News & Politics

Black Lives Matter Activist Confronts Clinton About Racially Charged Remarks Because the Corporate Media Won't

Clinton says it's the first time anyone's asked her about saying "superpredators need to be brought to heel." Why?

It took one activist in South Carolina to ask a question no one in the media had the courage to ask: Why Clinton used decidedly racist language in 1996 to promote her husband’s “tough on crime” legislation. Speaking before Keene State College to promote Bill Clinton’s crime bill, then-First Lady and campaign surrogate Hillary Clinton said the following:

Black Lives Matter protester Ashley Williams wasn’t going to let these comments go. At a $500-a-head event in Charleston, South Carolina, the young activist held up a sign that read, “we have to bring them to heel,” and shouted at the former Secretary of State, “I am not a super predator.”

Clinton demurred, avoided a direct response, and Williams was eventually escorted out of the building. At least someone had bothered to confront Clinton with her own words: 

Today, Clinton’s dehumanizing language is jarring, but some 20 years ago it was the cornerstone of right-wing criminal justice panic, some of which the Clintons helped stoke. The comments, first unearthed by Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski and Christopher Massie in May of last year, have recently resurfaced and become something of a headache for the campaign around the margins. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crowcited them in her scathing critique of Clinton’s record on race, as did the Daily Beast’s Goldie Taylor.

“I wanted to bring her to confront her own words,” Williams told the Huffington Post. “We did this because we wanted to make sure that black people are paying attention to her record, and we want to know what Hillary we are getting.”

Popularized by John J. DiIulio Jr, the superpredator myth was born from the pages of the far-right Weekly Standard and is credited with providing pseudo-academic cover for a wave of harsh anti-drug and juvenile penalties that swept the nation in the '90s. DiIulio eventually disavowed the idea, telling the New York Times in 2014 that his projections were mistaken and that “demography is not fate.” The Times chronicled the devastating effect the myth had on the African-American community:

It certainly had consequences. It energized a movement, as one state after another enacted laws making it possible to try children as young as 13 or 14 as adults... Many hundreds of juveniles were sent to prison for life, though in the last few years the United States Supreme Court has ruled that such sentences must not be automatic, even in murder cases. Individual circumstances and possible mitigating factors should be weighed, the justices said.

Inescapably, superpredator dread had a racial component. What the doomsayers focused on, in the main, were young male African-Americans. For Steven A. Drizin, a law professor at Northwestern University writing for The Huffington Post last September, the deep-seated fear that any black teenager in a hoodie must be up to no good was essentially what got Trayvon Martin killed in Florida two years ago.

The scandal is that it took one intrepid activist to finally confront Clinton with these words. The most glaring failure to do so came from Fusion, who hosted the Iowa Black and Brown forum before the February 1 caucus. While the panel did press Clinton on her support of mass incarceration, it remained vague and didn’t cite these specific, racially charged statements despite the fact that they had been floating around social media for some time. 

Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst at FAIR and contributing writer for AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @AdamJohnsonNYC.