Why Bill Clinton's Apology and Barack Obama's Prison Drive-By, Token Clemencies Are Cynical Election Year Posturing
A Black Agenda Radio Commentary by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
Ten whole years ago, back in July 2005 when the Black Agenda Report crew was still at Black Commentator, I wrote that
“With under 5 percent of the world’s people, the US accounts for 25 percent of the planet’s prisoners. More than half its 2.2 million prisoners come from the one eighth of its population which is black. Today, an astounding 3 percent of all African Americans languish in prisons and jails, and nearly as many more are on probation, parole, bail, house arrest or court supervision... Right now, the shadow of prison squats at the corners of, and often at the center of nearly every black family’s life in this nation.”
Yesterday President Obama repeated some of these same figures, and they are pretty much the same. Total US prisoners are still 2.2 or 2.3 million, and a slight drop in the black incarceration rate makes us now a little less instead of a little more than half, but the overall picture is unchanged in a decade. The president then announced the release of forty-some nonviolent federal drug offenders out of a total of about 70,000, and stopped in at a federal prison Thursday. The same day, ex-president Bill Clinton offered a half-hearted “apology” for his 1990s crime bills, which he admitted “set the stage” for state and federal governments to nearly double the US prison population.
Why? Why did President Obama wait six and a half years into his presidency to say the basic damning numbers and free a token handful of drug war prisoners? And how come Bill Clinton, fifteen years out of office chose this week to publicly admit that black mass incarceration was maybe not the best public policy?
The short answer is that Hillary Clinton is running for president, and she needs that big black vote. Barack and Bill are working hard to position Hillary as the lesser evil, so that a large black vote, an essential component of what Democratic party consultants call their “base vote” can be mobilized for her.
We shouldn't forget however that despite the posturing of former presidents, that mass black incarceration has been the joint and bipartisan policy of both Republicans and Democrats.
The federal prison budget rose every year but one in the Clinton years, the Bush years, and so far the Obama years look about the same. The First Black President approved new federal supermax solitary prisons in places like Illinois, where citizen action closed the infamous Tamms penitentiary, and his Justice Department went to court to keep thousands who should have been freed when Congress relaxed the crack to powder sentence disparity from 100 to on to 17 to 1 behind the walls to this day.
Why? Why is black mass incarceration the bipartisan policy of America's rulers?
It's not about a continuation of slavery or to get free prison labor, that's silly. Nine out of ten prisoners do no work at all. And it's not because prisons are especially profitable. Apart from immigration prisons under Obama, privatization has never been big enough to drive the engine of mass incarceration at any time in the last 3 or 4 decades.
The America prison state came into fullest flower at the same time as and as the flip side of Bill and Hillary Clinton's so-called “welfare reform.” Whether Republicans or Democrats are in office black mass incarceration serves the vital purpose of morally justifying America's viciously unequal and racist economic and social order. The prison state does this by creating mostly black and brown class of permanently stigmatized and “unworthy” poor who can be portrayed as not deserving decent housing, real educations, affordable health care, dignity or jobs at living wages and whose precarious lives and devastated communities can be blamed on anything except the failure of neoliberal capitalism to provide bread, education, housing dignity or justice.
The more unjust and unequal capitalist America becomes, the more it needs prisons, and that stigmatized class defined by them. Their precarious lives are also a standing lesson to millions more with falling wages and rising debts to shut up and suck it up or this could be you.
We at Black Agenda Report have been talking about black mass incarceration for ten years now, longer than Michelle Alexander, and before anybody heard of the New Jim Crow. We're glad that presidents Bill and Barack have rediscovered it, even if only just in time to get another Democrat elected, which for them is about all that matters.
For Black Agenda Radio I'm Bruce Dixon. Find us on the web at www.blackagendareport.com.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and serves on the state committee of the GA Green Party. Reach him at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.