Columnist: The Obama Legacy And Black America

February 4, 2013

By Neal Peirce

When the final record is written, what will the Obama presidency mean for black America's long struggle for freedom and justice?

The year 2013 is a ripe moment for the question. Barack Obama has just enjoyed a triumphant second inauguration -- 150 years to the month since the Emancipation Proclamation. This winter marks 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr.'s fateful decision to take his freedom crusade to then-deeply racist Birmingham -- a resolve that lit the fire of a broad civil rights revolution, underwritten in new and decisive federal laws.

Yet race is a question on which President Obama has been markedly silent. America seemed willing to re-elect its first black president -- "but only," as editor Paul Glastris notes in the current issue of Washington Monthly, "if he didn't talk about race." One study shows Obama mentioned race fewer times in his first two years in office than any Democratic president since 1961.

Some suggest that this seeming code of silence is OK. And it's true -- black Americans' concerns on such issues as poverty, unemployment and education have been addressed, albeit piecemeal and quietly, by an extensive list of Obama administration policies -- among them health care reform, food stamp expansion, student loan overhaul and jobs (through economic stimulus).

But one area has been missing -- for today's African-Americans, and Obama's place in history. It's the nation's criminal justice system and world-topping incarceration rates, especially the wildly disproportionate number of African-Americans behind bars and burdened with felony records for life.

There is one dramatic action Obama could take to open a national debate on equity in justice. In recent years, Sen. James Webb of Virginia (now just retired) proposed a bipartisan national commission to conduct a stem-to-stern examination of the efficiency and fairness of the country's systems of apprehension, trial and punishment for criminal behavior.

The House actually passed a near-identical measure. But in the Senate, 43 Republicans threatened a filibuster on the grounds that such a commission would be unconstitutional in examining, on top of federal laws and practices, the clearly interlinked systems of state and local justice.

Webb was distraught -- as well might be -- that Congress would reject a commission, which he had carefully crafted in consultation with state and local officials, to examine one of America's most pressing challenges. Or to look objectively at a system -- as Brown University's Glenn Loury aptly describes it -- that "looks to the entire world like a racial caste system that leaves millions stigmatized as pariahs, either living behind bars or in conditions of concentrated crime and poverty that breed still more criminality."

Still, President Obama's hands are not tied. While congressional sponsorship would be preferable, he could, by executive order, create a national criminal justice commission. He might even tap Webb, a highly respected Marine combat veteran and Navy secretary under President Reagan, to chair it. The eventual recommendations, identifying best practices and reforms for federal, state and local implementation, could lead to more rational laws and dramatically reduced arrest and incarceration rates. And in the process, it would represent a huge gain for blacks embroiled in the criminal justice system, for their families -- and by extension, the United States as whole.

Fresh reform ideas are circulating. Crime-plagued, low-income inner-city areas could well benefit, perhaps dramatically, by the strategy recommended by professor Mark A.R. Kleiman of UCLA. Both theory and field evidence agree, Kleiman argues in the Washington Monthly, that the best way to curb offending behavior, most prevalent among youth, is to focus on swift, certain but not severe punishment, so offenders know what will happen to them each time they break the rules.

Kleiman cites programs including HOPE in Honolulu, SWIFT in Texas, WISP in Seattle, and Swift and Sure in Michigan. All deliver reduced drug use, less re-offending, less time behind bars -- and far fewer crippling felony convictions.

New York City, meanwhile, has dramatically reduced its crime and incarceration rates, so they're now well below U.S. averages, by a shift to "hot-spot" policing. The secret: picking locations where repeated crimes are committed, then assigning frequent patrols to them. The result, both in New York and other cities that have tried it, is that crimes at those locations drop sharply, and -- surprisingly -- don't crop up elsewhere. New York's return: a sharp drop in prisoners, and an astounding $1.5 billion a year saving.

There's a crucial bottom line here: Such strategies arguably produce a longer gain -- fewer young men with criminal records, better long-term employment and family building possibilities, which leads, in turn, to safer and more stable families and neighborhoods -- and lives, and black futures in America.

Would this be as dramatic as the civil rights breakthroughs of the 1960s? Likely not. But it could create a legacy in which Obama, and this generation of Americans, could take real pride.

Neal Peirce's email address is nrp@citistates.com.

(c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities.