Bill Clinton Lives Long Enough to See Himself Become the Villain of Black Lives Matter
Apr. 12, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — H.L. Mencken once remarked “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” That pithy statement is an observation about the general human condition, which is beset with cognitive biases:
That is, our reasoning abilities are focused on contests where we already have conclusions that we want to support or oppose, and where particular rivals give conflicting reasons. I’d add that such abilities also seem tuned to win over contest audiences by impressing them, and by making them identify more with us than with our rivals. We also seem eager to visibly hear argument contests, in addition to participating in such contests, perhaps to gain exemplars to improve our own abilities, to signal our embrace of social norms, and to exert social influence as part of the audience who decides which arguments win.
Humans also have a capacity to tell stories, i.e., to summarize sets of related events. Such events might be real and past, or possible and future. One might expect this capacity to be designed to well-summarize a wide variety of event sets. But, as with reasoning, we might similarly find that our actual story abilities are tuned for the more specific case of contests, where the stories are about ourselves or our rivals, especially where either we or they are suspected of violating social norms. We might also be good at winning over audiences by impressing them and making them identify more with us, and we may also be eager to listen to gain exemplars, signal norms, and exert influence.
Unfortunately for America’s “first black” President, Bill Clinton, the substance of public political discourse has changed since the 1990s and the accepted rationality of that decade has been recast in a hostile light:
When I was 9 years old, my sister and I snuck downstairs to watch TV after my parents fell asleep and, unbeknownst to us, witnessed an event that fundamentally changed American culture: Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on Arsenio Hall.
* * * It was the moment the black community fell in love with William Jefferson Clinton — a love that’s lasted almost 25 years, despite the excessive harm he’s inflicted on our community.
When I saw Bill Clinton this week lose his cool with Black Lives Matter protesters, get emotional and throw caution (and his notes) to the wind, I thought it was the most awesome thing I’d seen all week. * * *But what was so awesome about his rant was the fact that, for once, we got to see under the veneer of white, liberal political correctness — we got to see a white person with power who’s done real harm to our community say what he truly believes. And as a black person, there’s nothing I appreciate more than white people being upfront and honest about their problematic beliefs.
It seems that absence does not always make the heart grow fonder. The exchange referred to above between Clinton and the Black Lives Matters protestors was based on the 1994 Crime Bill. Although now the Crime Bill apparently is considered a racist tool of oppression, that’s not exactly how the black political establishment saw it back then:
Mfume [the former chair of the CBC], and the entire leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus of the 103rd Congress, voted for it. * * * And the CBC leadership wasn’t a passive supporter of the crime bill. The Baltimore Sun quotes Mfume as saying the CBC wasn’t doing Clinton a favor by voting for it, but had “put our stamp on this bill,” because in addition to a surge in police officers and prisons, which would disproportionately affect poor, young black people, there was an assault weapons ban and a limit on automatic life sentences for repeat offenders.
And the support was broader than simply among Congressional leaders:
In general, the community embraced both social programs and punishment. In March 1994, Ebony Magazine published an editorial that referenced a 1979 special issue on “Black on Black crime.” The piece quoted publisher John H. Johnson, who wrote at the time that “Black on Black crime has reached a crime level that threatens our existence as a people.” The black magazine reaffirmed those words and the policy responses outlined in that issue, including economic development and a “crackdown on incorrigible criminals.”
Because the crime bill included funds for crime prevention and rehabilitation programs and for police and prisons, many black leaders rushed to its defense. Thirty-nine African-American pastors signed a letter saying, “While we do not agree with every provision in the crime bill, we do believe and emphatically support the bill’s goal to save our communities, and most importantly, our children.” Ten black, big-city mayors sent a letter to Mfume urging the caucus to support the proposals despite its opposition to the death penalty provisions.
So if you’re younger than 35, you can be forgiven if you simply thought Bill Clinton is just an old white guy outed as the pernicious racist he always was secretly. In any event, he probably does not like kids on his lawn. Old-man Clinton simply didn’t realize that Black Lives Matters is not about statistics, and that the old rationales are no longer the currency of the realm.
Bill Clinton’s notion of crime and policing appear largely rooted in the Broken Windows methodology. That type of policing seems to have been the driving motivation for getting 100,000 new cops on the streets, besides, of course, how that proposal looked in the media and to voters. And in that context, the best policy is the one that delivers electoral victory.
There are certainly people who believe that such policing does indeed drive crime rates down. Others see the bitter fruits of successful Broken Windows policing as also driving up the incarceration rate. Black Lives Matter advocates see such policing as unnecessary and racist. Although the latter contention is contestable. And, at a minimum, people seem to like that style of policing. But at least it’s a neat and plausible claim.
But the primary question remains, what was the impact of the 1994 crime bill (officially the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994), particularly with regard to contributing to mass incarceration?
Foremost, the claim that that the 1994 bill is the primary cause of mass incarceration is bunk. As Professor John Pfaff notes, not only is there no evidence to support that conclusion, but there is contrary evidence: prison growth began slowing in 1993 and continued falling until 2010 when it dropped. Plus, federal incarceration accounts for only about 13% of all the nation’s prisoners. That’s no doubt disappointing to Clinton’s critics.
But a Crime Bill critic may say, the feds offered incentives for states to ratchet up penalties. True, but only four states cited those grants as a key factor in modifying their sentencing schemes. It seems that most states were responding to the same political pressures that Congress did and perhaps even with similar support from the black community.
The bottom line is that both the crime rate was already falling and incarnation rates were slowly by the time the 1994 Crime Bill passed. The Crime Bill turned out to be at best marginally effective or, more likely, a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. But what else is new?
The question of what is an appropriately severe penalty is already vexing enough without further confounding it. The data seems to suggest that perhaps certain policies commonly adopted during this time, such as more and higher mandatory minimums, have kept the rate of imprisonment from falling earlier or faster. But the severity of punishment of offenders is a different matter than creating more offenses to incarcerate those who otherwise would be law abiding. Figuring out appropriate severity is a more difficult endeavor than simply branding the criminal justice system as a racist tool of oppression and calling it a job well done.