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When Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby Teamed Up To Fight Crime

The president stopped Democrats from making excuses for black criminals. The comedian helped show the black middle class was also victim to those criminals.

The volatile topics of race and crime underlie the angry debate about whether the Baltimore rioters were “thugs” or “rebels.” Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, while many conservatives mistakenly viewed the Great American Crime Wave as having a black face, many liberals mistakenly belittled the crime upsurge’s importance to obscure the disproportionate number of black criminals involved. Then, as now, whites committed most crimes. Then as now, black criminals most frequently victimized other blacks. Finally, during the mid-1980s, a more honest conversation began, triggering genuine progress in the fight to make America’s streets safer for all Americans.

The turning point may have occurred 30 years ago, when Bernhard Goetz, a 37-year-old white engineer, confessed that he was the man the New York tabloids had dubbed THE SUBWAY VIGILANTE. On Dec. 22, 1984, Goetz had been riding on the Number 2 line, when four black teenagers armed with sharpened screwdrivers hassled him. After the teens asked for $5, Goetz said, “Yes, I have $5 for each of you.” He then pulled out a pistol and shot the four.

Most New Yorkers recognized such seemingly innocuous questions as the prelude to a mugging. Fed up blacks and whites cheered Goetz, who became a folk hero. “Maybe he shouldn’t have shot them,” Denise Walker, one of the teenagers’ South Bronx neighbors, said, “But I can’t feel bad if four kids up to no good got hurt.” New York’s Criminal Justice Coordinator Kenneth Conboy confirmed the widespread frustrations by admitting that in 1983, only 2 percent of the felony complaints and 5 percent of the robbery complaints resulted in jailed criminals.

The grand jury “justified” Goetz’s use of force, indicting him merely for his unregistered gun. Further investigation revealed that Goetz, who had been mugged before, shot two of them in the back, saying to one, “You don’t look so bad, here’s another,” before shooting again. A second grand jury indicted Goetz for assault on March 27, 1985.

Some viewed Goetz’s action through the black-white lens. The black psychologist Kenneth B. Clark, presaging today’s debate, treated crime as an act of social protest not anti-social behavior. These muggers “now riot as individuals rather than as a mob. Having been robbed of the minimum self-esteem essential to their humanity, they have nothing to lose.” Clark’s more elegantly phrased intellectual ideas would be echoed in cruder forms by rap singers and Nation of Islam preachers justifying black crime as black nationalism.

With blacks mainstreamed and not just marginalized, victimized by crime and not just by racism, the fight against crime commenced more freely, more aggressively.

Nevertheless, the debate was shifting, blurring the usual racial lines. Crime became a quality of life issue. As one Brooklyn pol lamented in Jonathan Rieder’s 1985 book Canarsie, “The whole middle class is suffering from a proverbial mugging.” New York’s tough, anti-crime mayor, Ed Koch, condemned Goetz’s behavior, fearing vigilantism. Meanwhile, New York’s first black police commissioner, Benjamin Ward, refused to treat the Goetz case as a racial issue.

Since becoming commissioner in 1983, Ward had begun targeting “quality of life” crimes. NYPD cops arrested 6,000 drug dealers, gamblers, prostitutes, and vandals in Ward’s first five months. He also diversified the force, ultimately increasing the number of black officers by 17 percent, Hispanics by 60 percent and females by 85 percent, in six years. With the Goetz shootings, Ward acknowledged the public’s frustration with the new criminal brazenness.

Ward called himself “very, very liberal when it comes to race relations, but when it comes to law enforcement, I am very, very conservative. I certainly believe bad guys belong in jail.” Two years after the Goetz case, he became one of the first leading African-Americans to let “our little secret … out of the house,” by addressing the disproportionate number of black criminals, especially in New York. He said young black men, “are committing the genocide against the blacks, they are ripping off the neighborhoods … and killing innocent people as they fight over their drug locations.” The New York Times confirmed that in 1986, blacks constituted about a quarter of New York’s population but “accounted for 58.7 percent” of felony arrests, and 69.3 percent of robbery arrests.

Even amid the crime wave that enraged Goetz and his fans, even with liberals accusing President Ronald Reagan of leading a backlash, America’s civil rights revolution advanced in the 1980s. Racism was no longer acceptable in public. Polls showed that 98 percent of whites would accept black neighbors, 95 percent would accept a black boss, and 85 percent welcomed their children hosting black playmates.

Buoyed, African-Americans became middle class en masse. They integrated neighborhoods, schools, once-closed professions like law and medicine, and once-closed unions for cops, electricians, and others. The number of black college graduates approached two million as the percentage of black high school dropouts dropped from 31 to 18 percent.

The individual who did the most to introduce white America to the growing black middle-class was Bill Cosby. In that critical spring of 1985, Cosby, a comedian with a doctorate in education playing an obstetrician, helped normalize black Americans. Cosby, the black Joshua, built on the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., the black Moses, who often made blacks appear noble, Jesus-like, in their suffering. At a time when many feared black crime, and, yes, black “thugs,” Cosby’s surprisingly popular, delightfully banal, sitcom, “The Cosby Show,” showed blacks as ordinary, middle-class Americans. The allegations against Cosby today of appalling sexual assaults, do not negate his achievement thirty years ago.

With blacks mainstreamed and not just marginalized, victimized by crime and not just by racism, the fight against crime commenced more freely, more aggressively. A young Governor Bill Clinton, and his allies in the Democratic Leadership Council started addressing the crime question frankly. Tired of losing elections, frustrated by their “bleeding heart liberal” reputation, these moderate Democrats wanted to restore the Party with more centrist policies. “When people are afraid to walk out of their houses, between sundown and sunup, it’s a big problem and to ignore it is a political mistake,” Al From, the DLC’s ideological guru taught.

By the 1990s, the crime rate would plummet. What Harvard’s Steve Pinker calls the “recivilization of America” benefited from broadening the black American narrative from poor and dysfunctional to middle class and mainstream too. During the 1990s, a Democratic president, recognizing the seriousness of the crime epidemic, hired 100,000 new police officers, instituted more gun control, and encouraged community policing, including Ward’s zero-tolerance for “Broken Windows,” quality of life approach. The resulting crime cutback was one of Bill Clinton’s great achievements—even if his fellow Democrats, including his wife Hillary, now try disowning it.