Not that we’ll ever run dry on cool aphorisms, but “the perfect is the enemy of the good” seems to set the tone for how the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 came to be law. President Bill Clinton, along with the smarter of the executive pair, was all for it. At the time, there was a nation wracked with fear of crime, some real, some imagined, but nonetheless afraid.
And there were calls, demands, to “do something.” And unlike today, Congress did.
There’s no question that by the early 1990s, blacks wanted an immediate response to the crime, violence and drug markets in their communities. But even at the time, many were asking for something different from the crime bill. Calls for tough sentencing and police protection were paired with calls for full employment, quality education and drug treatment, and criticism of police brutality.
It’s not just that those demands were ignored completely. It’s that some elements were elevated and others were diminished — what we call selective hearing. Policy makers pointed to black support for greater punishment and surveillance, without recognizing accompanying demands to redirect power and economic resources to low-income minority communities. When blacks ask for better policing, legislators tend to hear more instead.
That description is a little too shallow. There was no such thing as “blacks” who asked for anything. There were local leaders, like Al Sharpton, in his sweat suit and big gold medallion, with his pompadour hairdo, and congressional leaders, like Kweisi Mfume, who went on to lead the NAACP. And then there were ordinary people on the street, who saw the world in the same simplistic terms as people today, asking for solutions that would serve their self-interest without any thought to how the sausage might get made or what could possibly go wrong.
Andrew King reminds us that much as we want to write history from today’s point of view, it’s hard to make things people said at the time magically disappear.
Although now the Crime Bill apparently is considered a racist tool of oppression, that’s not exactly how theblack political establishment saw it back then:
Mfume [the former chair of the CBC], and the entire leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus of the 103rd Congress, voted for it. * * * And the CBC leadership wasn’t a passive supporter of the crime bill. The Baltimore Sunquotes Mfume as saying the CBC wasn’t doing Clinton a favor by voting for it, but had “put our stamp on this bill,” because in addition to a surge in police officers and prisons, which would disproportionately affect poor, young black people, there was an assault weapons ban and a limit on automatic life sentences for repeat offenders.
And the support was broader than simply among Congressional leaders:
In general, the community embraced both social programs and punishment. In March 1994, Ebony Magazine published an editorial that referenced a 1979 special issue on “Black on Black crime.” The piece quoted publisher John H. Johnson, who wrote at the time that “Black on Black crime has reached a crime level that threatens our existence as a people.” The black magazine reaffirmed those words and the policy responses outlined in that issue, including economic development and a “crackdown on incorrigible criminals.”
Because the crime bill included funds for crime prevention and rehabilitation programs and for police and prisons, many black leaders rushed to its defense. Thirty-nine African-American pastors signed a letter saying, “While we do not agree with every provision in the crime bill, we do believe and emphatically support the bill’s goal to save our communities, and most importantly, our children.” Ten black, big-city mayors sent a letter to Mfume urging the caucus to support the proposals despite its opposition to the death penalty provisions.
So if you’re younger than 35, you can be forgiven if you simply thought Bill Clinton is just an old white guy outed as the pernicious racist he always was secretly.
Much as nobody wants to be the wet blanket at the beach party, William Jefferson Clinton was not unfamiliar with the urge to lock people up. But in fairness, he didn’t start the trend. America was certain that crime was an epidemic and incarceration was the cure. Congress created the federal Sentencing Guidelines putatively to make sentencing more consistent, but practically to calm America’s nerves after Len Bias died of an overdose.
And in 1994, Clinton backed, and signed, a law that piled on. It did not cause over-criminalization or mass incarceration, but it surely added to the problem. And most of America applauded, because something needed to be done. Black and white agreed on that.
That there were also cries from the black community for money, jobs, education was also true, because there was another concern, a different concern, lingering from the crazy 70s, the image of the black welfare queen driving around in her Caddy when she wasn’t watching her color TV.* While black political leaders like Mfume sought to break the cycle of poverty in the ghetto, most of America felt that they had already given blacks more than their due in welfare and they weren’t interested in giving any more.
In the ashes of the war on poverty, the trend accelerated. The penal system ballooned, while social supports directed toward the poorest and most vulnerable declined precipitously. Black leaders argued for full employment in the press and on the floor of Congress, urged vetoes of draconian legislation and drafted their own bills to support community-led anti-crime programs — and all to little avail.
Flash forward to the Clinton era. As soon as Chuck Schumer, Joseph R. Biden Jr. and others introduced their bipartisan crime bill in September of 1993, groups representing black communities pushed back. The N.A.A.C.P. called it a “crime against the American people.”
It wasn’t that the Clintons set out to destroy the black community, but that Bill Clinton pandered to those in America who screamed for law to solve the perceived crime epidemic. And Clinton, the consummate politician, felt America’s pain and gave us what we asked for. Good and hard.
It’s unfair, today, to claim that black communities, black leaders, didn’t want government to do something to end the crime epidemic. They were just as scared, just as much the perceived victims of the crack craze and the crime it bred, as anyone else (if not more). Sure, they wanted more things, other things, but the support for eradicating the plague of crime was strong, obviously strong enough to support a law that piled on draconian fixes to the draconian fixes already in place. In our shared naiveté, there was no solution too harsh, too destructive, when it came to ending the crime epidemic.
And the irony of all this is that we’re doing the same thing today that we did back then, demanding the government do something to keep us safe and glossing over the details. There was no doubt in 1994 that the crime bill was far from perfect, but it was good enough for all colors of America. Irrational fear looks very different a few decades later, as will today’s flavor of fear a few decades from now.
When we’re afraid, any bludgeon will do. Later, when we’ve moved on to the next bogeyman, we will pretend that we thought it would be a scalpel rather than the bludgeon we demanded of President Clinton, and his smarter half.
*After the failure of violent radicalism of the Black Liberation Army to achieve positive change, white America had an image of black America as consisting of pimps, drug dealers and junkies, and welfare queens. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was a massive failure, facilitating extremely expensive abuse of white America’s largesse. What was unseen was that most black Americans weren’t criminals or welfare cheats, but they were invisible.
In 1968, the first weekly television series starring a black person, Julia, went on the air, starring Diahann Carroll as a nurse and loving and responsible mother. There was no father in the show, a hat tip to the perception that men abandoned their black families. It was derided by whites as presenting a sham image of blacks, and by blacks as “a far, far cry from the bitter realities of Negro life in the urban ghetto, the pit of America’s explosion potential.”
Or to sharpen the point, racial perceptions were still largely limited to cartoon characterizations for the following few decades, except to the handful of us who chose to spend time with people of other color like, you know, we were all just regular people. And nobody listened to us. They still don’t.