Bernie Sanders was clear why he criticized Hillary Clinton for a word she used 20 years ago: "Because it was a racist term, and everybody knew it was a racist term."
The term Sanders is referring to is "superpredators." Clinton used the word back in 1996 to justify her — and her husband's — support for "tough on crime" policies. Clinton said, "It's not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators — no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel."
As Sanders said, this has become known as a racially loaded term. Many black Americans now see it as a word meant to characterize their children as violent criminals — a form of coded language that has reared its ugly head over the years through phrases like "thugs" and "black-on-black crime."
What's worse, the idea of these "superpredators" was based on faulty research. As Clyde Haberman reported in the New York Times, the so-called unchecked "superpredators" simply didn't exist — and one of the biggest proponents of the research surrounding the term apologized later for spreading it:
No one in the mid-1990s promoted this theory with greater zeal, or with broader acceptance, than John J. DiIulio Jr., then a political scientist at Princeton. Chaos was upon us, Mr. DiIulio proclaimed back then in scholarly articles and television interviews. The demographics, he said, were inexorable. Politicians from both major parties, though more so on the right, picked up the cry. Many news organizations pounced on these sensational predictions and ran with them like a punt returner finding daylight.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the apocalypse. Instead of exploding, violence by children sharply declined. Murders committed by those ages 10 to 17 fell by roughly two-thirds from 1994 to 2011, according to statistics kept by the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Mugged by reality, a chastened Mr. DiIulio has offered a mea culpa. "Demography," he says, "is not fate." The trouble with his superpredator forecast, he told Retro Report, is that "once it was out there, there was no reeling it in."
Nonetheless, Clinton and lawmakers widely used the theory to help perpetuate mass incarceration. Again, Haberman explained:
It certainly had consequences. It energized a movement, as one state after another enacted laws making it possible to try children as young as 13 or 14 as adults. (New York had such a law even earlier, and it is now being applied to Kahton Anderson.) Many hundreds of juveniles were sent to prison for life, though in the last few years the United States Supreme Court has ruled that such sentences must not be automatic, even in murder cases. Individual circumstances and possible mitigating factors should be weighed, the justices said.
These politicians were tapping into the sentiment that criminals have to be harshly punished for crime — a sentiment that was very powerful in America, including among some in black communities, after decades of rises in violent crime. It was the same sentiment that led President Bill Clinton to sign a law in 1994 that helped continue — but didn't cause — mass incarceration.
And 20 years later, her use of the word — and the policies surrounding it — are coming back to haunt Clinton.