Could Obama Be Doing More for Black Americans?

The NAACP president gives the president “wide latitude,” but wishes Obama would focus more on one issue: criminal justice reform.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What has impressed and disappointed you most about Obama?

Ben Jealous: You know, I give the President wide latitude in his first year.  There are things that, like the Iraq War that our membership would like to see ended more quickly.  But we understand that this is a President who came into office in the midst of a rapidly expanding recession, two wars, and we have a lot of faith that he is not just doing the best he can, he is doing the best that can be done.  I'm very excited by the quick passage of the stimulus bill last year which included a lot of money for restoring school which had been rotting in this country for decades and create 2.5 million jobs in a time when, man, we needed jobs to be created.  I'm very excited about the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act being passed, which is a bill that made it possible for women to really know that if they had been discriminated in the workplace they were going to get their day in court and be treated fairly.  We are very excited about the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd bill being passed and more importantly, about the civil rights infrastructure being rebuilt.  And I think part of our patience -- it's been misinterpreted, I think, the patience of black people and civil rights leaders at this moment.  Part of our patience comes because we're more aware than most just how much damage was done by the Bush Administration to the federal government's ability to enforce civil rights.  And so we've been celebrating people of good conscience being hired into key positions for the last year and a half.  Now the bar raises because the people are in position, or if the Senate is holding up their nomination, well it's just clear and we got to get on with it.  And we're starting to see good signs. 

Secretary Duncan came out the other day and made a very unequivocal commitment to ensuring that racial re-segregation, racial discrimination, the mistreatment of poor children en masse in American schools, discrimination against people who are learning English for the first time would be treated -- would be a top priority.  And that actions would be taken forthwith, and as we speak, they're launching a major investigation in Los Angeles, for instance. 

So, we have seen great progress, we have reason to be hopeful and as we're patient because we knew that, if you will, the starting line for him was probably a hundred yards back from where it should have been, and literally between when he won in November and when he started in January, the direction of the economy meant that the track was all of a sudden uphill.

Question: What’s the most important thing Obama could do for black Americans that he hasn’t done yet?

Ben Jealous: The biggest piece of the agenda that doesn't seem to be really even on the radar screen is serious criminal justice reform, serious criminal justice reform.  Black people are 15% of crack users in this country.  We use crack like every other group at about direct correlation with our percentage of the population.  White people are 65% of the crack users in this country.  White people are 5% of the people locked up for using crack, black people are 85% of the people locked up for using crack.  Yeah, that issue, he was very clear when he was campaigning was -- that that disparity was unacceptable and the disparity that compounds it, which is that the punishments for using crack are 100 times stiffer than for using powder, even though it's the same drug as cocaine. 

So, we would like to see him speak out on criminal justice issues.  We would like to see him really push, really support -- signal support for Jim Webb's bill to for the country to just take a look because he knows.  He knows as somebody who has taught constitutional law, who represented the south side of Chicago, who pushed through powerful law enforcement accountability bills when he was in the state Senate in a state where people were tortured with impunity up until 10 years ago.  And so we would like to hear and see more there.  We have faith that it's coming.  His appointment of Eric Holder as our top law enforcement official was genius and that's somebody who gets it.  And Eric and the President, people who are capable of explaining to the country that this is about justice for all of us. 

In the last decade, I guess the good news, if you will, is that black drug arrests were down 20%.  The other news is that white drug arrests, the bad news, were up 40%.  The war on crystal meth that we are seeing right now, if you look at the footage, which is typically poor white people being locked up, engaged with the police and locked up.  It's literally a film negative.  It's just like it's flipped from what we saw on the war on crack 20 years ago in poor black people.  That's not progress.  That's not progress for this country.  And we need a President and the Attorney General to be even more clear than they have been, that this country needs to move forward with its criminal justice policies towards a place that makes all of our children safer and not continue with the past set by people like Richard Nixon and George Wallace 40 years ago.  Barry Goldwater 40 years.  Really, we're going by the Barry Goldwater/Richard Nixon playbook and it's not serving our country well.

Recorded March 10th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen