Earl Ofari Hutchinson
At first glance, Trump’s assertion that Blacks won’t and shouldn’t vote for 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden because he backed the 1994 crime bill is ridiculous. Forget the silliness behind this since it’s Trump and that’s to be expected. But underneath his assertion is that somehow he is a better deal for Blacks when it comes to a more enlightened stance on dealing with the crime issue.
Trump can get away with this and grabbed some headlines with it because the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, popularly known and reviled as the Clinton Crime bill, is an issue that has stuck in the craw of many Blacks for more than two decades. The bill radically toughened sentencing guidelines, ignited a frenzy of prison building and expansion, created dozens of new crime categories, and radically expanded the federal crimes subject to the death penalty.
Biden has spent a lot of time since he announced his 2020 presidential candidacy either back pedaling from his support of the bill or pushing back against those who demand that he apologize for touting the bill. Biden really needn’t do either and certainly not because Trump of all people says he should. The bill was a deeply flawed, deeply racially skewed repressive measure, that despite one of Biden’s push backs against the critics, did much to ignite the frenzy of mass incarceration in the country. It turned state and federal jails and prisons into warehouse holding pens for tens of thousands of mostly black and poor petty drug and low-level offenders.
This part of the shameful, disgraceful story is so well known that even Bill Clinton has repeatedly said that the bill went to far. And Hillary Clinton said pretty much the same in self-defense during the 2016 presidential campaign after she was hounded everywhere she went for her seeming support of the bill while in the White House with Bill.
But what isn’t as well known is that Clinton would have been hard pressed to get the bill through if it hadn’t been for the rescue by a broad assortment of Black pastors, anti-gang violence and drug activists, topped by the majority of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus. It was the CBC that played the biggest role, not Clinton, or certainly Biden, in shoving the bill through. Even more revealing, the CBC members who played the biggest role were John Lewis, Charles Rangel and former NAACP director Kwesi Mfume, then a congressman. They had sterling credentials as progressives.
The CBC members bought into the bill because many Blacks were scared stiff of drug and gang violence and demanded a crackdown. The bill was sweetened with millions more in drug prevention and education and job training programs. The Black lawmakers worried that the expansion of the death penalty provisions could hit hardest against Blacks. They were right to worry given the hideous history of its disproportionate use against Blacks. In the end this was not enough to dissuade the CBC members from throwing their political weight behind the bill.
Biden and the other Democratic senators took their cue from the Blacks within and without of Congress and tossed aside whatever reservations they had about the draconian provisions of the bill and backed it. This was both an emotional and political decision for them. Democrats were desperate to parry the ancient slur from the GOP and conservatives that Democrats with their alleged bleeding heart, soft on crime stance fueled crime.
Clinton was determined to score political points by shattering that image. The crime bill fit neatly into that tact. However, it was more than just political opportunism at work. When Clinton was attacked by a Black for pushing the crime bill at a campaign stop stumping for Hillary in 2016, a visibly angry Clinton lashed out with the claim that the bill did make the streets a lot safe for Blacks. Decades later Clinton still believed that the bill did some good.
Biden, I suspect, still probably thinks the same. However, this is not 2016 and it’s certainly not 1994. Even some of the hardest of the hard line on crime, GOP legislators have now jumped on board the prison reform bandwagon. States, even some Red States, are passing laws and backing initiatives and programs that can reduce the bulging numbers behind bars. This is spurred by the record low level of crime in the country and the high cost of filling up the cells.
The crime bill is an antique, anachronism, that is good for being pointed to as something that badly needs to be overhauled. As long as that’s the case, Biden can expect to be heckled and harassed on the campaign trail with demands that he do his mea culpa for his role in backing the bill. Trump certainly will continue to be one of those hectoring him with that demand. But it’s a demand that Biden can ignore, that is unless the many Blacks who backed the bill also apologize.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of Why Black Lives Do Matter (Middle Passage Press) He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.