Friday, January 23, 2009

A Challenge for Obama

From Bill Moyers Journal:

For the first time in history, more than one in every 100 adults in America is in jail or prison that's 2.3 million people. One reason? The leader of one organization working with prisoners' families told "Sojourners" that "The education system, particularly for inner-city youth where the bulk of our prisoners come from, is abysmal."

That statement sent me looking for a copy of Barack Obama's memoir "Dreams from My Father". I had met Obama just once, many years ago, when he was a community organizer in Chicago. Later, when I first read his book, I had been impressed that he was writing about what we had talked about the day of our visit. Here's the passage that stood out, describing his experience coming back to Chicago after his graduation from Harvard Law School:

"Upon my return to Chicago, I would find the signs of decay accelerated throughout the south side, the neighborhoods shabbier, the children edgier and less restrained, more middle-class families heading out to the suburbs, the jails bursting with glowering youth, my brothers without prospects. All too rarely do I hear people asking just what it is that we've done to make so many children's hearts so hard, or what collectively we might do to right their moral compass, what values we must live by. Instead I see us doing what we've always done, pretending that these children are somehow not our own."

That's the reality, crouched at Obama's door. Our door. Far too many members of this extended family, locked away, poor and in prison. So think of Chicago's South Side as a metaphor for our country today, a post-inaugural reminder, one of those stubborn facts of millions abandoned by the very democracy we celebrated on Tuesday.

All those years ago, I thought, this young man Obama had seen the world as it is. If he is not swallowed into the belly of the beltway beast, devoured by the conceits of power, the temptations of empire, and the courtiers, climbers, and predators who feed on it and if he can make this a family affair, he just might begin to change what he saw.

Moyers might have pointed out that beyond the 2.3 million people incarcerated, there are an equal number under some form of supervision, such as parole or probation. Assume that each of them has 10 family members or friends, and a simple calculation yields 48 million Americans directed affected.

You can watch this edition of Bill Moyers Journal online.

No comments: