Rough nights in Vegas are to be expected, but Michael Bloomberg will probably want to forget his sooner than most. Before Wednesday’s debate, the billionaire ex-mayor of New York City had coasted into the upper tier of Democratic primary candidates on the strength of an unprecedented advertising blitz and campaign hiring spree, fueled by his seemingly inexhaustible fortune. A concerted teardown at the hands of his fellow candidates was expected in Nevada. They didn’t disappoint. From the outset, Bloomberg’s opponents used their first opportunity sharing a debate stage with him to remind America why this election’s end will be a mercy. It was bruising and combative. From Bloomberg’s history of sexual harassment to his criminal-justice record, few topics were off limits. And for the most part, the billionaire responded with the kind of glib dismissiveness and all-around lack of charisma one might expect from a man with too much money to require a good personality.
Whether the ex-mayor’s supporters will stand by him over the coming days and weeks remains to be seen. But the expanding discourse around his past behavior has occasioned some telling post mortems. One appeared on the morning of the debate in the New York Times Opinion section, where Shira A. Scheindlin, a retired U.S. district judge, wrote about her 2013 ruling in Floyd vs. City of New York — the case that determined then-Mayor Bloomberg’s use of “stop and frisk,” the police practice of rousting overwhelmingly innocent black and Latino New Yorkers on the basis of “reasonable suspicion,” to be in violation of the Constitution. In her op-ed, Scheindlin stands by that ruling and her assessment of the practice’s racism. But she’s equally preoccupied with a question that, in her estimation, “many people are wondering” about: “[Is Bloomberg himself] a racist?” Her answer: “I don’t think so. Not if you look at many other valuable things he has done for minorities.” She adds that Bloomberg’s use of stop and frisk “does not mean he hates black people,” and “[the] most [she] can say is he had a pure heart but an empty head.”
Bloomberg as the befuddled, well-meaning but ultimately errant — and apologetically so — implementer of the most contested New York policing practice of the early 21st century is a new look for him, and one the ex-mayor himself has tried to mainstream. In his highly publicized mea culpa for stop and frisk — submitted just as he was about to hit the campaign trail in November — Bloomberg characterized it as a mistake that got out of hand: “I didn’t understand the full impact that stops were having on the black and Latino communities.” Scheindlin has a similar interpretation: “[The] stop and frisk program was very poorly executed.” She writes that, more likely than not, Bloomberg believed he was actually protecting black people, “who were disproportionately the victims of crime.” Unfortunately, he was led astray by then-NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly, “who told him that young black men would leave their guns at home if they thought they would be stopped.” The result — a system of mass surveillance and targeted harassment designed to terrorize black and Latino New Yorkers into a state of cowering obeisance — was, in Bloomberg and Scheindlin’s view, an unintended side effect of a well-intentioned effort.
Scheindlin’s defense of Bloomberg the man, as distinct from Bloomberg the elected official, concludes with a call for unity toward defeating America’s real collective enemy: President Trump.
If [Bloomberg] is the best person to head the Democratic ticket this fall, then his failed stop and frisk policy should not prevent him from assuming that most important role. After all, defeating a committed racist — one who called for the death penalty of the Central Park Five and who called the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., “very fine people” — should be everyone’s priority.
By this logic, Trump is a “committed” racist whereas Bloomberg — if he can be considered a racist at all — is an accidental one. Lost in this dichotomy is that neither is a particularly helpful descriptor. Gallons of ink have been spilled and airwaves clogged, for example, debating whether bigotry is embedded in Trump’s heart. None seem to have changed the fact that a hefty share of his rhetoric and policies train racist vitriol on Latinos and Muslims, all in the name of restoring a glorified American past that caters unambiguously to white desires.
It’s no mystery how we got here. As legal challenges to Jim Crow formed the basis of federal anti-discrimination laws in the mid-20th century, open expressions of racism — both legal and rhetorical — started to become taboo in polite company. People invested in keeping racist hierarchies and social relations were compelled to disguise their intentions in more colorblind terms. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva coined the phrase “racism without racists” to describe the resulting dynamic, where disparities in housing and education came to be perpetuated with the legal pretext of “separate but equal” all but abandoned. Americans have been mired ever since in unhelpful disputes over whether or not racist outcomes derive from evil poisoning the hearts of the men and women whose actions produce them. Racism in many circles has become a question of whether a given individual is fundamentally good or bad. Ominously absent is a healthy discussion about how racism is first and foremost a rationalization for the exercise of power and the allocation of opportunity, regardless of how personally virtuous those who perpetuate it are.
Luckily for the confused, Bloomberg’s past remarks render most of these nuances moot. He’s made it clear on several occasions that stop and frisk only targeted black people and Latinos because there’s something wrong with black people and Latinos. In 2011, he characterized low employment rates among black and Latino boys and men in New York as exacerbated by how an “enormous cohort” of them “don’t know how to find jobs, don’t know what their skillsets are, don’t know how to behave in the workplace where they have to work collaboratively and collectively.” This inability to behave, in Bloomberg’s estimation, applies to their habit of committing all the crimes as well. “[The] way you should get the guns out of [black and Latino kids’] hands is throw them against the wall and frisk them,” he said in a 2015 speech at the Aspen Institute. Kid gloves are no match for a culture so depraved. Bloomberg’s operating principle as mayor was that iron-fisted law enforcement was the best solution to a set of problems that, in reality, could be traced to the poverty and despair he encouraged as custodian of a city marked by skyrocketing living costs and depleting avenues for social mobility, especially among the poor.
If he’s truly seen the error of this analysis, the ex-mayor’s timing is suspicious and more than a little opportunistic. Bloomberg needs black votes to win the primary. The launch of his campaign was the absolute latest he could’ve plausibly expressed atonement for such a liability. And even if he’s sincere, he has supplemented his apology by lying about his motivations and rectification efforts. Wednesday’s debate saw him repeat the fabrication that, once he learned of its racist asymmetry, he dramatically reduced the use of stop and frisk while in office. The truth is that legal advocates and black and Latino residents had been beating the drum about its racism for years. Bloomberg ignored them, and fought tooth and nail to overturn Scheindlin’s 2013 ruling about the policy’s constitutionality. Any significant reductions in the use of stop and frisk came after a court order compelled him to implement them. Even after he left office, Bloomberg continued to champion the practice, all but ignoring how crime rates in New York had continued to plummet following its vast reduction.
It’s not totally clear what useful conclusions we as voters are meant to draw regarding the question Scheindlin posed in her op-ed — whether or not Bloomberg himself is a racist — that aren’t best illuminated by the mayor’s own record on the topic. Nor is it for the retired white judge to say if Bloomberg’s racist policies are offset by the things he’s done to help black communities, or whether that makes him an unambiguously preferable alternative to Trump. What’s clear is that claiming an official isn’t personally racist, despite what their remarks and policies convey, is most often a crutch. It’s an exhortation that we ignore what’s happening before our eyes and simply trust that powerful people have our best interests at heart. In this case, it’s a clarion call for Bloomberg’s presidential campaign — and in favor of empowering him for fear of his incumbent alternative. We’re meant to forgive that Bloomberg himself has given us plenty to fear, and take solace that he purportedly did so because he’s dense rather than evil. Most important, we’re supposed to give him our votes and pray against all evidence to the contrary that more power begets better judgment.