We know now that the theory of the superpredator is utter bullshit. In the 90s the idea was pushed by John DiIulio, a professor at Princeton who fear-mongered that by 2010, there would be “an estimated 270,000 more young predators on the streets.” This, of course, never happened. His predictive failure was nonetheless a coup for conservative tacticians, and after helping the Clintons establish themselves as “tough on crime,” he was rewarded as the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under President George W. Bush.
It should be obvious that the Clintons cynically used the myth of the superpredator to exploit issues of race and crime, extract money for/from the private prison lobby, and steer political discourse to the right. It was a horribly destructive myth that claimed some children were “just born criminals.” It was used in combination with the “crack baby” myth to demonize the black community with the express intent of preemptively locking up kids. This was the subject of her now infamous campaign speech when she said that these children are superpredators, without conscience or empathy—who have to be “brought to heel.”
Here’s what UC Law professor Franklin Zimring said of the superpredator myth in 1996: “The ideological needs of the moment seem to be for a youth crime wave set in the future so that government can shadowbox against it by getting tough on juvenile crime in advance. It’s a “heads-I-win, tails-you-lose” situation for the crime wave alarmists. They were right if crime rates go up; their policies can also be said to succeed even if the crime wave never happens. There are more than a few parallels here with the domestic scare about communists in the late 1940s and early 1950s. If we find any communists hiding under our beds, the alarm was justified. If there are no communists under the bed, then the vigilance of citizens has saved the day.”
You might say it was it was tactic that Barry Goldwater would approve of, only African American juveniles were the communists of the 90s.
On Wednesday Clinton was confronted at a fundraiser by an activist, Ashley Williams, who unfurled a banner and asked for an apology for the policy and for the superpredator language. Hillary was caught flat-footed and angrily brushed the woman away. It was all caught on video.
It took a day of the video and hashtag #WhichHillary trending on Twitter for Clinton to release a statement saying this was language she “wouldn’t use today.” Unfortunately, she wasn’t immediately able to articulate this position, and language shouldn’t be our primary concern. This discredited theory of crime created mass incarceration which decimated whole swaths of our country by race. I believe that deserves a more than, “I wouldn’t use that language today.” How about not adopting that policy, scapegoating that racial population, and carrying that water for the private prison lobby?
If Clinton would use the myth of the superpredator to build power for the administation on crime in the 90s, what do you suppose will be the next myth and the next maligned social group under a new Clinton White House? Could the threat of ISIS be used against us? In what capacity? Against which social groups? Muslims? Immigrants? Using what technologies?
Indeed, this moment would have gone down much differently had candidate Clinton used her position of privilege to respond with more compassion or care. But that didn’t happen. Instead, she had that young black woman escorted out while intoning that she would “get back to the the issues.”
This sent the message that the concerns of African Americans are not her issues, nor those of the people in the room. Moreover, it suggested that the people in the room were still in the superpredator mindset—and the candidate wasn’t going to deign to address her question. No how, no way. “Back to the issues.”
Brook Hines is a writer, photographer, activist and former alt-weekly publisher, as well as an award-winning advertising creative with more than 20 years’ experience crafting strategy for clients ranging from healthcare companies to museums. She’s Associate Producer for Progressive News Network (tune this Sunday at 7 pm or download the podcast anytime), and the Communications Chair for the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida. All opinions offered here are her own, delivered from the perspective of social theory, cultural criticism, and near constant stream of caffeine. Political and media analysis through a Progressive lens. Read all of Brook’s articles here. Check out brookhines.com.