For some time, Hillary Clinton’s Democratic presidential campaign has been dogged by criticism of her support as first lady of the 1994 crime bill blamed for the mass incarceration of black men. Last week, Bill Clinton stepped into the controversy when he defended the law in response to Black Lives Matter protesters at a Philadelphia campaign event and argued that it had saved numerous black lives through crime reduction. Referring to attacks on Hillary Clinton for referring to teenage gang members as “superpredators” in a 1996 speech, he told the hecklers, “You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter!”
The former president’s pointed remarks have caused a meltdown among progressives, with some commentators suggesting he might be deliberately sabotaging his wife’s campaign. But did he commit a gaffe or speak an inconvenient truth?
On one point, he is right: In the 1990s, tough-on-crime policies such as harsher prison sentences and more aggressive policing were supported not only by Republicans but by black political and community leaders seeking to do something about out-of-control crime and urban chaos — from then-Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) and New York City councilman Adam Clayton Powell IV to 40 black pastors who signed a letter backing the bill.
As CUNY urban studies professor Michael Fortner noted in a recent Slate interview, modern-day left-wing critiques often seem to assume that “these laws were created just to put away black folks” while ignoring the fact that people in the inner city were “unable to live normal lives.” Even black elected officials uneasy with some aspects of punitive legislation often ended up supporting them because of pressure from constituents and their own concerns about crime. Incidentally, then-Rep. Bernie Sanders also voted for the legislation.
In Philadelphia, Clinton credited the crime bill with bringing about historic drops in violent crime. While the decline began before 1994, there is little doubt that the measure played a role — though, as Clinton himself has admitted, it also led to excessive and counterproductive incarceration levels.
Slate columnist Michelle Goldberg has lamented that Bill Clinton “aped the maddening right-wing tendency to derail conversations about criminal justice abuses by invoking black-on-black crime.” But perhaps this kind of criticism points more to a problem with the left-wing mindset than with his comments. To see the very real problem of crime in the black community as “derailment” is a strikingly myopic view that elevates ideology over reality.
Columbia University professor and writer John McWhorter, one of America’s leading black intellectuals, wrote in The Daily Beast in September that the Black Lives Matter movement will never be truly effective until it confronts this issue.
McWhorter sees the Clinton controversy as a manifestation of this exasperating myopia.
“Countless black leaders and organizations supported the Clintons’ approach to black crime, and the pretense otherwise lately is an indefensible distortion of history too recent for anyone to have any excuse for deceiving us about,” he told me in an email. “And a six-year-old would wonder why [Black Lives Matter] isn’t as interested in black men killing each other as white cops killing black men — the resistance to even discussing that defies logic and compassion.” The day after his heated exchange with protesters, Clinton partly backpedaled, saying he was “talking past” the protester — but he noted that she was talking past him and concluded, “We gotta listen to each other again.”
Amen. Until the conversation about crime, race and cops acknowledges the harm caused both by crime and by police abuse, it will keep devolving into useless and polarizing rhetoric.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.