How Joe Biden’s defense of the controversial 1994 Crime Bill misunderstands ‘institutional racism’

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On Monday, Vice President Joe Biden defended his 1994 endorsement of the sweeping Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act recently recast into the national spotlight with problematic comments made by presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton.

“When community policing was working, neighborhoods were not only safer but they were more harmonious,” Biden reasoned.

The bill, which then Senator Biden drafted and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, led to a ban on assault weapons, created more than 60 new death penalty offenses, and saw a sharp rise in innocent people taking plea bargains rather than working their way through the system.


In 1996, Hillary defended criticisms of the rising incarceration rates of black men, which were partially connected to the Crime Bill, by invoking the racist myth of the "superpredator," people who supposedly possessed a natural predisposition for violence and crime.

"I'm not ashamed of [the Crime Bill] at all. As a matter of fact, I drafted the bill," Biden said to CNBC's John Harwood. "We talk about this in terms mostly of 'black lives matter.' Black lives really do matter, but the problem is institutional racism in America. That's the overarching problem that still exists."


While Biden's correct that institutional racism is, in fact, a persistent problem in the U.S., his dismissal of the Crime Bill's significance suggests that perhaps his understanding of "institutional racism" as a concept is somewhat ill-defined.

Critics of the Crime Bill often point to it as being one of the major causes of the mass incarceration of black men in the U.S. today. Strictly speaking, that isn't entirely true. The Crime Bill played a part in the maintenance of a system that already disproportionately imprisoned black people, yes, but it did not create that system.


That being said, the Crime Bill didn't need to be the central catalyst behind mass incarceration to be considered a part of institutional racism. Rather, that fact that it worked to bolster preexisting practices is precisely what made it a part of a racist power structure.

Propagating the superpredator myth made it easier, intellectually, to justify violence against and imprisonment of black people. The Crime Bill did the same, only legally, using the power of a strengthened police force.