Obama-Inspired Surrender of Black Leadership Makes Real Criminal Code Reform, Mass Incarceration Rollback Unlikely

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

There's a House Judiciary Committee Task Force on Overcriminalization committed to combing through the federal code looking for ways to lock up fewer people. Should we get our hopes up, or get our fight for justice and rolling back the state on? Will the black misleadership class be any help? Probably not much. Should that stop us? Let's hope not.

Obama-Inspired Surrender of Black Leadership Makes Real Criminal Code Reform, Mass Incarceration Rollback Unlikely

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

The common, and grossly misguided pillars of African American political “wisdom” since the beginning of Barack Obama's campaign for the White House in 2006 till the present day have been

  • shut down discussions of differences between African Americans, so white folks will think we're united;

  • don't press thorny and embarrassing political demands upon the First Black President, because he's the President Of All Americans, not just us;

  • close ranks around the First Black President to strengthen his hand against any and all critics.

Black America has deployed itself as a wall around Barack Obama. In practice however, the only thing we really protect President Obama and the class of black political misleaders over which he presides from is their duty to represent and do right by us.

There's no issue that uniquely the states black lives, black families and black communities like mass incarceration, the rise of the current prison state. Presidential candidate Barack Obama promised to address the racist laws that specified penalties for crack vs powdered cocaine at 100 to 1. But even with record black voter turnouts, a black Attorney General, 42 black members of Congress, Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, and a black president, the disparity was lightened to a mere 18 to 1, while not a single one of the tens or hundreds of thousands of unfair sentences being served were lightened by a single hour. Members of Congress floated the excuse that it was the best they could do against Republican intransigence, even though Republicans were in a minority when they did that deal. The fact is that from the president and his attorney general on down none of our black political leaders were willing to put their star power, their oratorical and deal-making skills, their political careers on the line. None were willing to handcuff themselves to the White House fence, or go on a hunger strike, or But opportunity is knocking again, this time in the form of a bipartisan House Judiciary Committee Task Force on Overcriminalization. Supposedly, they and their staffers will comb through the vast library of federal criminal code looking for ways to lock up fewer people.

There are lots of opinions in play. Right On Crime, an influential and well-funded conservative imagine tank headed by Newt Gingrich, believes the only thing really wrong with the prison state is how much it costs. This was the guiding spirit in similar efforts to address “overincarceration” in Texas and Georgia. Others, even other conservatives, like the Heritage Foundation, want to address the lack of any intent and “mistake of law” provisions in thousands of current federal criminal laws. Lack of these provisions means that people can and are found guilty of offenses they have no knowledge that they're committing and when defendants have no intention to violate any law.

There are and ought to be more progressive opinions in the mix too. The good people at places like the Sentencing Project and ACLU, and more like and unlike them, will weigh in as well. But these are organizations mainly of lawyers, good for producing briefing papers and giving respectful testimony at hearings. That won't do the trick. Pushing the rock of the prison state uphill will take a lot more, including some profound disrespect of the authority that led us where we are today. It would be a great good thing to see local and national organizations composed of and led by the formerly incarcerated and the families of the imprisoned involved in aggressive, insistent and impolite advocacy for justice.

My guess, however, is that the traditional civil rights leaders funded by corporations and feeling a lot more responsibility to the White House and their funders than they do to the people and communities affected by the prison state, will cut a series of bad, lazy deals. Their top priority will be not embarrassing the president by demanding that he act like a leader on this issue.

Rev. Al and Ben Jealous will probably put on a show of involving the White House or Attorney General, have a DC rally or two and strive mightily to divert the energies of those outraged at the prison state into voting Democrat in the 2014 elections. The problem is that we've already been voting the last three elections in record numbers without much effect on the incarceration rate. It's not that the current black leadership has forgotten the arts of creative confrontation and political organizing outside electoral mobilizations. Their predecessors stopped doing that stuff more than 4 decades ago, when many of them were toddlers or still unborn.

We'll have to learn the arts of creative confrontation all over again for this new era. And it IS a new era, one in which anybody who disrupts business as usual to achieve political ends may be labeled a “domestic terrorist.”

We can confidently predict that the current black political class will do its best to let this opportunity to roll back the prison state slip through its fingers just like they did the crack-vs-powder cocaine disparity back back in 2009 and 2010. Surrender and accommodation, and taking credit for imaginary victories are in their DNA. But we hope their voices aren't the only ones heard in black America. We hope to use the existence of the House Judiciary Committee Task Force on Overcriminalization to breathe new life into honest explorations of how the prison state affects us all, and how we can challenge it.

Our black misleadership class can and likely will make us lose this battle. But the war against the prison state is one that we will eventually win.

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report and a state committee member of the Georgia Green Party. Contact him via this site's contact page, or at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.