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Super-Predators and Midnight Basketball

It’s time politicians take real responsibility for their participation in tough-on-crime demagoguery.

By Malcolm Harris


(Photo: B.C. Lorio/Flickr)

On January 25, 1996, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton was campaigning for her husband Bill’s re-election in Keene, New Hampshire. She gave a standard stump speech to the college crowd, talking about health care, the child tax credit, and getting more students into higher education. It’s not the kind of speech you’d think would come back to haunt her own presidential campaign a decade later. Yet in the current cycle, 12 seconds of that speech has become one of the most re-watched moments of 1990s. And it looks bad.

Two-thirds of the way through her talk, Clinton turned to the War on Drugs, using the era’s standard tough-on-crime language. “They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” she said. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called super-predators. No conscience. No empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.” It’s disgusting, racist language, the kind of thing few politicians in either party would say out loud in 2016. One YouTube clip of just this section has been viewed nearly 600,000 times.

To be fair to Clinton, in the clip she looks like she’s voicing an opinion she doesn’t hold. When she lands on the word “often,” her voice wavers like someone halfway through repeating a fact they heard on Radiolab when they realize it can’t possibly be true. I’m not sure how much better it is that she was talking about treating kids like dogs because she thought it would help her husband politically rather than out of a deep personal conviction, but it can’t be a whole lot. Asked about the comments this February, Clinton told the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart: “In that speech, I was talking about the impact violent crime and vicious drug cartels were having on communities across the country and the particular danger they posed to children and families. Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today.” That’s no doubt true, but it’s not exactly an apology.

Midnight basketball rose to prominence as an implicit compromise between Republicans and Democrats: Stereotypes are OK as long as they’re part of service provision. And there were plenty of stereotypes to go around.

Some Donald Trump supporters have cited the super-predator comment to suggest Clinton is no less racist than their candidate and that her appeals to the Movement for Black Lives have been disingenuous, but I’ve seen it deployed most by left-wing critics. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick — who was eight years old in 1996 — mentioned Clinton’s comments when he began his now-iconic refusal to stand for the National Anthem. Earlier this year, activist Ashley Williams unveiled a banner at a South Carolina Clinton fundraiser that read: “We have to bring them to heel.” The more attention you pay to her exact words, the worse they look.

Clinton’s signature issue has always been kids, from her work with the Children’s Defense Fund to It Takes a Village. A large portion of her 1990s stump speech is devoted to children’s advocacy, which is what made her attack on “super-predators” that much more credible. If Clinton says they’re not even kids, then they must be real bad. Still, it’s truly bizarre that Clinton defended her remarks by ducking behind a child-shaped shield. “The particular danger they posed to children” is the threat she cited to Capehart, reiterating in spirit the same racist claptrap that got her in trouble in the first place. In that sentence, the they are children too.

Clinton wasn’t the only one tripped up by the War on Crime’s kid contradictions. In his new book Midnight Basketball: Race, Sports, and Neoliberal Social Policy, sociologist Douglas Hartmann looks at the ’90s crime debate through a now mostly forgotten program. The plan behind midnight basketball was simple: young men, playing basketball, at night, supervised. One small community program became the model when President George H.W. Bush shined a national spotlight on it. The idea was phenomenally popular with Republicans, Democrats, and the media most of all, but no one could agree on how exactly it was supposed to prevent crime. Midnight basketball became a Rorschach test for policymakers and their conception of young black men.


Midnight Basketball: Race, Sports, and Neoliberal Social Policy

. (Photo: University of Chicago Press)

The one thing everyone agreed about when it came to midnight basketball — besides the midnight and basketball parts — is that young black men would be playing. Though it was continually pitched as race-neutral, Hartmann writes that everyone involved understood the implications. For community leaders, one way to access scarce public recreational funds was to suggest what you’re doing might stop crime, but they couldn’t just say, “We’ll use the money to keep an eye on the black kids who scare you.” Midnight basketball rose to prominence as an implicit compromise between Republicans and Democrats: Stereotypes are OK as long as they’re part of service provision. And there were plenty of stereotypes to go around.

Tough-on-crime types liked midnight basketball because it was a cheap form of police monitoring. “For a certain, fairly substantial contingent of its supporters,” Hartmann writes, “basketball-based programming wasn’t so much predicated as an alternative to a more stringent, social control — it actually was that kind of surveillance, physical containment, and complete control.” In this thinking, the basketball players themselves were delinquents, and distracting them on the court where cops could watch would reduce crime simply by keeping them off the streets. Texas Congressman Lamar Smith gave away the game when, after midnight basketball had become a Democrat- rather than Republican-linked policy, he complained it was based “on the theory that the person who stole your car, robbed your house, and assaulted your family was not more than a would-be NBA star.” When they thought about young black men playing basketball at night, that���s what they saw.

For Democrats, midnight basketball turned into a kind of blunder. The Clinton administration and congressional Democrats added funding for midnight basketball to the 1994 crime bill as a prevention-oriented element they thought Republicans could get behind: cheap, open to corporate sponsorship, and based in stereotypes about black men. It also served a second purpose; Hartmann cites a couple instances when President Clinton used midnight basketball to deflect questions from black audiences about his administration’s approach to crime. Asked about the Racial Justice Act — an abandoned amendment to the 1994 bill that would have allowed defense lawyers to present evidence of systematic racial discrimination in death penalty sentencing — Clinton pivoted to “prevention” programs like midnight basketball.

When liberals like Clinton looked at midnight basketball, they saw potential diversion: Kids who might otherwise become criminals would instead participate in structured activities and keep on the straight and narrow. Instead of being the risk, Democrats thought of young black men as at-risk. It’s not all that different from the Republican perspective. As it turns out, both sides were wrong, and not just morally. Midnight basketball had no demonstrated effect on crime levels. Most crime committed by young people happens in the afternoon, it turns out, and basketball has nothing to do with criminality. By now, two generations of kids have paid for the ’90s style of talking about crime — a style from which the Clintons profited more than most. As far as I’m concerned, both presidential candidates should be disqualified for their participation.

Rather than criminality or potential criminality, the thing that united actual midnight basketball players was the element the policymakers thought least about: basketball. Based on the interviews Hartmann conducted with players in a Minnesota league, the participants were mostly jocks. They were young adults who had played travel-level ball in high school but hadn’t gone on to college. Their thoughts about the program were limited: As basketball players, they appreciated the chance to play more basketball. Everything else was the projection and bluster of bigots and political profiteers.