Watch Out, ‘Super-Predator’ Rhetoric is Alive and Well
The dog-whistle term made most famous by Hillary Clinton in the 1990s, in which the then-first lady gave a speech in support of her husband’s tough-on-crime legislation, simply can’t be shaken.
“They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy,” said Clinton in 1996, in support of the controversial 1994 crime bill that is credited with the inception of “three strikes” laws and increasing mass incarceration. “We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”
At the time, President Bill Clinton took this approach in response to Republican critiques, calling Democrats soft on crime. The 1994 bill had strong support from both sides of the aisle, and the conversation surrounding it had strong, racially-coded language from politicians, including current Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Today, that bill and the super-predator narrative have put Biden as well as Hillary Clinton in hot water, with author and law professor Michelle Alexander calling the comments from Clinton “racially-coded rhetoric to cast Black children as animals” in a 2016 essay against her presidency.
Now, during a pandemic, amid Black Lives Matter demonstrations and a resurged awareness surrounding social justice issues, including prison reform, there are still people using the same tactics from 30 years ago to condemn youths in the system — mostly Black, Brown, poor and/or disabled kids — and treat them as disposable, juvenile justice advocates say, albeit under new circumstances.
An article published last Thursday, August 6 by The Columbus Dispatch details how eight youths recently released from the Franklin County Juvenile Detention Center due to a COVID-19 outbreak have recidivated, with one youth accused of murder. The article frames the release of youth from the detention center during a pandemic as a bad thing, without giving context to the social conditions in which crime occurs — seemingly to fit a specific narrative, advocates say.
In the last several months, juvenile justice organizers and racial justice activists have been calling for the release of the prison population, juvenile and onward. Activists pointed out, with the coronavirus pandemic and the ways in which the virus spreads, the safety of youth and adults in prison was in jeopardy. Officials responded with increases in testing and other protocols, as well as the release of a very small percentage of inmates.
But the calls weren’t connected simply to the spread of COVID. For many advocates, they were calling into question the very idea of incarceration entirely. They point to studies on how ineffective this system is, with their high recidivation rates, high costs, constant exposures to violence and ineffectiveness in creating public safety.
So when youths were released earlier this year, to their same divested neighborhoods with the support of only an ankle monitor to keep them out of trouble, run-ins with the law were more of the same results.
In the article, Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien told The Dispatch that he was “not surprised at all” that the youths released were back in trouble. “This kind of behavior was predictable, given their history, which is why we opposed their release,” he said.
Kimberly Jordan, director of the Justice For Children Clinic at The Ohio State University, says it’s “troubling” one would predict behavior based on past mistakes.
“There were lots of folks who were advocating for the intervention center to release as many kids as possible [due to COVID]. And we weren’t advocating to do that with nothing in place,” she says. “The court could have put interventions into place for the youth at home and support systems in place…when they were released, and instead just put them on ankle monitors and expected them to comply.”
Jordan considers the article among a series of dehumanizing pieces that do not take into account that these kids are often not in control of their lives, situation and circumstances.
“I think what we need to do is focus on building youth up rather than tearing them down and expecting negative results from them,” she says.
But organizers agree with O’Brien on one thing — the results were expected, and that’s the problem.
“This kind of behavior was predictable, but not given [the kids’] history, given the history of the systems of control over their lives,” says Kenza Kamal, policy director for the Juvenile Justice Coalition. “He says that the fact that they recidivated is why they opposed their release. And to us, that’s why we oppose them being incarcerated to begin with.”
Advocates say if leaders and media outlets cared to know why juvenile crime occurs, what could drive a child to kill someone, there would be more attention paid to what support and resources could be provided to make sure this doesn’t happen.
Kamal says even during heightened racial and social justice awareness, there is no mention of how these kids can fall through the cracks.
“Beneath every one of these stories, there’s a young person who is raising themselves or has a record of untreated mental health or was attached at the school to prison pipeline, who’s been system-involved for their whole life has been failed by all these systems,” she says. “And then they are framed as super-predators.”
Kamal points out that the article doesn’t specifically identify the race of the children or use the term “super-predators,” but says, “You don’t have to say it. Everything about the way that it’s written is in this larger narrative.”
The term was not intentionally popularized and apparently wasn’t used very often by Hillary Clinton, however, coded language doesn’t always work that way. It’s implicit, something that frames the overarching tone behind policy, a speech or a story. It “sparks a historical narrative in the reader” that has a pattern of dehumanizing and targeting Black men, says Aramis Sundiata, executive director of JJC. “That is not an accident,” he says.
In a time of protests and demonstrations, where defunding the police is being taken seriously locally and nationally, and systems of criminal punishment are being threatened, Sundiata sees a conjoined effort by outlets to shift the current narrative.
“The media begins to do stories around crime, around decarceration, painting the picture of, ‘We need to have these people locked up,'” says Sundiata.
Kamal says you’ll see stories about how crime has gone up in cities where people are talking about defunding, without mentioning the fact that crime goes up every year during the summer.
“They need to double down and show people why they are actually needed,” says Kamal. “As an attempt to kind of counteract the awakening that people on the streets are coming to.”
As advocates against youth imprisonment entirely, Kamal says that work is not being done in a vacuum. Their priority has always been to divest from the harm caused to Black and Brown people by this system and reinvest in supportive services.
Without proper context, you wouldn’t know how ineffective incarcerating kids is, or that “jailing them at such a pivotal time in their lives just exposes them to more violence, more abuse, more loss of long-term schooling and income,” says Kamal, continuing an oppressive cycle that contributes negatively to the larger community.
“It’s not just about 52 kids in the JDC in Columbus,” Kamal says. “You get to the point of understanding that they’re part of the whole larger system that has millions of people inside of it. It’s about this basically playing into every single kind of like oppressive trope that the entire criminal punishment system has pushed on Black people.”
For more information on the Juvenile Justice Coalition, visit jjohio.org.