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Sen. Tom Cotton Is Extremely Concerned That We Aren’t Sending Enough Black People to Prison

by Michael Harriot

America is racist.

When I invoke the word racism in this context, I am not referring to a self-concocted, liberal definition that excludes Black people and progressive white people who work in underprivileged communities with their LatinX nephew-in-law. I’m talking about the classic, white definition of racism—the “belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

I’m talking about the belief.

A belief can never be disproven because beliefs don’t require proof to justify their existence. It’s why people can believe in an invisible God, American exceptionalism and the inherent superiority of whiteness. Beliefs are bulletproof, indestructible, and immune to logic or facts.

And yes, America believes in racism.

There is overwhelming proof that white people use more illegal drugs. Yet, the only way anyone can explain why Black people are arrested for possession at three times the rate of whites is the racist belief that there is a huge drug use problem in Black communities. Racism is the only way to explain why the largest policing project in world history revealed: “Black drivers were searched about 1.5 to 2 times as often as white drivers, while they were less likely to be carrying drugs, guns, or other illegal contraband compared to their white peers.” It is necessary to believe that race is a “fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities” if one wants to understand why Black men receive prison sentences that are, on average, nearly 20 percent longer than white men who commit the same crimes.

And racism is the only thing that can explain this tweet from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.):

To be fair, Cotton doesn’t specifically mention Black people, he just linked to an article about crime in “major cities.” You know…where immigrants and Black people live. It’s like me tweeting about America’s major under-seasoning problem.

Let’s be clear: Incarceration does not reduce crime.

It does not make communities safer. It does not rehabilitate human beings. It targets poor and minority communities. This is not a belief. Every large-scale study shows it. Like the one that shows “imprisonment is an ineffective long-term intervention for violence prevention.” Or the study that proves “higher incarceration rates are not associated with lower violent crime rates.” There’s also an entire book by the National Research Council that concludes “the incremental deterrent effect of increases in lengthy prison sentences is modest at best,” but “the effects of harsh penal policies in the past 40 years have fallen most heavily on blacks and Hispanics, especially the poorest.” There’s also the U.C. Berkeley economics study that found that any benefit from harsh sentencing “is outweighed by the large fiscal costs of incarceration.”

Secondly, Tom Cotton already knows that crime rose in 2020 because of the largest economic collapse in U.S. history. To be fair, Cotton may not have read the numerous studies and government reports by economists, psychologists, sociologists and criminologists that show that crime rates correspond to economics and education but I haven’t read most of these reports either. However, there’s a magical fairy godmother who lives on the internet and helps me understand things. Her name is Google. I can get Tom Cotton her email address. Cotton also understands that, aside from the recent uptick, crime has dramatically declined for years.

And if you’re wondering why I’m so confident about what Cotton knows, allow me to explain by switching to all caps. You know what? I think I’ll just put this in italics.

Tom Cotton is the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism!

As a powerful politician, Cotton understands—perhaps more than me or you—that people erroneously believe crime can be solved by arresting people and sending them to prison. Tom Cotton is aware that Black people are arrested and incarcerated at higher rates than they commit crimes. Cotton knows that the dog whistle of “under-incarceration” means that not enough Black people are behind bars. Tom Cotton knows there is no scientific or logical validity to his premise. But he also knows that most Americans tend to believe that crime is up and white people believe that imprisoning more Black people will solve the crime problem.

Tom Cotton is not stupid. He’s an educated person who also has more access to current data on crime and criminal justice than perhaps any other human being alive. So, if he knows why this relatively small uptick in crime happened and that incarceration could not solve it, then why would he hit send on such a racist tweet, stupid tweet?

Because America is racist.

And Tom Cotton is as American as they come.


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