Why de Blasio Was Right to Take on Criminal Justice Reform

Reforming the NYPD is economic populism for New York City’s minorities.

Bill de Blasio
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a populist who serves more than the white populace.

Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

“People actually lose their employment because they weren’t able to come into work,” said one New Yorker in a 2011 interview with the Center for Constitutional Rights on the city’s now-defunct “stop-and-frisk” policy. “And when they’re released they have to start from scratch all over again and figure out another way to be self-sufficient and to take care of themselves and their families.”

It’s an important point. The terrifying reality of stop-and-frisk wasn’t just the risk of violence or humiliating treatment—it was the chance that a police stop could upend your life. “They arrest you and build up all these little, petty things … and after a certain time, now OK, you have three of these, it’s a felony,” explained another interviewee. “When you put a felony on somebody you’re telling a person basically you’re just a hard-core criminal. You can’t get [a] job. If you want to work in a bank, well you can forget that.” For many Americans, an arrest for marijuana possession—a minor crime that isn’t even punished in parts of the country (read: college campuses)—can ruin your life

In New York, stop-and-frisk wasn’t just a criminal justice issue—a question of equal treatment under the law—it was an economic one, too. Which is why then-candidate Bill de Blasio found success with his message of economic equality and criminal justice reform. For him and his supporters, they were two sides of the same coin.

All of this is apropos a recent column in the New York Times from Noam Scheiber, a liberal writer and former editor at the New Republic. Pointing to the mayor’s middling approval ratings—49 percent, according to the latest survey from Quinnipiac—and in particular his flagging support from the city’s whites, Scheiber argues that de Blasio has misstepped in his focus on stop-and-frisk and the city’s police.

Specifically, Scheiber sees de Blasio as abandoning a key strand of his campaign that could have bolstered his standing with the city as a whole, instead of dividing it along racial lines:

From the get-go, Mr. de Blasio’s campaign fused two distinct strands of progressivism. The first was economic populism, not least his criticism that Michael R. Bloomberg had placed the interests of Wall Street and the wealthy above those of average New Yorkers.

The second was what some have called “identity group” liberalism, which appealed to black and Latino voters as blacks and Latinos, not on the basis of economic interests they shared with whites. The centerpiece of Mr. de Blasio’s identity-group agenda was his promise to win better treatment for minorities at the hands of the police.

Voters were thrilled with de Blasio’s economic populism, notes Scheiber, but not as enthusiastic with his promise of police reform. In a poll released just after his inauguration, Scheiber points out, “Eighty-three percent were concerned about income inequality (though few listed it as their top concern). But only 48 percent of voters said that Mr. de Blasio would be able to ease the Police Department’s ‘stop and frisk’ tactics without sacrificing public safety.”

For de Blasio, Scheiber argues, the better play would have been to keep the focus on inequality and push hard for higher taxes on the rich and new programs for middle- and low-income New Yorkers, instead of spending political capital on an issue with an impossibly steep racial divide.

On its face this is an easy argument to support, bolstered by the incredible tension between de Blasio and the New York Police Department. If the cost of a unified city government were less sympathy with protesters, I’m sure many observers would pay it.

The problem comes when you begin to think about the supposed divide between economic populism and “identity group liberalism.” Again, in the lived experience of most New Yorkers—at 25.5 percent black, 28.6 percent Latino, and 12.7 percent Asian, the city is decidedly majority-minority—that divide doesn’t exist. Police reform is economic populism.

For many New Yorkers (as well as many Americans), arrests have been disastrous, closing opportunities for jobs, housing, and public benefits. In Punishment and Inequality in America, his study of the prison system as a social phenomenon, Harvard sociologist Bruce Western emphasizes this point. “Incarceration redirects the life path from the usual trajectory of steady jobs with career ladders that normally propels wage growth for young men,” he writes. “Men tangled in the justice system become permanent labor market outsiders, finding only temporary or unreliable jobs that offer little economic stability.”

A promise to improve policing—to end arbitrary arrests and needless contact—is a form of economic populism, an explicit commitment to integrating minority groups, protecting them from arbitrary power, and bringing them into the mainstream economy.

More broadly, it’s not as if de Blasio could have laid fallow on reform. The issue was pushed into his hands by the police officer who killed Eric Garner and the grand jury that declined to indict him. The elected leader of a largely black and Latino city, de Blasio had to honor his campaign promises, even if it cost him white support. And it’s clear the mayor knows this is dangerous terrain for his administration. It’s why, since his initial remarks on the Garner grand jury, he’s been judicious with his rhetoric, working (unsuccessfully) to repair his frayed relationship with the NYPD.

But even if you believe there’s a distinction between economic populism and “identity group liberalism”—and that de Blasio should have gone for the former over the latter—race is still a problem. The Affordable Care Act is arguably a kind of economic populism. It gives its benefits to a huge cross-section of society, from poor Latino workers in East Palo Alto to middle-class whites in Lexington, Kentucky. Despite this, notes Scheiber in his piece, Obamacare is a racialized policy, understood—like welfare—as a giveaway to the so-called undeserving.

The same is true of economic liberalism writ large. There’s a reason “47 percent” was a right-wing trope before it was a Mitt Romney gaffe—millions of Americans see the welfare state in starkly ethnocentric terms, where a policy that benefits minorities is necessarily one that disadvantages the majority, and where efforts to improve economic life for ordinary Americans are derided as “gifts” to presumably unproductive citizens.

Scheiber suggests de Blasio could have gotten around this obstacle with an exclusive focus on the hyper-rich. But there are limits to this approach. What happens when de Blasio starts to talk about the spending part of “tax and spend?” And what about the political trade-offs? In a world where the mayor stays mum on police reform, does he alienate his minority supporters?

This last question raises a much larger one about Scheiber’s argument. In a majority-minority city, why is it “identity group” politics to appeal to black and Latino preferences but just “politics” to speak to the concerns of their white counterparts?

I think it is vital to build coalitions across racial divides, with people of all hues working in tandem toward common goals. And to a large extent, this is happening in New York with police reform. It is the definition of populism. Indeed, if there’s an identity politicking here, it isn’t of the multiracial coalitions for change in the criminal justice system, it’s of the white voters who—against all evidence—are opposed to fixing police abuse.