Several minutes into his first televised showdown with Beto O’Rourke on Friday, Senator Ted Cruz dove into a controversy that had dominated right-wing media, yet escaped the attention of the left.
A moderator asked Cruz about his mealy-mouthed stance on the death of Botham Jean, an unarmed black man gunned down inside his own apartment earlier this month by Amber Guyger, a white Dallas police officer who mistook Jean’s home for her own and was later fired. Cruz clearly had been waiting for this moment. Jean’s death was just “a tragic mistake,” he said. With supreme unctuousness, he chastised O’Rourke for calling for the officer’s termination, and said his reaction fit a “pattern” of anti-police bias.
“Just this week, Congressman O’Rourke described law enforcement, described police officers as modern-day Jim Crow,” Cruz said at the debate. “I think it is offensive to call police officers modern day Jim Crow.” Right around that point in the debate, Cruz’s Twitter account shared a video of O’Rourke delivering a passionate speech at a black church in Dallas and demanding justice for Jean’s death. The Cruz camp captioned it: “In Beto O’Rourke’s own words #TXSenateDebate.”
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) September 21, 2018
The left, naturally, sneered at what appeared to be yet another example of the Cruz campaign highlighting his challenger’s finer moments. But that reaction entirely misses a larger and more disturbing point. Cruz’s performance on Friday shows how conservative politicians have turned law-enforcement politics into a culture war issue on the right. The alarmist narrative is couched in “public safety” but ignores falling crime rates and the work of police chiefs, prosecutors and community groups across Texas to build more equitable and accountable systems of policing.
It’s an alternate reality detached from both the facts on the ground and the history of the criminal justice system — particularly when you consider the context of O’Rourke’s “modern-day Jim Crow” line.
O’Rourke had actually described the whole criminal justice system, not just cops, as “the new Jim Crow,” cribbing from Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking 2010 book, last week during a forum at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college established about a decade after the Civil War on land that used to be a slave plantation. Prairie View students have long accused white Waller County officials of trying to harass and intimidate them out of voting. In July 2015, the town made international headlines when a white state trooper stopped Sandra Bland as she drove down the main drag leading to campus, ripping her out of her car and then slamming her to the ground over a minor traffic violation. Three months later, a white Prairie View police officer tased a black city council member for refusing to leave the area outside his own apartment.
Those plantation roots, combined with generations of disenfranchisement and heavy-handed policing, feed what former Prairie View Mayor Frank Jackson has called “post-traumatic slave syndrome.” During O’Rourke’s visit to Prairie View last week, one student referenced that legacy before asking the aspiring U.S. senator: “How would you advocate, fight for, and what legislation would you push to see that the descendants of former slaves get what we are justly due?” O’Rourke, who’d spent nearly an hour discussing everything from criminal justice reform to the racial wealth gap, asked for the audience’s advice in figuring out the right response.
O’Rourke then turned to the roots of mass incarceration. As an example, he pointed to the 95 bodies construction workers stumbled upon while building a new school in nearby Sugar Land this summer. The bodies are believed to be the remains of convict laborers who continued toiling on sugar cane plantations long after the abolition of slavery. Researchers say the discovery could shed light on a convict-leasing system that proliferated across the South after emancipation — one that forced former slaves back into back-breaking labor in the fields.
In July, when Fort Bend ISD officials toured reporters around the site, an archeologist studying the bodies told me the remains show the wear and tear of brutally long and hard labor in the fields, including massive musculature and misshapen bones. Reginald Moore, a former guard at Sugar Land’s old state prison farm, has spent more than a decade researching convict-leasing in Texas, pushing state and local officials to confront the region’s painful history.
To Moore, the bodies link the prison system to chattel slavery. “They can’t deny this history,” he told me in July, standing near the graves. “They can’t ignore it anymore, not with these bodies out here.”
O’Rourke linked the discovery in Sugar Land to our current system of mass incarceration.
“This was after slavery and Reconstruction,” he told the crowd in Prairie View. “If we’re talking about criminal justice reform, let’s talk about where this problem started: When contractors needed labor, they would talk to local law enforcement, who would arrest African Americans who were idling, for petty crimes or frivolous offenses.
“People became convicts solely by the dint of the color of their skin,” O’Rourke said. Then he brought the conversation to the present, enraging conservatives, cops and Cruz in the process:
“That injustice, which many more people here than I know firsthand, continues to persist today. That system of suspecting somebody solely based on the color of their skin, searching somebody solely based on the color of their skin, stopping that person solely based on the color of their skin, shooting someone solely based on the color of their skin, throwing the book at that person, solely based on the color of their skin — it is why some have called this, and this is an apt description, the new Jim Crow.”
Eventually O’Rourke circled back to the question he couldn’t answer. “How do we make something right that is so profoundly wrong? I don’t know.”
The crowd clapped anyway, cheering a politician who at least acknowledges that history, even when he doesn’t have the answers.