Posing as the Great Emancipator: Obama’s Prison-Posturing is Nothing New

Barack Obama is a model and epitome of the triumph of symbol over substance. Take his great show of concern last month for the sickening national crime and embarrassment that is the United States’ shockingly high rate of racially disparate mass imprisonment. Beneath the praise and fanfare this performance evoked, what has the President actually done for the nation’s vast army of Black prisoners and marked-for-life felons? Two years and seven months into his second presidential term, Obama became the first U.S. president to set foot in a federal U.S. prison. He went to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP) to proclaim his purported recent discoveries that “mass incarceration makes our country worse and [that] we need to do something about it.”

He commuted the sentences of 46 federally imprisoned nonviolent drug offenders, eight of whom had been convicted for possession of crack cocaine. He expressed dismay that 80,000 U.S. prisoners (including 5 percent of all federal prisoners) are held in the torture of solitary confinement, many of them for decades. Pronouncing this not a “smart” practice, he told his Justice Department to conduct a study on how to reduce the horror of solitary confinement in America’s giant mass incarceration system and racist holding pens.

It’s a classic case of too little, too late. As the veteran Black Left commentator Glen Ford notes, “If Obama had launched his reviews of solitary confinement and other U.S. criminal justice atrocities during his first term in office, then, theoretically, tens of thousands of inmates might have been spared millions of collective days and nights of isolation and psychological torture. But, Obama will have less than a year left in office when his new study is completed.” Two years ago, Ford writes, Obama’s Justice Department successfully argued against the release of prisoners convicted under the notoriously racist 100-to-1 crack-to-power cocaine sentencing laws. Thousands of people, most of them Black, continued to waste away behind bars, thanks to Obama. Now, however, the president is hailed for showing the mercy to free two thirds of a dozen of those inmates.

There’s nothing like a study or a blue ribbon commission to make it seem like you are getting something done when you are really just kicking the con – I mean the can – down the road.

What’s behind Obama’s supposed late-presidency epiphany on the evil of racially biased mass imprisonment? What drove the president’s “sudden desire to look like the Great Emancipator” (Margaret Kimberly, emphasis added) – this even while he offers close to nothing in the way of actual liberation and after six and a half years of making no serious efforts to dismantle the nation’s giant, global unmatched, and deeply racist mass incarceration system? The indispensable Ford explains it very well:

“The president waited until the second half of his second term in office – and the rise of an incipient mass protest movement – before experiencing his epiphany on mass incarceration. So-called prison reform is now a thoroughly bipartisan affair. Republicans have harbored a strain of prison reformism ever since many of Richard Nixon’s men found themselves behind bars in the aftermath of Watergate, and even the rabidly reactionary Koch brothers are funding prison reform. The legislatures of at least 15 states have either passed, or are debating, ways to limit solitary confinement. And Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a crucial swing vote on the high court, has all but invited prison reform groups to challenge solitary confinement on Constitutional grounds. So, although Obama is the first serving president to actually set foot in a prison, he is moving in politically safe territory…However, don’t expect anything other than cynical theatricality and double-dealing from this president. When it comes to the criminal justice system, Obama is a consummate trickster.”

On this issue on so many others, the president is “a master of appearing to do what he doesn’t do” (Kimberly). Beneath symbolism – setting foot in a prison, applauding the take-down of the Confederate Flag, public anger at the police treatment of the bourgeois professor Henry Louis Gates, a claim to look like Trayvon Martin – there’s no seriously anti-racist or social justice substance in Obama’s presidency. Mass incarceration may have plateaued for systemic reasons in the Age of Obama, but if it ever declines significantly it will do so in spite of his criminal justice con-game.

Obama’s Con Game in Chicago and Springfield (2002-2004)

It’s all as predicted by some of us who knew the Obama phenomenon in its Chicago and Illinois years, before the national and global version that went public at the Democratic National Convention eleven years ago.

I can be forgiven, perhaps, for not being terribly excited or impressed when Obama visited a federal prison and made his supposed recent discovery of the problem of the racist mass confinement and torture of Black Americans. And for not being surprised that his actions claiming to address the problem don’t amount to very much. In the fall of 2002, I published (in my role as the director of the once-respectable research department of the Chicago Urban League) a study documenting the remarkable extent to which city, county, and state authorities in and around Chicago were exacerbating black social and economic disadvantage by saddling an astonishing number of African Americans with prison histories and the lifelong mark of a criminal record. Among my findings:

(1) there were nearly 20,000 more black males in the Illinois state prison system than enrolled in the state’s public universities in the 2001-2002 school year;

(2) Chicago area black male ex-felons were equivalent in number to 42 percent of the metropolitan region’s Black male workforce;

(3) ten very predominantly black Chicago zip codes received 25 percent of Illinois prisoners released in the years 2000, 2001, and 2002;

(4) the chance of securing legitimate employment decreased significantly with prison time and ex-prisoners suffer a lifetime “wage penalty” (earnings reduction) as high as 30 percent;

(5) the massive –over-incarceration of Blacks in Illinois was the outcome of a “War on Drugs” that was really a prolonged assault on deeply impoverished Black communities and was waged in profoundly discriminatory and racist biased ways;

(6) Black urban prisoners and felons (many of whom recycled between the state’s poorest neighborhoods and its many “downstate” prisons) were functioning as both an economic and a political raw material for one of rural white Illinois’ only “job-creating” “growth industries”: the prison-industrial complex.

The study, titled The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Community and Jobs (Chicago Urban League, 2002) was released at a day-long conference in October of 2002 on the South Side of Chicago. It was a major event on a racial justice and economic development issue that had long escaped adequate attention. And who was the keynote speaker (selected by the Urban League)? State senator Barack Obama, who orated with outward passion and knowledge about “excessive mass incarceration” and excessive felony marking’s horrific social and economic impact on Black Chicago, Black Illinois, and Black America. Obama called for policies to roll back racially disparate hyper-imprisonment and to give Black and other “ex-offender” a legitimate second chance to make their way and meaningfully reintegrate society within and beyond Illinois. Make no mistake: the president was fully up on the facts of the U.S. racist prison state in the fall of 2002.

The Vicious Circle (an inspiration for Ohio State law professor’s widely read book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness) became part of the arsenal used by activists to push for two state bills meant to ease ex-offender employment barriers in Illinois. The first bill, sponsored by the genuinely progressive Chicago-based state representative Constance Howard (the 2003 Ex-offender Expungement and Sealing Act ) permitted the “sealing” (from review by employers and the public) of criminal records for Illinois ex-prisoners – four years after their release – who had been convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors and certain low-level Class 4 felonies (minor drug possession and prostitution). The act also allowed the expungement (the actual destruction) of all records – with 2 to 3 year waiting periods depending on the offense – for a small number of minor criminal cases, including arrests that did not result in a conviction and first-time possession of marijuana.

The second bill, sponsored by the fake-progressive Obama mandated the issuing of “Certificates of Relief from Disability” [CRDs] by the Illinois Department of Correction’s Prisoner Review Board to certain ex-offenders. Modeled weakly on a much stronger law in New York, the legislation originally permitted a first “offender” who had been convicted of no more than one non-violent felony to apply to the courts or to the Prisoner Review Board to receive a Certificate purportedly entitling them not to be denied an occupational or professional license in fifteen (subsequently expanded to twenty-eight) specified and mostly skilled employment fields because of a previous conviction.

These progressive-sounding bills meant little in reality. They were more about symbol than substance. By my best estimates in a 2006 program evaluation conducted for the Chicago-based advocacy organization Protestants for the Common Good (PCG, headed by a strong Obama supporter), all but a small portion of Illinois prison inmates – probably no more than 5 percent – were ineligible for records sealing, much less expungement, under Rep. Howard’s law. It didn’t help that, as the New York Times reported in the fall of 2006, employers enjoy widespread access to private criminal history databases that commonly omit expungements.

Obama’s bill – subsequently expanded to include second-time nonviolent offenders – cast a slightly wider net over the prisoner and ex-offender community. Given the remarkable recidivism that characterizes the inmate population and the large percentage of inmates serving time for technically violent offenses, however, the margin of difference was not terribly great. At the same time, Obama’s bill did nothing about the persistently high de facto barriers to ex-offender employment in Illinois. It contained no capacity to compel occupational licensure, much less actual employment, of qualified ex-offender applicants. It covered only a very small percentage of mostly skilled occupations beyond the reach of the ex-offender population regardless of explicit and/or de facto barriers to the training and/or hiring of people with criminal records.

The conclusions of a 2006 PCG test-project seeking to evaluate the Obama bill’s outcomes and relevance were less than inspiring. PCG found that the legislation, “while well-intended,” had “very limited applicability as currently drafted. The number of ex-offenders” who were assisted in any meaningful way, was “small indeed.”

Obama’s legislation anticipated a key warning made two years later by leading national prisoner reentry expert Jeremy Travis in his award-winning 2006 study But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry. (Urban Institute, 2005). “The risk at this juncture,” Travis warned about a recent upsurge in ex-offender reintegration policies, “is the allure of success …We must not confuse superficial reforms with profound changes.” Highly advertised small changes can work against real and substantive change. By “the allure of success,” Travis meant at least in part the thirst of legislators to pad their resumes with progressive-sounding policy-changes that actually did very little for the nation’s vast and disproportionately black army of prisoners and felons.

In reality, Obama’s legislation was not “well-intended.” Insiders told me it was deliberately “watered down” under the influence of powerful conservative players (including the leading corporate-neoliberal downtown Chicago organization Metropolis 2020 and the state-prison-affiliated Safer Foundation) and in order for the ambitious Obama to avoid an unpleasant “floor fight” with reactionary “downstate” legislators who enjoyed fiscal and legislative-apportionment windfalls accruing to their districts from racially disparate mass incarceration. Obama wanted to “get something done” largely for his political and policy resume, regardless of his bill’s consequences for the (ex-offender) population in question. It was one of many ways in which the deeply conservative Obama’s Republican-friendly record in the Illinois legislature was far less liberal and progressive than his subsequent liberal and progressive fans imagined.

This is one of many reasons (the biggest ones are systemic and institutional) why I – virtually alone (I find this very telling) among a group of 40 or left progressives called together to discuss the prospects of a Bernie Sanders presidential run in Iowa last fall – have never felt the slightest bit of “surprise” or “disappointment” about the conservative and neoliberal nature of the Obama presidency.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).