mandela Barnes, they sullied the reputations of Democrats by associating them and their policies with urban crime.  In Pennsylvania, Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz’s campaign paid for a billboard that had “Fetterman = Poverty and Crime” written below an image of a boarded-up storefront.  Like the Willie Horton ads, Republican spots accused Democrat John Fetterman of supporting “more hardened criminals on the streets.”  In New York, Republican candidate for governor Lee Zeldin worked hard to tie incumbent Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul to violent crime.  One ad featured a string of extremely disturbing acts of violence, starting with the image of a hooded Black man randomly cold cocking an elderly person.  It ends by telling voters to “vote like your life depends on it.” “It just might,” it added.[25]

Again, it’s important to note that these dog whistles and race cards yielded limited results—this time.  In the end, Democrats retained control of the Senate and lost fewer seats than predicted in the House of Representatives. Nevertheless, this was the opening salvo in the conservative push for retrenchment in criminal justice reform and progressive policies more generally. Republicans will be playing for keeps. Without compunction or fidelity to egalitarian norms, the GOP will deploy racial tropes, tap ancient hatreds, and exploit latent fears to beat back any progress made on making the criminal justice system fairer and less brutal. With much financing and great facility, the party will link racial progress to white disadvantage, social democracy to white suffering.  

Crime, Communities of Color, and the New Politics of Punishment

There are limits to the descriptive and explanatory power of these racial metaphors. Long before the dog whistles and race cards of the midterm elections, many Democrats had begun a hasty retreat on criminal justice reform and began to embrace “law and order” politics.  Of course, this is not entirely new.  Scholars, like Naomi Murakawa and Elizabeth Hinton,[26] have emphasized the bipartisan nature of the punitive turn in American politics.  Neither Alexander nor Lopez ignore Democratic President Bill Clinton’s dog whistles.  Still, none of these accounts take seriously the voices and actions of African American leaders and the views of communities of color, and, as such, they miss a critical aspect of the contemporary politics of punishment and a structural feature of American political development.

Let’s take San Francisco’s Mayor London Breed. The summer of George Floyd and urban uprisings, Breed pledged that San Francisco would redirect $120 million from law enforcement agencies into investments for San Francisco’s Black community.[27] Early last year, she began to embrace “law and order.” “I’m proud this city believes in giving people second chances,” she said before insisting that there needs “to be accountability when someone does break the law.” Breed added, “Our compassion cannot be mistaken for weakness or indifference.”[28] By the fall of last year, Breed was not simply emphasizing the importance of crime in the lives of San Franciscans, but she was also deploying racist “law and order” rhetoric. She laid the blame for the city’s problems on a specific ethnic group and pitted them against the more disserving average citizen. 

She is not alone.  Eric Adams, a Black former police officer, narrowly won the mayoralty in New York City by running on a “law and order” agenda.  Despite the aggressive mobilization against police violence in the city, he ran as a pro-police candidate.  Once in office, he turned his attention to the homeless. He deployed police officers to clear homeless encampments, so that residents and visitors “can enjoy the clean public spaces we all deserve.”[29] In response, one city council member noted, “People have a right to be concerned and we have a responsibility to address those concerns, but we have to do it in a way that doesn’t take us back to the Giuliani era where we were solving every problem by locking up Black and brown folks and criminalizing poverty.”[30]

In Adams’ defense, his actions reflect the sentiments of many New Yorkers, including communities of color. This was apparent in the run up to the Democratic primary.  A Marist Poll of likely Democratic primary voters revealed a deep desire for more policing.  When it came to dealing with gun violence, small pluralities of white, Black, and Hispanic Democrats reported that moving “resources away from police to fund programs that deal with mental health” would have the “biggest impact.”  Around 17% of each group supported investing in “programs that help to resolve conflicts between gang members.”  On the other hand, 44% of whites, 40% of blacks, and 42% of Latinos supported either “Increase the number of uniformed police officers on the streets” or “Return plainclothes officers to high crime communities to target violent crime.” There was greater consensus among Democratic voters on whether to increase the number of uniformed officers on the subway.  According to the poll, 62% of whites “strongly agree” or “agree” that that the number should be increased. Though high, that’s less the 77% of Blacks and 69% of Hispanics that endorsed an increase.[31]

Recent polling confirms these trends. In a 2022 Spectrum News NY1/Siena College Poll, 70% of whites, 67% of Blacks, 79% of Asians, and 73% of Hispanics in New York City reported feeling less safe after the pandemic than before. Additionally, 25% of whites, 42% of Blacks, and 47% of Hispanics reported feeling “very concerned” that they could be a “victim of violent crime.”  Not surprisingly, these fears have propelled support for punitive remedies.  Over fifty percent of whites, Blacks, and Hispanics endorsed more funding for the New York Police Department, and over 80% of whites, Hispanics, and Asians, and around 90% of African Americans supported increasing the number of police officers in the subways. Over sixty percent of whites, Blacks, and Hispanics supported “breaking up homeless encampments in the city.”[32]

Philadelphia is another example where residents are facing record high rates of gun violence and their attitudes reflect this fear.  While the proportion of whites reporting feeling “completely” or “pretty” safe remained stable from 2010 to 2022, the proportion of Blacks feeling “completely” or “pretty” safe declined from 53% in 2010 to 35%.  For Hispanics, that number fell from 46% to 32%. Sixty percent of Blacks said that gun violence had had a “major impact” on the “quality of life in their neighborhood.” That’s compared to 55% of Hispanics and 18% of whites.  Although many Blacks in Philadelphia are skeptical that police will treat Black and white people “equally,” 69% said that Philadelphia “doesn’t have enough police.” That’s compared to 63% of Hispanics and 55% of whites.[33]

National data corroborate these patterns. The Pew Research Center reports that 81% of registered Black voters reported that “violent crime” was “very important when making their decision about who to vote for in the 2022 congressional elections.” That’s compared to 56% of whites and 65% of Hispanics. Among Democratic voters, the racial divide is stark: 82% of Black Democratic voters said violent crime is very important, compared to a third of white Democratic voters.[34]  A 2021 Pew survey revealed that Black and Hispanic Democrats were more likely than white Democrats to support increased spending on police in their area.[35]

Therein lies the descriptive and analytical limitations of these racial metaphors and the analyses that underpin them.  By emphasizing the construction of “crime” over individual experiences with crime, these accounts have missed critical variables.  Vesla Weaver emphasizes that, “While it is true that criminal justice legislation has not responded mechanically with fluctuations in crime rates, in their eagerness to dismiss crime, [dominant accounts of mass incarceration] have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.” She suggests that “a more fruitful discussion” is to explore “why” crime comes to be “politicized” when it does and “unearth the full quilt of motivations embodied in its being elevated to the status of a major national problem.”[36]  Evidence for the recent midterm elections indicate that prominent threads in this quilt include both the irrationality of white fears, inflamed by dog whistles and race cards, and the rationality of Black and brown anxieties, stoked by structural vulnerability to real violence.              


Crime has consistently roiled American politics, and it continues to do so.  Despite their profound insights, literatures on racial appeals and mass incarceration have underestimated its potency.  Republican leaders have effectively deployed dog whistles and race cards to prime crime and provoke latent racist sentiments.  The analytic focus on white, mostly conservative, elites and white masses, however, renders key aspects of the politics of punishment invisible.  Marie Gottschalk tells us that although “the role of conservative groups in promoting a more hardline position on crime and punishment is well documented,” “[l]eft largely unexamined is why these conservative groups did not face more political opposition to their law-and-order crusades.” She adds, “What has been overlooked is the role of other groups, some of them identified with progressive and liberal causes, in facilitating – often unwittingly – a more punitive environment conducive to the consolidation of the carceral state.”[37]  Her trenchant analysis highlights the role the victims’ rights movement, the women’s movement, the prisoners’ rights movement, and the anti-death penalty movement played in the rise of mass incarceration. We have attempted to build on her account by adding racial minorities and minority leaders to the equation.  While the righteous indignation of young Black and brown people and their white allies in the movement for Black lives continues to challenge carceral remedies, popular opinion among communities of color may help sustain a punitive environment.  

It must be said that Black and brown people and politicians of color, like Reed and Adams, also support nonpunitive solutions to structural violence.  They seek gun control, endorse housing for the unhoused, and desire social programs for young people.[38]  Because the American party system remains largely based on the cleavage of race, Black voters and their representatives are unlikely to be lured away from the Democratic fold.  This only underscores the bitter irony of the contemporary politics of punishment.  While activists struggle to build broad-based alliances around structural solutions, crime easily fosters bipartisan coalitions for carceral remedies.[39]  Moreover, how minority elites, like Reed and Adams, frame the crime issue can redound to the benefit of a conservative agenda by endorsing a causal story that blames the individual behavior of undeserving “others.”  Although they do not appeal to racial animus, they do rely on a constructed cross-racial solidarity of the “deserving,” residents who work “everyday” and are unfairly beleaguered by immigrants, drug dealers, or the unhoused.  Because of the implicit nature of these claims, people of color may not recognize that such appeals implicitly subvert moral norms they would otherwise embrace. They may not recognize how their real trauma can be attached to imagined anguish to fortify political projects they oppose. This is the sinister and profound impact crime has on our politics. 

Michael Javen Fortner is Associate Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College.  He is the author of Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment. Colin Scanlon is a second-year student studying Government and Film at Claremont Mckenna College.

[1] Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, “From Fixing Homelessness to Arresting Fentanyl Dealers, SF Mayor Breed Bemoans City Hall Red Tape,” KQED, October 5, 2022.

[2] “Update: SF Mayor London Breed Announces Crime Crackdown; ‘Less Tolerant of All the Bulls–t That Has Destroyed Our City’,” CBS News, December 15, 2021.

[3] “San Francisco Mayor Apologizes for Saying ‘A Lot’ of Drug Dealers Are Honduran,” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2022.

[4] Tali Mendelberg, “Racial Priming Revived,” Perspectives on Politics 6, no. 1 (2008): 109-123.

[5] Deborah A.  Stone, “Causal Stories and the Formation of Policy Agendas,” Political science quarterly 104, no. 2 (1989): 281-300.

[6] John Gramlich, “Violent crime is a key midterm voting issue, but what does the data say?” Pew Research Center, October 31, 2022 

[7] Bill Hutchinson, “It’s just crazy’: 12 major cities hit all-time homicide records,” ABC News, December 8, 2021

[8] Joshua Bote, “San Francisco’s 2021 crime data just came out,” SFGate, January 26, 2022

[9] Ellie Rushing, “Philadelphia records 500 homicides for second year in a row, a tragic milestone as the gun violence crisis continues,” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 20, 2022.

[10] Office of the Controller, Philadelphia, “Mapping Philadelphia’s Gun Violence Crisis,” 2022. 

[11] Alexander Michelle, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010), 21. 

[12] Lawrence Bobo, James R. Kluegel, and Ryan A, Smith, “Laissez-Faire Racism: The Crystallization of a ‘Kindler, Genter’ Anti-black Ideology,” in Racial Attitudes in the 1990s: Continuity and Change, eds. Steven A. Tuch and Jack K. Martin (Westport, CT.: Praeger, 1997)

[13] Alexander 2010, 20-57. 

[14] Tali Mendelberg, The Race Card: Campaign Strategy Implicit Messages and the Norm of Equality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). 

[15] Ibid., 6.

[16] Ibid., 7.

[17] Ian Haney-López, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)

[18] Ibid., 4. 

[19] Ibid., 58.

[20] Ibid., 59.

[21] Alexander 2010, 22.

[22] Tamara Keith, “Want to know what message midterm candidates think will win? Follow the money,” NPR, October 11, 2022.

[23] Daniel Bice and Bill Glauber, “Supporters of Mandela Barnes Accuse Republicans of Airing Racist Ads in Senate Race with Ron Johnson,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 22, 2022.

[24] Li Zhouli, “The reason Republican attacks on crime are so potent,” Vox, November 3, 2022. 

[25] Denis Slattery, “Zeldin ad hammering Hochul on New York crime features Oakland, Calif. assault, older incidents.” New York Daily News, September 15, 2022.

[26] Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017)

[27] Matthew Green, “SF Mayor Breed’s Proposed Budget Redirects $120 Million From Police to City’s Black Community,” KQED, July 31, 2020. 

[28] Michael Shellenberger, “Behind London Breed’s stunning ‘defund the police’ turnaround in San Francisco,” New York Post, December 15, 2021.

[29] Emma Bowman, “NYC homeless advocates say Mayor Eric Adams’s street sweeps aren’t working,” NPR, May 13, 2022.

[30] Janaki Chadha and Amanda Eisenberg, “‘Back to the Giuliani era’: Adams’ order to clear homeless camps ignites fury in New York,” Politico, April 2, 2022. 

[31] WNBC/Telemundo 47/POLITICO/Marist Poll, June 3-June 9, 2021, 876 New York City Likely Democratic Primary Voters, MOE +/- 3.8%.

[32] Siena College Research Institute, Spectrum News NY1/Siena College Poll, May 22 – June 1, 2022, 1000 New York City Residents, MOE +/- 3.1%. 

[33] “Pew Poll: Gun Violence, COVID-19 Have Hit Philadelphians Hard,” Pew Research Center, April 6, 2022.

[34] John Gramlich, “Violent crime is a key midterm voting issue, but what does the data say?” Pew Research Center, October 31, 2022.

[35] Kim Parker and Kiley Hurst, “Growing share of Americans say they want more spending on police in their area,” Pew Research Center, October 16, 2021.

[36] Vesla M. Weaver, “Frontlash: Race and the Development of Punitive Crime Policy,” Studies in American Political Development 21, no. 2 (2007): 230-265, 233-234. 

[37] Marie Gottschalk, The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 8. 

[38] Lisa L Miller, The Perils of Federalism: Race, Poverty, and the Politics of Crime Control (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). 

[39] John Clegg and Adaner Usmani, “The Racial Politics of Mass Incarceration,” 2017, SSRM: Retrieved from


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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1