Racist then, racist now: The real story of Bill Clinton's crime bill

Clinton's crime bill and Hillary's "super-predators" talk remains a problem, but its roots and legacy are complex

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published April 16, 2016 1:30PM (EDT)

Bill Clinton signs the $30 billion crime bill, Sept. 13, 1994.   (AP/Dennis Cook)
Bill Clinton signs the $30 billion crime bill, Sept. 13, 1994. (AP/Dennis Cook)

At a recent rally in support of his wife’s 2016 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton argued with protesters about the negative impact of his 1994 crime bill on the black community. In his exchange with Rufus Farmer and Erica Mines, the former president — finger-waving, angry, lecturing and condescending, said:

I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped on crack and sent them out into the street to murder other African American children. Maybe you thought they were good citizens…. You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter. Tell the truth!

As he continued, it also became clear that Bill Clinton — through some great leap of faith and twisted logic — believes that his wife’s aid work in Africa immunizes her from any criticisms about the role she may have played in slurring a generation of poor and working-class black youth as out of control and monstrous “super predators.”

This was not one of Clinton’s finest hours, either as an advocate for Hillary’s campaign, or as a former president of the United States trying to reconcile what was considered by many to be a landmark legislative achievement 20 years ago with how its consequences — both intended and otherwise — are being evaluated at present. In total, Bill Clinton’s comments to Farmer and Mines were ill-timed, poorly considered and impolitic.

As Princeton’s Eddie Glaude Jr. recently wrote about this moment, it exposed Bill Clinton as a “two-faced Janus” politician who “revealed one of his contrasting sides. Not the smooth, white Southern politician who moves among African Americans with ease and grace, but the smug and paternal Southern white boy who simply wants you to hush and swallow his lies whole.”

However, from the lofty perch of hindsight, complicated public policy challenges are all too often made to look simple and easy. Bill Clinton’s confused and angry response to being questioned about his role in the mass incarceration of black Americans (and what scholars such as Michelle Alexander have described as the “new Jim Crow”) is a reflection of the messy politics that birthed the 1994 crime bill (The Violent Crime Control Act).

In all, if the Clintons are lost in the morass of a political swamp where they are struggling how to best explain their role in the mass incarceration of black Americans, such a predicament is at least partially a reflection of the contradictions and complexities that occur whenever questions of race, class, justice and crime intersect along the color line in the United States.

Public policy reflects the goals, needs and interests of multiple groups. These myriad agendas are often poorly reconciled with what best serves a given public. At its most ideal, good public policy balances public and private interests and also serves the Common Good. Public policy made in response to a moral panic or similar hysteria may provide short-term relief and a symbolic victory. Yet, the politics of panic and hysteria sometimes make a given problem worse or serve as a temporary salve for what are, in reality, deeper and more systemic social and political defects

The 1994 Violent Crime Control Act was born out of a moment, the mid- to late-1980s and the early 1990s, when violent crime was a national emergency. During this time period, there was panic and hysteria, and we must remember the way it was framed — the talk of the denizens of crime-infested inner city neighborhoods who would often sleep in bathtubs to avoid bullets. Crack cocaine was a monster that broke homes and families, made gangs rich, lured black boys and girls into crime, and created a generation of “crack babies” — black children who were destined to be learning disabled, physically handicapped, and as they matured, would soon be trapped in an endless cycle of “ghetto culture” of poverty, crime and drugs.

The “super-predators” Hillary referred to were black street pirates without a moral code or any sense of restraint. It was rumored that some of them even smoked “illies” (marijuana laced with embalming fluid, PCP, and/or cocaine) that made the user even more crazy and dangerous. Hillary Clinton wanted to bring these black “thugs” to “heel.” Donald Trump ran ads in newspapers demanding that the four black and one Hispanic teenager who were arrested for allegedly raping a 28-year-old old white woman in New York City’s Central Park “be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.”

Popular culture is central to public memory. The moment that produced Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill also inspired drug and gang themed movies such as "Boyz n the Hood," "Colors," "New Jack City" and "Deep Cover."

"Deep Cover" highlighted the tragedy of crack babies. In "New Jack City," Chris Rock’s character, “Pookie," rail thin and shaking from withdrawal, struggled with his crack addiction. "Colors" featured actors Robert Duvall and Sean Penn, the wizened veteran cop and the hot-headed rookie, engaging in street battles with Los Angeles street gangs. John Singleton’s "Boyz n the Hood" taught the viewer that good people are collateral damage for gang violence … and that revenge may eventually come, but it is rarely satisfying.

If film is a space where a society is talking to itself about itself, the collective subconscious projected onto a screen at 24 frames per second, America’s inner cities were war zones and murder fields that ate both criminals and the innocent with equal enthusiasm.

In this moment, at the end of the first Bush administration and the beginning of the Clinton era, “gangsta rap” would ascend the Billboard charts. Calvin C. Butts, Tipper Gore and C. Delores Tucker would make “rap music” the new “seduction of the innocent” where instead of the “ten cent plague” of comic books, it was gangsta rap that was bringing ruin to America’s youth.

Of course, much of this “common-sense” popular narrative would unravel with time — its integrity being tenuous even then.

Crack cocaine was not substantially more addictive than the powdered cocaine favored by white America and the rich. As they age, crack babies are not much more different than their peers who were not exposed to cocaine in-utero. The “Central Park Five” were later found to be innocent and would be released from prison in 2014. Much of gangsta rap was the exaggerated storytelling and myth-making of working- and middle-class black youth. Their songs were the murder ballads and gangster movies of an earlier era now updated for a new generation.

During the Clinton era, hip-hop was now fully co-opted by white suburban youth. They never held an AK-47, but white young people could buy many millions of copies of the album "Niggaz4Life" as they lived out their new age race minstrel black culture industry fantasies of murder and violence.

The most extreme critics of Bill and Hillary Clinton and the 1994 crime bill depict the two as waging a war on black folks, unleashing a racist carceral society that placed many thousands of non-violent black offenders in prison and jail. In this narrative, if the punishing and punitive state is one of the primary features of a racist and classist America, then the Clintons ought to be public enemy No. 1 for black people.

It is true that the Violent Crime Control Act (and a 1996 “welfare reform” bill that actually increased extreme poverty) was certainly part of an intentional move by Bill Clinton and other “New Democrats” to mine white racial resentment and overt bigotry against black people for electoral gain in a political landscape where “Reagan Democrats” were coveted, and the Republican Party had hammered “liberals” for being “soft” on crime (and thus by implication too “close” to people of color).

Allowing for that fact, we must still be cautious, as an extremely narrow focus on those dynamics risks neglecting an important question. What was the role of black elites and the black mass public in the passing of the 1994 crime bill?

A flattened and distorted version of what has been demonized as “black respectability politics,” where the fallen Bill Cosby and his speech on “pound cakes,” “sagging pants” and black wayward youth, has made this type of intervention unpopular. Nevertheless, it remains a question and complication that should be explored.

As political scientist Michael Fortner argues in his new book, what he terms as “the black silent majority,” has long-supported a “get tough” approach to crime and law enforcement. This is practical self-interest: if violent and other types of street crime are often more common in poor, low-income, and working class communities — and America is a race and class segregated society — then black and brown folks who live in those spaces are more likely to be victims of crime.

As New York magazine explains in its discussion of Fortner’s "Black Silent Majority":

In Fortner’s telling, the black silent majority’s heightened sense of anger, fear, and despair greatly attenuated the appeal of the so-called “old penology” favored by white liberals (as well as a lingering minority of black voices), which emphasized treatment and rehabilitation over punishment. While Fortner argues that it isn’t quite fair to say that the old penology had failed — to the extent treatment-centered approaches were tried in mid-century New York, they were likely doomed from the start by a lack of funding and improper implementation — once this attitude had hardened, it pushed Harlemites to seek enforcement- and punishment-heavy responses to help stabilize their neighborhoods.

Locating “Black Lives Matter” relative to this history, New York details how:

Fortner said he appreciates what the movement has done. “I think we're having a very important conversation about police brutality,” he said, and he credits BLM with “forcing people and politicians to recognize both this problem and the dignity and worth of black folks in general. And I think that's a great thing.” But he also argued that the BLM conversation ignores the very real effects crime has on certain neighborhoods. “I think it tends to minimize street violence and some of the terror that many poor people of color endure within urban communities throughout the United States, and that it doesn't speak to the violence against their lives that is not the product of the state but is done by people that look like them, people from their neighborhood, people from their communities,” he said. “And I wish that would be a larger part of the conversation. Not to say it should replace the conversation, but that the conversation should include all types of violence that destroy and undermine the lives of poor people of color in urban communities. “

Black policy makers, other elites, and on the ground activists did not unanimously support the 1994 crime bill. Jesse Jackson opposed it. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted for it with much reluctance. But this was balanced by how other black leaders and influential voices in the African-America press supported the bill. The 1994 crime bill was not imposed from above on compliant, weak and complacent black Americans who lacked agency. No, the Violent Crime Control Act outcome was a coincidence of interests that came together, however tenuously, and which would eventually result in serious negative externalities that continue to shape American politics and society today.

The ultimate question remains: Did the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act fulfill its goal of reducing crime? Social scientists have argued that crime was at its peak and already declining when the 1994 bill was passed. Other scholars have shown that the Violent Crime Control Act did not, in fact, lead to the mass incarceration of black Americans.

Some have suggested that an improving economy and generational cycles are responsible for today’s record low levels of violent crime, not the 1994 crime bill. Clinton’s boasting about how he put thousands of cops on the street, and how that decision subsequently reduced violent crime, is also open for much debate.

While we may fight about the impact of Bill and Hillary’s political legacy, the War on Drugs and the 1994 crime bill, several facts remain fixed and certain. The American criminal justice system is both racist and classist. It punishes black and brown people disproportionately, gives them harsher sentences for the same crimes that are committed by white defendants and is one of the primary means through which political, social, and economic inequality are reproduced in American society.

The United States is now, fully, a carceral society — one where the moral hazard of profit-seeking, privatization and corporate-owned prisons have incentivized the arrest and imprisonment of millions of people (many of whom are innocent). For example, locales such as Ferguson, Missouri are run like debt peonage schemes from the era of Jim and Jane Crow and the end of Reconstruction where black people are targeted for harassment by police in order to line the latter’s wallets and the white community’s coffers.

Most importantly, American democracy and civic culture are undermined by felony disenfranchisement laws and a condition of “custodial citizenship” that denies all people the equal ability to participate in the governance of the country, generally, and their own communities, specifically.

The Clintons’ political record and relationship to the black community should be critically evaluated, and they should be held accountable for it. But as we reconsider and debate the legacy of Bill and Hillary Clinton and the 1994 crime bill, the words of actor, artist and hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur resonate in a surprising and unexpected way:

“The same crime element that white people are scared of black people are scared of. While they waiting for legislation to pass, we next door to the killer. All them killers they let out, they're in that building. Just because we black, we get along with the killers? What is that?”

Black folks are no different from anyone else. They have no use for crime and criminals. This is the realpolitik that gave birth to the deeply problematic 1994 crime bill and a legacy which we are still grappling with twenty years later.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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