Skip to main content

Black Agenda Report - November 25, 2020

By the end of the 90s corporate journalists were feverishly dehumanizing young blacks in news stories, editorials and commentaries.

“The superpredator language began a process of allowing us to suspend our feelings of empathy towards young people of color.”

The epithet is a quarter-century old, but it still has sting: “He called them superpredators,” Donald Trump insisted in his final debate with Joe Biden. “He said that, he said it. Superpredators.”

“I never, ever said what he accused me of saying,” Biden protested. While there is no record of Biden using the phrase, much of the harsh anti-crime legislation embraced by both parties in the 1990s continues to be a hot-button issue to this day. From the moment the term was born, 25 years ago this month, “superpredator” had a game-changing potency, derived in part from the avalanche of media coverage that began almost immediately.

“It was a word that was constantly in my orbit,” said Steve Drizin, a Chicago lawyer who defended teenagers in the 1990s. “It had a profound effect on the way in which judges and prosecutors viewed my clients.”

An academic named John J. DiIulio Jr. coined the term for a November 1995 cover story in The Weekly Standard, a brand-new magazine of conservative political opinion that hit pay dirt with the provocative coverline, “The Coming of the Super-Predators .”

Then a young professor at Princeton University, DiIulio was extrapolating from a study of Philadelphia boys that calculated that 6 percent of them accounted for more than half the serious crimes committed by the whole cohort. He blamed these chronic offenders on “moral poverty … the poverty of being without loving, capable, responsible adults who teach you right from wrong.”

DiIulio warned that by the year 2000 an additional 30,000 young “murderers, rapists, and muggers” would be roaming America’s streets, sowing mayhem. “They place zero value on the lives of their victims, whom they reflexively dehumanize as just so much worthless ‘white trash,’" he wrote.

“From the moment the term was born, 25 years ago this month, “superpredator” had a game-changing potency.”

But who was doing the dehumanizing? Just a few years before, the news media had introduced the terms “wilding” and “wolf pack” to the national vocabulary, to describe five teenagers—four Black and one Hispanic—who were convicted and later exonerated of the rape of a woman in New York’s Central Park.

“This kind of animal imagery was already in the conversation,” said Kim Taylor-Thompson, a law professor at New York University. “The superpredator language began a process of allowing us to suspend our feelings of empathy towards young people of color.”

The “superpredator” theory, besides being a racist trope, was not borne out in crime statistics. Juvenile arrests for murder —and juvenile crime generally—had already started falling when DiIulio’s article was published. By 2000, when tens of thousands more children were supposed to be out there mugging and killing, juvenile murder arrests had fallen by two-thirds.

It failed as a theory, but as fodder for editorials, columns and magazine features, the term “superpredator” was a tragic success—with an enormous, and lasting, human toll.

Terrance Lewis was 19 and returning from work in 1997 when Philadelphia police trapped him on a bridge, guns drawn, and arrested him for a murder that he spent 21 years in prison trying to prove he did not commit. Only last year did the judge finally throw out his homicide conviction, citing faulty eyewitness testimony.

“I’m a recipient of the backlash of that superpredator rhetoric,” said Lewis, now 42. “The media believed in the rhetoric. All the coverage from back in that era was to amplify that rhetoric.”

DiIulio’s big idea wasn’t original. His mentor as a graduate student at Harvard, the influential political scientist James Q. Wilson, had been warning for years about a new breed of conscience-less teen killers. (“I didn’t go to Harvard,” DiIulio told one interviewer. “I went to Wilson.”)

But DiIulio was a clever popularizer who quickly became a darling of the think-tank circuit—and of the media. The Marshall Project’s review of 40 major news outlets in the five years after his Weekly Standard article shows the neologism popping up nearly 300 times, and that is an undercount.

“The media believed in the rhetoric.”

Read full report at Black Agenda Report