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RJ Center Staff, December 12 2014

Rachel Maddow takes on the myth of the “superpredator”

by Julie Shackford-Bradley

In this clip, Rachel Maddow calls attention to two articles written in 1995 by John Dilulio that set the narrative frame of the “superpredator” who has no recognizable humanity, and therefore, no rights to life or freedom. In this article from the Weekly Standard of November 1995, John Dilulio (at the time a political science professor at Princeton University), wrote of a “demographic crime bomb” about to explode, made up of juveniles with “vacant stares” and “remorseless eyes” and “homicidal ‘wolf packs.’” He argued that “more boys beget more bad boys” and predicts (with certainty!) that “the demographic bulge of the next 10 years will unleash an army of young male predatory street criminals who will make even the leaders of the Bloods and Crips—known as O.G.s, for “original gangsters”—look tame by comparison.

In this article from September of 1995, Dilulio contends that the crime rate will go down if juveniles are sent to adult prisons. In line with other conservative social researchers of his time (including Charles Murray of The Bell Curve fame, he promotes the idea that Americans need to stand up for themselves and get tough on crime. Don’t give in, he says, to “defeatist dogma” that views crime as a result of “basic structural features of society, problems like homelessness, social injustice, economic inequalities and racism.”

“The large population of seven-to-10-year old boys now growing up fatherless, Godless and jobless—and surrounded by deviant, delinquent, and criminal adults—will give rise to a new and more vicious group of predatory street criminals than the nation has ever known.” The barely disguised racism inherent in the myth of the superpredator led to what is now termed “disproportionate minority contact” in policing and incarcerating men of color and juveniles in adult prisons, just as Dilulio had called for.

And as this New York Times piece notes: approach to rising crime that had taken hold even before the ‘90s. Many states are now moving in the opposite direction, if only because incarceration is expensive, in both its human toll and its burden on strapped government budgets. Later, Dilulio recanted his theories, at least to the point of understanding that “demography is not fate.” But his theories took hold.

That’s why we find outselves in California voting for both Proposition 36 and Proposition 47, in an attempt to reverse the incarceration trends of the 1990s. But how can we repair the harm that the myth of the superpredator perpetrated on youth of color, their families and communities? And more urgently: what needs to change in police training to deconstruct the images of superpredators that officers like Darren Wilson hold in their minds when they come in contact with young African American men?

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RJ Center Staff


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