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Make Real Racial Progress

Miller-McCune's experts offer solutions to problems that were under-discussed during the presidential campaign.

There are few places where the United States is further away from achieving "post-raciality" than in our prisons and courtrooms. For instance, though blacks make up roughly 12 percent of the population (and roughly 13 percent of casual drug users) they made up 35 percent of all drug-related arrests in the United States, 55 percent of all drug-related convictions and 74 percent of all drug-related prison sentences as of 1995. Similarly disturbing statistics abound in the areas of racial profiling, death penalty convictions, state executions and nearly every other arena of criminal justice. It is distressing to think that this election's celebration of moral progress could coincide with the largest incarceration of a people in the history of the world, with recent reports estimating that as many as 1 in 9 black males between the ages of 18 and 34 are held in penitentiaries.

The United States leads the world in imprisoning its own citizens. This mass incarceration (now more than 1 in 100 citizens) represents a near tripling of inmates between 1980 and 1996 — an increase that cannot be accounted for by an increase in criminal behavior and has not proven to be a strong deterrent to crime. This dramatic increase has affected young black men most of all, with a higher percentage of black men incarcerated now than at any point previously in history — even higher than during The Nadir, a period from 1877 to 1901 when mass incarcerations and public lynchings of black men often had tacit approval from law enforcement. It is ironic that this historic rate of imprisonment comes at the very time that a black middle class is so visibly emergent in the U.S., and that President Obama's campaign has made such historic strides.

The solutions to these distressing disparities are, unfortunately, less obvious than one might imagine. It would be simple to say, "The problem is simply racial prejudice!" And 40 years ago, social science might have agreed. But the best social science of today suggests that diagnosis is simplistic. First, most people in our contemporary moment are loathe to express racial bigotry overtly, which makes racial attitudes harder to detect than might have been the case 40 years ago. Because prejudiced attitudes are difficult to detect, they are even more difficult to control. Second, there is mounting evidence that racial discrimination can occur even absent racial bigotry, either overt or covert. That is, even in the absence of racist hearts and minds, non-whites can still be treated unfairly — with consequences that range from hostile work environments to death.

While racial progress is being made in many areas, things are going from bad to worse in the criminal justice arena, and we are not yet certain why. The need to study and remedy these inequalities could not be more urgent. Without a national dialogue, increased funding for research and intervention and the will to ask hard questions about race and the law, the best social science of today suggests we will continue an inexorable decline — to a de facto "whites" and "coloreds" legal system that is eerily reminiscent of The Nadir. The United States frequently proclaims itself a beacon of freedom to the world. How shameful it would be for us to trumpet that freedom while ignoring so many whose freedoms are curtailed by race, in the name of criminal justice.

More Unsolicited Advice ...

Re-establish Respect for the Constitutional Separation of Powers
Mickey Edwards, Princeton University: Despite repeated assertions by both Barack Obama and John McCain that their policies would differ significantly from those of the previous administration, virtually no attention was paid during the campaign to the worst feature of the Bush presidency: the determined undermining of America's constitutional framework. Read more

Restore Public Faith in Science
Sunshine Menezes, Ph.D., University of Rhode Island: Before the tumbling economy sucked the air out of other issues in the 2008 presidential campaign, there was laudable effort to bring attention to a largely overlooked but critical policy issue: the decline of American science funding and education. Read more

Eliminate the Electoral College
Len Sellers, CEO, Hammer2Anvil: I was at a business dinner in Asia shortly after the 2000 election. Jokes were being made about still not knowing who will be the next U.S. president: "Isn't it typical of Americans to bring in the lawyers?" And so on. Read more

Close the Turkey Farm
Thomas A. Birkland, Ph.D., North Carolina State University: The president should remove FEMA from Homeland Security. Minimally, he could issue an executive order that indicates that the FEMA director reports directly to the president during disasters. Read more

Grant All Americans Their Day in Court
James L. Gibson, Ph.D. Washington University in St. Louis: One issue I believe your administration ought to address is that of access to justice by ordinary citizens. As you are no doubt aware by virtue of your legal training, the American legal system has been radically reshaped during the Republican years under so-called tort reform. Read more

Return Balance to the Federal Judiciary
Cornell W. Clayton, Ph.D., Washington State University: You will have the opportunity to nominate many federal judges and no doubt one or more individuals to the U.S. Supreme Court in the next four years. Please restore balance to our federal judiciary. By balance, I do not refer to partisanship or ideology but to life experience and public stature. Read more

P. People O.
Bill Savage, Ph.D., Northwestern University: Piss people off. Piss off the right-wing Cuban Americans in Florida by normalizing relations with Cuba. (If we can work with the commies in Vietnam or China, then we can work with the Cubans.) Piss off the agribusiness industry by ending subsidies for farms not owned and worked by individual families. Read more

Pay More Attention to Our Own Backyard
Douglas Massey, Ph.D., Princeton University: A clear lesson of the last eight years is that the world is now too large and complex to be dominated by a single power. Nations that try to exercise unilateral economic and military power will only undermine their moral and material position in the world and contribute to their own decline. Read more

Find a New Immigration Perspective
James La Valle, Ph.D., Murray State University: Conspicuously absent from both 2008 presidential campaigns was a fair, honest and decisive proposal to solve the immigration problem in the U.S., especially with respect to our southern border. Read more

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