Early on the campaign trail, presidential candidate Barack Obama said, “This country is ready for a transformative politics of the sort that John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt represented.” Socially, President Obama is beginning to move in such a positive transformative direction.
After 12 years of languishing in Congress, on Wednesday, October 28, President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard / James Byrd Hate Crimes Bill. By signing this bill, the president expands the federal definition of hate crimes to include those motivated by gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. It also allows federal authorities to pursue hate-crimes cases when local authorities are either unable or unwilling to do so. This law was named after Matthew Shepard, a gay man murdered in Wyoming in 1998, and James Byrd, the African-American man dragged to his death behind a pickup truck in Texas that same year.
In spite of challenges by some conservative Christian groups, this law will not define sermons that speak out against homosexuality as “hate speech” and criminalize preaching the Gospel. The First Amendment is alive and well. America becomes a better country when, as President Obama stated, “we’ve passed inclusive hate crimes legislation to help protect our citizens from violence based on what they look like, who they love, how they pray or who they are .”
According to the Department of Justice, more than 77,000 hate-crime incidents were reported by the FBI between 1998 and 2007, or “nearly one hate crime for every hour of every day over the span of a decade,” Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee in June of 2009. Crimes against African-Americans remain the prototypical hate crime. In 2007 alone, of the 7,624 hate-crime incidents reported in 2007, 34 percent (2,659) were perpetrated against African-Americans. African-Americans still find themselves victims of lynchings, cross burnings, church vandalism, and chaining James Byrd to a truck and dragging him down a road for three miles to his death.
While on the campaign trail, presidential candidate Obama said the “war on drugs is an utter failure” and called for “shifting the paradigm, shifting the model, so that we focus more on a public health approach.” President Obama is living up to his pledge. He has asked Congress to address the issue of the 100:1 disparity in penalties for the use of powder/crack cocaine in federal cases and has pledged his commitment to signing legislation that accomplishes that end. As a result of his support, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) has introduced the Fair Sentencing Act of 2009. Under current law, it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to earn a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, but only five grams of crack to earn the same sentence.
This sentencing disparity has a disproportionate impact on the rate of incarceration of African-Americans and the duration of their sentences. It has nothing to do with an individual’s actual culpability and more to do with skin color. Studies have shown that crack cocaine is more prevalent in urban settings than powder cocaine. According to Senator Durbin, “The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine has contributed to the imprisonment of African-Americans at six times the rate of whites and to the United States’ position as the world’s leader in incarcerations. Congress has talked about addressing this injustice for long enough; it’s time for us to act.”
President Obama has expressed his full support for the Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered (GLT) agenda. He has promised to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” promised to pass hate-crimes legislation (and has done so) and to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act. As far back as 1996, then-Illinois State Senate candidate Obama went so far as to express his full support for gay marriage by saying, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.” These are not easy positions for a politician to support, let alone a politician who aspires to and eventually becomes POTUS.
There are those in the GLT community who feel President Obama is taking too long to address their issues. Some blame Obama for the failure of Maine voters to support a law that would have allowed gay couples to wed. Despite the fact that American citizens have never passed legislation to support same-sex marriage, somehow this is President Obama’s fault? Maybe it is as simple as the majority of Americans are not ready to support legalizing same-sex marriage and there’s nothing President Obama can do to change that reality.
There are those in the African-American community who express similar sentiments. It’s is important to remember the Matthew Shepard / James Byrd Hate Crimes Bill languished in Congress for 12 years. The disparities in crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentencing have been law since 1988. President Obama was able to bring about “a transformative politics” on these issues within the first 100 days of his administration.
These are just a few clear examples of the progress that is being made by the Obama administration on a social agenda that is being overlooked as the public’s focus is on the war in Afghanistan, health care insurance reform and the economy. This is not “lip service” being paid to liberal constituencies. This is tangible and effective legislation that is being supported and implemented as part of a social policy agenda that helps to ensure that all Americans receive equal treatment under the law. Perfect, no; positive, yes. It’s up to all Americans to make sure the Obama administration continues to move in a positive direction. That’s how democracy works.
Dr. Wilmer Leon is the producer/host of the nationally broadcast call-in talk radio program “On With Leon,” and a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Howard University in Washington, DC. Go to www.wilmerleon.com or email: [email protected].