“Thousands of inmates, mostly black, languish in prison under the old, discredited ratio. Like slavery and Jim Crow laws, the intentional maintenance of discriminatory sentences is a denial of equal protection.” – Sixth District Court of Appeals
Mass incarceration was the mechanism used to put black people back in their place after the civil rights movement. It was a perfect means of turning back the clock and diminishing or destroying the citizenship rights which were won after years of struggle. The war on drugs was the pretext for carrying out this plan and the hysteria fomented against crack cocaine created popular demand for draconian law enforcement measures. The United States then became the imprisonment capital of the world with black people paying a disproportionate price.
Under the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, the federal government officially established that one form of a drug would by statute be treated with greater severity than another form, a 100:1 degree of severity. For sentencing purposes, one gram of crack cocaine was treated like 100 grams of powdered cocaine and thereby established harsh mandatory minimum sentences in federal courts.
Those disparities were opposed from the very beginning by astute lawyers, civil libertarians and anyone savvy about the role that the criminal justice system has always played in imposing the harshest treatments on black people. Years of agitation brought relief in 2010 when Congress passed and President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act. The sentencing disparity didn’t end however, it was merely reduced. The ratio went from 100:1 to 18:1. The legislation should have been called the Not Quite So Unfair Sentencing Act.
The 100:1 disparity existed for some 20 years before it was addressed and didn’t undo the damage of two decades. What would happen to those who were sentenced between 1986 and 2010? According to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, those persons ought to have the opportunity for retroactive redress. This court noted that between 1988 and 1995 in seventeen states which included large cities such as Boston, Denver, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas, not one white person was tried under federal regulations for a crack cocaine related offense. In US v Blewett it ruled that the Fair Sentencing Act “should apply to all defendants, including those sentenced prior to its passage.” The court’s decision sounds reasonable and fair, but not to the Obama justice department, which is seeking to overturn the ruling. In other words, the Obama administration is leaving 5,000 people in jail who have no reason to be there and they are doing it for the most cynical of motives.
The Obama apologists have ready-made excuses for any and all acts of evil-doing perpetrated by this administration. One of the favorite enabler rationales is that he isn’t just the president for black people, but for everyone. True, but he seems to never be the president for black people. We have no political victories to point to, no reason for happiness except outdated notions of race pride.
It is clear that Obama has chosen to side with white America against black America. There is no other explanation. He is a lame duck and no longer has to worry about re-election. He had a court decision which he could support and which gave him an easy out.
But there is no easy out when it comes to black people, criminal justice issues and the Obama administration. It seems that the protest slogans are true. We are all Trayvon Martin and must be prepared to face attack and even death and have no expectation of redress from the federal government. We are all Bradley Manning and must be willing to risk being hit with the sledge hammer of federal prosecution for any offense.
We are still being told that the term limited president can’t risk being identified with his most loyal supporters. White people must win, black people must lose and black people should just keep quiet about it all.
Of course the president notoriously parsimonious with pardons and commutations could change this situation with the stroke of a pen. He could commute the sentences of the 5,000 people still in federal prisons who were sentenced under the old rules. That will never happen and the unlucky people sentenced just weeks before the 2010 act was signed, are just victims of a “cosmic roll of the dice.”
The hollowness of Obama mania has never been more clear cut than in this instance. When he first campaigned for the presidency in 2008 detractors were urged to be quiet and let him win because his feet could be held to the fire. No such flames were ever lit, and the Obamaphiles maligned anyone who didn’t go along with their cultish fixation.
The constitutional law professor president doesn’t care much about the constitution nor does the technically black man care about black people. The president is just the latest ambitious man who was able to make the right sales pitch to the right people and ended up becoming president as a result. There certainly isn’t any change for the people he could help but has chosen not to.
* Editor and columnist Margaret Kimberley's Freedom Rider column appears weekly in Black Agenda Report, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at http://freedomrider.blogspot.com