When I vote in the next presidential election, the candidate’s rhetoric will mean less to me than what the person proposes to do about the mass incarceration of black and brown people.
There is no doubt that the presidency of Barrack Obama has impacted my mental space more than any other of my lifetime. One day I was contemplating the way I had grown accustomed to describing my profession to people, and I remembered reading somewhere that pre-White House POTUS chose not to think of himself as a politician, but as a social activist. I took it as a lesson that how I define myself is more important than any title. I don’t know how true this is (title v. self definition or if POTUS ever didn’t claim politician), but in these years of his presidency I have been reminded, often disappointingly, that he is undoubtedly a politician.
Nonetheless, I find that as his presidency ends I can’t help but be struck by the fact that as this grandiose chapter of his political career draws to a close, we may witness a bit of the social activism I had in mind when I twice entered a voting booth to experience the rare feeling of voting someone into office that one actually believes in.
I recently began reading and reviewing submissions from incarcerated people from around the country for a radio program that seeks to give voice to incarcerated people in their own words. Weekly, I read the responses of incarcerated people to questions that ask them to discuss a wide range of topics like prison programs and the role that environment plays in a life of criminality. Week after week, I am awed by the numerous articulate responses. I am angered by the prison conditions they describe. I am humbled by their stories of being raised in impoverished homes and neighborhoods. But most of all, I am inspired by the resilience that I am allowed to witness through their words.
As a child growing up in an insulated suburban-esque neighborhood in South Carolina, largely shielded from the problems of urban communities in the country, even I could not be completely protected from the pain of incarceration when families close to mine lost their sons to prison. Though my parents had chosen a mixed race, middle class neighborhood fitting of their socio-economic status to raise their family of six children, we could not be completely shielded from criminal activity when in ’96 some of our family friends were involved (however peripherally) in the hold up of a gas station and the subsequent murder of the owner. When I think of that incident now as an adult, I mark it as one of the defining moments of lost innocence of my childhood.
What is it to say that a black child growing up in a middle class neighborhood, in a home doggedly sheltered by religious belief could still be exposed to the incarceration of young men close to her? If even I, who had the privilege of two working, present, college educated parents could still know what it was like to know families torn apart by incarceration, decimated by drug abuse, and undermined by unfair sentencing, what could it possibly mean for black people living in urban environments without similar advantage?
The incarceration of a close family friend who was months away from high school graduation, a young cousin’s boyfriend while she was pregnant with his child, and a vague memory of a first cousin who was locked up somewhere, are small details of my life growing up that have only come to the fore as I increasingly look deeper into the problems associated with mass incarceration. I had not given these moments much thought until I began reading the stories of incarcerated people written in their own words.
Having thought of Obama once calling himself a social activist rather than a politician and wondering over the years whether the activist was dying at the hands of the politician, I am reticent to say that the interviews he has recently conducted with David Attenborough and David Simon to speak about the environmental issue of climate change and the social issue of mass incarceration have given me a sense of optimism.
A president who seeks to directly address how we treat incarcerated people, have an honest conversation about sentencing, and bring it to the fore of a political dialogue that will undoubtedly impact the upcoming election, gives me a sense of relief. What else can a man nearing the end of his presidency do besides open the door for discussion to ensure that voters who care about an issue have it on their minds when they cast their vote? Indeed, sometimes opening the door to conversation, reminding people of the issues that are of concern, but that may have slipped between the cracks of quotidian concerns, can be a proper wake up call.
This is to say nothing of the incarcerated people and their families who will be directly affected by Obama’s measures. Obama is doing more than just talking. Next week, he will visit El Reno Federal Prison in Oklahoma, becoming the first seated president to visit a federal prison. More notably, he is commutating sentences of hundreds of non-violent offenders, offering more clemencies than any president since Gerald Ford.
I’d also love for the US government to stop flying drones over civilians in Iraq and Syria, to use the massive funds that support such practices to invest in effective rehabilitative and educational programming for people serving time and also post incarceration. But I suppose prisons exist in many a varied form and Barack Obama may have spent nearly eight years in one of the trickiest—the prison of the American presidency.