Two Black Lives Matter activists interrupted Hillary Clinton on Wednesday during a speech at a private fundraiser in South Carolina. While Clinton talked about police body cameras, one of the activists, Ashley Williams, told Clinton, “We want you to apologize for mass incarceration.”
Williams continued: “I am not a super-predator, Hillary Clinton,” a reference to a comment the former Secretary of State made in 1996 while promoting President Bill Clinton’s policies on crime and incarceration.
“They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” Clinton said that year. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”
After a bit of back and forth at the fundraiser, Williams was physically escorted out of the event. Clinton, while initially telling Williams they could “talk about it,” did not address her comments and moved on with a more general speech about criminal justice reform.
Which was weird, because Clinton has become a vocal critic of the policies associated with the myth—like harsh sentences for juvenile offenders—and apologizing for her “super-predator” comment seems like one of the easiest things she could possibly do.
While Clinton did address Williams' question in a later comment to the Washington Post, it was more rhetorical dance than an actual admission that she had gotten it wrong.
"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," she said. "Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today."
But leave out Clinton's use of super-predator and she is still talking about kids who supposedly had "no conscience, no empathy"—an idea that policymakers used to justify lifetime sentences without parole for juvenile offenders. And more than the words themselves, or the context Clinton tried to offer for why she had used them, the myth of the super-predator has been discredited many times over. Even the political scientist who became the face of the theory, John J. Dilulio Jr., has said of his predictions, flat out, “We were wrong.”
It would be a reasonable thing for Clinton to say, too.
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The racist myth packaged as social science was outrageous from the start.
Criminologists and social scientists predicted in the 1990s that a small but frightening number of young people—”elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches”—would grow up to wreak havoc on the United States. The language used by Dilulio and others to describe children as young as 13 was like something out of a horror movie. Writing in 1995 for the conservative Weekly Standard, Dilulio claimed that these young people had "vacant stares," "remorseless eyes," and "absolutely no respect for human life and no sense of the future.”
Unsurprisingly, the language was also racially coded. In the same Weekly Standard piece, Dilulio said that while the rise of the so-called super-predator would impact “inner-ring suburbs, and even the rural heartland,” the real trouble would be "greatest in black inner-city neighborhoods.” Legal experts and theorists have since called Dilulio's work a kind of intellectual forebear to justifications for the killing of black teenagers like Trayvon Martin.
The only way to prevent the coming “bloodbath," the argument went, was to get tough.
The policies the myth inspired—like a rash of state laws subjecting juveniles to adult sentences and prisons—had devastating consequences for communities of color, which were disproportionately harmed by them. But the youth-driven crime wave never came. In fact, youth crime rates dropped in the years they were supposed to skyrocket. As The New York Times reported in 2014, murders committed by kids between the ages of 10 and 17 fell by nearly 70% from 1994 to 2011.
Dilulio eventually expressed remorse for laying the intellectual foundation for a system of mass incarceration for kids. ''I couldn't write fast enough to curb the reaction,'' he told The New York Times in 2001.
And in 2012, Dilulio signed an amicus brief before the Supreme Court in a case arguing that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The court ultimately agreed, as my colleague Daniel Rivero reported in January.
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Clinton has made criminal justice reform a major focus of her presidential campaign. But while she has traveled the country advocating for alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, the reform of mandatory-minimum sentences, and the closing of private prisons, she has also had to confront the policies put in place by her husband’s administration—policies she supported at the time.
Her approach has generally been to put space between herself and those policies while acknowledging that they hurt communities of color and low-income people.
"Decisions were made in the '80s and '90s to deal with what was at that time a very high crime rate that was particularly affecting poor people, people of color in the cities," Clinton said last summer. "I think that a lot was done that went further than it needed to go, and so now we are facing problems with mass incarceration."
It’s the apology that is not an apology. The stump speech equivalent of “mistakes were made.”
There's a lot of blame to go around. Clinton supported the policies in her capacity as First Lady of the United States. And members of Congress, including Bernie Sanders, supported the punitive 1994 crime bill with their votes.
Accounting for her record while campaigning for a radically different set of policy prescriptions has proved complicated, which makes sense because there’s a lot of ground to cover. Clinton has spent decades in politics, and like so many of her colleagues—seriously, this is not just a Hillary Clinton thing—she has shifted according to changes in public opinion.
But apologizing in clear terms for her embrace of the super-predator myth would be an easy give for Clinton. She, like a growing number of politicians from both parties, has evolved on criminal justice over the last 20 years. Significantly. And in purely cynical political terms, it would probably help Clinton if she confronted the criticism head on rather than offering an evasive comment about using different language.
Because there's real power to saying: Yes, I got this one wrong. I am sorry.