Defending Hillary Clinton for her use of the term
"superpredator" during a 1996 speech.
James Alan Fox
3:02 a.m. EST February 29, 2016
front-runner wasn't demonizing black youth in 1996, and black voters know
Black Lives Matter activist Ashley Williams crashed a private
campaign fundraiser in Charleston, S.C., last week, demanding that Hillary
Clinton answer for using the term "superpredators" in a 1996 speech. She
blamed Clinton for demonizing black youth and for helping to push a racist
policy agenda of mass incarceration.
But nothing in Clinton's remark
was intended to produce either result. And her stellar performance among
black voters in the South Carolina primary a few days later suggests they
are not penalizing her for something she said 20 years ago.
powerful term superpredator was coined by political scientist John DiIulio
to characterize juvenile offenders who murdered and maimed without remorse.
Clinton, then a first lady campaigning for her husband, said in Keene, N.H.,
that they had "no conscience, no empathy," and that "we have to bring them
During those days of high crime rates, when fear was
widespread in both black and white communities, the superpredator sound bite
went as viral as things could go in an era before social media. It was often
uttered by politicians from both parties, including 1996 Republican
presidential nominee Bob Dole.
I recall the 1990s panic over youth
violence vividly, having been a central figure in the call to action.
Although I never embraced the somewhat inaccurate term superpredator as
youthful assailants are far more impulsive than predatory I did purposely
use phrases such as "teenage blood bath" to bring attention to the rise in
violence among blacks and whites alike.
Working closely back then
with President Clinton and Hillary Clinton, White House policy adviser Rahm
Emanuel and Attorney General Janet Reno, I was witness to the fast
developing groundswell for harsh punishment.
Early on, Hillary
Clinton and others in the administration advocated for prevention programs,
many of which were disparaged under the umbrella of midnight basketball. The
Clintons believed in and fully supported youth enrichment initiatives, and
my advocacy for investing in youth "before it was too late" found a
Unfortunately, the 1994 Republican takeover of
Congress spearheaded by Newt Gingrich changed the policy response. Guided by
the GOP "Contract with America," prevention became a dirty word and was
eclipsed by punishment.
Those like me and the first lady, who were
calling for preschool education and after-school programs, were shouted down
by the get-tough talkers who criticized the coddling of teens and demanded
"adult time for adult crime." The train to the prison yard had left the
Over the past few years amidst low crime rates, the nation
has collectively come to its senses. Informed by scientific research on
adolescent brain development and helped by several key Supreme Court
decisions concerning juvenile justice, we are rethinking the unforgiving,
draconian approach to youth crime.
Clinton apologized after criticism
of her two-decade-old comment, no doubt a safeguard against any erosion in
her black support. But she really had nothing for which to apologize, as
most black voters appear to recognize.James Alan Fox is the
Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern
University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He wrote a
1996 report to the U.S. Attorney General on rates of juvenile offending.