Tell Me About the 90s Gramps

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History is a funny thing. And generations seem always to look at each other across the divide of years with a mix of mutual ignorance, ‘splaining and efforts to justify their own cohorts’ priorities and impressions. But through the on-going debate over police violence and mass incarceration I’ve had the repeated experience of nodding in agreement with young activists and yet being surprised how quickly we forget the politics of the 1980s and 1990s. If this sounds like a middle-aged man lecturing the younger generation about not knowing how it was, well … at some level I obviously have to plead guilty. But just as youth always has the ability to look at the realities of the moment and not be blinded by the unattacked assumptions of the status quo, older folks do have some remaining ability to understand the dynamics of the past as eyewitnesses.

With that introduction I wanted to focus your attention on this column by Charles Blow in the Times. It’s based on an interview with Ashley Williams, the 23-year-old graduate student who confronted Hillary Clinton last week at a private fundraiser in Charlotte over her use of the word “superpredator” in 1996 and her broader complicity in the rise of mass incarceration. It’s a very good piece. But there’s one small part that stunned me when I read it. I quote it here at length at the point where Blow is amazed and incredulous that this really could have been the first time anyone had ever called Clinton on her use of this term …

Could this be true? How was this possible? How is it that of all the black audiences she has been before in the interceding two decades, and all the black relationships she has cultivated, no one person ever asked her what this young graduate student was asking?

In that movement, I knew that the people of my generation had failed the people of Williams’s. Her whole life has borne the bruises of what was done, largely by Democrats, when I was the age she is now.

She said she has grown up knowing families and whole communities devastated by vanishing black people, swept away into a criminal justice system that pathologized their very personage. That night, Williams forced a reckoning.

Yes, I’m zeroing in on this bolded line which claims that the demonizing of black youth, the rise of mass incarceration and all the collateral damage brought in their wake was mainly the work of Democrats. I’m not a distinterested observer of this debate. Though I was a graduate student when the 1994 crime bill past and a pretty avid Clinton supporter, I was also a very close observer of our politics through the 90s as well as someone who was writing about it and covering it through most of the decade. As I said, I was a big Clinton supporter. So I am implicated in this at some personal level. But this goes beyond partisan defensiveness. This is simply demonstrably wrong. And it jumps out at me because Blow is basically my age – maybe a year younger. I’m genuinely perplexed how he says that.

Let me be clear: there are endless possible arguments on each side of this. I don’t dispute for a second people who make the following argument against 1990s-era “New Democrats” and the politics of crime and mass incarceration: At a time when US politics was rife with demonization and mythologization of black criminality, three-strikes politics, death penalty hysteria and more, you went along with it to protect yourself politically, to stay in office. You enabled it. You made yourselves part of it. And you’re the party of the country’s African-American community. You have to answer for that.

That’s a maximalist argument and there are various parts I’d disagree with. But there is zero question that that is a big part of what happened. And the people you try most to hold to account aren’t your enemies but purported friends who betrayed you. But to claim that mass incarceration writ large and ‘tough on crime’ politics was mainly the work of Democrats doesn’t just mis-assign blame. It just wildly distorts what happened.

It is akin to listen to the politics of the Obama era, finding quotes and actions from the president arguing for budget cutting, budget balancing and the need to reign in spending and imagining that Obama was the leader of the pro-austerity forces in America in the second decade of the 21st century. And that’s ridiculous. President Obama is responsible for every deal he cut, every bill he signed and every speech he made. But if you lived through this era, even if you’re a bitter critic of the president, you probably would look at that analysis of our era and say, what? There was this other thing called the American right, the Tea Party, the GOP that figured into this. And that is a pretty good analogue to the politics of crime from the 1970s through the 1990s, which itself grew out of the very real crime wave of the late 20th century, which we’ve discussed here at length as one of the most politically consequential events of the 20th century.

It’s not just that the GOP was the ‘tough on crime’ party and the Democrats were on defense, it’s that the GOP very deliberately and explicitly hitched ‘tough on crime policies’ and fear of crime to racist appeals and fear of blacks. You cannot separate the GOP’s tough on crime policies from their whole race baiting agenda. To the extent Democrats were going along with it, it was by and large to inoculate themselves against the charge of being weak on crime. There were certainly some Democrats, mainly in the South, who also played to conventional racial politics. But most of them retired or became Republicans. To get some sense of this, it is worth looking at the campaign commercials for the 1994 midterm when ‘midnight basketball’ and other parts of the crime bill were lampooned by Republicans as criminal-coddling wasteful big government from Democrats who were afraid of tough sentencing and the death penalty.

There are subsidiary details that are part of this discussion, not least of which is that the great mass of the incarceration happens at the state not the federal level and has nothing to do with the 1994 crime bill. But again, my point here isn’t to pick apart who’s responsible for which law or which percentage of the people who are currently incarcerated are attributable to which political leader. Everyone is responsible for what they did. But just as there are today essentially two sides on voting rights, budget politics, national security, gender rights and so many other issues, that was basically the case on ‘law and order politics’ back then. Imagining that one side simply didn’t exist not only distorts the calculus of responsibility, it rewrites the history of what actually happened – and not in the good sense.

I’m not without some level of self-awareness. As a white guy in his late forties who has had, in essence, no contact with the criminal justice system, my standing to argue these points with Ashley Williams or Charles Blow (who I’m a huge fan of) is rather limited, to say the least. I’m not talking about blame or responsibility. Others can apportion that. I’m talking about the political dynamics of the moment, which party was driving the car. In these terms, this simply is not what happened.

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