President Obama, who in recent weeks has shed any reticence to talk about racism and discrimination in American life, suggested inside the walls of a federal prison in Oklahoma on Thursday that under different circumstances, he could have been there as an inmate rather than as president.
“That’s what strikes me — there but for the grace of God,” the president said, standing in an empty cellblock with polished concrete floors and gray-and-white walls.
Minutes after he had finished meeting with six nonviolent drug offenders in El Reno federal prison, a medium-security facility, Obama said his life could have taken a trajectory similar to the prisoners’ if he had not had the kind of family and community support many young men of color lack.
Obama, who has acknowledged using marijuana and trying cocaine in his youth, is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.
“When they describe their youth, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different from the mistakes I made, and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made,” the president said. “The difference is that they did not have the kind of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.”
The frank assessment — which the president delivered before a group of journalists — came just two days after he told a largely black audience: “I see what happens” when black and Latino families are devastated by the high rates of incarceration in their communities. And on Wednesday, during a White House news conference, Obama said that while the criminal justice system is not “the sole source of racial tension in this country, or the key institution to resolving the opportunity gap,” he sees reforming it as a way to help deliver on the nation’s promise of treating its citizens equally, without regard to race.
For a president who has often been reserved when discussing hot-button racial issues,Obama has begun to make a moral case that is based on his own identity.
SOURCE: Katie Zezima and Juliet Eilperin
The Washington Post