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The Clintons Aren’t the Only Ones to Blame for the Crime Bill

Black leaders also embraced it.

The chickens have come home to roost, at least for some people. Bill and Hillary Clinton have been taken to task for the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. While the legislation provided substantial resources for crime prevention programs and included the Violence Against Women Act and a federal ban on certain assault weapons, it also allocated billions of dollars for police and prisons, and instituted new death penalty offenses and "Three Strikes, You're Out.” Because of its punitive components, Black Lives Matter activist Julius Jones charged, “The policy mistakes that ... the Clintons made got us, in large degree, to the situation that we are in today with mass incarceration."

For their part, both Clintons have expressed regret. Recently, Hillary Clinton admitted that their previous effort to fight crime went “further than it needed to go." She has also declared, “It’s time to end the era of mass incarceration.” Less than a month later, the former president, speaking at the annual meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, confessed, "I signed a bill that made the problem worse." Yet more mea culpas are warranted: many black leaders also made the problem worse.

Like most dramatic policy shifts in the American criminal justice system, the Clinton crime bill was a product of historical social forces and evolving political dynamics. On the social side, there was crime. For example, in Baltimore, the violent crime rate (per 100,000) climbed from 1869 in 1987 to 2994 in 1993. In Washington, D.C. it rose from 1,610 in 1987 to 2,922 in 1993. In Los Angeles it rose from 1,910 in 1987 to 2,374 in 1993 — that’s after hitting a high of 2,526 in 19911. Although Philadelphia’s overall violent crime rate experienced a moderate increase from 1987 to 1993, the murder rate climbed from 21 in 1987 to 32 in 1990 before falling to 28 in 1993.

Speaking to the terror these numbers barely capture, an elderly female resident of West Philadelphia, told the Philadelphia Tribune in 1994, "It's bad in America, honey . . . It's getting worse and worse every day. I'm afraid to answer my door." "It's outta hand,” a young man from North Philadelphia shared. “[A]ll of the young kids and little kids getting killed is dumb. Some people are scared to come out of their house."

On the political side, there was an electoral realignment underway. The Democratic president and his party agonized over the steady erosion of support among white voters. In an interview with Black Entertainment Television before the 1994 midterm elections that swept Republicans into power on Capitol Hill, President Clinton was attuned to white anxieties. He spoke about the alienation felt by “a lot of white voters” and the “extreme right-wing forces…. telling them it's all because the Government tried too hard to help the minorities.” Still, he believed that the party could “appeal to the undecided voters” by investing in communities and cutting “the size of Government,” being “tough on crime,” and having “a strong foreign policy.”

The notorious crime bill emerged from the gritty nexus of black suffering and partisan struggle. The president and his Democratic party exploited the legitimate public safety concerns of urban black residents, using them to frame and defend mostly punitive anti-crime proposals that would appeal to tough-on-crime undecided voters and white democrats alienated by contemporary liberalism. Justifying the legislation, Clinton remarked, “Gangs and drugs have taken over our streets and undermined our schools.” He continued, “Every day, we read about somebody else who has literally gotten away with murder.” Not surprisingly, Democrats rushed to claim credit after its passage. Senate majority leader George Mitchell lauded it as a victory for the party, saying, "This is a Democratic bill. The author of the bill is a Democrat. The principal supporter for this bill is a Democratic president.”

Black leaders were split on the controversial proposals. Kurt Schmoke, the first elected black mayor of Baltimore, encouraged community leaders to support the bill, insisting that they needed to “send a signal” that “if there is evil manifested by actions taken by individuals who choose to prey upon our residents that that evil will be responded to quickly and correctly.” Others were of a different mind. U.S. Representative Kweisi Mfume, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), complained that the measures would only “find better ways to incarcerate people” and “give us a sense that we are more secure as a result of the new prisons and the tougher sentences.”

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 saying2, "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. Given the size of the group, the CBC was able to hold up the legislation. At first, they used that leverage to protest capital punishment. Eventually, though, party ties outweighed principled objections. In fact, Mfume, once a critic (a prescient one that), engineered a meeting between his members and the president in order to corral black votes. As Charlie Rangel recounted about the gathering, “[Clinton] was selling his presidency.” And the pitch worked. Party loyalty won out. Most CBC members stood by their president and party, voting for the bill and aiding its passage.

Although we can applaud many black leaders’ emphasis on reform, we must also reckon with their embrace of police and prisons. We must confront the disturbing truth that many African American politicians rushed to aid Bill Clinton and guard the influence they had accrued during their party’s control of Washington. So, while the Black Lives Matter movement stands up to the Clintons demanding they confront the sins of the past, there are others — black activists and officials — who also deserve their ire.

Michael Javen Fortner is academic director of urban studies at the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, City University of New York. He is also the author of the book, "Black Silent Majority."