Recently, Democratic candidate for President Hillary Clinton has been the subject of criticism for her use of the word "superpredator" during a speech at Keene State College in New Hampshire on January 28, 1996. A courageous Black Lives Matter activist, Ashley Williams, heckled Clinton at a private fundraiser , telling her "I am not a superpredator," calling on her to apologize to blacks for "mass incarceration," and unfurling a banner with Mrs. Clinton's own words from the 1996 event: "We Need to Bring Them to Heel." After Ms. Williams was ushered out of the event, Mrs. Clinton acknowledged to a reporter at the Washington Post that she "shouldn't have used those words" and pointed to her lifelong record of working on behalf of disadvantaged children and youth.
Enough said? Time to move on?
First, let's put Mrs. Clinton's speech in context. The Keene State College speech
came almost two years after Congress passed the 1994 Crime Bill. 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. State legislators had already begun to respond to this violence by passing laws that made it easier to prosecute children as adults but the alarmist tone struck by many in the debates over the Crime Bill only accelerated this trend. The Crime Bill also gave financial incentives to states to build prisons and its endorsement of "truth in sentencing" laws which required that offenders serve between 85% to 100% of their sentences ensured that these prisons would be filled for years to come.
In the debates over the Crime Bill, there was plenty of ugly dehumanizing rhetoric about juvenile offenders, including many references to them as "wolfpacks" "thugs" and "predators." But the word "superpredator" had not yet been born. Professor John DiIulio, a Princeton political science professor, first mentioned the word in November 1995 in an article he published in The Weekly Standard. DiIulio's superpredators were "subhuman," "amoral," "feral" creatures ready to maim, rape, and murder Americans without a second's thought. DiIulio became the darling of crime control conservatives. His forecast of a "coming Armageddon" of this "new breed" of urban (i.e. black and brown) youth criminals ignited an already combustible issue. Fear of superpredators unleashed a moral panic that led virtually every state to enact laws making it easier to prosecute and sentence juveniles as adults, send them to adult prisons, and keep them there for most or all of their lives.
When Hillary Clinton traveled to New Hampshire in January 1996, the ink had barely dried on DiIulio's article announcing his "superpredator" theory. To a lily-white audience in a state that is 95% white, Mrs. Clinton delivered what can only be called a Jekyll and Hyde speech. She began by stating that there is "nothing more important than our children" and during the first twenty minutes of her speech, she outlined the President's plans to help support families in ensuring their children would thrive. She discussed an array of government programs including earned income tax credits, raising the minimum wage, reforming health insurance, giving parents the right to choose public schools or charter schools, and protecting Medicaid and Medicare.
Then the speech took a darker turn to the subject of crime. After talking about the 1994 Crime Bill's 100,000 police officers and citing "community policing" as the main reason why progress was being made in the fight to "take back our streets", Mrs. Clinton started to promote the President's new plan to wage war against street gangs. According to Mrs. Clinton, these gangs, with links to the "cartels," are often made up of the kinds of kids that are called "superpredators" who have "no conscience, no empathy.....We can talk about how they got that way but we first have to bring them to heel."
Why Mrs. Clinton chose to drop the "superpredator" bomb to a room full of white people in a state that had few black and brown citizens and little gang violence, is perplexing. It shows that she was firmly in the grip of the moral panic that would soon sweep the country but it also suggests that she had fully embraced this theory without questioning its bases and was willing to use it for political purposes. To her credit, she apparently came to her senses. As far as I can tell, she never used the word again, at least in her public speeches.
By 2001, after seven years of declining juvenile violent crime, the "superpredator" theory was relegated to the trash heap of bad "science." The Surgeon General of the United States issued a report stating that there "is no evidence" that young people engaged in violence during the 1990's "were more frequent or vicious than youth of earlier eras." Even Professor DiIulio has issued a mea culpa, admitting that he was wrong in arguing that "demography is not fate and criminology is not pure science."
My mother is voting for Hillary Clinton for President. She's a Gloria Steinem-Democrat, an early subscriber of Ms. Magazine, and would love to see a woman as President before she dies. One of my three sons, a supporter of criminal justice reform and concerned about Mrs. Clinton's ties to Wall Street, is firmly in the Bernie Sanders camp. As for me, I have not decided who I am voting for in Illinois's primary. But taking Mrs. Clinton at her word - she says she is going to fight for every vote - I would like to see her work a little harder to earn my vote and more importantly, to earn the vote of my son and other younger or first-time voters, including many of the Black Lives Matter activists.
I don't need to bring Mrs. Clinton to heel. I want her to renounce the "superpredator" theory and state that she is going to work hard to roll back many of the laws that were passed in its wake. I want her to state clearly that children are less culpable for crimes than adults and that no child should be sentenced to life without parole and few should receive sentences that will lock them up and throw away the key until they are senior citizens. I want her to support federal incentives to states to close down prisons and urge states to invest the savings from these closings into community based programs that aim at keeping men, women, and children out of prison on the front-end and assist prisoners once they are released.
Finally, I want her to take a page out of President Obama's playbook. I want her to unveil her plans to the group who were most directly affected by the 1994 Crime Bill and the "superpredator" theory. I want her to announce these plans to a group of mostly black and brown inmates in a juvenile correctional facility or a prison.