Twenty-five years ago, the media invented a phrase: “superpredator.” The time for reckoning is overdue.
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The epithet is a quarter-century old, but it still has sting: “He called them superpredators,” Donald Trump insisted in his final debate with Joe Biden. “He said that, he said it. Superpredators.”
“I never, ever said what he accused me of saying,” Biden protested. While there is no record of Biden using the phrase, much of the harsh anti-crime legislation embraced by both parties in the 1990s continues to be a hot-button issue to this day. From the moment the term was born, 25 years ago this month, “superpredator” had a game-changing potency, derived in part from the avalanche of media coverage that began almost immediately.
“It was a word that was constantly in my orbit,” said Steve Drizin, a Chicago lawyer who defended teenagers in the 1990s. “It had a profound effect on the way in which judges and prosecutors viewed my clients.”
An academic named John J. DiIulio Jr. coined the term for a November 1995 cover story in The Weekly Standard, a brand-new magazine of conservative political opinion that hit pay dirt with the provocative coverline, “The Coming of the Super-Predators.”
Then a young professor at Princeton University, DiIulio was extrapolating from a study of Philadelphia boys that calculated that 6 percent of them accounted for more than half the serious crimes committed by the whole cohort. He blamed these chronic offenders on “moral poverty … the poverty of being without loving, capable, responsible adults who teach you right from wrong.”
DiIulio warned that by the year 2000 an additional 30,000 young “murderers, rapists, and muggers” would be roaming America’s streets, sowing mayhem. “They place zero value on the lives of their victims, whom they reflexively dehumanize as just so much worthless ‘white trash,’” he wrote.
But who was doing the dehumanizing? Just a few years before, the news media had introduced the terms “wilding” and “wolf pack” to the national vocabulary, to describe five teenagers—four Black and one Hispanic—who were convicted and later exonerated of the rape of a woman in New York’s Central Park.
“This kind of animal imagery was already in the conversation,” said Kim Taylor-Thompson, a law professor at New York University. “The superpredator language began a process of allowing us to suspend our feelings of empathy towards young people of color.”
The “superpredator” theory, besides being a racist trope, was not borne out in crime statistics. Juvenile arrests for murder—and juvenile crime generally—had already started falling when DiIulio’s article was published. By 2000, when tens of thousands more children were supposed to be out there mugging and killing, juvenile murder arrests had fallen by two-thirds.
It failed as a theory, but as fodder for editorials, columns and magazine features, the term “superpredator” was a tragic success—with an enormous, and lasting, human toll.
Terrance Lewis was 19 and returning from work in 1997 when Philadelphia police trapped him on a bridge, guns drawn, and arrested him for a murder that he spent 21 years in prison trying to prove he did not commit. Only last year did the judge finally throw out his homicide conviction, citing faulty eyewitness testimony.
“I’m a recipient of the backlash of that superpredator rhetoric,” said Lewis, now 42. “The media believed in the rhetoric. All the coverage from back in that era was to amplify that rhetoric.”
DiIulio’s big idea wasn’t original. His mentor as a graduate student at Harvard, the influential political scientist James Q. Wilson, had been warning for years about a new breed of conscience-less teen killers. (“I didn’t go to Harvard,” DiIulio told one interviewer. “I went to Wilson.”)
But DiIulio was a clever popularizer who quickly became a darling of the think-tank circuit—and of the media. The Marshall Project’s review of 40 major news outlets in the five years after his Weekly Standard article shows the neologism popping up nearly 300 times, and that is an undercount.
There was the Philadelphia Inquirer’s fawning magazine profile of DiIulio, who grew up there. (Until recently, Pennsylvania had the country’s largest population of people still serving life sentences without parole—for crimes they committed as children.) There was also a lengthy, mostly gentle New Yorker profile; a spot on The New York Times’ op-ed page; and anappearance on the CBS Evening News.
The media exposure led to conference invitations, which led to more media exposure. The word “superpredator” became so much a part of the national vocabulary that journalists and talk show hosts used it without reference to DiIulio—including even Oprah Winfrey, in a segment on “Good Morning America.”
The Weekly Standard’s founding editor, Bill Kristol, now downplays the blockbuster cover story of his defunct magazine. But he admits: “It struck a nerve. And it caught on.”
The notion of an impending wave of teenage savagery caught on among criminologists, too.
“How did these ideas get supported and weaponized throughout the decades? Academics also played a role,” says Jeremy Travis, then at the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Justice Department, and now at Arnold Ventures, a charitable foundation from which The Marshall Project receives funding.
James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University, says he never used the term “superpredator,” but he warned in numerous media appearances about the coming teen crime wave, and makes no apologies. “One of the things about forecasts is that they’re sometimes wrong,” he said.
Meanwhile, having sparked the media’s feeding frenzy, DiIulio soon started sounding doubtful. “The term ‘superpredator’ has become, I guess, part of the lexicon,” he told NPR in the summer of 1996. The word had “sort of gotten out and gotten away from me.”
Of the 281 media mentions of “superpredators” we found from 1995 to 2000, more than three in five used the term without questioning its validity. The remainder included writers who contested DiIulio’s thesis in op-ed articles of their own, readers writing outraged letters, or journalists quoting a number of dissenters in their articles.
Although it made the news pages, the term “superpredator” appeared most often in commentaries and editorials, and in newsmagazines. An emerging “journalism of ideas” would gather force through the 1990s as cable television and the internet took hold. News outlets that once focused on telling their readers the basic facts now felt they had to explain, in the words of one of Newsweek’s advertising slogans, “Why it happened. What it means.”
In January 1996, the magazine asked in a headline, “‘Superpredators’ Arrive: Should we cage the new breed of vicious kids?” (Full disclosure: We both worked at Newsweek in the 1990s, and regret not protesting its crime coverage at the time.)