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African-Americans and the 1994 Crime Bill

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Scott linked to this story last week, but I thought it was worth its own conversation, especially with our commenter ThrottleJockey continually talking about how we need to throw away the key and citing black support for the 1994 crime bill. So did African-Americans support the 1994 crime bill? These authors argue taht white politicians chose to misunderstand black requests for better policing with the desire to throw everyone in prison.

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.

Selective hearing has a deep history. In the Progressive Era, W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells called for state authorities to offer blacks the same social investment that reformers used to manage crime in white immigrant communities. But while whites received rehabilitation and welfare programs, black citizens found themselves overpunished and underprotected.

Flash forward to the Clinton era. As soon as Chuck Schumer, Joseph R. Biden Jr. and others introduced their bipartisan crime bill in September of 1993, groups representing black communities pushed back. The N.A.A.C.P. called it a “crime against the American people.”

While supporting the idea of addressing crime, members of the Congressional Black Caucus criticized the bill itself and introduced an alternative bill that included investments in prevention and alternatives to incarceration, devoted $2 billion more to drug treatment and $3 billion more to early intervention programs. The caucus also put forward the Racial Justice Act, which would have made it possible to use statistical evidence of racial bias to challenge death sentences.

Given the history of selective hearing, what followed was no surprise. Black support for anti-crime legislation was highlighted, while black criticism of the specific legislation was tuned out. The caucus threatened to stall the bill, but lawmakers scrapped the Racial Justice Act when Republicans promised to filibuster any legislation that adopted its measures.

In final negotiations, Democratic leadership yielded to Republicans demanding that prevention (or “welfare for criminals” as one called it) be sliced in exchange for their votes. Senator Robert Dole insisted that the focus be “on cutting pork, not on cutting prisons or police.” The compromise eliminated $2.5 billion in social spending and only $800 million in prison expenditures.

In other words, the 1994 crime bill served white interests and forced black politicians into a corner over whether to claim they did something on crime or support a bill that was so counter to the interests of the African-American population. It’s clearly not accurate to claim that African-Americans widely supported this bill. We should stop making this claim.

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