In certain quarters, euphoria greeted Barack Obama's inauguration. Finally America had its post-partisan prince, an elegant figure, full of hope, who would redefine Washington and reclaim America's promise. A year later, Obama's pledge to rein in well-heeled power players lies in shambles—with a strong assist from a Supreme Court inclined to let big money have its say. And post-partisanship seems similarly out of reach, particularly for this president, whose vision most Republicans don't share and whose approval numbers, says Gallup, are the most politically polarized of any first-year president.
No mortal, of course, could have transformed American society in one year—especially with the U.S. economy weathering its worst crisis in nearly a century. It was inevitable that Obama would scale back his ambitions for health-care reform and focus more on propping up banks than on creating new green jobs. Now is probably not the best time to suggest another big—and potentially unpopular—policy battle. Yet, I still find myself wishing that Obama could throw the full weight of his office behind one of the most unacknowledged, and yet most important, issues of this era: repairing the American system of justice.
In a Parade magazine article last year, Sen. James Webb noted that the United States houses one fourth of the world's prisoners. "With so many of our citizens in prison ... there are only two possibilities," he observed. "Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something ... vastly counterproductive." Webb, a former Marine, is pushing to establish a blue-ribbon commission to look into reforming the system—the first such body since 1965, when America had one seventh the current number of prisoners.
Webb once defended a former Marine unjustly convicted of murder in Vietnam. The man took his own life. "I cleared his name three years later," said Webb, "but having become painfully aware of how sometimes inequities infect our process." Those, unfortunately, include racial inequities. Even allowing for differences in crimes among various groups, blacks and Latinos are disproportionately carted off to prison. They make up two thirds of those jailed for drug offenses, even though drug abuse does not differ greatly across races.
In The New Jim Crow, Ohio State law professor Michelle Alexander argues that mass incarceration has become the state's method for repressing an entire generation of African-Americans. Ultimately, she overreaches. Mass imprisonment is not really analogous to Jim Crow. Nor are the majority of young black men in large American cities "under the control of the criminal-justice system." But Alexander is absolutely right to fight for what she describes as a "much needed conversation" about the wide-ranging social costs and divisive racial impact of our criminal-justice policies.
The Obama administration is clearly aware of the issue. The Justice Department has taken aim at the disparity in crack- and cocaine-sentencing practices that have disproportionately hit black men. "We know that even as we imprison more people of all races than any nation in the world, an African-American child is roughly five times as likely as a white child to see the inside of a jail," Obama told the NAACP last year.
The subject deserves presidential attention. But to tackle it requires a willingness to risk being tarred as soft on crime. That's an especially difficult issue for a black president: for Obama to speak the simple truth—that our incarceration practices are expensive, ineffective, and border on insanity—would open him up to the charge of pandering to minorities. We saw that a few months back when Obama initially sided with black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., whom a white cop had arrested for breaking into his own home. The president's relatively mild statement—that the cop had acted "stupidly"—drew so much fire he had to backpedal. Precisely because of his race, this president must walk on eggshells when approaching a racially charged subject. Much safer to talk about deficits and jobs.
Given that, now (as midterm panic has broken out in Democratic quarters in the wake of the Massachusetts Senate defeat) may not be the best moment for Obama to tackle the matter head-on. But at some point any president aiming for greatness must grapple with a set of policies that have forced us to build prisons instead of schools. And ultimately even the most hardheaded critics must concede that rethinking a failed policy is not weakness but the only wise way to proceed.
Ellis Cose is also the author of Bone to Pick: Of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Reparation, and Revenge and The Envy of the World: On Being a Black Man in America.