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2 experts decode Trump’s comments on crime and “the feds”

His Chicago tweets were a “brilliant rhetorical move” — if you understand history and racism.

President Donald Trump speaks before signing executive orders in the Hall of Heroes at the Department of Defense on January 27, 2017 in Arlington, Virginia.
(Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

President Trump took to Twitter Tuesday night to threaten, "If Chicago doesn't fix the horrible 'carnage' going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds."

Putting aside the serious issues surrounding what would amount to a threat to impose martial law in the city, his attention to Chicago is part of a pattern. He’s previously publicly urged Mayor Rahm Emanuel to request federal assistance to deal with the city’s problem with violence — which, by the way, is real: CNN reported this week that, according to the Chicago Police Department, there have been 38 homicides and 182 shooting incidents in the city so far in 2017. (But it’s not the worst: In fact, as USA Today’s Brad Heath has reported, Chicago's murder rate wasn't even in the top 10 among large cities for the first half of 2016, according to the FBI’s recently released data for that period.)

And some will recall that on the campaign trail back in September, he advocated reviving and expanding the practice of stop and frisk. This now-defunct, ineffective, and unconstitutional New York City policing tactic — which allowed officers to search any person they suspected of a minor crime — was used disproportionately against black and Latino men. Trump later clarified that he didn’t want to see it applied nationwide — just in Chicago.

His fixation on the city seems to go hand in hand with both his repeated inaccurate statements about rising crime and his regular conflating of black people with “inner city” residents — using a term that has more symbolic than descriptive value.

His suggestion to “send in the feds” does not address the volume of firearms in Chicago (which make it there despite the strict gun control laws in the city), or the structural factors, like the city’s public housing policies, that experts have suggested create the conditions for violence. Instead, he’s simply announcing (or threatening) to solve the problem with force. And he’s using language that, taken in the context of his previous statement about “the blacks,” “the inner city,” and skyrocketing violence, has all the trappings of a racist dog political dog whistle.

So what purpose does it serve? While it’s impossible to know what the president’s actual motivations are, Chicago’s history and its longstanding role as the subject of racial dog whistles may shed light on the message he is sending — and the message many Americans are receiving — when he expresses alarm and despair over the violence in this particular city.

To help illuminate this, I spoke to Ramsin Canon, a Chicago-based attorney and activist and longtime political columnist and commentator, and Khadijah Costley White, an assistant professor in the department of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who researches race, gender, and politics in media.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

What do you know about the history of Chicago that could help people make sense of Trump’s tweets about sending the feds into the city, and his ongoing interest in the violence there?

Ramsin Canon

Trump is calling on some Reagan/Bush-era stuff for this, I think. I think some of this national vocabulary about Chicago goes back to Reagan's “welfare queen” who was typically characterized as “in/from Chicago.”

Also in the ’70s to ’90s, Chicago started to get very closely associated in the national press with black and Latinx street gangs who were supposedly benefiting from anti-poverty programs. The Latin Kings, Vice Lords, Gangster Disciples started here, and the national press was particularly obsessed with the Black P. Stone Nation, which morphed into the El Rukns. The national press was obsessed with the El Rukns in the ’80s and ’90s (the leaders of the El Rukns famously met with Muammar Qaddafi and were indicted for conspiring to commit terrorist acts).

[The election of Harold Washington,] Chicago's high-profile first black mayor in 1983 — which was considered unthinkable at the time — was used to fuel white migration to suburbs and fears about black "takeovers" of American cities, and contributed to the termination of direct federal funding to cities, moving it to block grants to states.

I think the Washington victory was a big watershed in white American psychology. Gary Rivlin's Fire on the Prairie discusses this, as does Zoltan Hajnal's "Changing White Attitudes to Black Political Leadership." The Economist referred to the situation as "Beirut on the Lake."

In the national consciousness, Harold's win associated Chicago with black political power in cities, and tied it to stories about welfare queens and powerful street gangs.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

How do Trump’s recent comments about Chicago relate to his frequent mentions of “the inner city” (always in connection to black people) and crime?

Khadijah Costley White

For Trump, Chicago has become symbolic for unchecked and seemingly irrational black violence, which of course is implicitly perceived as an ongoing threat to the safety of white people. More than that, Chicago is also seen as producing President Obama, and he worked there as a community organizer and a legislator. And now it’s a city led by a Democrat, Obama’s own chief of staff. So drawing on Chicago as a disaster is actually a brilliant rhetorical move that frames black folks there as permanently deviant and threatening and a failure of Democratic leadership, subtly linking both to President Obama

Ramsin Canon

Besides Harold, Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan are based here; Barack Obama cut his political teeth here. My guess is for Americans of a certain generation for whom Jackson and Farrakhan are stand-ins for black political activism in particular, Chicago and urban black power are entwined.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

What should people know about the discourse around race in the media to understand what these comments mean and how they’ll be interpreted?

Khadijah Costley White

Media representations of black people often rely on stereotypes that paint black people as pathologically flawed: criminal, violent, neglectful, and subhuman. That is, the media often depicts the black community as the cause of their own problems, which are the persistent and substantive disparities in housing, education, employment, incarceration, health, and more. By focusing on individual behavior and choices in describing problems in black neighborhoods, media messages both justify the condition of black people and distract from the larger systemic issues affecting their communities.

Trump’s comments serve to justify police violence against black people by painting them as a constant threat and insist that black residents are the problem of Chicago, rather than understand structural inequality in Chicago as the key problem for black residents

Ramsin Canon

I'd add that locally, for as long as I can remember, in the suburbs and exurbs of Illinois, disputes over construction of low-income or even just rental housing often uses the coded language of attracting "Chicago people."

Jenée Desmond-Harris

How do the tweets about Chicago fit in with Trump’s overall messaging strategy about race?

Khadijah Costley White

Well, Trump has consistently described black people as in need of his intervention and “law and order.” What’s particularly ironic about his fixation on Chicago is that it’s a city that has been shown to have one of the most corrupt police forces in the country, from torture and unlawful detention in Homan Square to the police shooting of Laquan McDonald. It’s a city where the so-called wielders of law and order don’t seem to subscribe to either. But Trump is saying more policing is necessary, which fits the pattern of his consistent exaggeration and lies about black violence.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

What does you think someone who takes Trump’s comments at face value understands when they hear his references to Chicago?

Khadijah Costley White

I think they hear proof that black people are their own worst threats, which paints them as in need of white (i.e., “rational”) intervention and discipline. It sets the stage for the white savior trope that has existed since slavery, except here Trump frames himself as savior. It’s a really effective rhetorical tool