When Black Lives Matter activist Ashley Williams was kicked out of a Hillary Clinton fundraiser in North Carolina in February, she made headlines. Why? Because Williams demanded an apology from the Democratic presidential nominee for her use of the term “superpredators” during a 1996 speech in New Hampshire.
As anyone who has even been half paying attention to the 2016 election is aware, Clinton used the term while whipping up support for then-President Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill. Yes, the same one that Sen. Bernie Sanders voted for and then-Sen. Joe Biden authored. Though Hillary Clinton didn’t apologize for the remarks, she later acknowledged during a spin with Jonathan Capehart that she shouldn’t have used the term and wouldn’t use it today.
That’s all well and good, but using the term “superpredators” was completely in line with the racial dog-whistling that Clinton is currently known for doing in order to appeal to other Third Way Democrats and moderate Republicans—and the record needs to reflect that, even in the face of Trump hysteria.
Unequivocally, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is a demonstrably misogynistic white supremacist who is unprepared to move into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. And the fear of that horrifying reality has led some of Clinton’s most fervent supporters to become political revisionists. This was most recently evidenced after the first presidential debate of the 2016 election season.
After Trump brought up the 20-year-old statement between sniffs—again indulging in the “Who’s the most racist?” game both he and Clinton love to play—some Clinton supporters jumped to her defense. “Wait, you’re not looking at ‘superpredators’ in context,” some of them said, “because if you did, you’d know she was just talking about drug cartels, not black boys.”
In fact—wait for it—one woman even told me that it was racist for black people to assume that Clinton was equating gangsters with black children. Imagine that.
To clear up any misconceptions and correct any revisions, let’s make it plain: The term “superpredator” is absolutely a racist term that was specifically deployed to stereotype and target black children in the 1990s with the intention of locking them up to protect terrified white people from “bad [black] dudes.” Period.
John DiIulio Jr., a former aide to President George W. Bush and currently a professor of politics, religion and civil society at the University of Pennsylvania, is the man who coined the term “superpredator” in 1995. In a piece titled, “The Coming of the Super-Predator,” written in November of that year, he wrote:
There is even some evidence that juveniles are doing homicidal violence in “wolf packs.” Indeed, a 1993 study found that juveniles committed about a third of all homicides against strangers, often murdering their victim in groups of two or more. Violent youth crime, like all serious crime, is pre-dominantly intra-racial, not interfacial. The surge in violent youth crime has been most acute among black inner-city males.
While the trouble will be greatest in black inner-city neighborhoods, other places are also certain to have burgeoning youth-crime problems that will spill over into upscale central-city districts, inner-ring suburbs, and even the rural heartland.
Dilulio was invited to discuss juvenile crime with President Clinton in 1995. He says that over the course of a three-and-a-half-hour meeting, Bill Clinton “took copious notes and asked lots of questions.” In describing the meeting in December of 2015, Dilulio, once again, went back to his favorite racist myth:
The superpredators are radically self-regarding. They regret getting caught. For themselves, they prefer pleasure and freedom to incarceration and death. Under some conditions, they are affectionate and loyal to fellow gang members or relatives, but not even moms or grandmoms are sacred to them; as one prisoner quipped, “crack killed everybody’s ‘mama.” And they place zero value on the lives of their victims, whom they reflexively dehumanize as just so much worthless “white trash” if white, or by the usual racial or ethnic epithets if black or Hispanic.
On the horizon, therefore, are tens of thousands of severely morally impoverished juvenile superpredators. They are perfectly capable of committing the most heinous acts of physical violence for the most trivial reasons (for example, a perception of slight disrespect or the accident of being in their path). They fear neither the stigma of arrest nor the pain of imprisonment. They live by the meanest code of the meanest streets, a code that reinforces rather than restrains their violent, hair-trigger mentality. In prison or out, the things that superpredators get by their criminal behavior—sex, drugs, money—are their own immediate rewards. Nothing else matters to them. So for as long as their youthful energies hold out, they will do what comes “naturally”: murder, rape, rob, assault, burglarize, deal deadly drugs and get high.
There is no room for interpretation here, only this: “Superpredators” was unambiguously a term meant to malign, stereotype and target black and Latino youths. It was not about raceless, faceless “drug cartels”; the Clintons knew exactly whom they were going after, and they did just that—just as Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan did before them.
“We’re making some progress,” Hillary Clinton said in the now infamous 1996 New Hampshire speech. “ … Much of it is related to the initiative called ‘community policing.’ Because we have finally gotten more police officers on the street. That was one of the goals that the president had when he pushed the crime bill that was passed in 1994. …
“But we also have to have an organized effort against gangs,” Clinton continued. “Just as in a previous generation we had an organized effort against the mob. We need to take these people on. They are often connected to big drug cartels, 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.”
Bring the superpredators to heel.
In 1993, after Washington state passed the first “three strikes” law and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (aka the crime bill) was introduced, television coverage of crime more than doubled from 1992. I wrote on The Root about how even today, media injustice is killing black America.
When the crime bill passed in 1994, it was with the help of 23 members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the support of NIMBY black community leaders who believed that increased punitive punishment would save “good” children from “bad” children. Professor Michelle Alexander explained that some of these leaders were expecting reinvestment in black communities—schools, better housing, health care and jobs. But that’s not what happened.
Before the 1994 crime bill could make it through the House, it was stripped of the Racial Justice Act, which would have allowed death row inmates to use data showing racial inequities in sentencing. The bill was also stripped of $3.3 billion—two-thirds of it from prevention programs. A provision that would have made 16,000 low-level drug offenders eligible for early release was also removed.
And in 1995, Dilulio was waving his “superpredators” flag, which turned out to be a complete lie. That didn’t matter, though, because the political mechanisms had already been activated. More states would soon be passing their own version of “three strikes” laws, and they would be awarded Truth in Sentencing grants to build and expand prisons.
“[Dilulio’s] prediction wasn’t just wrong; it was exactly the opposite,’’ said Franklin E. Zimring, professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley and director of the university’s Earl Warren Legal Institute, in 2001. “His theories on superpredators were utter madness.”
HRC made her “superpredators” statement in 1996 while deep poverty was beginning to increase thanks to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which ushered in the age of time limits, stricter work requirements and less assistance (pdf) for those in deep poverty. This disproportionately affected black families, even more so in the Deep South, and the prison-industrial complex was expanding at a steady clip.
At the time, Clinton’s mentor Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, said of Bill Clinton, “His signature on this pernicious bill makes a mockery of his pledge not to hurt children.” As recently as 2007, Edelman said that the Clintons were “not friends in politics”:
We profoundly disagreed with the forms of the welfare reform bill, and we said so. We were for welfare reform, I am for welfare reform, but we need good jobs, we need adequate work incentives, we need minimum wage to be decent wage and livable wage, we need health care, we need transportation, we need to invest preventively in all of our children to prevent them ever having to be on welfare.
Dilulio co-authored Body Count in 1996—the same year that Hillary Clinton made the “superpredators” statement and the same year that PRWORA was passed. This is a book that further stigmatized drugs and called for a ramping up of the war against black and brown communities, as well as tough-on-crime legislation to cure society’s ills. His predictions of unhinged black and brown youths rising up in violent rage, too high on their own supply to know any better, directly contradicted 1995 national juvenile-crime data showing that crime among youths 18 and younger was on the decline for the first time in a decade.
Despite this, more prisons were built, incarceration rates and poverty increased, and the war on drugs continued.
Bring the superpredators to heel.
The myth of black predatory behavior and criminality has played a role in the current state-sanctioned street executions and systemic criminalization of black people. In 2015 Bill Clinton acknowledged his role in expanding mass incarceration, telling CNN:
The problem is the way it was written and implemented is we cast too wide a net and we had too many people in prison. And we wound up … putting so many people in prison that there wasn’t enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out so they could live productive lives.
Still, when his legacy was called into question while stumping for his wife in Philadelphia earlier this year, he snapped at activists holding a sign that read: “Black youth are not superpredators”:
I don’t know how you would describe the gang leaders who got 13-year-olds hopped up on crack and sent them out in the streets to murder other African-American children! Maybe you thought they were good citizens, [Hillary] didn’t. You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter.
Hillary Clinton did not distance herself from that statement.
As I’ve written previously, the racism that peeked through the fabric of Clinton’s 2008 presidential run against then-Sen. Barack Obama was merely an extension of 1996 “superpredators” Clinton—and it is that Clinton we still see struggling with herself today on issues of race.
Supporters can say that she’s evolved; that may even be true. Despite her long-standing criticisms of Clinton, Edelman appeared in a campaign spot for her in June. Thanks to a talented crew of black women around her and a movement that will win, Clinton has learned the language of social justice and dismantling systems of oppressions—though she still has not spoken directly to white people as she said she’d “maybe” do. Her criminal-justice platform, which she has stated that she hopes will right some of the ramifications of her husband’s policies (which she strongly supported), is decent and can be found here.
But black votes are worth more than talk; sounding good and doing right are two different things.
Wherever voters land in the booth on Election Day or outside of it, political revisionism must not be allowed to stand. For the sake of historical accuracy and black lives, we must make it plain that “superpredators” was a racist term used to push racist tough-on-crime legislation. It was not a generic signifier with no racial context; it was a piercing dog whistle used to expand support for racist policies and fan the flames of anti-black culture in ways that continue to have a detrimental—and too often fatal—impact on black America today.
Let the record reflect: No amount of whitewashing can rinse away those blood- and tear-stained facts.
Listen to Professor Angela Davis discuss the effects of mass criminalization below:
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