The late Whitney Houston once infamously told Wendy Williams during an interview, “Watch what you say, baby girl. Watch what the f—k you say.”
In the past few weeks, select black activists and voters have more or less been telling Hillary Clinton the same thing while a speech she gave back in 1996 continues to haunt her in 2016. As many Clinton skeptics, Bernie Sanders supporters and random Republicans alike will tell you across social media, the then-first lady referred to some youths engaged in criminal activity as “superpredators” during the speech, in which she was lobbying for a crime bill. In late February, Charlotte, N.C.-based activist Ashley Williams confronted her during a private fundraiser about that speech.
Holding a sign saying, “We have to bring them to heel,” which quotes part of Clinton’s controversial remarks, Williams called on her to “explain for the record” and asked why she “called black youth ‘superpredators.’” After Williams asked why Clinton didn’t address the matter in a prior debate, Clinton said, “You know what? Nobody’s ever asked me before. You’re the first person to ask me, and I’m happy to address it.”
The dominant narrative online has been that Clinton never answered Williams directly, since the activist was whisked away as Clinton supporters called her “rude.” My problem with this depiction is twofold. One, that’s not exactly how it happened; and two, I’m not so much fixated on poor phrasing as I am on the poor decision-making behind even poorer policy.
Speaking with The Nation, when asked whether she was satisfied with Clinton’s response, Williams said: “No, I think that her response reflected Clinton’s inconsistency. But we know that she’s been inconsistent on these issues, and we know that according to her these are not issues that she’s interested in. She’s campaigning around this state right now, trying to get the black vote, and she’s going around saying, ‘It’s time to listen.’ So she had an opportunity to listen last night, and she wasn’t listening.”
There is a reason that Clinton asked Williams at one point, “Do you want to hear the facts or do you just want to talk?” Clinton said this because that’s what Williams did: talk and talk over her when she attempted to speak. A conversation typically goes best when it’s equal parts listening and responding from all participants involved.
I admire what Williams did as far as taking her grievances to a direct target goes. That aside, there is a difference between wanting dialogue and confrontation: Both can lead to substantive exchanges, but the latter is more prone to pure spectacle than the other. Such as what happened here.
Clinton was confronted once again about that “superpredator” remark this week while campaigning in Minneapolis. My reaction is the same. To her credit, Clinton responded to the initial confrontation by way of a statement to the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart: “Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today.”
I agree with Capehart in that the use of “superpredator” was not so much a summation of black youths as it was a jarring descriptor for a particular strain of juveniles who, as Clinton remarked back then, displayed signs of having “no conscience, no empathy.” It is dishonest to pretend that there is not nihilism in certain segments of poorer communities.
That said, I disagree with Capehart’s interpretation of the comment she made after her “superpredator” description: “We can talk about why they ended up that way.” Clinton said it in a dismissive, callous way, when the matter warranted greater consideration. To that end, while it’s nice of her to now tout her history of “lifting up children and young people who’ve been let down by the system or by society,” she turned a blind eye to that situation in 1996 because it wasn’t politically helpful at the time.
In 1994, Clinton’s now-opponent, Bernie Sanders, had the following to say on the floor of the House of Representatives about the crime bill Clinton had been lobbying for:
Mr. Speaker, it is my firm belief that clearly, there are some people in our society who are horribly violent, who are deeply sick and sociopathic, and clearly these people must be put behind bars in order to protect society from them. But it is also my view that through the neglect of our government and through a grossly irrational set of priorities, we are dooming tens of millions of young people to a future of bitterness, misery, hopelessness, drugs, crime and violence.
And yet, one week later Sanders voted for that bill anyway—a bill co-sponsored by the current vice president of the first black president. It was not the final version, but Sanders voted for that one, too.
The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act is a bit of a complicated matter, but the obsession over “superpredators” reminds me of what grates my nerves about the “Donald Trump is so-and-so” media chain: It’s distracting—a fixation on what’s loudest as opposed to what’s truly detrimental.
I am all for holding people accountable, but I believe that getting caught up in comments that have arguably been twisted keeps us away from certain realities—say, no matter how nice or mean something sounds, black folks can be thrown under the bus in one era and have the red carpet rolled out by politicians in another. The question is whether Clinton or even Sanders would do it again.
I dare to believe that politicians can—gasp—recognize their mistakes and change their minds over time, but that would require greater focus on policy than on rhetoric. That’s not to discourage anyone from exercising his or her right to protest. Do what you feel compelled to do.
Still, there are some questions we need to be asking, and I hope someone asks who hasn’t already made up his or her mind beforehand.
Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him on Twitter.