What "The Ferguson Effect", Crack Babies, & Superpredators Have in Common

On Race, Moral Panics and Mass Incarceration


  1. During a recent campaign stop in South Carolina, a #BlackLivesMatter activist held up a sign that read: "We need to bring them to heel." It was a 1990s quote from Hillary Clinton in reference to so-called juvenile superpredators.
  2. Black Lives Matter Activist Interrupts Hillary Clinton [2/24/16] "I am NOT a Superpredator."
  3. Here is Hillary Clinton's speech where she made the "bring them to heel" comments:
  4. Hillary Clinton - Full 'Bring Them To Heel' gang comments
  5. This is not a misunderstanding over inconsequential word choices. In the 1990s, Professors John Dilulio and John Fox warned the nation of a coming “breed” of juvenile offenders who kill, rape, maim, without giving it a second thought.” These teens were talked about not as kids, but as “fatherless, Godless and jobless” superpredators.
  6. Here's what happens when you go around fear-mongering about killer kids with no empathy (from the Phillips Black Project):
  7. The superpredator scare is a prime example of a moral panic, which is what happens when the public reacts to a real or perceived social problem (for example, an increase in crime) in a way that is hysterical and out-of-all-proportion. Legislators, in turn, often pass harsh sentences to address these public concerns.
  8. Unfortunately, the juvenile superpredator scare was not the only moral panic of the 1980s & 90s. Consider, for example:
  9. 1. Willie Horton raped a woman during a prison furlough while Michael Dukakis was the Governor of Massachusetts (by the way, Ronald Reagan championed prison furloughs while the Governor of California). A prominent strategist for George H.W. Bush purposely played on the fears of Americans, especially our racial fears, for political gain: “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’s running mate.”

  10. The Willie Horton Ad and the Revolving Door Attack Ads
  11. The political exploitation of WIllie Horton contributed to the end of prison furloughs and a tightening of parole eligibility generally throughout the United States. Indeed, as U.S. Senator Richard Durbin said recently: "The ghost of Willie Horton has loomed over any conversation about sentencing reform for over 30 years.”
  12. 2. In 1993, a paroled felon abducted and killed a young girl, Polly Klaas, in California. Her kidnapping became a national sensation, and with her story fueling the campaign, California passed a so called three-strikes and you're out ballot initiative. States across the nation followed suit--24 states in two years. Even President Bill Clinton stepped into the game (starting @ 1:30 into the clip):
  13. 3. But the moral panic most similar to the superpredator scare was the crack baby epidemic. A widespread fear of crack cocaine usage came to a head in 1986 when Len Bias, a standout college basketball star drafted by the Boston Celtics, died after using cocaine (it turns out it was powder--not crack--cocaine, and the implicit racial associations that led to that mix-up are for another day). As Professors Zoe Robinson and Robert Smith have explained: "Congress immediately held hearings on the crack-cocaine epidemic wherein legislators invoked Bias’s name eleven times. A few months later, President Bush signed into law the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which contained a 100:1 sentencing disparity for possession of crack relative to powder cocaine."
  14. Taken together, these moral panics contributed to a system of justice that locked up an unprecedented number of people for a gratuitously harsh amount of time.
  15. And, it turns out, mostly needlessly so:
  16. Superpredators turned out to be more myth than reality:
  17. The crack baby epidemic? Also mostly mythical:
  18. Now it seems like politicians and intellectual leaders are tripping over each other to apologize:
  19. The Bush strategist, Lee Atwater, has since said that he was missing “a little heart, a lot of brotherhood” when he exploited the Willie Horton fiasco. Indeed, he said that the statements he made involved “naked cruelty.”
  20. Hillary Rodham Clinton said: "Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today."