adventures in making stuff with Daniel Higginbotham

Not a Superpredator

02 March 2016

I'm the son of a Vietnamese emigrant. I grew up in the South, where I experienced and witnessed racism. I have black step-siblings and my wife is black (naturally, so are my in-laws). As such, I try to educate myself about race issues in America. I don't share my thoughts much publicly but do want to write more on the subject. In the mean time, here's a (slight edited) exchange I had with a friend on Facebook about a recent event, Ashley Williams's protest during a Hillary Clinton speech.

Me: A room full of white people at a $500/person Hillary Clinton event tells young black woman she's being rude and inappropriate for demanding Hillary Clinton explain why she supported the system that destroyed countless black and latino lives. I think that accurately sums up the prevailing attitude toward race in America: black people, please don't cause me mild discomfort by bringing my attention to our society's racial caste system. It's impolite.

Friend: Wow. This thing seems like... a really, really huge distortion. She [Hillary] actually said: "You’re the first person to do that, **and I’m happy to address it."** She offered to talk about it. But the demonstrator wasn't there to talk, and wasn't in listening mode. Second, what she said, 20 years ago, is that she thought 'SuperPredators' exist and should be dealt with. It was a popular idea at the time. She did not say that they were one color or another: just that they exist and should be contained. WTF ??? It's indisputable that America needs to deal with the legacy of excessive force and excessive incarceration against people of color. But if we make it sound like any talk about incarcerating anybody, ever, must be inherently racist... we've already lost the battle to have serious conversations about what non-racially-biased policing would look like.

Me: Hey man! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Here are more of mine, and I hope they don't come across as combative - I really appreciate getting to talk about this stuff with someone as thoughtful as you.

I wasn't actually commenting on Hillary's reaction, but the reactions of those in the (almost entirely white) room with her: people hissing at her and telling her she's being rude and inappropriate. That's what I'm referring to when I say the video reflects the prevailing attitude toward race. To me, it's as if the message toward the BLM activist [note: I've since learned she actually isn't with Black Lives Matter] is, "Excuse me, but you're interrupting the event we paid $500 to see. Please take your complaints about the racial caste system, which doesn't negatively affect me, elsewhere."

And it is always "rude" or "inappropriate" or "inconvenient" for those topics to be discussed. When Beyonce dances at the Super Bowl, people lose their minds: they're just trying to enjoy football, they don't want to have to think about the lives of people who aren't like them! When another black man or woman gets murdered by police and people take to the streets demanding change, they're somehow offensive and ungrateful for criticizing law enforcement.

Most often, the reaction is to denounce the method and ignore the message.

Last year, Bernie Sanders visited Liberty University, and David Nasser, a university VP, got some of the biggest applause of the event for saying that the problem with the criminal justice system is a "sin issue, not a skin issue" - meaning that it was not a political issue, but one better addressed by encouraging people to be better or something. Same message: stop speaking up, black people.

So that's what I was meaning to communicate originally. Here are my thoughts on Hillary.

I'm not sure if you're familiar with "dog-whistle" politics, using coded language to court the racist vote. At the time, the Democratic party was trying to win back the vote of poor, Southern whites who'd switched to the Republican party thanks to the republicans' Southern Strategy, an effort to win those votes by appealing to racist fears and biases.

Anyway, Democrats had the idea, "hey maybe if we also play on those racial fears, we'll get those votes back!" And that's what they did. When Hillary and other political/media figures talked about "superpredators", it was generally understood to mean "urban" people, and that was generally understood to mean black people. So when the demonstrator brings this up, she's not saying that "any talk about incarcerating anybody, ever" is inherently racist. She had reasons for singling out that phrase and using it to call attention to Hillary's record. Some might disagree, but I think her reasons were good ones.

And even if "superpredator" wasn't meant that way, the result was still the crushingly unjust system we have today - and Hillary's support helped build that system. Using terms like "superpredator" and "bring them to heel" to accidentally perpetuate a racial caste system might even be worse.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, writes about it persuasively. The New Jim Crow goes into even greater detail about how mass incarceration and the criminal justice system are tools for racial control, even if many of the actors in the system (police, lawyers) aren't racist.

I'm a Bernie fan, and I don't have rabid Hillary hatred. If it comes down to Hillary versus whichever clown the Republican party decides on, I will vote for Hillary. I respect her vast experience and think she would do a decent job at pushing for progress. When it comes to racial justice, though, I think Bernie has a much better record.

Most of all, I'm an Ashley Williams fan. It takes courage to do what she did. Maybe she wasn't in listening mode (it's hard for me to really articulate my thoughts on this. She did give a good pause so that HC could speak. And anyway the power was so asymetrical that I don't know how to think about it. How do you really try to talk when you're being carted off by security?). But I'm glad she did it - it brought attention to an under-reported problem, and Hillary did in fact end up apologizing. And no damage was done, except perhaps to the sense of propriety of a few stuffy rich people.