President Barack Obama’s call for major criminal-justice reforms at the NAACP convention in Philadelphia Tuesday offered concrete policy follow-through to issues of racial justice the president raised during his historic eulogy in Charleston, S.C., last month.
In the City of Brotherly Love, Obama outlined a series of reforms aimed at reducing the numbers of Americans in prison and rethinking the effects of punishment, including the restoration of voting rights for ex-offenders who have paid their debt to society. Obama’s words carry enormous weight, not simply as the nation’s first black president but also because, until recently, Obama had been among the least forgiving, pardoning and commuting sentences at a lower rate during his first term than previous presidents.
“I would not be here without the help of the NAACP,” began Obama’s opening statement. Obama proceeded to deliver a stirring seminar on the consequences of mass incarceration, singling out America’s prison rate as being “four times higher than China’s.” The president distinguished between violent and nonviolent offenders, arguing that nonviolent drug offenders were being too harshly punished.
Although well-intentioned, this line of reasoning is mistaken, given that drug convictions account for only one-quarter of the incarcerated. Even if we released every single person in prison because of a drug conviction, America would still have over 1.5 million people in jail. Reduced sentences for nonviolent prisoners, while politically friendly, delay the inevitable national conversation on the punishment, rehabilitation and fates of violent offenders (pdf), especially those who are African American.
Obama’s most potent remarks focused on the unequal rates of incarceration based on race. “In too many places,” African Americans and Latinos are “treated differently under the law,” he said. Warning skeptics that this was “not just barbershop talk,” Obama cited hard data, including the over 1 million missing black fathers in prison and the children of the incarcerated who face daunting challenges with parents in jail. “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off and we need to do something about it,” said the president.
The president cited bipartisan efforts supported by Republicans and Democrats to reduce our nation’s prisons as offering a context for far-reaching criminal-justice reforms. His proposed reforms focused on the community, the criminal-justice system and the cellblock. The president touted educational investments in young people as the key to ending the public-school-to-prison pipeline.
“Every child deserves opportunity, not just some, not just our own,” he said. Ferguson, Mo.; Baltimore; and West Philadelphia “are part of America, too,” and those children should be treated with love, Obama said. Black and brown kids shouldn’t be punished in schools because of race. “Don’t tag them as future criminals,” said the president. “Reach out to them as future citizens.”
The president put this lesson into practice Monday by commuting the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders. Obama’s release of these prisoners offers real and symbolic justice to some of the victims of a criminal-justice system that punishes too many for too long at too high a cost, both economically and spiritually.
At one point during his speech, Obama, almost offhandedly, mentioned the administration’s new efforts to ensure fair housing and end decades of segregated communities through new rules that will allow the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to work with local communities dedicated to racial integration in housing, neighborhoods and communities across the nation.
Finally, and perhaps most profoundly, Obama called for reforming prison conditions, calling rape, violence and solitary confinement “unacceptable” in our democracy. In a dramatic piece of political theater aimed at supporting these endeavors, Obama will visit a federal prison in Oklahoma Thursday, making him the first president to do so.
Obama’s support for voting rights for felons who have served their time received the loudest applause from those in attendance. More specifically, he called for investing in education for prisoners, reducing sentences for model inmates, linking ex-offenders with employment opportunities and banning the box on employment applications that has stigmatized former prisoners.
Justice, explained Obama, was young black people understanding that their lives matter by the way institutions and people treat them. In rousing tones, Obama placed inequality in housing, employment and criminal justice as part of a larger tableau of racial and economic oppression that could be overcome through substantive political reform.
“We are not perfect, but we have the capacity to be more perfect,” he said.
It was a remarkable speech. The largest share of credit, however, must be reserved for grassroots organizers—from #BlackLivesMatter to local community groups—that forced Obama into action. A new generation of young leaders, martyrs and demonstrators have inspired the nation, including and perhaps especially President Obama, to squarely confront a searing history that cannot be overcome by hope alone, but through bold action.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.