In case you haven't heard, Mike Huckabee has been taking heat this week for having granted clemency in 2000 to Maurice Clemmons, who is accused of killing four police officers in Washington this past Sunday. While everyone from Josh Marshall to Tim Pawlenty has attacked Huckabee for the decision, the criticism struck me as pretty off-base. As Matt Yglesias points out, Clemmons was serving an hundred-year sentence at the time of his clemency for largely nonviolent crimes committed as a teenager. What was effectively a life sentence for burglary and theft was excessive to say the least. Further, Ta-Nehisi Coates made an persuasive case that failures like this are the result of brutal policing that fails to respect black communities.
Strangely enough, Huckabee appears to agree with Coates:
The reasons were straightforward -- a unanimous recommendation from the board, support from a trial judge and no objections from officials in a case that involved a 16 year old sentenced to a term that was exponentially longer than similar cases and certainly longer than had he been white, upper middle class, and represented by effective counsel who would have clearly objected to the sentencing.
But sadly, Arkansas has had numerous instances of disproportionate sentencing in which a probation and fine would be meted out to white upper class kids whose parents were able to obtain the services of excellent defense attorneys, while young black males committing the same crimes and represented by public defenders would end up with inexplicably long prison terms. Blacks comprise 15% of the state’s population, but 50% of the inmate population, some of which is due to the fact that their sentences are often longer and they are less likely to be paroled.
It appears that when his political career is at stake, even the religious right's standard bearer begins to talk seriously about privilege. To be sure, he does not expand this into a call for community-oriented policing the way Coates does. But after months of hearing Republicans attack Obama's support for Henry Louis Gates, or Sonia Sotomayor for her "wise Latina" comments, it is nothing short of refreshing to hear Huckabee take the line that institutional racism plays a role in our society, even if this observation is for selfish purposes.
Indeed, selfish purposes may possibly be the only thing spurring this kind of rhetoric from conservatives in coming years. Given America's demographic trends, those Republicans who succeed in general elections will increasingly be those who are able to take the concerns of non-whites seriously. I do not know if Huckabee is demonstrating foresight, or merely trying to weather this story. But if, however inadvertently, he opens the door for his ideological compatriots to stop treating racism like a fairy tale, he would be doing his movement a big favor.