Did Blacks Really Endorse the 1994 Crime Bill?

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tags: Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, election 2016, 1994 Crime Bill



Elizabeth Hinton is an assistant professor in the departments of history and African and African-American studies at Harvard. Julilly Kohler-Hausmann is an assistant professor of history at Cornell. Vesla M. Weaver is an associate professor in the departments of African-American studies and political science at Yale.

As political candidates and pundits grapple with the legacy of the 1994 crime bill and the era of mass incarceration that has seen millions of African-Americans locked in the nation’s prisons, one defense keeps popping up: that black citizens asked for it.

When confronted about her husband’s pivotal support for the bill, Hillary Clinton argued, even as she admitted the legislation’s shortcomings, that the bill was a response to “great demand, not just from America writ large, but from the black community, to get tougher on crime.”

Yet the historical record reveals a different story. Instead of being the unintended consequence of the democratic process at work, punitive crime policy is a result of a process of selectively hearing black voices on the question of crime.

There’s no question that by the early 1990s, blacks wanted an immediate response to the crime, violence and drug markets in their communities. But even at the time, many were asking for something different from the crime bill. Calls for tough sentencing and police protection were paired with calls for full employment, quality education and drug treatment, and criticism of police brutality.

It’s not just that those demands were ignored completely. It’s that some elements were elevated and others were diminished — what we call selective hearing. Policy makers pointed to black support for greater punishment and surveillance, without recognizing accompanying demands to redirect power and economic resources to low-income minority communities. When blacks ask for better policing, legislators tend to hear more instead. ...




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