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Superpredators And Scapegoats

What should we learn from Hillary's words?

In February, Hillary Clinton apologized for using the racially charged term “superpredators” in a 1996 speech to describe the threat of crime from juvenile criminals. These comments were both in defense of the Clinton administration’s 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act — a bill widely considered to have contributed to mass incarceration, and which Bill Clinton himself renounced last year — and in support of building on that bill with even more crime legislation.

Given how bad the Clinton administration’s policies on crime were (and they were bad), and how awful Hillary’s remarks were, it’s tempting to treat both as personal failings — the result of ignorance, hostility, or carelessness. We treat racism like that often in this country, as a kind of secular sin from which transgressors must repent and turn. And if the sinner is a public figure, we have to judge whether their repentance is genuine or not. This impulse to always treat racism as a matter of the heart is a mistake, especially when it comes to politicians.

I am not the Clintons' therapist or pastor. I don’t care about how they feel or the condition of their souls. I am interested in actions, which means I’m only interested in their motives insofar as they help me predict how they’ll act in the future. Whatever is in their hearts, both Bill Clinton’s crime laws and Hillary Clinton’s defense of them were intentional reactions to the era’s politics, just as both of their apologies are a product of the current political environment — suggesting that if the winds shift again, so, too, will the Clintons.

To understand the Clintons now and in the future, we have to first head back to an ancient time: the early '90s. As Hillary’s defenders often point out, crime was a serious problem then, and they’re right. Crime rates rose throughout the '70s and '80s, and by 1990 had reached levels nobody had seen before. Everyone was thinking about how to address this, but at the time, nobody could have known that crime rates were actually peaking and would decline rapidly for the next two decades. We’ve never been able to solve with certainty why this fluctuation occurred, but it likely didn’t have much to do with the relevant policies of the '90s that were specifically designed to address it. That is, crime probably would have declined whether those laws were in place or not. At the time, however, this was less than obvious.

Even though it was a legitimate issue, Clinton-era criminal-justice legislation was also a political calculation. Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992 after 12 years of Republican administrations. He did it by moving the Democratic party to the right, and by bringing working- and middle-class whites who had voted for Ronald Reagan back into the fold. By shedding their “soft-on-crime” image (read: too accommodating of blacks and Latinos), Democrats hoped to deny the GOP a campaign issue and hold together a coalition that could win presidential elections. I’m not guessing here; we have written evidence from Bill Clinton’s own advisers: “You have a chance to seize one of the most powerful realignment issues (along with health care) that will come your way, at a time when concern about crime is the highest it has been since Richard Nixon stole the issue from the Democrats in 1968.”

According to the White House, the 1994 crime bill was “a vehicle to communicate to the public a set of strongly-held values that the President embraces, as well as the President’s tough stance on crime and criminals.” And it was a large, punitive piece of legislation. It funded new prisons, eliminated inmate education, and provided incentives for states to incarcerate convicts for longer periods of time. Still, President Clinton wanted more. In his 1996 State of the Union address, he first credited the 1994 bill with a downward trend in violent crime (which had actually begun three years before its passage), then challenged Congress to stay the course, before announcing that he was directing the FBI to “seek authority to prosecute as adults teenagers who maim and kill like adults.”

A couple days later, Hillary Clinton visited Keene State College, a small liberal arts school in New Hampshire, to stump for her husband. The core of her speech was essentially a condensed version of President Clinton’s State of the Union address, and when she got to the section addressing crime, she said this: “They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘superpredators.’ No conscience. No empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”

The way some people are talking about these remarks now, it’s as if they were made during a major policy speech or a part of a stump speech that Hillary delivered several times, rather than given at a small college in New Hampshire and aired on C-SPAN in the pre-YouTube, pre-social media era. At the time, media summaries of the event made no note of this section of her remarks, which appears to have been delivered just once. It seems unlikely that Clinton’s use of the term “superpredators” in this speech increased the term’s visibility very much, let alone had any broader material effect. Given this, it’s understandable that many have treated it as no more than a campaign gaffe -- a skeleton in the closet to be exhumed and given a proper burial, with an appropriately regretful apology from Hillary.

And apologize she did, after being confronted by an activist at a campaign event on February 24. When Washington Post writer Jonathan Capehart later asked Clinton for comment, she responded, “In that speech, I was talking about the impact violent crime and vicious drug cartels were having on communities across the country and the particular danger they posed to children and families. Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today.”

This apology is notable because it is an apology for her words — not for the ideas behind them. This makes the apology itself a deceptive elision, reducing the offense to one of an unfortunate choice of language. Still, in his piece, Capehart accepts Hillary’s premise about what her mistake was, implying that she was tin-eared and inarticulate at best, offensive and insensitive at worst.

The exchange exemplifies the weird way we elevate the words used to articulate ideas over the ideas themselves -- form over function, propriety and politeness over content, style above substance. It’s one of the more disturbing facets of politics-as-marketing, that any idea can be justified so long as it is contained in the right packaging, couched in the correct language.

“Superpredator” is an awful-sounding word, it’s true, but the main problem with it is the ideas it represents, not that something about it makes you cringe when it hits your ears. That’s why the sound-bite summary that you often hear of Hillary’s remarks -- usually something like “Hillary called black kids superpredators” -- collapses the charge into something both too simplistic and easily deflected; Hillary’s statement doesn’t contain any explicit references to race at all. So if you don’t know the history of the term, you might — incorrectly — assume that the problem with using it is that it just “sounds” racist, in the same way that referring to “thugs” sounds racist in certain contexts. After all, people still use the word “predator” when talking about crime without invoking any racial connotations at all.

Ultimately, though, “superpredator” isn’t like “thug”; its racial connotations aren’t separate from its original meaning. In other words, superpredator is itself an inherently racist term — not an unfortunate slip of the tongue in the wrong context. To see that, we’ve got to hop back into our time machine and look at the ideas that the word represented when Hillary used it.

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Hillary Clinton in 1994.

The term “superpredator,” in the context used by Hillary, was popularized about 20 years ago by political scientist John Dilulio Jr. In a 1995 article, “The Coming of the Super-Predators” (most people would later drop the quaint hyphen), published in conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, Dilulio darkly warned of an impending, apocalyptically dangerous crime wave from a new breed of criminal: “hardened, remorseless juveniles” who “kill or maim on impulse, without any intelligible motive,” psychologically stunted kids unable to see the relationship between action and consequence.

Who were these kids, and where did they come from? Dilulio’s prototypical superpredators grew up in urban environments “surrounded by deviant, delinquent, and criminal adults in abusive, violence-ridden, fatherless, Godless, and jobless settings.” If this thinly coded description wasn’t transparent enough, Dilulio added that “the trouble will be greatest in black inner-city neighborhoods." (He’d later dispense with the pretense of colorblindness altogether in an essay for City Journal titled “My Black Crime Problem, and Ours.”)

The article is thin on evidence and analytically sloppy -- for instance, Dilulio says that superpredators are “radically self-regarding” and “regret getting caught,” but in the next paragraph says “they fear neither the stigma of arrest nor the pain of imprisonment” -- but its thrust is unmistakable: The country was under a rising threat from more than a quarter of a million violent, remorseless sociopaths, most of them clad in the bodies of black boys. Just like Hillary Clinton when she said that these so-called superpredators must “be brought to heel,” Dilulio writes as if he’s describing a pack of feral animals, not human beings.

Some people have implied that perhaps Hillary Clinton didn’t quite intend to use the term as Dilulio had (but in some other, unspecified way in which the racist connotations are miraculously diluted, I guess?). This seems implausible, since, as Dilulio says himself in “The Coming of the Super-Predators,” the Clinton administration had previously invited him to the White House to advise them on crime policy. You can chalk that up to coincidence if you like, but to me, the simplest and most likely explanation is that Hillary Clinton learned the term from Dilulio and his work, that she intended to use it in the same way that he did, and that the Clintons used this racist narrative as a guide for creating and promoting policy that harmed black people.

The word “superpredator” is part of the long lineage of language used to strip black people of their humanity in order to justify treating them inhumanely. It became popular because it put a clever name to what was already in the air, and this dehumanization has had real, material consequences. It is why black children are seen as inherently guilty, why police officers are more likely to use violent force against black children if they are accused of a crime, why people are more willing to condone police violence if it is against black bodies. It is this stripping of humanity from black bodies, the stripping of childhood from black children, that leads to police officers looking at a 12-year-old with a toy and seeing the threat of an adult “active shooter,” and it is that same dehumanization that saw this as reasonable and allowed those police officers to walk free.

As important as language is in shaping the way we think, Clinton’s superpredator comments weren’t just ugly rhetoric. They were also translated into policy. You can see the concrete results of viewing crime this way when you look at the 1994 crime bill. For example, stripping funding for inmate education makes sense in a world in which convicts are irredeemable and rehabilitation is impossible. But you can also see this in other laws the Clinton administration pushed, like trying to pass legislation to make it easier to try juveniles as adults, or in lesser-known legislation that President Clinton passed in 1996: The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act made it harder for people convicted of crimes at the state level to have their sentences reviewed by federal courts, and the Prison Litigation Reform Act made it harder for prisoners to appeal to federal courts when their rights were violated by the prison system. These laws weren’t really about preventing crime or meting out justice, they were about projecting an attitude of being “tough” on criminals.

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President Bill Clinton speaks about his crime bill to police officers at the Department of Justice on April 11, 1994.

It is fair to be angry at the Clintons for their actions, but if we attempt to make them our sacrificial scapegoats, we run the risk of underplaying how deeply the roots of mass incarceration run, and how hard we will have to work to rip them out. Because the Clintons, despite their best efforts, did not usher in some new era of the American prison state. The ugly truth of mass incarceration is that it’s not a top-down phenomenon — that is, not primarily governed at the federal level. The instruments of our prison state are more intimate than that. They operate at a local level, at community meetings and town halls, in schools and state legislatures.

We make another mistake if we treat the Clintons’ actions as misguided functions of a racially retrograde era, as if they happened because the Democratic Party and its base was less enlightened then, and as if their willingness to support criminal justice reform now means that things are better. This is the wrong lesson to draw.

Criminal justice reform is a part of the Democratic agenda not because of lawmakers’ repentant hearts, but because of simple mathematics. Blacks make up a larger part of the Democratic base than they did in the '90s, and they are the ones with the most to gain from a fairer, less punitive justice system. And flat crime rates have opened a window through which reform might be politically feasible. Forget about principles or values. It’s in the Democratic Party’s interests — in Hillary Clinton’s interests — to emphasize criminal justice reform in this election cycle, to make all the right sounds about “systemic racism” and “intersectionality” in order to win black votes. And it is even in her interests, if she is elected, to try to turn campaign promises into concrete policy.

But the fact that the political math comes out this way now doesn’t mean it always will. It’s easy to imagine, for instance, a world in which an upswing in urban crime rates opens up a fissure in the Democratic Party, between the wealthy whites who make up the Democratic donor class and the African-Americans who have become the Democratic Party’s most reliable voters, a world in which taking up the “tough on crime” mantle seems like a political play that might pay off.

What this means for black people is that we need to stay vigilant even in a time when it seems like our concerns are being prioritized. We need make it clear to Hillary that despite her winning the black vote in the Democratic primary (so far), our love is not unconditional, but contingent and provisional -- just like Hillary Clinton’s turn to criminal justice reform. We need to keep it in her political and electoral best interests to advance policies that are in our best interests, and to remind the party that we have not forgotten, and will not allow those who seek to represent it to forget either.