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The Long Generational Shadow of the Clintons’ Crime Bill

How a 20-year-old piece of legislation highlights the changing face of African-American activists.
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In the run-up to her victory in the New York Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton’s biggest liability may have been her husband.

Earlier this month, former President Bill Clinton clashed with African-American protestors at a campaign rally in Philadelphia over the legacy of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, also known as the “crime bill.” The legislation, which sought to quell the rising tide of crime fueled by America’s crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s, introduced a slew of measures, including assault weapons bans and increased resources toward domestic violence issues. Though the crime bill helped reduce the national crime rate, Black Lives Matter protestors argue that the legislation has strongly influenced the growth of America’s prison population (especially among black men), and is directly responsible for the current tensions between law enforcement and black communities.

“I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children,” Bill Clinton said at the rally. “You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter.”

A few days later, Hillary Clinton struggled to defend her husband’s (and, in turn, her own) legacy on policing black communities. “If we’re going to talk about his eight years as president, we should talk about everything, and he said last summer to the NAACP that a lot of good things happened to try to lower crime, save lives, and all of that,” she told CNN. “But clearly some things happened that were not foreseen and need to be now addressed, and I think that’s good leadership.”

The resulting kerfuffle saw Clinton scrambling to secure the support of African-American voters — long seen broadly as Clinton loyalists — ahead of the hugely important primary. And in the end, her campaign’s panic largely didn’t matter: The New York Times, reporting on Tuesday’s exit polls, showed that Clinton handily won over 75 percent of African-American voters compared to Senator Bernie Sanders’ 25 percent.

But the unusual nature of the Clintons’ legacy among African Americans is more generational than anything else: Amid a rising Millennial swell that’s elevated the campaign of Sanders, it’s older African Americans who are less critical of the Clintons’ legacy on criminal justice. From the New York Times:

A fiery exchange broke out between the activists and the former president as Mr. Clinton forcefully defended the legislation. But it was not just Mr. Clinton who criticized the young protesters. Afterward, some older African-Americans did, too.

“I think it is crazy to protest the crime bill,” said Caryl Brock, 53, a social worker from the Bronx, who scolded the protesters on social media. “Should it be amended? Maybe. But a lot of people really wanted it. I really wanted it.”

Why the contrast? The Timeschalks it up to a generational split between Boomer African Americans who lived through the Civil Rights era of Martin Luther King Jr. and younger Millennial activists utilizing social media in the fight against racial injustice. The exit polls captured this narrative on Tuesday, when, according to the Times, Sanders dominated voters between the ages of 18 and 28, winning 67 percent of the votes in that demographic:

The parents and grandparents of today’s young black protesters largely waged the battle for civil rights in courtrooms and churches. They carefully chose people who were viewed as upstanding citizens, like Rosa Parks, to be the face of their movement, and dressed in their Sunday best as they sought to gain broader acceptance. Mr. Clinton endeared himself to these generations by campaigning in black churches and appointing more blacks to the cabinet than any previous president had.

So why this generational split? First, it’s worth remembering that the United States was objectively less safe almost 50 years ago. Starting with the flood of drugs into the country in the 1970s and ’80s, murders and property crimes soared to previously unseen levels. TheAtlantic’s Ronald Brownstein notes that, when the violent crime rate increased by over 25 percent between 1980 and 1992, it primarily affected African-American and low-income communities in urban centers. For voters like Caryl Brock who “really wanted it,” the threat of violence — perhaps best embodied by the fear to walk alone in one’s own neighborhood at night — was palpable and paralyzing.

The Times notes that “about 58 percent of nonwhites supported [the legislation] in 1994, according to a Gallup poll, compared with 49 percent of white voters.” When the House of Representatives and Senate hit an impasse in 1994, it was a group of 10 African-American mayors who called on Congress to approve the legislation as quickly as possible.

But it wasn’t just imminent fear of lawlessness that galvanized people to submit to a fundamentally flawed piece of legislation: It was the culture of law and order initiated by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican National Convention, when he made a vow to wage war on “violence in the streets” the centerpiece of his campaign. As I wrote last year, that message has reverberated with the body politic for decades:

While Lyndon B. Johnson easily trumped Goldwater at the ballot box, the message of a federal government bulking up local law enforcement stuck with the Democratic administration: After all, national crime jumped from 3.3 million incidents in 1960 to 7.4 million by the end of the decade, according to data compiled by the FBI, peaking in 1991 at 14.8 million incidents each year. As a result, the mantle of “law and order” fell to subsequent politicians to joust over. “Politicians competed to run the most lurid campaign ads and sponsor the most punitive laws,” writes Inimai M. Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice program. “Racially tinged ‘wedge issues’ marked American politics from Richard Nixon’s ‘law and order’ campaign of 1968 to the ‘Willie Horton’ ads credited with helping George H.W. Bush win the 1988 election.” To this day, being “soft on crime” can be a death sentence for a political campaign.

Given the crime levels of the 1980s and early ’90s, it’s understandable that older African Americans might see the legislation (and, with it, the Clintons) through rose-colored glasses. But the generation of voters starting to come of age in the years following the law had a vastly different experience. While daily violence — murder, property crime, and fear of walking alone — declined in part due to a surge in state and local police forces, a significantly different burden took its place: aggressive policing.

Gallup found that the number of African Americans who said they’d experience police harassment over a 30-day window skyrocketed in the aftermath of the crime bill’s passage. It doesn’t help matters that the coveted demographic group (Millennials) currently flexing its political muscle, one already skeptical of existing institutions, is casting a critical eye on law enforcement at a time when trust in U.S. police forces is at its lowest in some 23 years.

But the scars extend further than just trust in police officers. While the 1994 legislation didn’t create the bloated morass of mass incarceration that’s become America’s shame over the last century — Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum points out that federal prisons only make up 13 percent of inmates — black men have borne the brunt of mass incarceration, despite the fact that there’s been a significant drop in the national incarceration rate among African Americans over the last six years. One in nine African-American children has a parent in prison, and those children “can become sick, including from mental illnesses; experience hunger and homelessness; start failing at school; and eventually watch helplessly as their once-enamored parents are torn apart,” as John Upton wrote in Pacific Standard in 2014.

The Baby Boomers who voted based on fear and anxiety in the 1990s, including African Americans, essentially mortgaged the future of an entire generation of black men for the sake of law and order. Today’s activists grew up in the long shadow of the crime bill — and now they’re fighting back. The Clintons conjured a specter of fear (backed by real data) and delivered a healing salve to both white and African-American Baby Boomers, but it’s that generation’s children who are paying the price.

It’s no wonder, then, that the activists powering Black Lives Matter and its associated movements against racial justice aren’t satisfied with politics as usual: For Millennial activists who have come of age in the post-Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act era, the bill is a visceral symbol of systemic racism in America. The black electorate is far from monolithic, and it’s this generational disconnect over the crime bill that captures the skepticism that’s kept many young African-American voters from fully embracing Clinton.

In the end, that may be a good thing: No demographic should ever be taken for granted. If Clinton wants to prove that she has the African-American community’s interests at heart, it’ll take more than a few packets of hot sauce.