Furthering the Legacy: How President Obama Can Live up to MLK’s Dream in His Second Term
Despite the re-election of an African American president, it is ludicrous to claim Martin Luther King’s social philosophy, a historically-rooted mix of political and theological precepts that combines the best of the liberal American tradition with Ghandhian non-violence and civil disobedience, has been fully realized.
Alas, in many ways, the U.S. is further from MLK’s “Promised Land” then ever. In his second term, President Barack Obama should make it a priority to address two issues that plague the African American community: the drug war and the prison industrial complex that disproportionately impacts young African American men. Otherwise, delivering his inauguration speech on Martin Luther King Day in close proximity to the MLK Memorial will go down in history as empty symbolism.
Although not ostensibly a racial issue, statistics make it all too obvious which demographics are suffering most from these abominations. African Americans make up 12% to 13% of the U.S. population. Yet, they make up 72% of the U.S. prison population. Conservatives would likely claim cultural issues – the disintegration of the African American family structure, a de-emphasis on education – are the culprits. There may be a grain of truth to this argument, popularized by the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynhihan in his famous report, “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action.” But relying exclusively on this interpretation ignores other factors that are at work.
The drug war all too often provides a means for law enforcement and the Department of Justice to target certain racial groups, predominantly African Americans. Vast numbers of them languish behind bars for minor drug offenses, many of them related to the cultivation and sale of marijuana. Meanwhile, other demographics “guilty” of the same crimes are largely unaffected. For example, local authorities turn a blind eye to marijuana use on college campuses, on the assumption that smoking pot is just something that young people do. It is impossible to calculate just how many privileged groups have gotten away with the same crimes that land many African Americans in jail, because such groups have the monetary and legal means to have violations expunged from their records or, in some cases, not even recorded.
The streets of inner cities, on the other hand, are crawling with law enforcement looking to bust reckless young people for the most minor offenses. Careful scrutiny reveals that systematic causes, as opposed to the individual racism of police officers, are largely to blame for this phenomenon. In disproportionately targeting African Americans, individual cops are just following standard law enforcement procedure, which rewards them for making drug arrests. It is much the same phenomenon that encourages cops to give out parking tickets, only with far more dire consequences. It is only natural that in seeking to meet these quotas, police officers will go to places where those they arrest are least able to defend themselves in court.
African Americans unlucky enough to be arrested for minor drug offenses could be imprisoned for years, or forced to pay unaffordable fines. Even for individuals who manage to escape without jail time, the presence of a drug arrest is a black mark (no pun intended) on their records. Conservatives who patronizingly lament the alleged “deterioration” of black culture, itself a product of racism, would do well to consider how law enforcement exacerbates the problem. Inner-city African Americans, hamstrung from the beginning by a lack of job opportunities, a broken public education system and discrimination on the part of employers, can ill afford the specter of an old drug arrest hanging over their heads.
Despite campaign promises, Obama did nothing in his first term to curb the war on drugs. Penalties for the cultivation and sale of cannabis and other drugs are just as harsh now as they were when he took office. If anything, the DEA, with the implicit approval of the Obama Administration’s Department of Justice, has actually cracked down, often against the will of states such as California and Colorado that have taken steps to curb the excesses of the drug war. This should be a concern for all Americans, whose tax dollars go into funding a bloated prison system packed with petty criminals who might otherwise find gainful employment and broaden the tax base. The prison industrial complex sucks in potentially productive members of society in the name of anachronistic laws that themselves derived from racial discrimination.
Having confessed to his own marijuana use, Obama should spare a thought for the African Americans unjustly imprisoned for the same victimless crimes he committed in his youth. If, as the President stated, Trayvon Martin could have been his son, so too could the young people who were unlucky enough to get caught with the drug that his justice department has quixotically devoted itself to fighting. If the President truly wants to live up to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., the man whose bible he was sworn in on and whose memory he so often invokes, King would expect nothing less.