Clinton: "I Shouldn't Have Used Those Words"

[Content Note: Racism.]

Earlier today, I mentioned that Hillary Clinton had been confronted at an event by activist Ashley Williams (originally identified incorrectly as being affiliated with Black Lives Matter). At the time, Clinton didn't respond to Williams' request that she account for her 1996 "superpredators" comment, but this afternoon told the Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart: "Looking back, I shouldn't have used those words, and I wouldn't use them today."
Here's what she told me in full.
In that speech, I was talking about the impact violent crime and vicious drug cartels were having on communities across the country and the particular danger they posed to children and families. Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today.

My life's work has been about lifting up children and young people who've been let down by the system or by society. Kids who never got the chance they deserved. And unfortunately today, there are way too many of those kids, especially in African-American communities. We haven't done right by them. We need to. We need to end the school to prison pipeline and replace it with a cradle-to-college pipeline.

As an advocate, as First Lady, as Senator, I was a champion for children. And my campaign for president is about breaking down the barriers that stand in the way of all kids, so every one of them can live up to their God-given potential.
"That speech" was a 1996 address at New Hampshire's Keene State College in support of the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act, otherwise known as the crime bill. In her remarks, then-first lady Clinton said, "They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called 'superpredators.' No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel."

This isn't the broad brush Clinton's critics today are accusing her of using 20 years ago. Despite Williams's assertion that "I know you called black youth 'superpredators,'" Clinton was clearly talking about a narrow band of young people who would not have included the admirably assertive Williams or the vast majority of African American youths then and now. And in light of the overarching fear of crime across the United States back in the 1990s, Clinton's going out of her way to define "superpredator" as a kid with "no conscience, no empathy" is noteworthy.
Capehart correctly identifies the nuance in Clinton's original statement, but Clinton is also right that she "shouldn't have used those words," because, as I'm sure we're all aware, there are plenty of white people who couldn't be bothered to appreciate the nuance in her words—and indeed heard, irrespective of what she actually said, that black kids are superpredators.

So I'm very glad she recognizes that she shouldn't have said that then, as well as acknowledging she wouldn't say that now.

I do want to note here that not everyone will find her response sufficient. And that's okay. There are people who legitimately feel she has not yet been fully accountable on past issues, who are not trying to score political points but to meaningfully hold a presidential candidate accountable because they are exploring whether they can trust her.

That's different from the people for whom it just wouldn't matter no what Clinton said. Who, in fact, are using her expression of regret over 20-year old comments (and policies) to suggest that we can't know who she really is.

She has changed positions on a number of issues, in a positive direction, over the last two decades. Which is what progressive critics say that we want. For the people representing us to progress.

The fact that a politician has learned and grown over two decades is a good thing. It's indicative of an open mind and a willingness to listen.

At a certain point, saying that if someone was wrong once means they can never be trusted, especially if they change their position, sets an impossibly high standard of historical perfection.

I don't know about y'all, but I certainly can't meet that standard. So I'm not going to hold anyone else to it, either.

That doesn't mean I'm just not going to care if Hillary Clinton got shit wrong. I do care. I'm sure she'll get shit wrong in the future, too. And I will expect her to be accountable for it. I will expect better. I will expect more.

I always do.

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