The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A lot has changed since the 1994 crime bill. But not Trump’s racism.

Former vice president Joe Biden campaigns in Dallas on Wednesday.
Former vice president Joe Biden campaigns in Dallas on Wednesday. (Smiley N. Pool/AP)
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In vintage Donald Trump fashion, the attempt by the man in the White House to take down former vice president Joe Biden ended up with Don the Ripper ripping his own britches.

Trump tweeted this week: “Super Predator was the term associated with the 1994 Crime Bill that Sleepy Joe Biden was so heavily involved in passing. That was a dark period in American History, but has Sleepy Joe apologized? No!”

Trump claims that Biden’s support for the bill, plus the president’s own “support” of a bipartisan effort to reform the criminal-justice system, means black voters should support Trump, not Biden, in next year’s election.

But Trump led with his chin.

Critics were quick to point to the 1989 case of the Central Park Five, five black and Hispanic teenagers charged in connection with the rape of a jogger in Central Park. In the heat of the moment, Trump purchased full-page ads in New York City newspapers that read “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” The youths were later exonerated. But to this day, Trump hasn’t apologized.

Critics also cite Trump’s relentless spreading of the birther conspiracy theory about former president Barack Obama; Trump’s attacks against black congresswomen and journalists; his disparagement of NFL players who knelt during the national anthem in protest of police treatment of blacks; and the federal lawsuit against him and his father accusing them of housing discrimination against blacks — an allegation Trump denied, and settled without admitting guilt.

Then there’s his administration’s outrageous and bigoted decision to keep Harriet Tubman off the $20 bill.

But let’s get back to Biden: Trump is deliberately misleading about the 1994 crime bill.

Here’s what talk-show host Joe “The Black Eagle” Madison tweeted this week: “I bet most of the people listening to my show don’t know the history. The CBC [Congressional Black Caucus] backed the crime bill.”

And columnist and author Earl Ofari Hutchinson is even more emphatic: Other black folks, as well as Biden, he says, should be the ones apologizing for the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

Hutchinson correctly notes that were it not for the support of a coalition of black clergy and black community-level anti-violence advocates, as well as most members of the CBC, including civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the crime bill might have stalled in Congress. Remember: Drug and gang violence was plaguing black communities in the 1990s. While the bill contained some harsh provisions — expanded death penalties, toughened sentencing guidelines, money for more prisons — it also contained enough sweeteners — money for drug prevention, education and job training — to bring black legislators on board.

Biden championed the bill, to be sure, but he got cues from black leaders in Congress. And President Bill Clinton, who signed the bill, used the moment to burnish his image as a crime-fighting liberal who was no bleeding heart. Clinton has acknowledged that the bill wrongly accelerated mass incarcerations. Hillary Clinton also certainly paid a price during the 2016 presidential campaign for her support of the bill while in the White House as first lady.

But let’s not overlook the state of play in the 1990s, including right here in the District. A drug-fueled murder epidemic was plaguing the town. The No. 1 crime-fighter, who was hell on wheels when it came to pushing for stiffer penalties for the sale and use of marijuana, was then-U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. In a 1996 Post interview, Holder criticized the city for taking the view that minor crimes are not important, referring to the city’s attitudes toward marijuana use and other offenses such as panhandling. Holder said the District could learn from Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s “zero-tolerance” policy in New York, where crime rates dropped after police began aggressively enforcing laws against lesser offenses such as public drunkenness, giving officers an opportunity to check for drugs, guns and outstanding warrants. “If you take these so-called minor crimes seriously and treat them fully, it has a ripple effect,” Holder said. Lots of folks went to prison, thanks to Holder.

That was then.

As attorney general in the Obama administration, Holder evolved into a fierce criminal-justice reformer, as have other 1994 crime bill supporters of a liberal persuasion.

Trump points with pride toward criminal-justice reform legislation that he signed into law with much public fanfare. Truth is, beyond performing ceremonial pen and ink duties, Trump, the credit-taker, had next to nothing to do with the bill’s odyssey from introduction to enactment.

That was the handiwork of a bipartisan group of congressional odd couples: Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and then-Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho).

What remains unchanged through the years is Trump and his long history of racism. For which, again, he makes no apology.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.

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