Z e t e o
Reading, Looking, Listening, . . . Questioning

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Mass Incarceration: Parts III and IV of IX

Categories: Drew Whitcup, ZiR


 8fa741018This week, I am continuing to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ in-depth analysis of mass incarceration in the United States. Having provided some of the historical-political background in the early chapters of his essay, Coates goes on in part III to tell the stories of real people contending with the vastly expanding net of incarceration. Time spent in prison is only a part of the issue; a multitude of struggles come along with life after prison:

The transition can be jarring. ‘I panicked,’ [a woman named] Tonya told me, speaking of how it felt to be out of prison after 18 years. ‘I was only used to a cell as opposed to having multiple rooms, and there was always somebody there with me in the cell—whether it was a bunkie or officer, somebody’s always in this building. To go from that to this? I stayed on the phone. I made people call me, you know. It was scary. And I still experience that to this day. Everybody looks suspect to me. I’m like, “He’s up to something.” A friend of mine told me, “You’ve been gone a long time, over a decade, so it’s gonna take you about two years for you to readjust.”‘

The challenges of housing and employment bedevil many ex-offenders. ‘It’s very common for them to go homeless,’ Linda VanderWaal, the associate director of prisoner reentry at a community-action agency in Michigan, told me. In the winter, VanderWaal says, she has a particularly hard time finding places to accommodate all the homeless ex-prisoners. Those who do find a place to live often find it difficult to pay their rent.

In part IV, Coates makes a connection between the crisis of mass incarceration and the history of African-Americans’ treatment. The “problem” identified in the 1960s and 1970s was not a very nuanced one. To many, it was two things: criminal, and black. Despite what may have been Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s best efforts to address the crisis of the black family with his brand of liberalism, the effect of his report has been the reinforcing of old, entrenched beliefs about back criminality. Coates discusses exactly how old and entrenched these beliefs are:

Before Emancipation, enslaved blacks were rarely lynched, because whites were loath to destroy their own property. But after the Civil War, the number of lynchings rose, peaked at the turn of the century, then persisted at a high level until just before the Second World War, not petering out entirely until the height of the civil-rights movement, in the 1960s. The lethal wave was justified by a familiar archetype—’the shadow of the Negro criminal,’ which, according to John Rankin, a congressman from Mississippi speaking in 1922, hung ‘like the sword of Damocles over the head of every white woman.’ Lynching, though extralegal, found support in the local, state, and national governments of America. ‘I led the mob which lynched Nelse Patton, and I’m proud of it,’ declared William Van Amberg Sullivan, a former United States senator from Mississippi, on September 9, 1908, the day after Patton’s lynching. ‘I directed every movement of the mob, and I did everything I could to see that he was lynched.’ Standing before the Senate on March 23, 1900, ‘Pitchfork Ben’ Tillman, of South Carolina, declared to his colleagues that terrorized blacks were the victims not of lynching, but of ‘their own hot-headedness.’ Lynching was a prudent act of self-defense. ‘We will not submit to [the black man’s] gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.’ Tillman said. In 1904, defending southern states’ lack of interest in education funding for blacks, James K. Vardaman, the governor of Mississippi, offered a simple rationale, as one report noted: ‘The strength of [crime] statistics.’

Time has done little to change these feelings, according to Coates:

In [Frederick] Douglass’s time, to stand up for black rights was to condone black criminality. The same was true in [Dr. Martin Luther] King’s time. The same is true today. Appearing on Meet the Press to discuss the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani—in the fashion of many others—responded to black critics of law enforcement exactly as his forebears would have: ‘How about you reduce crime? … The white police officers wouldn’t be there if you weren’t killing each other 70 to 75 percent of the time.’

More history, of both the social and personal variety, informs the remainder of Coates’ essay. I will cover Parts V, VI and VII in this space next week.

—Drew Whitcup, Zeteo Contributing Writer

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