President Barack Obama has already made history. Twice. He can rest on his laurels and just ride out the remainder of his second term without shooting for any more stars. After all, the stormy petrels of Washington will beat their wings in the wind, no matter what he does—positive or negative. Hostile environments like that are rarely conducive to meaningful forward movement anyway.
But President Obama is no ordinary man nor is he a commonplace leader. The bad taste of Trayvon Martin’s demise and non-closure was a reminder of the delicate danger that Black men must face every day, simply because they are Black in America.
President Obama famously said he knows at least part of that pain, even though he was raised in Hawaii, not Southside Chicago. But what can he do about that situation? With a recalcitrant, ossified Congress, and constitutional restrictions on his presidential authority, what levity and change could he bring to the state of being a Black man in a continuously suspicious America?
Well, hocus pocus, he threw another building block of a new way forward into the fire this week.
One of the central parts of the problem of being Black in America is to always be at risk of becoming a casualty in the country’s failed war on drugs. Death is one frequent result. The other is imprisonment. The statistics are still glaring: one out of every four Black American males have or will have a negative relationship with America’s prison system in their lifetime. Some repeatedly. That means a severe reduction in an already too-tight employment environment. That means a loss of—and in many states a permanent one—voting rights. That means exposure to AIDS and possibly adding to the increasing rates of African American female HIV-AIDS victims while one is on the outside.
A great many of those incarcerated are imprisoned for first-offense, nonviolent relationships with marijuana, or they are small-scale drug dealers without firearms being involved. The War on Drugs has required mandatory minimum sentences in these cases, and judges, especially federal ones, regularly have had little if any discretion in meting out sentences, regardless of mediating circumstances. The basic result has been the wholesale imprisonment of a huge proportion of this generation’s Black male and female population.
In 2010, before the Tea Party Republicans came into Congress, the Legislature gave President Obama a signature reduction in the sentencing for crack versus powder cocaine. That helped, but clearly was not enough. After the infamous 2010 electoral shellacking, Congress has refused any more such changes in the right direction.
So what does a president with character do? He has his attorney general announce that federal prosecutors will no longer arrest small time drug offenders with extenuating circumstances in situations that can spark the mandatory-minimum requirements. In other words, use his presidential authority to cut back on the operations of the law to force Congress to do the right thing and legislatively address fundamental changes in that law. He knows the War on Drugs needs to be ended as surely as the one in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, he’s chipping away at it, using the one-building-block-at-a-time strategy.
The president is a political carpenter, and we are all the better for it.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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