Pubdate: Wed, 9 Jul 2008
Source: Hudson Valley Press, The (NY)
Copyright: 2008 The Hudson Valley Press
Author: Dr. Manning Marble
Bookmark: (Rockefeller Drug Laws)


Several years ago I was walking home to my Manhattan apartment from
Columbia University, just having delivered a lecture on New York
state's notorious "Rockefeller Drug Laws." The state's
mandatory-minimum sentencing laws had thrown tens of thousands of
nonviolent drug offenders into state prisons with violent convicts. In
my lecture I had called for more generous prisoner reentry programs,
the restoration of felons' voting rights, increased educational
programs inside prisons, and a restoration of judges' sentencing authority.

A white administrator from another local university, a woman, who I
had always judged to be fairly conservative and probably a Republican,
had attended my lecture and was walking along with me to go to the
subway. She told me that my lecture about the "prison industrial
complex" had been a real "eye opener." The fact that two million
Americans were imprisoned, she expressed, was a "real scandal."

Then this college administrator blurted out, in a hurried manner, "You
know, my son is also in prison ... a victim of the drug laws."

In a split second, I had to make a hard decision: whether to engage
this white conservative administrator in a serious conversation about
America's gulags and political economy of mass incarceration that had
collaterally ensnared her son, or whether to pretend that I had not
heard her last sentence, and to continue our conversation as if she
had said nothing at all. Perhaps this is a sign of generational
weakness on my part, but the overwhelming feeling I had at that
precise moment was that, one day, the white administrator would deeply
regret revealing such an intimate secret with a black person. I might
tell the entire world about it. Instead of proceeding on the basis of
mutual trust and common ground, transcending the boundaries of color,
it would be better to ignore what was said in haste.

All of this occurred to me in the span of one heartbeat. I decided to
say nothing. Two seconds later, I could visually detect the signs of
relief on the woman's face. African-Americans have survived in the
United States for over four hundred years because, at least up to the
most recent generation of black people, we have made it our business
to study white Americans generally, and especially those who exercise
power. This explains why so many African-Americans at the very core of
their being, express fears that millions of white Americans will be
unable to cast ballots for Obama for president solely due to his
racial identity. Of course, the majority of them would deny this, even
to themselves.

Among the remaining Democratic presidential candidates, former Senator
John Edwards has been consistently the most progressive on most policy
issues, in my view. On issues such as health care and poverty, Edwards
has been clearly to the left of both Obama and Hillary Clinton. But
since Edwards probably cannot win the Democratic nomination the real
choice is between Clinton and Obama.

We've all heard the arguments explaining why Obama's "not qualified"
to be president. Chief among them is that he "doesn't have enough
experience in government." As a historian, I think it may be
instructive to observe that three of the twentieth century's most
influential presidents had shorter careers in electoral politics than
Obama. Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, served as New York's governor
for only two years, and was William McKinley's Vice President for
barely six months. Woodrow Wilson served as New Jersey's governor for
only two years before being elected president. And Franklin D.
Roosevelt, our only four-term president, had served in Albany as New
York's governor for four years. None of these leaders was ever elected
to Congress.

Obama's seven years in the Illinois State Senate, according to the New
York Times' Nicholas Kristof, show that "he scored significant
achievements there: a law to videotape police interrogations in
capital cases; an earned income tax credit to fight poverty; an
expansion of early childhood education." To be perfectly honest, there
are some public policy issues where I sharply disagree with Obama,
such as health care. Obama's approach is not to use "mandates" to
force millions of healthy twenty-somethings into the national health
insurance pool. He claims that you won't need mandates, just lower the
price of private health insurance and young adults will buy it on
their own. Obama's children are still small, so maybe he can be
excused for such an irrational argument. Obama's reluctance to embrace
health mandates is about his desire to appeal to "centrists" and
moderate Republicans.

That brings us back to Barack's unspoken problem: white denial and
voter flight. It's instructive to remember what happened to David
Dinkins, the first (and still only) African-American elected mayor of
New York City. According to Andrew Kohul, the current president of the
Pew Research Center, the Gallup organization's polling research on New
York City's voters in 1989 indicated that Dinkins would defeat his
Republican opponent, Rudolph Giuliani, by 15 percent. Instead, Dinkins
only narrowly won by 2 percent. Kohul, who worked as a Gallup pollster
in that election, concluded that "poorer, less well-educated [white]
voters were less likely to answer our questions;" so the poll didn't
have the opportunity to factor in their views. As Kohul admits,
"Here's the problem - these whites who do not respond to surveys tend
to have more unfavorable views of blacks than respondents who do the

So I return to the white college administrator whose son is in prison
on drug charges. I made a mistake. People of color must break through
the mental racial barricades that divide America into parallel racial
universes. We need to mobilize and support the election of Barack
Obama not only because he is progressive and fully qualified to be
president, but also because only his campaign can force all Americans
to overcome the centuries-old silences about race that still create a
deep chasm across this nation's democratic life. In the end, we must
force our fellow citizens who happen to be white, to come to terms
with their own whiteness, their guilt and fears about America's
terrible racial past.

If there is any hope for meaningful change inside U.S. electoral
system in the future, it lies with progressive leaders like Barack
Obama. If we can dare to dream politically, let us dream of the world
as it should be. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake