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The further Criminalization of the Black Community on Mr. Obama's Watch

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When I watched Eric Holder, Mr. Obama's Attorney General, glibly skim over the issue of the steep increase in mass incarceration of black and brown Americans over the last three decades, as he was being interviewed by Douglas A. Blackmon on a PBS rebroadcast from the University of Virginia's Miller Center, it got me to thinking about the problem Mr. Blackmon (a white Mississippi Wall Street Journal Reporter, who authored the incredibly well-researched Pulitzer Prize winning book "Slavery by Another Name"), had spend most of his adult life trying to get his hands around.

Blackmon, who entered the Mississippi school system when it was first integrated in the 1970s, and thus was among the first generation of white Mississippians to go from first through twelfth grades in a totally integrated public school system. He, like many of us, had been wondering and worrying out loud about the persistence of the racial divide and about the true cause of the historically dismal blight of black Americans. But very much unlike the rest of us, Blackmon sought to get to the bottom of this problem, and then to do something about it. And what he did was engage in the necessary research to find the answers to that question.

Pursuant to that course of action, he wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, and used the notoriety resulting from it as a platform to try to help fix the problem. That is how he got to query Mr. Holder about what the Obama administration is doing to solve the problem of America's mass incarceration.

Mr. Holder, our first black Attorney General, but who was first appointed by President Ronald Reagan, spent 52 minutes making vague veiled promises, but spent most of that time trying to avoid being tied-down to any specific Obama Administration programs that might be expected to fix the problem. All the programs Mr. Holder alluded to (such as a program to try veterans on a separate track, to make prisoners more aware of how to go about applying for a Presidential pardon, and establishing better banking procedures for states engaged in the legal marijuana business), charitably could be called "small-bore" proposals in the extreme. The bulk of the time was sent on "the Snowden Affair" (in which Holder said there is no change in the USG position) and on "gay Marriage, both of which have little or nothing to do about the qualitatively and quantitatively more serious problem of mass incarceration.

The Problem of Slavery by other means

It must have come as quite a surprise even to Mr. Blackmon when his research revealed, against all conventional wisdom, that the 250 years of slavery was NOT the culprit. That is to say, slavery per se, was not the original American sin responsible for the sorry plight of black people in the U.S. today.

According to Blackmon that ignominious label must be reserved for something much more purposeful and sinister: the consensus taken between white politicians, North and South, to begin the period Southerners have since referred to as "the Redemption." The Redemption was crowned by a consensus that led directly to what Blackmon has deemed "slavery by other means."

What Blackmon found is that it was not the original period of slavery that was the main problem for black Americans today, but the secondary and tertiary "slaveries by other means" that have continued since -- those that have kept cropping up generation after generation. It is these later tranches of secondary slaveries, that have constituted a continuous backdrop of "cycle after cycle of malevolent racist inspired defeat of black people;" of the repeated injuries of them seeing one generation rise above poverty only to be indignantly crushed back down again; and of the impact of repeated tsunamis of violence and waves of incarcerations that continue to obliterate hopes and opportunities, all the while the rest of American society is allowed to march forward and thrive unmolested.

How and when did "slavery by other means" become a fixture of the American socioeconomic and political system?

According to Blackmon, it occurred with the world-class moral betrayal by the North mentioned above: when it agreed to a compromise with the South to end Reconstruction and "leave the Negro problem to the South." That is to say, "slavery by other means" began when the North, winners of the shooting part of the Civil War, and who had successfully presided over a decade of "Reconstruction" (in which "real" democracy, had for the only time in American history, briefly flourished), unconscionably tucked their moral tails and cowed down to the South by joining them in an unholy racist alliance that left freed blacks without land, wealth, education, or even the promised forty acres and a mule -- exposed and vulnerable to the revengeful renegade vigilante Rebels, who had done everything in their power to destroy the Union. Even after having severed the nation in half, causing 650,000 deaths, half of whom were sons of the North, these anarchist Southern losers, were still "smarting" over having lost the shooting war?

Blackmon concludes that this unholy racist 1876 alliance, between North and South, not only reversed the outcome of the war, but also allowed the first cycle of "slavery by other means" to begin. Others cycles would follow into the present, using the same template established in the aftermath of the Civil war: the capricious and arbitrary mass incarceration of freed black men.

What did Blackmon mean by "slavery by other means?"

His book spells it out in graphic terms through the life of a young 21-year old black man named Green Cottenham. Cottenham was arrested one bright sunny day in 1910 for standing in front of the Bus depot in Birmingham, Alabama. By the time the arresting officer got him to the courthouse, he had forgotten why he had arrested Cottenham. And since it did not matter anyway, Cottenham was arraigned for vagrancy. Since he could not make bail, pay the steep fine for loitering, or pay the equally onerous court costs, Cottenham was summarily sentenced to six months at hard labor -- "for being black while standing on the streets of Alabama in broad daylight."

As was a common practice in those days of "prison-work and release programs," debt peonage, sharecropping and the buying and selling of freed black men as slaves, Cottenham was literally "sold to" U.S. Steel as a slave laborer to pay off his trumped-up legal debts. However, since the nominal hourly amount set for his wages was so low, Cottenham's sentence had to be extended to one year at hard labor in the coal mines of the US Steel corporation of Birmingham, Alabama.

And like so many others who were picked up in "Southern re-enslavement dragnets," within six months Green Cottenham was dead from being brutalized and overworked in the coal mines of U.S. Steel, where the working conditions would have embarrassed "Camp 14," of Kim Il Song's prison of North Korea. Green Cottenham's family never knew what had happened to their son, as he was just one among more than two hundred thousand black men summarily swept up off the streets for no good reason other than to return them to "slavery by other means."

Blackmon's book concluded that Northern betrayal in the compromise of 1876, ensured that slavery, such as that practiced by U.S. Steel, many other corporations, and law enforcement departments throughout the South, up until WW-II, ensured that "slavery by other means" would become an established practice in American society. It became the preferred way of dealing with "the Negro problem." in the aftermath of Reconstruction.

Since then, each new cycle of arbitrary mass arrest has been adjusted to suit the social and economic exigencies of the times and thus has rendered the practice of mass incarceration as the continuation of "slavery by other means" -- in perpetuity: Who needs "real slavery" anyway, when we have "arbitrary mass incarceration," which by definition, is just "slavery by other means?"

This, "slavery by other means," was the kind of answer that Mr. Blackmon had been searching for. His Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name, was such a rousing success that in its aftermath he was able to parlay his notoriety into hosting the TV show that I watched, in which Mr. Holder had been invited as a guest.

As noted above, in the interview, the normally articulate Mr. Holder did not acquit himself very well. He "bobbed-and-weaved," backslid, and nervously tap-danced around the questions posed to him. It was rather self-evident to anyone watching the show just why Mr. Holder was so uncomfortable with Mr. Blackmon's very collegial often softball questions: Since Mr. Obama's record involving the further criminalization of black and brown inner city communities generally have been spotty if not an utter failures, Mr. Holder knew that Mr. Blackmon had purposely put the Obama administration on the spot. To his credit, Mr. Blackmon did "not go for the jugular, or in for the kill." There was no need to do that, for it was the Obama administration's policies on this critical issue that had already left Mr. Holder's butt "hanging in the wind."

What seems like a conscious strategy on Mr. Obama's part throughout his tenure to dodge all black and brown issues, and then "lead from behind" with a minimalist strategy whenever he is pushed against the wall, I believe will be the most profound "black mark" on his presidential legacy: Mr. Obama's calculated, conscious and defensive "do nothing attitude" towards blacks and browns on this one issue alone means that, on his watch, Mr. Obama has been guilty of being purposefully neglectful, and thus complicit in continuing and advancing what Mr. Blackmon, a Mississippian, has described as America's original sin of "slavery by other means."

Slavery by other means on Mr. Obama's watch

Fast forward from 1910 Alabama to 2008 during Mr. Obama's first term and the reader will find not only Mr. Blackmon's book, but also that by Rollingstone Reporter Matt Taibi, called "Divide," as well as that by Law Professor, and legal scholar, Michelle Anderson, called "The New Jim Crow" taking the Obama administration to task for willful neglect on this issue.

In her book, Ms. Anderson tells us that what has re-emerged, as the "third rail of American racism version 2.0," on Mr. Obama's watch -- that is, under Mr. Obama's so-called post-racial colorblind society -- is the process of putting as many black and brown men in jail as possible. This insidious retrenchment, which according to her began in the administration of Mr. Obama's political hero, Ronald Reagan, whose "three strikes and you are out" incarceration program, help raise the prison population from 350,000, eight-fold to 2.3 million in less than a generation.

And even though Mr. Holder in his interview claimed that it took the Obama administration one term to get its feet on the ground, to study the problem, build support in Congress, and then to get up a head of steam, we are now well into the waning period of his "lame-duckhood," and still only a few crumbs have "trickled-down" -- or even been tossed over the transom to those black and brown ghetto communities suffering so much from Mr. Obama's political heroes' failed criminalization policies.

Yes, it is clear that Mr. Obama succeeded in getting his healthcare initiative approved, and he did drop the embarrassing 100 to 1 discrepancy in sentencing between powdered cocaine used mostly by whites, and crack cocaine used by blacks down to 17 to 1. But to use Malcolm X's analogy: is that not like pulling a twelve inch knife plunged into one's back out by six inches and calling that progress? How can the moral baby be split in half: If 100 to 1 is wrong, so too is 17 to 1. Is it too much to ask that, under a black president, that the penalties between the races for the same crime be made equal?

Consider the following facts: The U.S. has in its jails one-fourth of all the prisoners in the world. About half of those prisoners are black and brown Americans -- who voted for Mr Obama at the 93% and 62% level or better for his two elections. Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder are bright men, surely they know the kind of devastation these tsunami-like numbers are having directly on viability of ghetto communities in every America inner city, where, in addition to being criminalized at an alarming rate, there still also are no jobs, inferior and profoundly segregated and dilapidated schools are the centerpieces of these cities; and dilapidated infra-structures make them all look like bombed out war structures.

American inner cities are such a colossal embarrassment, that even Republican Paul Ryan has put forth a proposal for their revitalization and programs directed at the poor. But, after six years, where is Mr. Obama on this important issue? Why, in six years we have not heard him even utter the word "poor," or seen him visit a black or brown dominated inner city. Not coincidently, this includes the ghettoes right around the corner from the White House itself in the chocolate city of Washington D.C.?

Finally, Matt Tabbi reports in a third book called "Divide" that in New York City, 600,000 mostly black and brown young men, yearly are radioed-in by police spotters (from pre-positioned paddy wagons) every night. After which, they are then routinely rounded-up like so many cattle, arrested on suspicion of a whole suite of "trumped up near-crimes" that, like the vagrancy charge against Green Cottenham in 1910 Alabama, applies only to ghetto residents.

These "near-crimes" vary from vagrancy, to jaywalking, to littering, to "suspicion of jumping turnstiles," suspicion of "peeing on the sidewalks," suspicion of sleeping on, drinking beer on, or occupying two seats on a subway car, smoking a joint after work, paying for, or soliciting sex, riding a bike on the sidewalks, suspicion of buying or selling marijuana, selling toys on the street without a license, suspicion of prostitution (or wearing hot pants on the streets at night), carrying an open container of alcohol on the streets, disorderly conduct, refusing a lawful order to disperse, obstructing government administration, loitering, vagrancy, (and my favorite), "obstructing pedestrian traffic" (which is to say, being black on any given night).
Like Green Cottenham in Mr. Blackmon's book a century earlier, these mostly poor black and brown people of our most liberal Northern city, New York City, who are picked-up in this unholy extra-legal dragnet, are faced with the hardships of having to arrange bail money, get to court, get babysitters, hire lawyers, and pay the onerous court costs of $250 whether or not they are found guilty (and 95% are never found guilty of anything). But even then most are forced to "plead-out," or be forced to spend as much as a year in jail, or going back and forth to court. And having to "plead-out" is the same as having to admit guilt and thus incur a police record for life. And we all know what incurring a police record means in the American inner city ghetto: In many states it means disenfranchisement, but it also means that the individual will then be ineligible for a whole host of other lifesaving benefits, such as healthcare, public housing, being unable to qualify for food stamps, etc.

In several states, including the notorious crime-busting law-and-order state of Texas, where Comedian Ron White brags that they have opened up an express lane to send to the front of the line all people on death row, saner heads have prevailed and "taken the lead" to do something about the continued over-crowding of jails and prisons, and thus are attempting to stem the tide of the further criminalization of black and brown communities.

For sure this new awareness, has come as a result of realizing that a disproportionate amount of the state's budgets and tax revenues have been going to support and maintain prisons and prisoners. Yet, even so, these State Representatives and Governors have taken the initiative and left Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder in the dust, looking perplexed? Even Newt Gingrich has called for zero prison growth. Plus in addition, since Texas, broke the ice, now California, Connecticut, Washington, Oregon, Oklahoma, Nevada, Arizona, Florida and Utah, all have proposals on the table to do something about this issue. So is it unfair to ask: Where is Mr. Obama on this issue? And why has he not been leading on it? Why was Mr. Holder tongue-tied when Mr. Blackmon raised the issue in the TV interview?

One would have thought that all this activity at the state level would have been a huge hint, a signal, or wake-up call to Mr. Obama, that now might just be the right time for him to take a (safe but still courageous) "lead from behind" stand and use his "bully pulpit" to support those who voted for him at the rate of 93% and 62% respectively?

But no, that is not what Mr. Holder had to say in his rather nervous interview on PBS. He quickly turned the discussion away from the embarrassing rise in America's prison population and its devastating further criminalization of ghetto communities, to the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and pending petitions on gay Marriage?

And while I do not want to be caught being guilty of further Balkanizing the Democratic Party, I must say that "legalizing marijuana" and "gay marriage petitions" are neither qualitatively nor quantitatively in the same ball park as having our jails so overcrowded that some of our most conservative states are now seriously considering turning felons loose on the streets?

Where is Mr. Obama's leadership on this issue? Why has Mr. Holder been tap-dancing and obfuscating, when the political stars in our bipartisan gridlocked politics are finally properly aligned for a robust initiative on this most important of issues? Plus, is Mr. Obama's legacy not seriously in jeopardy unless he acts on this issue before his term is complete?

 

Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
 

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