BY JOHN THOMPSON
The president who I still love will visit the Choctaw Nation tomorrow and look into the Promise Zone initiative he launched last year. My first hope for the trip was that President Barack Obama would swing over to the far corner of “Little Dixie,” and visit Frogville.
But President Obama has a better plan. He will visit the federal prison in El Reno, where inmate Jason Hernandez was housed until Obama commuted his life sentence on drug charges.
Until recently, President Obama has been especially reticent about hot-button issues such as race and the legacies of generational poverty and discrimination. The 2014 off-year election defeat and tragedies culminating in the Charleston massacre have liberated our president, however, and he has been speaking and singing the truths that previously he held back. It sounds like we can anticipate another honest conversation with an atypical journalist, this time with HBO’s VICE.
According to VICE Media, the visit will “give viewers a firsthand look into the president’s thinking on criminal justice reform ‘from the policy level down to one-on-one conversations with the men and women living this reality.’”
Maybe President Obama will return to the Indian Nation and drop in on our family’s homestead so we can discuss school reform and its cousin, the War on Drugs, and how these ill-conceived reward and punish policies backfired because they were dismissive of the realities that flesh-and-blood people live in. We could gaze upon the graves of whites, blacks, and Choctaws in the family cemetery, and muse about our long history of living together in peace and conflict, as well as both unity and divisiveness in victory and defeat at the hands of political and economic oppression.
As I explained recently, school reform and the War on Drugs were both deeply rooted in the Reaganism and the lowered horizons of the 1980s. Both were quick, simple, and seemingly cheap solutions to the complex social problems that the War on Poverty did not eradicate.
Now we are seeing comprehensive efforts, such as those embraced by several Oklahoma tribal governments and national Promise Zone pilot projects, to attract private investments in economic development, improve housing, expand educational opportunities, and address crime and violence.
Similarly, as the Marshall Project’s Bill Keller writes in the New Yorker, we are seeing a bipartisan effort to tackle the unintended damage to our criminal justice system that was prompted by the War on Drugs.
The Marshall Project’s Eli Hager explains, “Perhaps the most important similarity between the ever-intertwined school system and criminal justice system is that both are tasked with managing and taking care of those with cognitive, social, and economic deficits caused by poverty.” Reformers in both sectors have seen the problem as “a ‘production function‘ that needs to be made more efficient such that it can begin producing smart kids and rehabilitated ex-prisoners on the back end – no matter who comes in the front.”
Seeking shortcuts for interconnected social problems that are deeply rooted in history, we have even flirted with the privatization of prisons and schools. The results in both sectors have been tragic.
One of the original sins of the War on Drugs is that it treated our fellow citizens as data points in a legal crusade that was bound to end up “juking the stats,” making metrics look good so that a victory could be proclaimed – despite the collateral damage to families and our values of equal justice under the law.
Similarly, school reform treated students as test scores, robbing so many poor children of color of the chance to have engaging instruction, increasing segregation, and undermining our democracy’s educational values and the clash of ideas in our classrooms.
Clearly, President Obama understands criminal justice inequities and the cruelty of the prison pipeline he inherited, and he has appointed attorney generals who have tackled the challenge of rectifying the worst abuses. He seems to be unaware, however, of the negative effects of his secretary of education’s test, sort, and punish policies.
I also doubt that President Obama believes he had much choice in the matter, and he probably did not have time to consider the predictable result of handing over the nation’s public school policies to “the Billionaires Boys’ Club.”
At the El Reno prison, President Obama will hear about the end result of our failure to admit that, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” When he visits the “postage stamp of history” known as the Choctaw Nation, President Obama will witness an effort – one that he helped prompt and fund – to get back to policies that are worthy of our democracy.
I expect his visit will further fuel the attempt to recognize the interconnectedness and the human dynamics of our legacies of poverty and inequality, to suck it up, and to commit to what it really takes to create opportunity, equality, and justice in a real 21st Century civil rights campaign.
– Dr. John Thompson, an education writer whose essays appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer, currently is working on a book about his experiences teaching for two decades in the inner city of OKC. He has a doctorate from Rutgers University and is the author of Closing the Frontier: Radical Responses in Oklahoma Politics.