At a recent South Carolina fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton, “Black Lives Matter” activist Ashley Williams called on Clinton to explain her 1996 statement that
there are certain “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.”
Clinton advanced this view as a school-to-prison pipeline was fueling a skyrocketing incarceration rate in the U.S., which remains unmatched internationally today.
Although after the encounter with Ashley Williams, Clinton later stated that the descriptor “super-predatory” was a poor choice of words. Clinton in fact was actually repeating a trope that lacked evidence and was circulated by a conservative, Christian fundamentalist political science professor. Diversity and Education: A Critical Multicultural Approach offered this background:
Political science professor John Dilulio (1995), a driving force behind this assertion, proudly announced, “No one in academia is a bigger fan of incarceration than I am. Between 1985 and 1991 the number of juveniles in custody increased from 49,000 to nearly 58,000. By my estimate, we will probably need to incarcerate at least 150,000 juvenile criminals in the years just ahead. In deference to public safety, we will have little choice but to pursue genuine get-tough law-enforcement strategies against the super-predators .”
What was Professor Dilulio’s arm-chair assessment for the supposed existence of “super-predators”? Dilulio concluded that the basic cause of juvenile crime was due to “moral poverty” and that the solution was the Judeo-Christian tradition because “churches can help cure or curtail many severe socioeconomic ills.” A 2014 analysis revealed, however, that from 1994 to 2011, murders committed by young people actually declined by two-thirds during Dilulio’s predicted rise.
Unfortunately for the lives of millions of young people, due to this 1990s mainstream narrative of youthful criminals as “super-predators,” nearly every state passed laws that permitted a child arrested for certain crimes to be tried as an adult. The repercussions continue to be felt today by young people of color in their schools and neighborhoods.
The real “moral poverty” Dilulio identified actually existed within himself and within the political class that used such anti-Black dog-whistling rhetoric to garner votes by creating a false enemy at the expense of young people. “Moral poverty” does exist, though; it just happens it’s on Wall Street and within the refusal of the governing class to rein in the 1% while throwing crumbs to the poor, struggling middle-class families, and public schools and universities.