When President Obama spoke before the Philadelphia NAACP last week, he spoke our more forcefully and directly about the racial inequities inherent in the criminal justice system than perhaps he ever has before. This could be because he is in the home stretch to the end of his 2nd term and he knows he does not have to worry about re-election and can speak more freely. Then again, maybe it’s because the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, which began last summer after the murder-by-cop of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri.
Or maybe it’s just because the President knows it’s time.
President Obama has taken a fair amount of heat, even from some of his supporters, for not speaking out more forcefully on issues of race, and at times those criticisms have been justified. It would be rather difficult to find a credible critic in that regard after the President’s Wednesday night speech. He began with the overall problems facing the justice system when he said:
“But here’s the thing: Over the last few decades, we’ve also locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before. And that is the real reason our prison population is so high. In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime. If you’re a low-level drug dealer, or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society. You have to be held accountable and make amends. But you don’t owe 20 years. You don’t owe a life sentence. That’s disproportionate to the price that should be paid.”
But then he focused in much more specifically on the problems of race – and racism – and how those problems play themselves out in our criminal justice system.
“A growing body of research shows that people of color are more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, detained. African Americans are more likely to be arrested. They are more likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime. And one of the consequences of this is, around one million fathers are behind bars. Around one in nine African American kids has a parent in prison.
“What is that doing to our communities? What’s that doing to those children? Our nation is being robbed of men and women who could be workers and taxpayers, could be more actively involved in their children’s lives, could be role models, could be community leaders, and right now they’re locked up for a non-violent offense.”
“About one in every 35 African American men, one in every 88 Latino men is serving time right now,” the President said. “Among white men, that number is one in 214.”
In a city where African Americans represent more than 85 percent of the population, it hardly need be said how this affects Detroit.