I used to be very naive about history and our collective memory. I assumed two things: If history was of a contemporary nature, it would be something we all had a shared experience with and while we could argue whether it was good or bad, the facts were something we could agree upon.
If the historical moment was further back, we could study historical reports, but again, the facts were there.
I have learned over the last ten or so years that I was laughably naive. I’ve experienced this most in disputes with the right over the nature of the Iraq War. While I remember the very real, strong split between the left and right over whether we should go to war, debated between 2002–3, many conservatives now insist “everyone” agreed we should invade Iraq. It’s just not so.
But this particular mis-remembering of shared history is not exclusive to the right. In the last few months, I’ve heard from the left about a vicious crime bill, orchestrated in the early 1990s as a Clinton administration tactic to make an example of blacks as a sop to the right.
I was a pre-teen during this period, but honestly even if you were in diapers as the events unfolded or not at all, that doesn’t excuse the failure to research the issue.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, America was in the throes of a crime epidemic. Spurred on by the availability of crack cocaine and other drugs, the cities and states in the country often felt suffocated by crime.
That was the environment in which the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the so-called “Crime Bill” came about.
While there was no doubt support for the bill from the so-called “law and order” (“authoritarian” in some quarters) right, that was not the extent of it. The impetus to fight crime came from all quarters: right, left, male, female — and strongly within the black community.
It was the black communities in America’s cities that were on the front lines of the “crack wars.” As a kid in the DC metro region, I remember distinctly watching the news each morning as I got dressed to go to school, the broadcast doubling as a crime blotter for the region. The nation’s capital was the “murder capital” of the first world, a black eye on Washington.
In the D.C. region we saw another manifestation of this beyond the abstract. The 1986 death of Len Bias, the University of Maryland basketball standout who had been selected second in the NBA draft by the Boston Celtics, due to a cocaine overdose, was a national story, but big news here.
That’s the environment in which the crime bill came to birth in. Not, as is being asserted, out of nowhere in a cynical ploy to imprison black men.
This does not excuse the ill effects of the crime bill. It’s draconian side effects are in fact part of a pattern of excess often experienced in American history. A crisis strikes, and America eventually strikes back. We are after all the country that prohibited alcohol, which within a decade spawned a bloody criminal enterprise. Were the leaders who enacted prohibition doing so in order to aid Al Capone? Of course not, but that is almost the identical argument being put forth by some critics of the Clintons.
As President Clinton himself has acknowledged, there were problems with the bill and from the hindsight of history, should have never been implemented in the first place.
But that is not an excuse to ignore history and what happened. It was not, as the caricature asserts, a byzantine racial conspiracy (enacted by a president with 83% of the black vote in 1992, and 84% in 1996) but a reaction to a very real crime problem confronting the country at the time of his presidency.
It is fair to judge the law and its effects but a gross mis-characterization and distortion of history to twist the story of its creation.