There’s not enough space/ bytes/ ink or whatever here to give proper reflection to just how weird American gun culture has become, but the staunch, bipartisan resistance to Obama’s proposals has given rise to an even more virulent, bizarre group of conspiracy theorists who think the government stages mass shootings as a pretense to take away all guns. Even Bruce Willis, while promoting “A Good Day to Die Hard,” came out for the wacky-enough idea that universal background checks or assault weapons band or limits for magazine size somehow constitutes an assault on the Bill of Rights.
All this reduces the president to merely asking Congress to put his most basic, common sense ideas to a vote—a vote they will surely not have the courage to take.
The speech went far beyond guns, though, and included ideas for a new public housing initiative, his pitch for quasi-universal pre-school, and a raise in the minimum wage. The last one got a very robust cheer. There are a lot of rooms in the country where no one knows a person making minimum wage, but this was not one of those rooms. News rooms, yes. CNN offices, sure. Production companies that make TV shows, obviously. So it’s only almost “all the media we consume ever” that ignores the question of how much does it suck to try to provide for oneself, let alone a family, on the minimum wage?
Obama was at his best, however, when he wandered off-script and began talking about the kids he’d met from a program called BAM (Becoming a Man). He explained how he’d had his own issues growing up, but his environment—one of relative privilege in Hawaii, at least compared to these kids—had been more forgiving.
"So when I screwed up, the consequences weren't as high as when kids on the South Side screw up," he said. "So I had more of a safety net. But these guys are no different than me, and we had that conversation about what does it take to change."
He spoke of the role of parents, saying, “that includes gay or straight parents,” which received a surprisingly robust cheer from even the student section (which is something that should not be overlooked: the kind of impact Obama will have on normalizing homosexuality for the next generation).
He ended with a familiar rhetorical flourish, speaking of how hard it is to change the way things are, but if you can change a room, then you can change a neighborhood, and if you can change a neighborhood, you can change a city, and so forth. The speech was a laundry list of ways to address the woes that plague black (and increasingly, white) communities in American cities. For all the inspiration Obama lends as the first black president, he’s been hamstrung by his race as well, ever leery that conservative media loves and cannot help but tie his safety net-building policies to his race and frame his entire presidency as a big socialist scheme to take white people’s money and give it to poor, lazy black people. If you’re Cornell West this is unforgivable, but maybe if you’re Barack Obama it’s simply the reality of political life as the first black president.
During his first term, he signed a bill that reduced the disparity between sentencing for crack and powder cocaine. This was not not a big deal. The previous sentencing disparity was about 100 to 1, and the bill Obama signed reduced it to roughly 18 to 1. Yet there was no public signing ceremony. It was all done behind closed doors and out of the spotlight. Why? Because the sentencing disparity is almost entirely about race. Black people get predominantly arrested for crack, white people for cocaine. This wasn’t an end to the insane war on drugs, but it constituted a major step in the right direction that went almost unnoticed and is now totally forgotten.
Yet the story of these sentencing standards is apocryphal, and as Obama wrapped up his speech and the crowd again erupted, I was left wondering what everyone in the room thought of all this. What did the Hyde Park Academy students think? What did Megan the advance press coordinator think? What did all these bored journalists regurgitating White House talking points and conventional wisdom think? We know what BAM counselor Marshaun Bacon thought because he told the Tribune:
"When you can have an informal and candid conversation with the president of the United States and he tells you that he wishes he had grown up with his father, that makes a difference."
And seeing Obama that close, hearing the familiar timbre of his voice, and listening to him describe with that fantastic, near-delusional optimism that defines his outlook that there is not only reason but a responsibility to hope, to believe in his favorite quote of Dr. King’s, that “the arch of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” it was difficult to not feel just as giddy as those students in the bleachers.
Yet it’s easy to talk like this. Well, maybe not easy—no one does it quite as well as Obama. But it’s easy enough. What’s harder is to change everything that’s below the surface of neighborhoods like Englewood and Roseland and Flint, Michigan, and Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati and pockets of Jacksonville and Dallas and Harlem and Baltimore and Detroit and Cleveland and endless other communities. What’s harder is to change the institutional underpinnings of a system designed to profit when kids in the BAM program fail.
Because conservatives will rail against “handouts” and “welfare” and anything that even smells of redistribution, but what they don’t acknowledge is that we already have social policy in the U.S. It’s called prison, and it’s way more expensive than if simply we enacted everything on Obama’s wish list. We lock up a larger percent of our population than any country on earth: with 5 percent of the world’s population, we jail 23 percent of its prisoners. Because prisons are big money, and it’s not just hefty sentences for non-violent drug offenders that are the problem. The prison-industrial complex (not to mention gun manufacturers) benefits from failing schools in the South Side neighborhoods that exist as the remnants of racial isolationist policy (The placement of the Dan Ryan highway was famously a decision about isolating black neighborhoods on the South Side) And what else are the Chicago suburbs but a method white parents took to isolate their children in an education system they (rightly) saw as winner-take-all? Chicago public schools aren’t struggling because the teachers aren’t working hard enough but because the resources, small class sizes, and opportunities have been horded for an increasingly smaller segment of society. Segregated schools are de facto public policy, and there are almost no “education reformers” who want to touch the things we’d have to do to actually fix that. But hey, uneducated kids make great customers for prisons, which can put them to work for sub-minimal wages, turning out an even larger profit. And here I’m just rambling about the most totally obvious aspects of a broken system that’s purposefully broken. We won’t even get into the predatory hunger of payday lenders, the old subprime mortgage racket, auto title loans, credit cards, rent-to-own schemes, for-profit colleges and all the other myriad ways businesses have come to turn a fat dollar by ripping off the working poor. Neighborhoods plagued by violence and dysfunction have a value to the capitalistic treadmill, whether it’s the Marlo Stanfields or the bankers at Goldman Sachs.
It’s not that I don’t think Barack Obama doesn’t understand all this—it’s that when you think about the obstacles, influences, money and power running under the chaos of places like the South and West Sides Chicago, it’s difficult not to find yourself cynical.
After the speech, while walking back to my car, I stopped at a crosswalk beside a classic little old lady with gray-brown skin and a splash of dark freckles. She barely came up to my chest, and she had to bend her entire back to crane up at me, likely taking in my skin color and tie the same way every American takes in everyone’s skin color and dress attire.
“Oh, did you see the Obamas?” she asked, smiling.
“Saw one of ‘em,” I told her.
“Was Michelle and the girls there? I thought Michelle and the girls were coming, too.”
“No, it was just him.”
“Oh, that’s too bad, I love those girls. So beautiful. Was he good?”