Throughout his presidency, the Black community has faulted President Barack Obama for his lack of involvement in the Black community. Dr. Cornel West said Obama is “the first black president [to] become the first niggerized black president… A niggerized black person is a black person who is afraid, and scared and intimidated when it comes to putting a spotlight on white supremacy and fighting against white supremacy.”
This is an acceptable accusation as the surge of blacks being murdered by law enforcement increases and we continually see the system abusing its power and incarcerating our men. In reality, however, most federal decisions that hold police authority accountable aren’t solely made by the president; they must go through Congress first. With the recent “Ban the Box” campaign, the black community should be thankful for the president’s attempt to make a change during his last days in office. Better late than never.
Over the summer, Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison to help bring attention his prison reform agenda. “Ban the Box” is a pledge to do more to address the problems of mass incarceration, police brutality and mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders. Obama has announced other initiatives to improve the rehabilitation and re-entry of former inmates into society, including education, housing grants, and partnerships that would provide jobs and training in technology.
During his trip to El Reno Federal Prison in Oklahoma in July, Shane Smith, co-founder and CEO of VICE revealed the statistics of how federal mandatory minimum laws have disproportionately hurt poor and minority communities. One in three black men will spend time in prison while only one in 17 white men will. Smith asked Obama in the September interview, “is the criminal justice system in America racist?”
In response, Obama discussed the implications of a racist justice system on society. “I think the criminal justice system interacts with broader patterns of society in a way that results in injustice and unfairness,” Obama said. “The system, every study has shown, is biased somewhere institutionally in such a way where an African-American youth is more likely to be suspended from school than a white youth for engaging in the same disruptive behavior, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, more likely to be prosecuted aggressively, more likely to get a stiffer sentence.”
Bobby Reed, a first time offender with a life sentence and no parole said in an interview with VICE, “Good people make bad decisions, but you shouldn’t be punished for it for life.”
The government should not fault people for their mistakes so harshly. They are simply a product of their environment and when all they know is poverty and struggle, it is incredibly easy to get caught up in the system. When the system is forcing you into a category, it is hard to escape. You need the opportunity to escape before you can make a change.
When someone becomes a convicted felon, the system denies you a job, denies you money, and denies you food stamps, housing, education, and the right to vote. They deny you every opportunity to improve your life and make a change for yourself by punishing you for life whether behind bars or back on the streets. United States citizens do not exist under “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That is a lie and hypocritical. The system is designed for us to fail.
In attempt to combat this failing system Obama said, “Let’s follow the growing number of our states, and cities, and private companies who’ve decided to ban the box on job applications so that former prisoners who have done their time and are now trying to get straight with society have a decent shot in a job interview.”
Without actions like this, the cycle of stereotypes will continue. When men are forced to spend years behind bars it not only affects them, but their families and children as well. Years of their life get taken away and they become even less of a “human” in the eyes of society.
I have witnessed the type of growth and change a person can experience and it does not take five, ten, or a life sentence for a person to learn their lesson — especially for something as minor as a nonviolent drug offense or theft. It takes one humbling moment to realize life is too precious to waste behind bars — especially when you have someone to live for.
Obama’s “Ban the Box” is an effort to allow a conversation between employers and job seekers before they disclose past history. It gives them a chance to make an impression before being judged for past mistakes. Go to changeofcolor.org to sign the petition to urge President Obama to implement a federal-level reform for the criminal justice system without Congress.
Opinion Editor, Monica Houston
Monica is a transfer student from Norfolk State University studying English. Her dog, Furby, is an in-office celebrity and frequently attends production and meetings with Monica.