DERRICK Z. JACKSON
Outrage comes too easy for the Democrats
By Derrick Z. Jackson | June 30, 2007
THURSDAY NIGHT'S debate was too easy for the Democratic presidential
candidates. Before a hugely black audience at Howard University, they bashed
the Supreme Court decision ending voluntary desegregation. They lambasted
the Bush administration's bungling of Hurricane Katrina. Barack Obama said
you can't have No Child Left Behind if you leave the money behind. The
biggest cheer of the night came when Hillary Clinton said, "If AIDS were the
leading cause of death between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an
outraged outcry in this country."
That is precisely the point. Playing to the outraged is child's play for the
Democrats, so easy that John Edwards, he of the $400 haircut, claimed with a
straight face, "The issue of poverty is the cause of my life." All the
candidates said poverty, healthcare, and education were connected.
What they did not say is how they would make this connection with white,
middle-class, and suburban voters. What they did not say is how they will
convince them that these problems outweigh outrage and outcry over taxes.
What they did not say was how they would get the rest of the country
outraged with empathy, not dismissal.
So it means that the real story was not inside the debate hall. As an
African-American journalist, I was glad to see African-American and Latino
journalists have a crack at the candidates. But the night was also a layup
drill. No matter who the Democratic candidate is, she or he will get 90
percent of the black vote and -- the way some Republicans are harping on
immigration -- a huge percentage of the Latino vote. To underscore that
point to the edge of paternalism, there was no serious debate between the
candidates as to who among them is best earning the black vote.
The last Democrat in the White House proved both how difficult it was to
connect the haves and have-nots and his own unwillingness to expend
political capital to do so. This week, for instance, it was announced that
America's prison and jail population had its largest increase since 2000 and
now stands at more than 2.2 million.
But before you blame President Bush for this, remember that under President
Clinton, the population skyrocketed from 1.4 million to more than 2 million.
For all the legend about Clinton's connectivity to black people, the rate of
incarceration during his administration went up to 3,620 prisoners for every
100,000 black men. It had been 2,800 per 100,000 black men at the end of the
Reagan-Bush I era, according to the Justice Policy Institute in Washington.
One of the biggest reasons was the harsh, disparate sentencing of crack
cocaine compared to powdered cocaine. There was never a medical basis for
the laws as they resulted in black men being put away for nonviolent drug
possession at far greater rates than white drug users -- even though
Americans on a racial basis use illegal drugs in proportion to their share
of the population.
Clinton told the Trotter Group of black columnists in 1997 that the crack
laws and their racist impact were "unfair, unjustifiable, and should be
changed." But he did nothing about it, for fear of being seen as soft on
crime. The unfairness reached such a level that at one point
African-Americans made up 74 percent of drug offenders put behind bars even
though they make up 13 percent of the population.
Thursday night, 10 years later, most of the Democratic candidates said
before a much larger black audience and a national audience on PBS that they
will work to repeal those laws. Joe Biden was the most detailed, saying he
introduced legislation to eliminate the disparity. Earlier this week, Biden
called the disparities "a terrible flaw in the criminal justice system,
based on . . . bogus notions." Echoing Clinton, Biden said the disparity is
"unjust, unfair and the time has long past for it to be undone."
Yet the last Democrat to have a shot at the criminal justice disparities
that devastate black men was feckless. Hillary Clinton says if white people
suffered a fraction of the disparities assaulting black people, there would
be a far greater assault on them. John Edwards said their were "two
There is still no clue as to which of these candidates will have the courage
to tell the rest of America that this is unjust and unfair.
Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is jackson@...
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