On History: The 1994 Crime Bill

History is an odd subject in the way it combines objective and subjective views. It is full of objective facts. There can be no reasonable argument about whether certain events happened. On September 11, 2001, the United States was attacked by al Qaeda. Thousands of people died. America responded with things like the PATRIOT ACT and the “War on Terror.” That is undeniable fact. But no one can look at these facts completely objectively. We subjectively interpret everything about it. Some view the US response as good and justified while others see it as misguided and disproportional. Different views can be more or less reasonable, but there is no single, provable, correct answer. That’s just how history is.

It’s important, when it comes to the subjective parts of history, to make every effort to be reasonable. Lately, that seems to have become difficult, especially when it comes to assigning praise or blame to a person’s actions. We live in an all or nothing culture. There is very little room for nuance or complexity. When it comes to subjective judgements, we are more likely to pick a position according to which side we see ourselves on than through reasoned argument. A timely case in point is the way people on the left assign blame to Joe Biden for the 1994 Crime Bill.

I’m not going to defend the law itself. The truth about it is much more complicated than it is ever presented in commentary, but I’ll just take it as a given that it is a bad law. We’ll ignore the treatment paths it opened up for drug crimes and the Violence Against Women Act and we’ll concentrate on the acceleration of mass incarceration of Black people and the increased funding/militarization of police forces. As the lead author on the Senate version of the bill, how are we to judge Joe Biden?

My friend, Jamil, made the standard case in a recent post, “Joe Biden consistently worked against the interests of Black people for decades as a Senator. . . [H]is support for the 1994 crime bill, actively hurt Black people.” This is a totally understandable position when you look at the statistics. Especially the monetary incentives for the states to build prisons if they passed “truth in sentencing” laws.

But the statistics don’t tell the whole story. In the early nineties, violent crime was one of the biggest concerns for the United States as a whole, and for the Black community. That’s why the 1994 Crime Bill had such broad, bipartisan support. It wasn’t a case of Democrats pandering to their white, suburban base. Everyone wanted crime to be addressed.

I remember this period. I was a politically aware college student at the time. And I just don’t remember direct racism coming from Joe Biden or the Clintons. It’s possible that there were dog whistles that I missed, or that my memory is faulty, but every account I read of the debate and passage of the bill backs me up. Most Black people supported the bill. They wanted it. They were putting pressure on the government to pass it.

Joe Biden wasn’t working against the interests of Black people in 1994. He was listening to Black people and working for their 1994 interests. It’s true that those interests no longer line up with their current interests, but it’s unreasonable to expect Joe Biden to have known that. To keep Biden as a villain, it requires a belief that Black people don’t know their own interests, not to mention an absurd level of government paternalism. Biden was one of the lead authors of what turned out to be a bad law. But there is no actual evidence that that was ever his intention. He may be guilty of misjudgment, but not anything worse than that.

So, what happened to turn a law that Black people wanted and supported into something that has hurt the Black community so badly? My best theory is America. This is a deeply racist country. Nothing planted in its soil can grow straight and free from racism. I think the law interacted in unforeseen ways with the systemic issues that have always been present, and it got warped. It wouldn’t be the first time, and probably won’t be the last time, that a well intentioned policy went awry.

The reasonable view of the 1994 Crime Bill is that Joe Biden was trying to work in the interests of Black people. For all his flaws, and the bill’s flaws, Biden wasn’t pushing a racist agenda on the country. He was trying to solve a pressing problem by following the advice of his constituents, like public servants are supposed to. In November, don’t let 2020’s bizarre lens obscure this fact. Biden isn’t perfect, by any means. But he tries to be decent. When put against Trump, who is literally an existential threat to this country, Biden has to get your vote.

7 thoughts on “On History: The 1994 Crime Bill

      1. I don’t think we should expect foresight from anyone, but when outcomes are bad after the fact, aren’t decionmakers supposed to be held accountable?

        1. That strikes me as a really complicated question. Partly because it can be hard to determine who is responsible for the bad outcomes. Was it bad planning, poor implementation, careless execution, purposeful obstruction from the opposing side, or something else? And partly because it can be unclear how to hold someone accountable in many situations. Is holding a person accountable removing them from office, demanding they do better next time, imprisonment, fines, or reprimands? It seems like it has to depend on the situation and the determined level of culpability.

          1. Okay, so given the specific circumstances of Joe Biden and the crime bill, how would you suggest that he’s held accountable for the law not working?

          2. That’s a great question. At present we don’t seem to hold politicians accountable for how well or badly they do their job. We only hold them accountable for more salacious things. I don’t even know how Biden compares to other senators in terms of the quantity or quality of legislation he’s pushed through. My feeling is that he’s pretty average, but I really don’t know. It’s too bad there isn’t an institution whose job it is to keep track of things like that and report it to the people so the people could make informed decisions. But to answer your question, I think a politician who is responsible for bad legislation should be voted out of office, but I feel weird suggesting that Joe Biden be the first one held to that standard.

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