Comment: Tuberville’s comments on race reflect on Alabama

Blaming crime on Blacks proves the point that racism is structural and useful to some in power.

By Philip Bump / The Washington Post

The Auburn University Tigers went 13-0 in 2004, one of the best seasons in the school’s history. But they were boxed out of the championship game after ending the season ranked third, a decision that Coach Tommy Tuberville decried loudly and often. Even a decade later, after he’d moved on to the University of Cincinnati, Tuberville expressed his frustration at the season’s outcome.

But Tuberville himself came out of the season well-positioned. He was named coach of the year and secured a new seven-year contract paying him $2 million a year in salary and endorsements. Leading one of Alabama’s leading programs to national glory turned Tuberville into something of a legend in the state.

He did not repeat that success in future years at Auburn, though. Of course, college football, unlike the NFL, depends on a rotating pool of players who are making their way through college. And that 2004 team had a number of exceptional players; four who were drafted into the NFL in the first round and three others who would eventually go on to play in the NFL’s Pro Bowl.

Relevant to this moment: All seven of those players, the ones that helped Tuberville cement his legacy, were Black.

Tuberville was elected to the Senate from Alabama in 2020, easily ousting Democratic incumbent Doug Jones. He earned the endorsement of Donald Trump and soon established himself as staunchly loyal to the president. Even before he was seated in the Senate, he announced his intention to object to the results of the 2020 presidential contest.

So, on Saturday, Tuberville was offered a speaking slot at Trump’s rally for Republican candidates in Nevada. And in that speech he falsely claimed that Democrats actually support criminal activity.

“Some people say, well, they’re soft on crime. No, they’re not soft on crime. They’re pro-crime. They want crime,” Tuberville falsely claimed, to applause. “They want crime because they want to take over what you got. They want to control what you have. They want reparation because they think the people that do the crime are owed that.”

“Reparation,” of course, has a specific meaning in the context of American politics: the idea that providing monetary or other benefits to Black Americans might help dismantle the long-term effects of centuries of enslavement of Black people. In other words, Tuberville is clearly suggesting that “the people that do the crime” are Black, in addition to suggesting that the entirety of the Democratic Party thinks that violence and robbery are acceptable proxies for addressing systemic racial gulfs.

Casting Democrats in the most toxic, negative light possible is, of course, standard fare for right-wing politicians in particular. But Tuberville let that other idea slip: that crime is a function of Black Americans. It’s a grotesque, racist proposition from anyone. That’s certainly more true of a sitting U.S. senator. And more still from one whose celebrity was dependent on the unpaid work of college athletes, many of whom were Black.

But it’s also important coming from a senator from Alabama. This is one of the leading government officials in the state, someone who has no lengthy track record in state politics but someone who nonetheless represents the state in a literal sense on the national stage. And his position is that Black people “do the crime.”

Alabama was in the news recently for another reason. The state is challenging a district court’s ruling that the way it drew congressional boundaries in the wake of the 2020 census violated the Voting Rights Act. That challenge came before the Supreme Court in the case Merrill v. Milligan, with justices hearing oral arguments last week. The state, awarded seven seats in the House, drew district lines that created one district in which half the population was Black; a tactic called “packing.” With so many Black voters in one district, there are fewer in the other six, decreasing the likelihood that those districts might elect Democrats (given how heavily Democratic Black voters are) and therefore decreasing the likelihood that another Black representative might win election. In a state that’s about a quarter Black.

The Voting Rights Act exists because of systemic efforts, mostly in Southern states like Alabama, to exclude Black voters from participating in electoral politics in the decades before the Civil Rights movement. In an amicus brief filed by a group of Alabama-based historians, the lingering effects of both enslavement and historic limits on political power are thoroughly documented. But state leaders and legislators would rather send six Republicans to Washington, and if the Voting Rights Act (hobbled in 2013 on the dubious grounds that it was no longer needed) stands in the way, so be it.

Meanwhile, state prisoners in Alabama recently launched a work stoppage, protesting conditions in the facilities. The Department of Justice filed suit against the state in December 2020 alleging that the state “violated and is continuing to violate the Constitution because its prisons are riddled with prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence.”

Speaking to the New Yorker, journalist Beth Shelburne explained that “the problems of overcrowding, understaffing, violence, and corruption are fundamental to our carceral system, and exist in every jail and prison across the United States, but in Alabama they’re all on steroids.”

This disproportionately affects Black people because Blacks are overrepresented in the state prison population (as they are in most states). This Shelburne attributes to overrepresentation of “people who have been most impacted by the lack of social services, poor education, and widespread poverty tend to be those whom politicians don’t care about”; often meaning, in Alabama, Black people. (See the aforementioned amicus brief.)

Enter the state’s junior senator. Speaking at a rally hosted by the former president, he suggested that crime is not only perpetrated by Blacks but that Democrats encourage the idea so that Black people can “take over what you got”; framing the idea not Only in grotesque racial and political terms but also as a specific threat to his almost exclusively white audience.

The point of the recent focus on race in the political conversation by Black activists has been to call attention to ways in which racism manifests not as people wearing blackface — as Alabama’s governor did in college — but as embedded, structural biases against Black Americans. Things like disproportionate imprisonment or uneven representation.

But sometimes racial hostility also manifests as a U.S. senator blaming Black people for crime.

Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @pbump.

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