Remembering Who the Real Super-Predators Are

This week we have passed two closely related anniversaries. On November 22, 2014, Officer Timothy Loehmann shot twelve-year-old Tamir Rice as the boy played with a toy gun. On November 27, 1995, John DiIulio published an hysterical summary of his “super-predator” scholarship in the opinion section of the Washington Examiner. There is a direct line from the earlier event to the later and on into the present. And that line runs right through my own ignorant failures.

It is worth remembering a chilling paragraph from DiIulio’s piece.

On the horizon, therefore, are tens of thousands of severely morally impoverished juvenile super-predators. They are perfectly capable of committing the most heinous acts of physical violence for the most trivial reasons (for example, a perception of slight disrespect or the accident of being in their path). They fear neither the stigma of arrest nor the pain of imprisonment. They live by the meanest code of the meanest streets, a code that reinforces rather than restrains their violent, hair-trigger mentality. In prison or out, the things that super-predators get by their criminal behavior — sex, drugs, money — are their own immediate rewards. Nothing else matters to them. So for as long as their youthful energies hold out, they will do what comes “naturally”: murder, rape, rob, assault, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, and get high.

The results of this work were, among other things, mass incarceration, militarization of local police departments, draconian federal and state legislation, and the highest number of children incarcerated by any nation on the planet — the overwhelming majority of them children of color and some sentenced to die in prison after a lifetime behind the walls. DiIulio has sought to distance himself from his conclusions over the years and has expressed regret for their impact. But as Kim Taylor-Thompson points out, the disparate treatment given to Kyle Rittenhouse and Tamir Rice illustrates the damage done.

In 1995 I believed DiIulio (and then Bill Clinton and all the other tough on crime folks — including Joe Biden). Here was an apparent expert, armed with data and theory and method and credentials. His work (he had co-authors but bears the burden of responsibility in the public mind) was published in a peer-reviewed journal, and he was interviewed by really smart people. He was even on public radio and television, after all. I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t do any research. I hardly even noticed.

I hardly even noticed, even though I was working in racial reconciliation projects through the Church. DiIulio’s work, in fact, was a source of theoretical and academic support for those projects. After all, his solution to the problem — such as it was — was…the Church! “If we are to have a prayer of stopping any significant fraction of the super-predators short of the prison gates,” he wrote with an irreverent pun, “then we had better say ‘Amen,’ and fast.” So churches had a vested interest in this theoretical and legislative framework. And we launched into the work with enthusiasm.

Photo by Frans Van Heerden on

Of course, we failed. And I moved on. Wow, I am disgustingly white…but more on that in a bit. How could that be? “The answer is simple and damning,” notes Kim Taylor-Thompson. “The superpredator myth glommed onto a deeper lie rooted in American soil and in the American psyche. A lie that insists that Black children do not deserve the care we reflexively offer white children. All that was needed was the barest of information,” she observes, “and our worst beliefs filled out the contours of the story.” Yes, that was — and is — correct. We dominant culture white people were, and are, the real super-predators. Or perhaps carrion feeders would be a better image.

I’m in a book group, and we’re reading Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. One of the big stories in the book (that didn’t make it into the film version) is his work with incarcerated children. We’re just getting to that part of the book in our discussion, so all of this is quite to the point. “It has been a generation since the superpredator myth entered public discourse and we are still living with its pernicious effects,” writes Kim Taylor-Thompson. “The justice system needs to stop referring children into the adult criminal justice system so that Black children get the benefit of the doubt instinctively given to white children.” Taylor-Thompson is chair of the board of the Equal Justice Initiative (the organization Stevenson founded) and thus knows whereof she speaks.

Yes, that’s right. But for me one question is how can I do better than I did? I read yesterday a pointed and conscience-pricking article by Robin Autry on the whiteness of sociology as an academic discipline. She references the work of Tukufu Zuberi and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva who suggest, “there’s a ‘white logic’ to the way methods are deployed, first to help construct people of colour as walking social problems, and then to relentlessly monitor what they think we’re up to at the margins of society.”

White sociologists tend to adopt whiteness as the normative perspective and posture according to which all other life is measured. If only that were limited to white sociologists. It is even more true, I fear, of white theologians. It’s always good to remember that there is no theology without a preceding adjective. We white people tend to think about “black” theology,” “native American” theology, “feminist” theology, “queer” theology, etc. But when we think about “white” theology, the preceding adjective drops away. All the modified theologies are measured against the “standard,” “objective,” “normal” theologizing of us white people.

Yes, once again, I am a white fish discovering the ocean. I must look into the mirror of the Law (to use Lutheran categories) and see my sin. Rather than use sociology (or theology) to diagnose what’s deficient in others compared to me, I can use my discipline to describe my own sin. As a pastor and theologian (and former church bureaucrat) I am, as Autry says, an “implicated subject.” This role “involves moving beyond incredulity and guilt,” Autry writes, “to see the part that they play, directly or indirectly, in reproducing a racist system that ultimately benefits them.”

I can’t help but read and reflect as a racist (even as I strive to be an anti-racist). I think part of the task is to cultivate a white “double consciousness,” both as one doing the striving and one working in precisely the opposite direction all the time. This shouldn’t be so hard for someone whose theological tradition declares that we are all “simultaneously justified and sinner.” I know that I preach, teach, study and pray as both saint and sinner. That knowledge serves to humble me and keep me more honest about myself than I might otherwise be.

So I can not allow my “saintliness” to obscure the sinner in me all the time. I can’t help but read black accounts of racism as a sort of privileged voyeur who can check out of the conversation at any point. The role that does not allow me to withdraw is my whiteness, and I am challenged always to read from and through that place. As Autry writes, it is critical that I don’t forget that the outside world is already inside me (and inside the Church, for that matter).

There’s far too much in these brief articles to take in here. But the caution is so important, for example, in the ELCA’s future plans. Can we, by the Spirit’s power, wrestle the sinner to the ground long enough for us to see others for themselves and not as resources for our own exploitation? I’m not sure, but I hope so.

For now, it’s enough for me to wrestle myself.


Robin Autry. “Sociology’s Race Problem.”

Kim Taylor-Thompson. “Why America is still living with the damage done by the ‘superpredator lie.”


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