The single biggest gauge that blacks used to measure how much a black president was willing to do on a racial issue was how he dealt with the issues of mass incarceration and police violence.
It took President Barack Obama some time and much care, knowing just how volatile the issue of crime and punishment, law and order, was to conservatives, to nudge either issue toward the front of his public agenda.
The issue he picked to stake out turf in this policy arena was the insane, human and financial drain of the nation’s draconian drug sentencing laws. He eased into it by gradually increasing the number of clemencies that he granted to mostly low-level drug offenders, and then accelerating the rate each go-round of clemencies.
The Obama Legacy
Fifth in a series
The prospect of such prisoners being released without the president’s intervention would have been slim to none. The scorecard for the Obama administration on clemency for low-level offenders, for the most part, related to drugs. By the end of his White House tenure, the number freed totaled in the hundreds.
He further drove the point home about the over incarceration of petty offenders with his presidential groundbreaking visit to a federal penitentiary in Oklahoma in July 2015. Obama’s actions were heart-lifting news for the offenders and their families, and it was great news for a nation that had acquiesced far too long in the thoroughly debunked notion that the nation could incarcerate its way out of the drug morass.
Yet, as Obama certainly knew, there was still much to be done for the nation to dig out of this morass. The incessant demand would remain for him to do even more.
His clemencies for drug crimes followed hard on the heels of Attorney General Eric Holder’s virtual demand that U.S. Attorneys in August 2013, rethink how and who they prosecuted for drug crimes. That followed even closer on the heels of Congress’s passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010.
Before that, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that modified the draconian sentence for a convicted cocaine peddler. Their actions wiped out much of the disparity in the blatantly racially tinged sentences slapped on crack cocaine users.
The one racial issue, however, that made drugs and jobs almost pale in comparison and riveted the eyes of a nation on the White House was the spate of police killings of mostly unarmed blacks in 2015 and 2016. This was capped by the back-to-back police slayings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota in July 2016.
The spiral of violence triggered the equally horrific slaying of five Dallas police officers the same month. At the time, Obama was on a state visit to Spain to attend an interfaith service. He cut that short to fly to Dallas to give aid and comfort to their families. That was the right thing to do.
The slaying of the officers was, just as Obama called it, vicious and despicable. They were public servants, guardians of the law and the killing was a brutal and frontal challenge to state authority. No president could ignore that threat.
However, the crisis and challenge was the perfect opportunity to tackle the endless issue of race and whether black lives are less valued than those of others. Obama did not ignore the horrendous killings of Sterling and Castile.
He pled, cajoled, and prodded the nation and even law enforcement to take proactive, reform steps to curb violence by getting the Justice Department more directly involved. The Justice Department responded by holding endless meetings, conferences with local law enforcement agencies, and issuing guidelines and proposals that covered the gamut from better police training, stepped up minority recruitment, and eliminating racial profiling.
Could he have done more on police violence, drugs and mass incarceration and the crisis of black unemployment?
The case could always be made that he could. He could have authorized more aggressive Justice Department civil rights prosecutions of police officers who killed unarmed blacks when the state refused to prosecute them. He could have pressed for a full halt to the federal government’s sale of military hardware to local police departments and launched a stronger administration push for more congressional action on fair sentencing laws.
He could have used the presidency as a bully pulpit to advocate the total erasure of the gaping racial disparities and prosecutions for drug offenses. He could have proposed an administration-sponsored crash program on spending specifically for job and skills training that targeted young black males.
On the other hand, an equally strong case could be made that he made more than a token effort in these crucial areas. He did speak out when he could and cajoled a Congress to the extent possible to act.
That is what a president should do to show that race still does matter in America. In this respect, Obama made a good first start here, a start that future administrations would hopefully build on.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of the forthcoming “The Obama Legacy” (Middle Passage Press). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.