12/04/2012 04:11 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2013

The Other Pipeline Decision

In January 2011, the Obama administration denied a permit to TransCanada for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project, citing environmental concerns. In the months leading up to the decision, environmentalists and oil business interests engaged in a contentious debate about whether or not the project should be approved. The January 2011 decision did not end this debate -- TransCanada has since received approval for the southern portion of the pipeline and a final decision about the fate of the pipeline has yet to be made. Although it would create some jobs at a time when the U.S. is struggling to advance an agenda focused on jobs and socioeconomic empowerment, environmentalists and their progressive supporters have made a stronger case for protecting the environment, curbing climate change, and protecting indigenous lands. Regardless of the final outcome, the issue has received extensive media coverage during the past two years and both sides of the debate are exerting influence on the administration's decision-making process because they are engaged, mobilized, and organized.

There is another pipeline of a different sort that did not receive adequate attention during the campaign season -- the "Pipeline to Prison" that has been ravaging African American inner-city communities since the 1980s. This pipeline -- unlike Keystone XL -- is figurative in nature, but it has had very real and devastating effects. While many factors contribute to its persistence, it represents the confluence of two main dysfunctions: the War on Drugs and a failing education system in disadvantaged communities.

If the numbers serve as an indication of effectiveness, the War on Drugs has failed. Although there have been some positive developments during the past few years -- most notably the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act -- policymakers have yet to embrace major reforms that would make the nation's drug laws more just.

Michelle Alexander's 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, critically examines the drastic increase in African American male incarceration during the past 30 years as a result of the War on Drugs. While violent crime has decreased during this time period, drug convictions have led to a 500 percent incarceration increase, from around 300,000 in the early 1980s to over two million today. Alexander references studies which suggest that white youth are more likely to engage in drug crime than African American youth, but African Americans are more likely to serve prison sentences for these crimes, with people of color constituting two-thirds of all people incarcerated for drug related offenses. She also indicates that in cities across the country, large percentages of African American males (in some instances as high as 80 percent) have criminal records due to drug offenses.

The Pipeline to Prison is also fed by dysfunctions in our nation's education system and an education reform stalemate between school choice advocates and public education defenders. Education outcomes in poor African American and Latino communities continue to be appallingly low and the overall state of many public schools in these communities represents a national emergency. The Obama administration, in small, incremental steps, has attempted to pursue consensus-centered reforms -- including the Race to the Top initiative and the adoption of higher common standards across states. The administration's education policy is controversial, but regardless of whether or not one supports its approach, it is clear that bolder and more transformational changes are needed to strengthen the public education system and achieve higher education outcomes that can help empower disadvantaged communities.

The Pipeline to Prison is a profound national crisis and human rights issue that deserves the attention of advocates, lawmakers and the media. It will be up to us -- the citizens interested in justice and progress -- to pressure policymakers to address this pipeline with the same urgency and enthusiasm demonstrated during the debate over Keystone XL.