This past Wednesday night, an organizer, Ashley Williams, interrupted Hillary Clinton’s speech and confronted Clinton with her remarks in the 1990’s about how gangs of kids were “super-predators” who lacked “empathy” and “conscience.” Clinton apologized the next day, saying that, “Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words.”
Word-choice is not the issue. The “super-predator” remarks are significant because words, perhaps even more than votes, reveal how a person reasons through a decision and envisions reality. They reveal a worldview.
Clinton apologized for her diction, but not for her worldview.
Her words in 1996:
“But we also have to have an organized effort against gangs… We need to take these people on. They are often connected to big drug cartels; they are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy.” (full clip)
The message was simple — these are not kids, these are predators. Her words were part of her and her husband’s policy-push to crack down on crime, an effort that decimated communities. As an interesting comparison, see Sanders’ remarks on the same crime bill which he voted for).
The “super-predator” theory was widely popular in the mid-1990s, thanks to a political scientist at Princeton, John J. DiIulio Jr, who predicted that our streets would soon be overrun with “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters.” Dilulio’s predictions strongly shaped state legislatures’ policies towards juveniles, but they did not come true. Murders committed by kids between ages 10 to 17 actually dropped by two-thirds from 1994 to 2011.
Yet the theory still persists in some form. We still think that black children aren’t really “kids” in the way that white children are.
In 2014, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found through that the general population overestimated the age of black children far more than white children, and assumed black boys to be less innocent than white boys. The Department of Education also released data that showed that black children face harder discipline than other students for the same infractions.
As journalist Stacey Patton argues, there is a clear connection between our suspicious view of black children and the rationales that police officers gave for shooting young, black boys. She traces the origins of this perception back to the Jim Crow era, in which psychologists and researchers labored to show how black children’s bodies developed differently – in a more animalistic way – than those of white children.
The ironic thing is that Clinton has decried in her speeches how black children disproportionately suffer under overly punitive schools. She knows all the right statistics about African-Americans and drops them regularly to show us that “she is in the know.” She keeps zooming out to focus the attention on the issues, but rarely gets personal, which is what people are looking for.
As Black Lives Matter organizers said, after they met with Clinton behind-the-scenes in New Hampshire, “What we were looking for was a personal reflection for her responsibility... And so her response really targeting on policy wasn't sufficient for us.”
What we need to know is not whether Clinton can spit out all the right statistics and policy recommendations, but whether she has had a genuine change of heart, a conversion of the mind. We need to know if we can trust her.
She could have apologized in this way: “I did use the label ‘super-predators’ then. I understand now the false assumptions I made and the racist history behind those assumptions. Here is what I’m going to do to correct that.”
But she doesn’t connect the dots between her current policies and her past ones to show her change of heart and mind. In fact, in her apology about the super-predator quote, she tries to spin a consistent narrative by referencing her 1996 speech as a moment in which she was trying to talk about the danger that “vicious drug cartels… posed to children and families,” when the opposite was true: She was actually trying to connect drug cartels and children by arguing that they were basically one and the same.
The dodging of her past occurred again during her encounter with BLM activists in New Hampshire last year. She tried to move their attention away from the past and towards the future by asking, “What do we do next?” This is part of her image: a progressive who gets things done, who looks towards the future.
But the quest for Clinton to confront her past behavior is not as much an effort to “get the past straight” as much as it is to understand how she will act going forward. Apologies are windows into how people understand their mistakes, and the lessons that they will take with them going forward. They reveal if someone gets it, or is mainly regurgitating “all the right things.”
Clinton says she has evolved her beliefs, but when I listen to Clinton’s clip in 1996, I see the same behavior that I see today. The word “super-predator” wasn’t her invention – she was regurgitating the insights of an academic whose ideas happened to be in vogue. Just like she is doing today, she was trying to show that she has memorized all the right statistics and consults the right experts. But “technocratic expertise” has profound limitations—as we’ve seen with the super-predatory theory. If Clinton is going to win over her skeptics, she is going to need more than polished policies and fresh factoids. She is going to have to bring her full self. And that has to start with a genuine, soul-searching apology.