The myth of the “superpredator” would have terrible consequences for American children, wrote Nathan J. Robinson in the Jacobin. In the mid 1990s, fueled by alarmist pseudo-scholarship by quack criminologists, a number of politicians sounded the alarm about a concerning new trend: the rise of a new breed of sociopathic juvenile delinquent, incapable of empathy and hellbent on robbing, raping, and terrorizing every decent churchgoing middle American community.
The 1980s and 1990s were a heyday for nationwide moral panics. The coming of the superpredators was just one of the paralyzing terrors of the period, which also included widespread fear of Satanic abuse at daycares and razorblades in Halloween candy. The superpredator legend, however, was more deeply insidious.
The term was coined by John DiIulio Jr, a professor at Princeton University. DiIulio interpreted rising juvenile crime statistics to mean that a “new breed” of juvenile offender had been born, one who was “stone cold,” “fatherless, Godless, and jobless,” and had “absolutely no respect for human life and no sense of the future.”
DiIulio and his coauthors elaborated that superpredators were:
Radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more preteenage boys, who murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs, and create serious communal disorders. They do not fear the stigma of arrest, the pains of imprisonment, or the pangs of conscience. They perceive hardly any relationship between doing right (or wrong) now and being rewarded (or punished) for it later. To these mean-street youngsters, the words “right” and “wrong” have no fixed moral meaning.
For devising this theory, DiIulio was rewarded with an invitation to the White House, where he and a group of other experts spent three and a half hours with President Clinton.
Confirming DiIulio’s analysis was James Q. Wilson, the conservative political scientist who had devised the theory of “broken windows” policing. The broken windows theory posited that minor crimes in a neighborhood (such as the breaking of windows) tended to lead to major ones, so police should harshly focus on rounding up petty criminals if they wanted to prevent major violent crimes.
Put into practice, this amounted to the endless apprehension of fare-jumpers and homeless squeegee people. It also created the intellectual justification for totalitarian “stop and frisk” policies that introduced an exasperating and often terrifying ordeal into nearly every young black New Yorker’s life.
“Broken windows” had very little academic support (it hadn’t been introduced in a peer-reviewed journal, but in a short article for the Atlantic), but Wilson still felt confident in pronouncing on the “superpredator” phenomenon. He predicted that by the year 2000, “there will be a million more people between the ages of fourteen and seventeen than there are now” and “six percent of them will become high rate, repeat offenders — thirty thousand more young muggers, killers and thieves than we have now.”
DiIulio and Wilson said that it was past time to panic. “Get ready,” warned Wilson. Not only were the superpredators here, but a lethal tsunami of them was rising in the distance, preparing to engulf civilization.
As James C. Howell documents, just a year later, as crime rates continued to decrease, DiIulio “pushed the horizon back ten years and raised the ante.” This time DiIulio projected that “by the year 2010, there will be approximately 270,000 more juvenile super-predators on the streets than there were in 1990.” Like a Baptist apocalypse forecaster, the moment the sky didn’t fall according to prophecy, a new doomsday was announced, with just as much confidence as the last.
So despite all evidence to the contrary, segments of the Right continued to anticipate “a bloodbath of teenager-perpetrated violence,” perpetrated by “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless” “elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches” and “have absolutely no respect for human life.”
The notion gained political cache, and was spoken of in Congress and on the national media. It was even propagated, and given a major credibility boost, by one or two prominent liberals, perhaps the most prominent of whom was Hillary Rodham Clinton.
There was always a race element to the superpredator theory, which is why The New Jim Crow author and legal scholar Michelle Alexander says Clinton “used racially coded rhetoric to cast black children as animals.”
It wasn’t just subtext; DiIulio spoke in explicitly racial terms. “By simple math,” he wrote, “in a decade today’s 4-to-7-year-olds will become 14-to-17-year-olds. By 2005, the number of males in this age group will have risen about 25 percent overall and 50 percent for blacks. [emphasis added] To some extent, it’s just that simple: More boys begets more bad boys . . . [The additional boys will mean] more murderers, rapists and muggers on the streets than we have today.”
DiIulio speculated that “the demographic bulge of the next 10 years will unleash an army of young male predatory street criminals who will make even the leaders of the Bloods and Crips — known as OGs, for ‘original gangsters’ — look tame by comparison . . . ” DiIulio explained that these boys traveled in “wolf packs,” and that black violence “tended to be more serious” than white violence, “for example, aggravated assaults rather than simple assaults, and attacks involving guns rather than weaponless violence.”
Michelle Alexander may therefore overstate the extent to which the superpredator language was “coded” in the first place; the theory’s most prominent advocate was openly stating that the “wolves” in question were black. He could only have been more explicit about his meaning if he had simply written the “n-word” over and over on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal.
In the years since, nearly everyone has abandoned the superpredator story, for the essential reason that it was, to put it simply, statistically illiterate race-baiting pseudoscience. As a group of criminologists explained in a brief to the Supreme Court, “the fear of an impending generation of superpredators proved to be unfounded. Empirical research that has analyzed the increase in violent crime during the early- to mid-1990s and its subsequent decline demonstrates that the juvenile superpredator was a myth and the predictions of future youth violence were baseless.”
In fact, the criminologists had “been unable to identify any scholarly research published in the last decade that provides support for the notion of the juvenile superpredator.” Among the criminologists who filed the brief were John DiIulio and James Q. Wilson, who humbly conceded that their findings had been in error.
The harm done to young people, however, was incalculable.
Having been scientifically diagnosed as remorseless and demonic, poor children accused of crimes were increasingly given the kind of harsh punishments previously reserved for adults. New York University criminologist Mark Kleiman says there was a direct link between that single “fallacious bit of science” and the expansion of the use of the adult justice system to prosecute children.
“Based on [the superpredator theory],” Kleiman writes, “dozens of states passed laws allowing juveniles to be tried and sentenced as adults, with predictably disastrous results.” As the Equal Justice Initiative has observed, “the superpredator myth contributed to the dismantling of transfer restrictions, the lowering of the minimum age for adult prosecution of children, and it threw thousands of children into an ill-suited and excessive punishment regime.”
In early 1996, the Sunday Mail described the panic that was overtaking Illinois:
“It’s Lord of the Flies on a massive scale,” Chicago’s Cook County State Attorney Jack O’Malley said . . . We’ve become a nation being terrorized by our children . . . ” Already, the State of Illinois has introduced new laws to deal with this terrifying new “crime bomb,” ruling that children as young as 10 will be sent to juvenile jails. The State is rushing construction of its first “kiddie prison” to replace the traditional, less punitive “youth detention facility” to enforce the get-tough policy of jail cells instead of cozy dormitories.
The shift to viewing kids as comparable to the worst adult offenders allowed all manner of abuses to be inflicted on young people for whom the effects are especially damaging. Juvenile solitary confinement has been routinely used in American prisons, despite having been recognized as a form of torture by United Nations Human Rights Committee. Kids have been held in tiny cells for twenty-three hours per day, leading to madness and suicide.
The practice produces stories such as that of Kalief Browder, who was sent to Rikers Island jail at the age of sixteen, spending two years in solitary confinement awaiting trial for stealing a backpack, and ultimately killing himself after finally being released and having the charges dropped. A joint report by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, which interviewed over one hundred people who had been held in solitary confinement while under the age of eighteen, summarized some of the intense psychological torment inflicted:
Many of the young people interviewed spoke in harrowing detail about struggling with one or more of a range of serious mental health problems during their time in solitary. They talked about thoughts of suicide and self-harm; visual and auditory hallucinations; feelings of depression; acute anxiety; shifting sleep patterns; nightmares and traumatic memories; and uncontrollable anger or rage. Some young people, particularly those who reported having been identified as having a mental disability before entering solitary confinement, struggled more than others. Fifteen young people described cutting or harming themselves or thinking about or attempting suicide one or more times while in solitary confinement.
Housing juveniles in adult facilities can be an equally inhumane practice in itself. As the weakest members of the population, juveniles housed in adult facilities are likely to be brutally raped by older inmates, and are at an increased risk of suicide.
T. J. Parsell was sent to prison in Michigan at the age of seventeen for robbing fifty-three dollars from a one-hour photo store using a toy gun. He describes his arrival:
On my first day there — the same day that my classmates were getting ready for the prom — a group of older inmates spiked my drink, lured me down to a cell and raped me. And that was just the beginning. Laughing, they bragged about their conquest and flipped a coin to see which one of them got to keep me. For the remainder of my nearly five-year sentence, I was the property of another inmate.
Teenagers like Parsell were being housed in adult facilities long before the “superpredator” horror stories. But the more young offenders are dehumanized, the more dilapidated becomes the thin barrier of empathy that keeps society from inflicting psychological, physical, and emotional torment on the weak. As Natasha Vargas-Cooper writes, while “the scourge of the super-predators never came to be … the infrastructure for cruelty, torture, and life-long captivity of juvenile offenders was cemented.”
But to say the “superpredator” notion has been “discredited” is to overestimate the extent to which it was accepted in the first place, and risks exonerating those who recited the term during the mid nineties. The moment the “superpredator” concept was introduced, reputable criminologists stepped forward to rebut it. Few serious scholars gave the notion any credence, and they made their objections loudly known.
“Everybody believes that just because it sounds good,” the research director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice told the press in 1996. Harvard government professor David Kennedy said that “What this whole super-predator argument misses is that [increasing teen violence] is not some inexorable natural progression” but rather the product of “very specific” social dynamics such as the easy availability of guns.
Other public policy experts called the idea “unduly alarmist” and said its proponents “lack a sense of history and comparative criminology.” DiIulio himself didn’t try to persuade the rest of his field; the Toronto Star reported that “asked recently to cite research supporting his theory, DiIulio declined to be interviewed.”
The political conservatism of the theory was hardly smuggled in under cover of night. DiIulio’s “Coming of the Super Predators” first appeared in William Kristol’s conservative Weekly Standard, and the handful of scholars who peddled the theory had strong, open ties to right-wing politics, so it was plainly partisan rather than scholastic.
Even the language used by the professors, of “Godless” and “brutal” juveniles without “fixed values,” was plainly the talk of Republican Party moralists, rather than dispassionate social scientists. Nobody in the professional circles of a “children’s rights” liberal like Hillary Clinton would have given the “superpredator” concept a lick of intellectual credence, even when it was at the peak of its infamy.
It was therefore deeply wrong to spread the lie even when it was most popular. Yet to defend it in 2016, as Bill Clinton did, is on another level entirely.
When Bill Clinton said in Philadelphia that he didn’t know how else one would describe the kids who got “thirteen-year-olds hopped up on crack and sent them out to murder” other kids, he revived an ugly legend that led to the incarceration and rape of scores of young people.
Speaking this way can still have harmful ripple effects. When Washington Post writer Jonathan Capehartreported Hillary Clinton’s apology for her remark, he implied that superpredators did exist, but that they didn’t include upstanding young people like the Black Lives Matter activist who had challenged Clinton. Folk tales are slow to die, and people’s fear of teen superpredators is easily revived.
It took years to debunk this tale the first time around; once people believe that young people are potential superpredators, they become willing to impose truly barbaric punishments on kids who break the law.
After all, if such offenders are not actually children, but superpredators, one need not empathize with them. One can talk in terms like “bring them to heel,” which is the sort of thing one says about a dog.
It may have been surprising, given that Hillary Clinton has made a strong effort to connect with African-American voters, that Bill Clinton would have revived a nasty racist cliché about animalistic juveniles. But in fact, this simultaneous maintenance of warmth toward individual African Americans and support for policies that hurt the African American community has been a consistent inconsistency throughout Bill Clinton’s political career.
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