The 1994 crime bill was a disaster for Black people. And Black people did not ask for it.
First, let’s be clear about what the ’94 federal crime bill—formally, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act—actually did.
This bill, the largest and most comprehensive piece of crime legislation in the country’s history, represented a massive expansion of the nation’s criminal punishment apparatus. It provided for 100,000 more law enforcement officers, $9.7 billion for new prison construction, expansion of the federal death penalty, and new classes and broadened definitions for various categories of crimes. The bill also included a “three-strikes” sentencing provision, which has resulted in thousands of people serving mandatory life sentences for a wide range of offenses, and incentive funding for states and carceral institutions to ensure that convicted persons serve the full length of their sentences. The bill even eliminated opportunities for incarcerated people to receive higher education, in a particularly gratuitous insult that revealed the level of animus and dehumanizing intent underlying the legislation.
The law had its intended impact. Incarceration rates continued to grow; prison populations boomed; average sentences increased; and industries serving this system of mass caging raked in billions of dollars. Communities across the country were also devastated, none more than poor and working-class Black communities that saw millions of people, disproportionately young men, snatched out of their communities and thrown into this perverse assembly line of human devastation. For this reason, many lawmakers who supported the legislation at the time have come to disavow and apologize for it. This includes Democratic Party standard-bearers Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden.
Despite this legacy, and the bill’s highly questionable efficacy in actually reducing crime—with most researchers attributing the decreasing crime rate in the 1990s to economic prosperity, the “dot com” boom, and reduced unemployment, as opposed to the crime bill—some people still insist on mounting a defense of the crime bill and the people who supported it. The argument tends to be that we shouldn’t criticize this awful piece of policy targeted at criminalizing poor people and Black people because crime was, in fact, really bad, the bill did some good, and Black people wanted to see this bill passed as much as any group. Such is the crux of the argument put forth by former St. Louis alderman Antonio French in a recent editorial.
French is wrong. For all of the reasons stated at the outset, this single piece of legislation is among the most devastating examples of racist policy in the past 40 years, and a driver of what Michelle Alexander famously named the “New Jim Crow” in America. But he is also wrong to parrot false talking points about the politics of the time.
In his column, French directs his ire at “many young progressives, who were not alive in 1994” for criticizing politicians who supported the crime bill when “[m]ost Black leaders also supported it.” (I feel pretty safe in assuming French basically means people like me, even though I was very much alive in 1994.) He goes on to enumerate Black politicians who voted for it and Black religious leaders who lobbied for it, as a kind of inoculation against criticism of better-known white political figures who championed it, and the many more who passively supported or condoned it. But this ahistorical narrative misses so much.
As Michelle Alexander wrote in The Nation in 2016,
It is absolutely true that black communities back then were in a state of crisis, and that many black activists and politicians were desperate to get violent offenders off the streets. What is often missed, however, is that most of those black activists and politicians weren’t asking only for toughness. They were also demanding investment in their schools, better housing, jobs programs for young people, economic-stimulus packages, drug treatment on demand, and better access to healthcare. In the end, they wound up with police and prisons. To say that this was what black people wanted is misleading at best.
Three Black academics made a similar observation in another op-ed published in the same year by the New York Times, describing this dynamic as policy makers “selectively hearing black voices on the question of crime”:
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.
Black activists and organizers from Angela Davis to Mariame Kaba have noted that there were absolutely Black voices, particularly Black feminists, at the time sounding the alarm about the ways in which the crime bill would be destabilizing for Black families and communities, and exacerbate their existing challenges. Those voices simply did not win out in the debate.
Even if we only consider the views of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1994, the story is far more complicated than French and others would have us believe. While, as French points out, two-thirds of the CBC ultimately voted in favor, that came at the end of an extended period of CBC members withholding support precisely because they were concerned the overly punitive elements of the bill would land hardest in their communities and had no real counterbalance in terms of alternative approaches and prevention. In August of 1994, when these members finally switched over to supporting the bill after sustained pressure from the White House and congressional leadership from both parties, a headline in the Baltimore Sun read, “Black Caucus yields on crime bill.”
So when French writes that he recalls “Black leaders demanding, and fearful mothers begging, for government leaders to do something about the violence,” and insists that the “something” was the crime bill, he conveniently omits the very complications and nuances of history that he purports to champion.
Perhaps the most troubling assertion of all by French is that maybe the crime bill was also a good thing, one that “both saved and destroyed” his north St. Louis neighborhood: “The arrests and convictions that resulted from the law cost thousands of men and women their lives. But it also saved thousands of others. It’s a tragedy. An eye for an eye left us blind.”
This head-spinning series of non-sequiturs reveals the intellectual emptiness of the proposition being offered by French and others. The bill was bad. The bill was good. “We” did wrong. But “they” did wrong, too. A pox on all our houses. Don’t waste your time searching for the “there” there. This policy, and its impact, is not a paradox; it’s a problem. And the state of north St. Louis today has everything to do with policies like the ’94 crime bill.
But the key thing to understand is that revisionist histories by commentators like French about racist American policies—whether the crime bill, school segregation, redlining and suburbanization, or even slavery itself—are not actually about the wisdom of those policies. They are about absolution for white supremacy. They are a salve for the aching guilt, not of unapologetic bigots and racial reactionaries, but rather for well-meaning neo-liberals and “moderates”—mostly, but not all, white, as French rightly notes—who have been so complicit in this legacy of racial control and domination.
This is not new. Black defenders of policies that sustain racial hierarchy are always in demand. Names like Clarence Thomas, Tim Scott, and even Candace Owens come to mind. There is nothing exceptional about these characters. Why do we even know these people? It is because they are telling many white Americans what they want to hear about race and racism. To make possible the work that lies ahead to transform ourselves and our society in favor of racial justice and liberation, we need to recognize this dynamic, name it, and oppose it at every turn.
Comforting as it may be to believe that the crime bill was not so bad, and all of its proponents well-meaning and incapable of anticipating its disparate racial impact, it is a delusion. The bill was as much a reflection of the racial, and racist, politics of its time as the Fugitive Slave Act, the Black Codes, and the whites-only GI Bill were of their respective times. We should know the historical context for all of these, but we should excuse and sanitize none. To do so only serves to perpetuate the very culture of anti-Blackness that birthed these policies in the first place.
James Baldwin, one of history’s greatest truth-tellers about American white supremacy, famously wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” As we wrestle now with our present moment and work toward a different future, the question for each of us is whether to finally face the truth about policies that have produced the outcomes we see in cities and towns across America, including St. Louis, or to continue a long history of justification and rationalization. The cost of having done the latter for generations can be seen all around us.
Blake Strode is the Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm in St. Louis, Missouri providing holistic legal advocacy and combating the criminalization of poverty and state violence against poor people and people of color.