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Reading, Looking, Listening, . . . Questioning

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Mass Incarceration: Parts V, VI, and VII 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. In part V of the piece, Coates studies the policies that led to increased incarceration rates, and the rhetoric behind them:

When Nixon proclaimed drugs ‘public enemy No. 1,’ or declared ‘war against the criminal elements which increasingly threaten our cities, our homes, and our lives,’ he didn’t need to name the threat. A centuries-long legacy of equating blacks with criminals and moral degenerates did the work for him.

As incarceration rates rose (despite plummeting rates of violent crime), the rhetoric continued:

By the mid-’90s, both political parties had come to endorse arrest and incarceration as a primary tool of crime-fighting. This conclusion was reached not warily, but lustily. As a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton flew home to Arkansas to preside over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally disabled, partially lobotomized black man who had murdered two people in 1981. ‘No one can say I’m soft on crime,’ Clinton would say later. Joe Biden, then the junior senator from Delaware, quickly became the point man for showing that Democrats would not go soft on criminals. “One of my objectives, quite frankly,” he said, ‘is to lock Willie Horton up in jail.’ Biden cast Democrats as the true party without mercy. ‘Let me define the liberal wing of the Democratic Party,’ he said in 1994. ‘The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is now for 60 new death penalties … The liberal wing of the Democratic Party has 70 enhanced penalties … The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 100,000 cops. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 125,000 new state prison cells.’

Coates retreats from his policy analysis in part VI. As a means of illustrating the toll incarceration takes on whole families, he tells (with typical flourish) the story of Odell Newton, a man serving life in prison for murder:

Newton is now 57. He has spent the lion’s share of his life doing time under state supervision. The time he’s served has not affected him alone. If men and women like Odell are cast deep within the barrens of the Gray Wastes, their families are held in a kind of orbit, on the outskirts, by the relentless gravity of the carceral state. For starters, the family must contend with the financial expense of having a loved one incarcerated. Odell’s parents took out a second mortgage to pay for their son’s lawyers, and then a third. Beyond that, there’s the expense of having to make long drives to prisons that are commonly built in rural white regions, far from the incarcerated’s family. There’s the expense of phone calls, and of constantly restocking an inmate’s commissary. Taken together, these economic factors fray many a family’s bonds.

Fear of African-American men is nothing new, and Coates provides nearly endless examples of that fear in practice. Liberals and conservatives alike sought to capitalize politically on that fear, and the result is reflected in the outsize numbers of incarcerated black men in America. In part VII, Coates puts African-American plight into perspective, historically. In essence, he argues that it stems from much, much more than “broken families:”

[E]fforts [such as redlining] curtailed the ability of black people to buy better housing, to move to better neighborhoods, and to build wealth. Also, by confining black people to the same neighborhoods, these efforts ensured that people who were discriminated against, and hence had little, tended to be neighbors only with others who also had little. Thus while an individual in that community might be high-achieving, even high-earning, his or her ability to increase that achievement and wealth and social capital, through friendship, marriage, or neighborhood organizations, would always be limited. Finally, racial zoning condemned black people to the oldest and worst housing in the city—the kind where one was more likely to be exposed, as Odell Newton was, to lead. A lawyer who handled more than 4,000 lead-poisoning cases across three decades recently described his client list to The Washington Post: ‘Nearly 99.9 percent of my clients were black.’

That families are better off the stronger and more stable they are is self-evidently important. But so is the notion that no family can ever be made impregnable, that families are social structures existing within larger social structures.

For years, the answer to a whole host of systemic problems has been to lock more people up. The problems— perhaps not surprisingly— persist:

The blacks incarcerated in this country are not like the majority of Americans. They do not merely hail from poor communities—they hail from communities that have been imperiled across both the deep and immediate past, and continue to be imperiled today. Peril is generational for black people in America—and incarceration is our current mechanism for ensuring that the peril continues. Incarceration pushes you out of the job market. Incarceration disqualifies you from feeding your family with food stamps. Incarceration allows for housing discrimination based on a criminal-background check. Incarceration increases your risk of homelessness. Incarceration increases your chances of being incarcerated again. ‘The prison boom helps us understand how racial inequality in America was sustained, despite great optimism for the social progress of African Americans,’ Bruce Western, the Harvard sociologist, writes. ‘The prison boom is not the main cause of inequality between blacks and whites in America, but it did foreclose upward mobility and deflate hopes for racial equality.’

I will cover the final two parts of Coates’ piece in this space next week.

— Drew Whitcup, Zeteo Contributing Writer

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