Since former police officer Derek Chauvin's conviction for the murder of George Floyd, there’s been a considerable increase in bipartisan discussions in Congress focused on criminal justice reform. President Joe Biden is expected to highlight this very topic Wednesday in his first address to a joint session of Congress.
These conservative lawmakers have greatly benefited from the current system, hence they have a vested interest in not significantly changing it.
But here’s the blunt reality: How can Democrats find common ground on meaningful criminal justice reform when the GOP, from its leaders in Congress to the rank and file, denies systemic racism exists?
On Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., stated on Fox News that systemic racism does not exist because — wait for it — America elected Barack Obama as president and Kamala Harris as vice president. Graham knows as a lawyer, and as someone presumably with common sense, that there is no connection between how Americans voted and the real-world racially disparate impact of our criminal justice system. But he and other leading Republicans continue to deny this reality.
When it comes down to it, these conservative lawmakers have greatly benefited from the current system, hence they have a vested interest in not significantly changing it. It’s the zero-sum mentality at work, where some on the right view any progress for people of color as a threat to diminish their own power.
The lone Black Republican in the United States Senate, Sen. Tim Scott, of South Carolina, has candidly spoken of being mistreated by the police in the past, including being pulled over seven times in one year. Yet just last month on Fox News, he jaw-droppingly declared, “Woke supremacy is as bad as white supremacy.”
In June, Scott, who is the GOP Senate’s point person in the current criminal justice reform discussions, even refused to admit systemic racism in law enforcement existed, instead deflecting by telling CBS' "Face the Nation," "Most of us don't really understand the definition of systemic racism."
It’s not just the GOP elite who refuse to admit our criminal justice system has a systemic problem; the GOP rank and file appear to agree as well.
Ironically, Scott’s own accounts of past experiences of being pulled over by the police as a Black man “for nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood,” as he put it, are glaring examples of the very thing he claims he doesn’t understand the definition of.
Systemic racism in our criminal justice system simply means we repeatedly see “racially disparate outcomes, regardless of the intentions of the people who work within them,” as The Washington Post reported. This racial disparity is well documented and permeates all aspects of our criminal justice system, from Black people being 20 percent more likely than white people to be pulled over by the police to Black people receiving higher bail amounts to Black people receiving longer prison sentences than whites in the same circumstances.
The most egregious disparity, which feels painfully apparent in the aftermath of the Chauvin trial, is that Black people are three times more likely to be killed by the police than whites. This is not about a “few bad apples”; it’s about the entire garden being infected.
It’s not just the GOP elite, however, who refuse to admit our criminal justice system has a systemic problem; the GOP rank and file appear to agree as well. A poll released in October by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute found that 56 percent of Americans believe the killing of Black Americans by police “are part of a broader pattern of how police treat Black Americans.” But among Republicans polled, nearly 80 percent said the killings of people like George Floyd are “isolated incidents.”
Given that nearly 80 percent of Republicans don’t acknowledge reality when it comes to our criminal justice system, how can Democrats hope to attract GOP support for substantive reforms, such as those called for by the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that passed the House in March? This measure would touch on everything from ending racial profiling to holding police accountable in court both civilly and criminally to increasing training of law enforcement.
Nearly 1 in 2 Republicans polled presumably watched the video of Chauvin’s inhumane and cruel treatment of Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis and do not believe Chauvin’s conduct was criminal.
Even when it comes to the so-called few bad apple police officers in our system, a wide swath of the GOP holds a different view than the rest of America. A CBS News poll released Sunday found that 75 percent of Americans believe the conviction of Chauvin was the “right verdict.” But 46 percent of Republican respondents stated it was the “wrong verdict.”
That means nearly 1 in 2 Republicans polled presumably watched the video of Chauvin’s inhumane and cruel treatment of Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis and do not believe Chauvin’s conduct was criminal. The poll found most Republican respondents “strongly disagree” with the ideas of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Again, how do you build support for the type of sweeping criminal justice reform — not window dressing — that is vitally needed when today’s Republican Party from the top down denies there’s a widespread problem? The best near-term option for the Biden administration may be additional Department of Justice investigations into the patterns and behaviors of certain police forces, as was announced in the past week for both the Minneapolis and Louisville, Kentucky, police departments. But still, this alone won’t address the deeper issue.
On Wednesday, we can expect Biden to call for bipartisan support to address the systemic racism that has infected our entire criminal justice system. And we can expect Republican representatives to respond by offering to do nothing of substance because not only do they deny systemic racism exists, but to speak frankly, they benefit too much from the status quo.