Janell Ross of The Washington Post says, ‘the Black President Some Worried About (or Hoped For) Has Arrived’

© Carolyn Kaster, file President Barack Obama speaks during services honoring the life of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Friday, June 26, 2015, in Charleston, S.C.
© Carolyn Kaster, file President Barack Obama speaks during services honoring the life of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Friday, June 26, 2015, in Charleston, S.C.

There’s this thing people sometimes say down South. 

So-and-so is “acting brand new.” Sometimes that’s a reference to someone behaving like they don’t know old friends and family — that they have evolved past their old crowd. Sometimes that’s Southern speak for the emboldened, someone behaving like they either don’t know the rules or have outright decided to disregard them.

In the past four weeks, we’ve seen President Obama take up residence in a place that sits somewhere in-between.

He’s spoken off the cuff about race relations on a widely circulated podcast (even using the n-word) and then eloquently followed that with what can only be described as a sermon on race relations in America before breaking into song. He’s challenged America to go deeper in its support of equality than retiring symbols of slavery (like the Confederate flag) and impolitic words (like the n-word).

While eulogizing a slain minister and state lawmaker allegedly killed by a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C., he outlined a whole raft of ways in which discrimination remains and inequality continues to grow. And now he’s gone and announced two major reform packages — housing last week and criminal justice on Tuesday — in the span of two weeks that could, if ultimately implemented, be of particular benefit to people of color in the United States.

Here’s the thing: This Obama might look or sound “brand new” to some Americans. He might even sound a little something like the black president that some white Americans across the political spectrum feared (or hoped for). But to people who watch the White House closely, this is the President Obama that has been developing for some time.

On Thursday, Obama addressed the 106th national convention of the NAACP, the nation’s oldest and largest civil-rights organization. It’s worth noting here that the NAACP was founded by a cross-racial group of civil-rights warriors ultimately responsible for some of the most sweeping legal reforms of the 20th century. But the NAACP isn’t as highly regarded these days as it once was. In the 1990s, the NAACP saw a sharp decline in membership and was itself focused on issues like retiring the n-word, before rebuilding its membership by expanding its activism to include things like anti-death penalty work and school-funding reform.

Still, in the eyes of some Americans, the NAACP is a partisan organization. Some on the right have even called it a “hate group.”

But Obama came to the NAACP convention and laid out a criminal-justice reform agenda that included everything from calls for a close and hard look at what sends people to jail, which crimes and which defendants get the longest sentences and the use of solitary confinement. That agenda, Obama said Thursday, also has to include resolving the massive disparities in school quality and discipline that federal data tells us begin in pre-kindergarten classrooms.

When combined with a whole host of other inequities Obama mentioned Wednesday —who graduates from high school and college, who is employed, who lives in the safest and best-equipped communities and how police view their responsibilities to different neighborhoods — these produce exceedingly elevated arrest, conviction and incarceration rates for black and Latino men. That in turn splinters families and concentrates long-term joblessness, poverty and a rather logical but dangerous degree of hopelessness in those same communities. You can read more about the specifics of the criminal justice reforms Obama called for yesterday here, here and here.

[Obama tells NAACP that justice reform is long overdue]

Obama talked about the fact that some people in jail need to be there, at least for some period of time. And he didn’t lamblast law enforcement.

Still, this Obama didn’t do what he has so many times before. He didn’t lecture black America about its behavior while making only passing mention of some of the social and economic conditions that solid research — not just political ideology — tells us has at least help to foster inequality. He gave a full airing to his sense that there is a need for wholesale policy reforms. And he stayed completely clear of the politically expedient and at-times-outright-popular act of saying that young black men should do something about the way some wear their pants or how they speak.


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Source: The Washington Post | Janell Ross

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