The President Goes to Prison – Hooray!

Ideas and Issues

Obama-prison-meeting-w-prisoners-VICERock Creek, Montana     Barack Obama became the first United States President to go inside a federal prison.  No doubt the rightwing will feast on this for days, but for the rest of us his visit should be a feast of celebration because it takes another sturdy step forward towards a more explicit recognition of the tragedy that another lost war, the so-called “war on drugs” has wrought inequitably on African-Americans, their families, and communities bringing shame to our entire society.

The President had been signaling significant movement on this issue directly and through his former Attorney-General Eric Holder in recent years, especially as he has been more liberated in the last years of his tenure.  He had announced that he was taking steps to pardon thousands detained in the federal prison system for minor, nonviolent drug beefs who were being held there by mandatory sentencing rules.

Michelle Alexander whose book, The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, issued perhaps the most detailed and impassioned clarion call about the devastating price the US and our whole society was paying due to the political knee-jerking from Nixon to the Bushes with a hearty helping from Clinton in passing more and more stringent drug laws while ignoring the fact that police, the courts, and Congress were allowing this war-on-drugs to weaponize racism and disproportionately punish black and brown communities.  All of this despite every evidence that the vast majority of drug users, especially marijuana and cocaine, were white and often professionals as well.  Just the kind of people that did not have to worry about stop-and-frisk, random car searches despite constitutional protections that should be claimed against unlawful fishing expeditions in the name of searches, and other problems with the police.   Alexander has probably been moderately surprised to see the shift that Obama and Holder made on these issues.  Her book had expressed little hope for Obama in this area based on his statements in the 2008 campaign and his early appointments including his naming of Holder given his record as a prosecutor in the District of Columbia demanding tough drug sentencing during his tenure.

My fingers are crossed that we may see the kind of leadership now that President Obama is capable of bringing forward in this area.  Besides looking at incarceration and mandatory sentencing, there are some other matters that should be on the list.  There is no excuse for denying families access to federally funded public housing because someone in their family may have had a drug conviction.  There is no rhyme or reason for denying an eligible family federally funded welfare or food stamps for the same reason.  Such actions are vengeful and unjust, punishing without mercy the families for problems experience by the few.  How can it be justified or explained to anyone.  It’s just plain meanness.  Alexander was crystal clear that the only explanation for such behavior is racism.  The new Jim Crow is not the old Jim Crow, but that doesn’t mean it should be tolerated in the least.

Racism is racism, not matter how much we pretend colorblindness or hide behind the instruments of power that attempt to rationalize such activity.   Obama going to prison in Oklahoma is a good sign that we may be starting down the road to wiping this stain from our contemporary society, but just like the old Jim Crow, the new Jim Crow will take years to absolve.  If ever.