In all, if the Clintons are lost in the morass of a political swamp where they are struggling how to best explain their role in the mass incarceration of black Americans, such a predicament is at least partially a reflection of the contradictions and complexities that occur whenever questions of race, class, justice and crime intersect along the color line in the United States.
Public policy reflects the goals, needs and interests of multiple groups. These myriad agendas are often poorly reconciled with what best serves a given public. At its most ideal, good public policy balances public and private interests and also serves the Common Good. Public policy made in response to a moral panic or similar hysteria may provide short-term relief and a symbolic victory. Yet, the politics of panic and hysteria sometimes make a given problem worse or serve as a temporary salve for what are, in reality, deeper and more systemic social and political defects
The 1994 Violent Crime Control Act was born out of a moment, the mid- to late-1980s and the early 1990s, when violent crime was a national emergency. During this time period, there was panic and hysteria, and we must remember the way it was framed — the talk of the denizens of crime-infested inner city neighborhoods who would often sleep in bathtubs to avoid bullets. Crack cocaine was a monster that broke homes and families, made gangs rich, lured black boys and girls into crime, and created a generation of “crack babies” — black children who were destined to be learning disabled, physically handicapped, and as they matured, would soon be trapped in an endless cycle of “ghetto culture” of poverty, crime and drugs.
The “super-predators” Hillary referred to were black street pirates without a moral code or any sense of restraint. It was rumored that some of them even smoked “illies” (marijuana laced with embalming fluid, PCP, and/or cocaine) that made the user even more crazy and dangerous. Hillary Clinton wanted to bring these black “thugs” to “heel.” Donald Trump ran ads in newspapers demanding that the four black and one Hispanic teenager who were arrested for allegedly raping a 28-year-old old white woman in New York City’s Central Park “be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.”
Popular culture is central to public memory. The moment that produced Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill also inspired drug and gang themed movies such as “Boyz n the Hood,” “Colors,” “New Jack City” and “Deep Cover.”
“Deep Cover” highlighted the tragedy of crack babies. In “New Jack City,” Chris Rock’s character, “Pookie,” rail thin and shaking from withdrawal, struggled with his crack addiction. “Colors” featured actors Robert Duvall and Sean Penn, the wizened veteran cop and the hot-headed rookie, engaging in street battles with Los Angeles street gangs. John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood” taught the viewer that good people are collateral damage for gang violence … and that revenge may eventually come, but it is rarely satisfying.
If film is a space where a society is talking to itself about itself, the collective subconscious projected onto a screen at 24 frames per second, America’s inner cities were war zones and murder fields that ate both criminals and the innocent with equal enthusiasm.