I have avoided the entire controversy surrounding the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1994, Hillary Clinton’s use of the word “superpredator” in a speech at New Hampshire’s Keene State College in 1996, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement’s protests at Democratic events. I just haven’t wanted to get into it.
Since Bernie Sanders was essentially forced to surrender the microphone to a Black Lives Matter activist last summer; since Hillary Clinton was confronted in South Carolina a few months ago by a Black Lives Matter activist demanding the candidate apologize because “I’m not a super-predator Hillary Clinton”; since Bill Clinton was confronted during a speech the other day by someone holding a sign that read, “Black youth are not super predators”; and since Bernie Sanders has now somewhat unfairly exploited what Bill had to say to those protesters, it’s time now to address it, even though some folks won’t like what I have to say.
In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, there was a rapid increase in violent crime on the streets of many urban centers in the country. Much of this violence was related to the crack cocaine trade and some of this violence was committed by youthful offenders. Adult gang members recruited teens as their child soldiers, armed them with high-powered weaponry, and dispatched them to do battle over with other gangs over turf in the drug trade.
That is what Bill Clinton was referring to last week when he was defending both Hillary and his record as president and, probably too aggressively, said this to the Black Lives Matter protesters:
I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack, sent them out onto the street to murder other African-American children. Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She didn’t! You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter! Tell the truth. You are defending the people who cause young people to go out and take guns.
“We all know what the term meant in the context that it was said years ago,” Sanders said after the applause died down. “We know who they were talking about.”
“Black people,” yelled someone in the audience.
“That’s exactly right,” Sanders said, “and I think the president owes the American people an apology for trying to defend what’s indefensible.”
Let’s stop here for a moment and take a breath. Let’s look at some facts. First, that 1994 Crime Bill enjoyed widespread bipartisan support. And many black leaders and activists, responding to rampant crime in their cities related to drugs, also supported the bill, including two-thirds of the Congressional Black Caucus. Oh, and so did Bernie Sanders. Not only did Sanders vote for the bill, he used that vote in his campaign for Senate in 2006 to make the point that he was “tough on crime.” And while a little less outrage from him about President Clinton’s recent remarks would have been nice, given his position in the past, I don’t really mind Bernie playing politics with this issue, since he is, despite what some of his most ardent followers seem to believe, a politician.
In any case, both Bill and Hillary Clinton have admitted that they regret parts of the 1994 Crime Bill and have argued that reforms are needed to fix some of its negative consequences, like over-incarceration. In fact, Mrs. Clinton’s first big policy speech of this campaign was about criminal justice reform. Hillary has also apologized for using the term “superpredator” in that 1996 speech—the term was coined in this context by a Republican political scientist named John Dilulio, who also now regrets both the term and the policies built around it because “demography is not fate and criminology is not pure science.” Here are the original remarks from Hillary Clinton’s now-infamous New Hampshire speech:
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.
Mrs. Clinton said the following to The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart, after an activist in South Carolina confronted her about the above remarks:
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.
My life’s work has been about lifting up children and young people who’ve been let down by the system or by society. Kids who never got the chance they deserved. And unfortunately today, there are way too many of those kids, especially in African-American communities. We haven’t done right by them. We need to. We need to end the school to prison pipeline and replace it with a cradle-to-college pipeline.
As an advocate, as First Lady, as Senator, I was a champion for children. And my campaign for president is about breaking down the barriers that stand in the way of all kids, so every one of them can live up to their God-given potential.
So, we can see that Mrs. Clinton has learned something in 20 years. Isn’t that a good thing? And, as Capehart points out, Bernie Sanders, while voting for the Crime Bill and using it to make him look tough on crime, did have wise reservations at the time. In a floor speech in 1994, Sanders said:
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.
Capehart, who is an African-American columnist, wrote:
No one would question Sanders’s commitment to justice before or after he voted for the crime bill. Nor should anyone do the same to Clinton, who didn’t even have a vote. Sure, her words sting in the light of 2016, but they should not blind anyone to what she did before and after she uttered those 42 words in the span of 12 seconds.
All of this leads me to the part that will likely get me in trouble with some folks. I’m a white guy from Kansas who now lives in a mostly-white part of southwest Missouri. It happens that, growing up in Kansas, I lived around a lot of African-Americans. I lived in a fairly poor neighborhood. The old dodge, I’m-not-a-racist-because-I-have-black-friends, was actually true of me when I was younger. I did have black friends, good friends. To the extent that a young white kid could understand what it meant to be black in this society—and I admit that ain’t much—I tried my best to understand. I always have.
I have written a lot on this blog about the unfair and demonizing way police, and the larger white society that usually supports them no matter the circumstances, too-often treat African-Americans, especially young males. I have written a lot about the white angst that leads to so much of what we have seen in hate-filled Republican politics, especially as regards the treatment of President Obama. I have written a lot about the attempts of white Republicans to suppress the votes of blacks and Latinos. I have done my best to understand, as an adult, what I tried hard to understand as a teenager, when I was hanging out with my African-American friends: why are so many white people afraid of, or disdainful of, black people?
Thus, I think I understand the point of the Black Lives Matter movement. I believe I get it. In too many cases, black lives haven’t seemed to matter all that much to those entrusted to protect them: the government, in the form of people wearing uniforms and badges. And in too many cases white people in general overlook or excuse the injustices done to Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and Eric Garner and Sandra Bland and Walter Scott and countless others, injustices done not just by the police, but by prosecutors and courts.
But here is what I don’t understand about the Black Lives Matter movement. I don’t understand that rudely conducted protest at a Bernie Sanders rally last August. I don’t understand that rudely conducted protest at a Hillary Clinton event in South Carolina in February. I don’t understand that rudely conducted protest recently during a speech given by a former Democratic president trying to help his wife get into a position where she can beat a Republican in November. While I understand holding Democrats accountable, I don’t understand either the rudeness in doing so or what seems to me to be a lack of focus, at this crucial point in a presidential campaign, on who the most egregious offender in all this is: the Republican Party, both nationally and at the state and local level.
Republicans have stood in the way of criminal justice and other reforms. Republicans have almost always defended the most outrageous actions by police. Republicans, almost everywhere they’re in control, are trying to suppress black voters and voices. Republicans have as their front-runner a candidate for whom white supremacists have openly campaigned and supported, a candidate who had trouble disavowing David Duke and who doesn’t think our first African-American president is legitimate. Republicans have another leading candidate who defended his father’s remark that President Obama should be sent “back to Kenya” and whose signature issue in the Senate and in his campaign is repealing ObamaCare, a program that has greatly helped African-Americans and would help them even more if Republican governors and state legislators would expand Medicaid in their states, many of them poor states in the South with large African-American populations.
I know there have been many protests at Drumpf rallies by members of the Black Lives Matter movement. But not enough. And not enough at Cruz rallies. And especially not enough at rallies for Republican candidates for all offices, at all levels of government. The focus and overwhelming political force should be on where the biggest problem is now, not on the sins of the past by the Democratic Party, sins that go all the way back to supporting slavery and Jim Crow and, yes, to overreacting in the 1990s to outrageous violence in our cities.
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both supported the Crime Bill in 1994, a bill that was trying to tackle what was then perceived as a real problem and a bill that did some good things but had some bad consequences for African-Americans. However, both Hillary and Bernie have expressed their unequivocal support for reforms that would help fix some of the problems that old legislation didn’t create but contributed to. And it’s not that either should be given a pass now, but it seems to me that there are more important things for the Black Lives Matter movement to do than so aggressively confront two people who are their clear allies.
The most prominent targets these days, of both their wrath and their efforts to hold public officials and offenders accountable, should be those folks with that “R” featured proudly by their names, those who try to suppress and thereby silence black voters, who crave “states’ rights” to protect their pedigree of white privilege, and who—like here in the state of Missouri where all the Republican gubernatorial candidates have said they will support Donald Drumpf—would eventually, if necessary, embrace a man for president who is little more than a race-baiting bigot.