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The Obama Legacy and Black America

Neal Peirce / Jan 31 2013

For Release Sunday, February 3, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceWhen the final record is written, what will the Obama presidency mean for black America’s long struggle for freedom and justice?

The year 2013 is a ripe moment for the question. Barack Obama has just enjoyed a triumphant second inauguration – 150 years to the month since the Emancipation Proclamation. This winter marks 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr.’s fateful decision to take his freedom crusade to then-deeply racist Birmingham – a resolve that lit the fire of a broad civil rights revolution, underwritten in new and decisive federal laws.

Yet race is a question on which President Obama has been markedly silent. America seemed willing to re-elect its first black president – “but only,” as editor Paul Gastris notes in the current edition of Washington Monthly, “if he didn’t talk about race.” One study shows Obama mentioned race fewer times in his first two years in office than any Democratic president since 1961.

Some suggest that seeming code of silence is OK. And it’s true – black Americans’ concerns on such issues as poverty, unemployment and education have been addressed, albeit piecemeal and quietly, by an extensive list of Obama administration policies – among them health care reform, food stamp expansion, student loan overhaul and jobs (through economic stimulus).

But one area’s been missing – for today’s African-Americans, and Obama’s place in history. It’s the nation’s criminal justice system and world-topping incarceration rates, especially the wildly disproportionate number of African-Americans behind bars and burdened with felony records for life.

There’s one dramatic action Obama could take to open a national debate on equity in justice. In recent years Sen. James Webb of Virginia (now just retired) proposed a bipartisan national commission to conduct a stem-to-stern examination of the efficiency and fairness of the country’s systems of apprehension, trial and punishment for criminal behavior.

The House actually passed a near-identical measure. But in the Senate, 43 Republicans threatened a filibuster on the grounds that such a commission would be unconstitutional in examining, on top of federal laws and practices, the clearly interlinked systems of state and local justice.

Webb was distraught– as well he might be – that Congress would reject a commission, which he’d carefully crafted in consultation with state and local officials, to examine one of America’s most pressing challenges. It would have looked objectively at a system that – as Brown University’s Glenn Loury aptly describes it – “looks to the entire world like a racial caste system that leaves millions stigmatized as pariahs, either living behind bars or in conditions of concentrated crime and poverty that breed still more criminality.”

Still, President Obama’s hands are not tied. While congressional sponsorship would be preferable, he could, by executive order, create a national criminal justice commission. He might even tap Webb, a highly respected Marine combat veteran and Navy secretary under President Reagan, to chair it. The eventual recommendations, identifying best practices and reforms for federal, state and local implementation, could lead to more rational laws and dramatically reduced arrest and incarceration rates. In the process it would represent a huge gain for blacks embroiled in the criminal justice system, for their families and by extension, the United States as whole.

Fresh reform ideas are circulating. Crime-plagued, low-income inner-city areas could well benefit, perhaps dramatically, from the strategy recommended by Professor Mark A.R. Kleiman of UCLA. Both theory and field evidence agree, Kleiman argues in the Washington Monthly, that the best way to curb offending behavior, most prevalent among youth, is to focus on swift, certain but not severe punishment, so offenders know what will happen to them each time they break the rules.

Kleiman cites programs including HOPE in Honolulu, SWIFT in Texas, WISP in Seattle and Swift and Sure in Michigan. All deliver reduced drug use, lower rates of reoffending, less time behind bars – and far fewer crippling felony convictions.

New York City, meanwhile, has dramatically reduced its crime and incarceration rates so they’re now well below U.S. averages, by a shift to “hot-spot” policing. The secret: picking locations where repeated crimes are committed, then assigning frequent patrols to them. The result, both in New York and other cities that have tried it: Crimes at those locations drop sharply, and – surprisingly – don’t crop up elsewhere. The return for New York is a sharp drop in prisoners and an astounding $1.5 billion a year in savings.

There’s a critical bottom line here. Such strategies arguably produce a longer gain: fewer young men with criminal records, better long-term employment and family building possibilities, all of which leads, in turn, to safer and more stable families and neighborhoods and better lives and futures for black Americans.

Would this be as dramatic as the civil rights breakthroughs of the 1960s? Likely not. But it could create a legacy in which Barack Obama, and this generation of Americans, could take real pride.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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  1. Posted January 31, 2013 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    Excellent and optimistic conclusion, Neal. If we could only start hot spotting the places -real and virtual – that breed the culture of violence and spread disrespect for the sanctity of life.

  2. Pamela Collett
    Posted February 1, 2013 at 12:51 am | Permalink

    Excellent column. Why has the Obama administration ignored the highest incarceration rate in the world? What are the possibilities that something will be done?

  3. Connie Morella
    Posted February 1, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Tony and I are in total agreement with your timely and important article. The President should use his executive privilege to establish a commission–and Sen. Webb would be a perfect Chair. Society would gain in all ways.

  4. Howard Wooldridge
    Posted February 1, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Neal almost addressed the root problem here; namely the policy of Drug Prohibition. THAT is the driver of the most destructive, dysfunctional and immoral policy since slavery and Jim Crow.

    As a lobbyist/advocate I worked on the Webb bill for 4 years. Yes, Obama should create the commission and or simply give the nation and adult conversation on the trillion dollar War on Drugs policy. Want to reduce pain, suffering, death and save tens of billions of tax dollars? Repeal drug prohibition. Obama has been and probably will remain a coward to touch this important policy, despite the massive damage done to the USA and our neighbors.

  5. Marc Brenman
    Posted April 11, 2013 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    Citing New York City as a good example in regard to policing and African-Americans is painful and insensitive. The NYC Police practice “stop and frisk” of young men of color, a practice that has been condemned by advocates and courts alike and described as racial profiling.