Three days before the Democrats’ South Carolina presidential primary — in which Hillary Clinton won nearly 90 percent of the black vote — a drama unfolded at a private $500-a-ticket fundraiser in an upscale Charleston neighborhood.
A video of the event showed Clinton speaking in the spacious foyer of a wealthy donor’s lavish home. Arched double entry doors and a winding staircase served as a backdrop to her standard stump speech. As Clinton began to discuss criminal justice reform, Ashley Williams, a 23-year-old activist who paid to attend the event, suddenly unfurled a banner that read: “We Have to Bring Them to Heel.”
The banner referred to an infamous, racially charged remark made by Clinton about at-risk minority youth during a 1996 speech at Keene State College in New Hampshire.
“They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘superpredators,'” she said at the time. “No conscience, no empathy … we have to bring them to heel.”
As Clinton paused to read the banner, Ashley spoke up in a small, but insistent voice: “Will you apologize to black people for mass incarceration?” she asked Clinton.
The other attendees at the fundraiser could be heard loudly hissing at Ashley like a rhumba of rattlesnakes.
Off camera, a man who sounds like Bill Clinton could be heard accusing Ashley of committing a crime. “You’re trespassing,” he said in a raised, raspy Southern drawl.
“I’m not a superpredator,” Ashley said, before being ejected by her hosts to a round of applause and cheers from Clinton’s supporters.
The next day, Clinton apologized for her 1996 remarks. “Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today,” Clinton told The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart.
The comments were made during the 1996 elections when the Clintons were desperately trying to undo the massive losses suffered by Congressional Democrats during the 1994 midterm elections. They were also based on junk social science.
In a retrospective 2014 New York Times’ article, “When Youth Violence Spurred ‘Superpredator’ Fear,” Clyde Haberman recalled that during the 1990’s, politicians frequently cited “evidence that America was being overwhelmed by waves of ‘superpredators,’ feral youths devoid of impulse control or remorse … Social scientists like James A. Fox, a criminologist, warned of ‘a blood bath of violence’ that could soon wash over the land.”
According to Haberman, “the superpredator jeremiads … proved to be nonsense … Instead of exploding, violence by children sharply declined.”
Michelle Alexander, a law professor and author of the 2010 book “The New Jim Crow,” has written that the Clintons have a long history of exploiting white voters’ fear of crime to win elections.
In a Feb. 10 article in The Nation, “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote,” Alexander wrote that the Clintons “mastered the art of sending mixed cultural messages, appealing to African-Americans … in black churches, while at the same time signaling to poor and working-class whites that he was willing to be tougher on black communities than Republicans had been.”
Always with an eye toward the next election, the Clintons’ enacted a series of racially disparate public policies and draconian criminal justice “reforms” that they could rely on to prove they were tough on crime.
“The Clinton administration eliminated Pell grants for prisoners seeking higher education to prepare for their release, supported laws denying federal financial aid to students with drug convictions, and signed legislation imposing a lifetime ban on welfare and food stamps for anyone convicted of a felony drug offense,” Alexander wrote.
These policies, and others, resulted in the mass incarceration of poor minority males, and an explosion of crippling poverty in poor minority communities.
According to Alexander, “(b)y the end of Clinton’s presidency, more than half of working-age African-American men in many large urban areas were saddled with criminal records and subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, access to education, and basic public benefits — relegated to a permanent second-class status eerily reminiscent of Jim Crow.”
In 1899, professor Walter Willcox, the founder of Cornell University’s sociology department, gave an address before the American Social Science Association on “Negro Criminality.” Willcox concluded, based on an absurd statistical analysis of incarceration rates in Northern jails, that blacks were genetically predisposed to commit crimes at a rate greater than whites. He warned of an impending increase in Negro criminality, particularly among “the rising generation.”
Willcox’s lecture was widely circulated in the South, where it was cited by politicians in support of an avalanche of new Jim Crow laws passed during the first two decades of the 20th century.
During this period, a courageous white Southerner named Quincy Ewing — an Episcopal minister from Greenville, Mississippi — devoted his life to preaching racial equality and exposing the junk science that supported the claims of excessive black criminality.
In a March 1909 article in The Atlantic, “The Heart of the Race Problem,” Ewing wrote:
“The small politician’s trump-card, played early and late, and in all seasons, that the Negro is a black shadow over the Southland because of his excessive criminality, serves well the politician’s purpose — it wins his game; but only because the game is played and won on a board where fictions, not facts, are dominant.”
Hillary’s history of race baiting has shown just how small of a politician she has always been. The relevant question is not whether Hillary Clinton is a racist, but whether she is a pragmatic opportunist who pretends to be a racist when it suits her interests to gain a political advantage.
Is there a morally appreciable difference between the person who is actually a racist and the person who — with a wink and a nod — sends racially coded messages and encourages harmful, racially disparate policies to win an election? Or, as Tolstoy asked this rhetorical question in a different context: “Which is worse? The wolf who cries before eating the lamb or the wolf who does not.”
Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow. Nick Hentoff is a criminal defense and civil liberties attorney in New York City.