Superpredators Old and New

03 August 2017

In last month’s blog, I began to explore the political role of the concepts of naturalness and unnaturalness.  To recap, every human culture makes use of a system of conceptual categories—a sort of cognitive grid—to make sense the world.  The beings that fit into these are welcomed as natural, whereas those that don’t are abhorred as unnatural. Unnatural beings elicit very powerful aversive reactions: they horrify us. I concluded with the following words:

Some of the most hideous acts of atrocity have been perpetrated against those who do not fit into the boxes endorsed by their culture. A person who’s out of place may be put in their place, but a person that has no place, because they straddle the categories used to define what is normal, are marked for destruction or shunted off to the margins of society—in the past, exile, and in the present, prison.  

And I promised to “explain in greater detail how we turn ordinary human beings into monsters and demons: avatars of the unnatural.”

Then, after writing this, President Trump gave a speech in Youngstown, Ohio—a speech that contained remarks that are so relevant to the topic that I wanted to address, that I decided to change my plan somewhat and structure this month’s installment around them. Here’s a bit of what he said:

One by one we are finding the illegal gang members, drug dealers, thieves, robbers, criminals and killers…. The predators and criminal aliens who poison our communities with drugs and prey on innocent young people, these beautiful, beautiful, innocent young people will, will find no safe haven anywhere in our country. And you've seen the stories about some of these animals. They don't want to use guns, because it's too fast and it's not painful enough. So they'll take a young, beautiful girl, 16, 15, and others and they slice them and dice them with a knife because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die. And these are the animals that we've been protecting for so long. Well, they're not being protected any longer, folks. 

Trump’s words are well worth pondering carefully. He paints a truly terrifying picture of humanoid predatory animals that are hell-bent on torturing, killing, and one must assume on the basis of some of his earlier remarks, raping beautiful, innocent (presumably, white) teenage girls.

Trump’s image of marauding Latinos is strikingly close to John DeIiulio’s infamous 1995 description of what he called superpredators—young Black males who—he alleged—form “wolf packs” to hunt down their victims. “The superpredators,” he wrote, “…. 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 superpredators 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.

Trump’s speech should not be regarded as the return of the superpredator idea, because the idea that young Black and Latino males are roving, predatory beasts never really disappeared. Instead, it merely went very shallowly underground for a while—simmering away just outside the border of social acceptability. In speaking as he did, our president empowered believers to come out of the closet. He made it a little more OK to say in public what had long been said under the cover of privacy—that young men of color are monsters.

For the past ten years or so, my work has been focused how it’s possible for a whole group of people to be demonized in this way.  This was the topic of my 2011 book Less Than Human, and it’s also the subject of a book that I’m working on now, that’s entitled Making Monsters.  This research has led me to the conclusion that if you really want to understand what’s going on when people think of other people as superpredators, you’ve got to consider this phenomenon in a wider context, for although the term “superpredator” was coined here only a little more than two decades ago, the idea behind it is a whole lot older.

To see this, all that you need to do is to look at the extensive documentation of how many White Americans viewed Black males from the mid-19th to the early 20th century. The image that these White people held in their minds—and which they reproduced in their speeches, newspapers, and books—was virtually indistinguishable from the one promoted by DiIiulio and Trump a century and more down the road. White Americans imagined that Black men were base, uncontrollably violent monsters with prodigious sexual appetites, bent on murder, mayhem, and the brutal rape of the flower of white womanhood.  

For example, South Carolina congressman Benjamin Tillman told his fellow senators that after the abolition of slavery, “the poor African… became a fiend, a wild beast seeking whom he may devour, filling our penitentiaries and our jails, lurking around to see if some helpless white woman can be murdered or brutalized.”  Similar characterizations were expressed in the literature of the day. To give just a few examples, the African American male was described (by serious thinkers, not just crackpots) as “the most horrible creature upon the earth, the most brutal and merciless”, “a monstrous beast, crazed with lust. His ferocity is almost demoniacal. A mad bull or tiger could scarcely be more brutal” whose depredations on white women were “indescribably beastly and loathsome […,] marked […] by a diabolical persistence and a malignant atrocity of detail that have no reflection in the whole extent of the natural history of the most bestial and ferocious animals”.   

But viewing marginalized people as superpredators isn’t unique to American racism, in the present or in the past. It is much more widespread, both culturally and historically. A glance at the anti-Semitic literature that was published in Germany during the 1930s and 40s reveals a similar conceptual landscape. Jewish men were frequently characterized as inherently criminal. They were pimps, rapists, and drug-dealers: sex-crazed beasts that lusted after racially pure German girls.

The image of the monstrous other can be traced back further still. Debra Higgs Strickland remarks in her book Saracens, Demons, and Jews that during the European Middle Ages:

Jews were not only barbarians…they were also monsters.  This monstrosity was supposedly expressed through unspeakable acts begun, of course, with the murder of Christ, but continuing into the present day with the ritual torture and murder of Christian boys and the desecration of the sacred host. The most prominent arena for the visualization of Jewish monstrosity was passion imagery featuring physically deformed, evil torturers of Christ.

And medieval European commentators often characterized Muslims in a similar way. For example, one English crusader described the Turks as  “a fiendish race, forceful and relentless, deformed by nature and not like other living beings, black in color and of enormous stature and inhuman savageness.”  

There are many, many more examples that could be presented, from various historical periods and cultures. Of course, the details often vary. For example, nineteenth century descriptions of Black superpredators emphasize brute strength and insensitivity to pain, while German representations of Jewish superpredators emphasize their cunning and guile. But these variations are underpinned by several robust commonalities.

First, superpredators are malevolent—they are out to get you and yours.  Second, they are devoid of morality—they will do anything to satisfy their depraved desires. Third, they are irredeemably evil—bad to the bone. The only way to deal with them is by banishment, prison, or execution. Fourth, they are racialized—they are not members of our kind. And fifth (and very importantly) they have superhuman powers—superhuman strength, or endurance, or sexuality, or intelligence, which (combined with their other attributes) makes them immensely dangerous.

The prevalence and far-flung distribution of these ideas shows that it’s a mistake to try to make sense of them entirely in light of what’s going on socially and politically at a single historical moment. In other words, we can’t fully comprehend Trump’s remarks unless we look further than the contingencies of the contemporary American political scene, or even the racial history of the United States. And that’s exactly what I intend to do in next month’s installment, where I’ll be linking them to ideas about the unnatural and will harness work on the philosophy of monsters to throw light on how and why societies transform ordinary human beings into inhumanly powerful, malignant creatures.


Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, August 5, 2017 -- 12:58 PM

Well. So, were the pawns of

Well. So, were the pawns of the Inquisition also superpredators, or were they merely seeking to evangelize (by whatever means necessary) the entire non-Christian world? There are several good books on Inquisition techniques (Susan Jacoby and Steven Pinker come to mind: STRANGE GODS and THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE). When I was a child, even a late adolescent, I never knew the grisly truths associated with the Dark Side of Christianity. Those things were not discussed, let alone taught. It took some amount of research and investigation, but I learned things I would not have thought possible. Oh well, maybe I should have paid more attention in school...but no, I would have remembered. Of this I am certain.