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Ta-Nehisi Coates on Mass Incarceration: Parts I and II of IX

Categories: Drew Whitcup, ZiR

download (6)As a number of my past posts indicate, when Ta-Nehisi Coates writes something, I read it. This is especially true when he publishes his brand of long-form, in-depth, history-in-context pieces, like he did last summer in his case for American reparations. This month, he’s published another missive in The Atlanticone which frames the modern African American experience in the context of mass incarceration. It is characteristically dense and well-researched, and, over the next few weeks, my posts will attempt to highlight its various contentions.

Coates begins his article by discussing one man—Daniel Patrick Moynihan—and more specifically one piece of research, Moynihan’s 1965 unsigned paper “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action:”

Unsigned, it was meant to be an internal government document, with only one copy distributed at first and the other 99 kept locked in a vault. Running against the tide of optimism around civil rights, ‘The Negro Family’ argued that the federal government was underestimating the damage done to black families by ‘three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment’ as well as a ‘racist virus in the American blood stream,’ which would continue to plague blacks in the future.

Coates seems to praise the initial intent of the paper, but laments the results that followed its release. These results, he posits, can be blamed in part on the paper lacking any specific policy suggestions:

Despite its alarming predictions, ‘The Negro Family’ was a curious government report in that it advocated no specific policies to address the crisis it described. This was intentional. Moynihan had lots of ideas about what government could do—provide a guaranteed minimum income, establish a government jobs program, bring more black men into the military, enable better access to birth control, integrate the suburbs—but none of these ideas made it into the report. ‘A series of recommendations was at first included, then left out,’ Moynihan later recalled. ‘It would have got in the way of the attention-arousing argument that a crisis was coming and that family stability was the best measure of success or failure in dealing with it.’

The report seemed to take on a life of its own in the years that followed, regardless of Moynihan’s original intent. Liberals attacked it from the left and some labeled Moynihan a racist. Conservatives read it to mean that African-Americans posed a problem that needed solving, but were dismissive of the notion that the problem was created by the actions of the white majority in the not-too-distant past. When he began to work in President Nixon’s White House in 1968, Moynihan pushed for a minimum income for all families, but to no avail.

Moynihan’s paper helped create wide concern over the supposedly deteriorating black family structure. America’s response, Coates notes, was not at all what Moynihan had envisioned:

As the civil-rights movement wound down, Moynihan looked out and saw a black population reeling under the effects of 350 years of bondage and plunder. He believed that these effects could be addressed through state action. They were—through the mass incarceration of millions of black people.

Coates goes on to discuss how this response has not only failed to address the problems faced by the black community, but has exacerbated them. The missing opportunities for black men and the broken families that so concerned Moynihan remain prevalent:

The emergence of the carceral state has had far-reaching consequences for the economic viability of black families. Employment and poverty statistics traditionally omit the incarcerated from the official numbers. When [Harvard sociologist Bruce] Western recalculated the jobless rates for the year 2000 to include incarcerated young black men, he found that joblessness among all young black men went from 24 to 32 percent; among those who never went to college, it went from 30 to 42 percent. The upshot is stark. Even in the booming ’90s, when nearly every American demographic group improved its economic position, black men were left out. The illusion of wage and employment progress among African American males was made possible only through the erasure of the most vulnerable among them from the official statistics.

These consequences for black men have radiated out to their families. By 2000, more than 1 million black children had a father in jail or prison—and roughly half of those fathers were living in the same household as their kids when they were locked up. Paternal incarceration is associated with behavior problems and delinquency, especially among boys.

How this systematic response has affected individual families is the topic of the next few chapters in Coates’ essay. I will address them in this space next week.

—Drew Whitcup, Zeteo Contributing Writer


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1 Comment to “Ta-Nehisi Coates on Mass Incarceration: Parts I and II of IX”

  1. Gayle Rodda Kurtz says:

    Thank you, Drew, for covering this article with a different perspective on a crucial period. I appreciate your review and look forward to the next.

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