Racist Political Mailer Feeds Misinformation in New York

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A sign advertising a bail bonds business is displayed near Brooklyn’s jail and courthouse complex in New York, July 2015.
© 2015 Kathy Willens/AP Photo

Earlier this month, residents in New York’s 17th Congressional District opened their mailboxes to find a mailer disparaging state bail reform efforts and featuring pictures of Black men – one holding an ax, another in a mug shot, and a third wearing a hoodie. This mailer promotes a narrative that is not only misleading about the impact of bail, but also plays into harmful anti-Black stereotypes rooted in our nation’s legacy of slavery.

There is a long American tradition of painting Black men as violent and aggressive for political gain. Perhaps the most infamous example in the modern political era is the use of images of William Horton during the 1988 presidential campaign, which played into white fears of Black criminality and promoted the death penalty. The recent New York mailer continues this shameful political tactic.

This mailer also fits into a larger misinformation campaign around New York’s bail reform law, which went into effect in 2020. The evidence is clear that cash bail reform is not a threat to public safety. Despite this, New York officials have increasingly vilified bail reform, falsely linking these efforts to rising crime rates. In fact, pretrial data in New York City shows that since the state enacted bail reform, over 95 percent of those released were not rearrested on any additional charges. Of the small portion that police re-arrested, only one percent faced a violent felony charge. Though crime rates have gone up and down over the years, the total number of major crimes in New York in 2021 was 41 percent lower than it was in 2000 and 70 percent lower than in the peak year of 1990. According to preliminary data, violent crime has continued to decrease through 2022.

Instead of appeals to racist stereotypes, rollbacks of reforms, and increased funding for police, communities need investments in permanent affordable housing, health care, education, and other non-carceral supports, which research suggests will actually improve community safety.

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