I was asked this week to appear on a CNN special about Barack Obama and his impact on African American men. When I was asked about my thoughts on Obama, I wasn’t sure what to say. I respect Barack Obama as a black man, and it is my greatest hope that he is successful. But at the end of the day, my feelings are mixed, because only time will tell if the true state of the African American male is going to improve as a result of our having a black man in the White House.
On one hand, the symbolic impact of Barack Obama’s presence is clear: Black men and women around the world are inspired by his rise to power. He deserves tremendous respect for doing the impossible and giving us a black president 100 years ahead of schedule.
There is another side to the debate, however, one that focuses on the two vitriolic demons that continue to plague the black man in America: The educational system and the prison system. If the president truly cares about black men, he will do whatever is necessary to improve the systems which impact men who look like him.
According to the National Society of Black School Educators, black boys are five times more likely to be placed in special education than white kids. What is inherently obvious is that our inner city schools have become feeder systems for prisons, the same way that the NCAA feeds athletes to the NFL. Our capitalist addiction to free prison labor has led to a reinstallation of slavery into the heart of America. There are more black men in prison in America than Joseph Stalin ever had during the height of the gulag era, and for a black man to be in charge of such a holocaust of incarceration is disturbing. Obama did not cause the problem, but for this Harvard educated attorney and former community organizer to sit by in the midst of such a tragedy is morally wrong and should not be justified.
Here are some things that President Obama can do to favorably impact black males during his time in the White House:
1) Find a way to fund inner city schools or at least supplement the programs so that children can be educated. Uneducated men don’t get jobs. Men who don’t have jobs are likely to end up in prison. There should be no drug dealers who could have been pharmacists, and no bank robbers who could have been bankers. If we are not educating our children, we are failing them miserably.
2) Give United States Attorney General Eric Holder the resources to ensure that sentencing disparities are studied and that the public defender system is improved. There are thousands of men who go to prison every year for crimes they did not commit, only because the over-worked public defender is all too quick to push for a plea bargain. This is worsened by the fact that harsh sentences are imposed on those who choose to fight their charges by utilizing their constitutionally-guaranteed day in court.
3) Stop prison rape at any cost. The spread of HIV can be directly linked to jails and prisons, and this is destroying black families and killing black women.
4) Make prisons a place of rehabilitation, not just punishment. Why we’ve decided that it makes sense to keep able-bodied individuals rotting away without giving them the incentive to educate themselves is beyond me. That time in prison should be used in ways that will help these individuals emerge as productive members of society.
5) Create an avenue for reintegration into society. The idea that a person should be ostracized for life and unable to obtain job opportunities because of mistakes they’ve made in the past only gives them the incentive to make more mistakes. A person who has been marginalized by our society becomes a threat to all of us and a missed opportunity to obtain productive outcomes.
On the recorded CNN segment, I gave the president a relatively weak “thumbs up” for the job he has done thus far. His appointments of racially problematic economic advisors Ben Bernanke and Lawrence Summers implies that he may be out of touch with the economic realities of African American males, who experience unemployment rates as high as 50% in some urban areas. But the truth is that I am hopeful that President Obama will earn his Nobel Prize by being a true leader and not just a president. The jury is still out on Barack Obama, and it is my greatest prayer that the verdict that returns is favorable.