Recapping and Fact Checking the Last Presidential Debate of 2020 Pt. 2: Racism and Criminal Justice

In the second part of our series recapping and fact checking the last presidential debate of 2020, we examine the candidates’ stances on another issue you, our readers, view as important: racism.

RACISM

TRUMP

“No one has done more for the black community than Donald Trump,” Trump claimed, referring to himself in the third person. He says no one, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, has done more for the black community than he. 

Myriad historians have said that Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, is the modern president who has done the most for the black community. It is widely known that Abraham Lincoln did not feel strongly about ending slavery in America, anyway. Johnson was the one who overcame partisanship to grant equal rights for African Americans in response to the Civil Rights Movement. Conversely, Trump has called the Black Lives Matter movement, what many view as an iteration of the Civil Rights Movement, “terrible” and “hateful.” 

Trump says that he understands why black parents have to have the infamous “talk” with their children, and as a result of that, has implemented criminal reforms, prison reforms, economic opportunity zones in conjunction with Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), and has given record funding to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). However, the New York Times reports that Trump’s opportunity zones, meant to reinvest in predominantly black communities, have really only benefitted wealthy developers. Rutgers University professor Marybeth Gasman, who launched the Minority Serving Institution at Rutgers (with a focus on HBCUs), says that Congress was really the one who drew up the budget for funding HBCUs, and that President Trump merely signed onto the bill after holding off on doing so for a while. The Washington Post reports that black unemployment rates, another one of the achievements Trump touts, started to decline while former President Barack Obama was still in office, and that black unemployment rates have increased since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the US response to which President Trump has overseen. 

Something President Trump has implemented that does have merit, however, is the 2018 First Step Act. The Act shortens sentences for some inmates who have committed nonviolent crimes, and allows judges to ignore mandatory minimum sentencing rules in some states. This benefits the black community, who are disproportionately jailed for nonviolent drug-related offenses. The Act also earmarks increased funding for job training programs. 3,100 offenders were released after the passage of the First Step Act, some of whom were actually charged with violent crimes, and others had their sentences shortened. The First Step Act also improved conditions for pregnant incarcerated women. 

That being said, President Trump has voiced favor for the death penalty and solitary confinement. His handling of Black Lives Matter protests was questionable, sending out police officers to forcefully disperse protesters in front of the White House so he could hold up a Bible at the church across the street. He also may or may not have been responsible for sending out unmarked federal officers to nab protesters off the street of Portland, Oregon. Trump also endorsed 17-year-old Kenosha, Wisconsin shooter Kyle Rittenhouse, saying he was acting in self defense when he violently attacked protesters. Infamously, Trump praised neo-nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia after the 2017 riots, saying they were “fine people.” Recently, at the first presidential debate, President Trump refused to condemn white supremacy and instead told alt-right, neo-nazi group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” Trump has been widely criticized for his racism well before he was elected in 2016.

“I am the least racist person in this room,” Trump claimed during the debate. “I don’t know what to say; they can say anything. I can’t see anyone in the audience because it’s so dark, but I don’t care because I am the least racist person in this room.”

Despite President Trump’s claims and the First Step Act he repeatedly cites, it would appear that President Trump is not indeed antiracist and does not endorse the Black Lives Matter movement.

BIDEN

Biden claimed, “[President Trump] is a dog whistle as big as a foghorn.”

One of the first things Biden did was criticize Trump for commuting too few sentences. Under the Obama administration, Biden worked with the former president to issue more than a thousand commutations and pardons, for a total clemency approval rate of 5%. While Biden falsely claimed that Trump had granted clemency to just 20 people (it has actually been 38 over his four years), President Trump has a clemency approval rate of 0.03% as gleaned from the Department of Justice’s figures.  

Biden’s plan for criminal justice reform includes offering money to states to fund rehabilitation programs for those addicted to drugs instead of arresting and incarcerating them. Building off of President Obama’s initiatives to ban questions regarding criminal history on employment applications, Biden said he plans to encourage state and local governments to do the same. He will also incentivize states to restore voting rights to released felons, repeal mandatory minimum sentence laws, and prevent and reduce incarceration. He, too, however, does not advocate for the reduction of the police force. Instead, he’ll advocate for greater investment into disproportionately targeted communities and more police training, giving $300 million to the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS).  

Biden claimed he and Obama released 38,000 from federal prisons during their tenure, but PolitiFact, run by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, says that figure is actually closer to 12,000. Biden actually helped advance a controversial crime bill in the 1970s and ‘80s that helped put tens of thousands of young black men in jail for often nonviolent drug-related offenses. Biden has since admitted that his “tough on crime” stance was a mistake and pledged to fundamentally change the criminal justice system. 

Trump, however, attacked Biden for not changing the system during his nearly 50 years in Washington—a critique of Biden that has come up repeatedly among Biden’s challengers. “You know what, Joe? You’re all talk and no action,” Trump said. 

“There is institutional racism in America,” Biden said. “We’ve constantly been moving the needle closer and closer to inclusion, [and] this is the first president that’s said, ‘Nah we’re not doing that’…It’s about accumulating the ability to have wealth as well as be free from violence.”