Ta-Nehisi Coates Discusses the Age of Mass Incarceration

The October 2015 issue of The Atlantic has Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.

He starts with an endorsement of the 1965 analysis and conclusion of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a U.S. federal government employee (and later U.S. Senator], that the government was underestimating the damage to black families by “three centuries of [their] unimaginable mistreatment [and by the] racist virus in the American blood stream” and that the government should engage in an all-out assault on the problems that held black families down.

Coates then engages in a discussion of the various reasons why this did not happen and instead why a new assault on the black family occurred and still is occurring with over-criminalization of certain behavior and what is now known as the mass incarceration of black men.[1]

This article, therefore, provides a more systematic background for Coates’ emotional perception that white society in the U.S. has been, and still is, engaged in a systematic assault on the black body and that this assault always stands between the world and Coates as discussed in his book “Between the World and Me,” which was the subject of a prior post.

Chapter VI of the article emphasizes that the adverse impact of mass incarceration is not just on the men and women in prison, but on their family members as well. This unsurprising fact is documented in a new survey by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit group that focuses on racial and economic justice issues. It found that nearly two-thirds of families that have a member in jail or prison struggle to meet their basic needs, including 50 percent that are unable to afford sufficient food and adequate housing. Moreover, as an employee of the Center said, ““Incarceration weakens the social fabric and disrupts the social ecology of entire communities through the way it disrupts families’ economic stability. Often, it leaves it broken beyond repair.”[2]

Here is a rough outline of the Coates’ article:

Chap. Title Contents
Preface Margaret Garner, “ Never marry again in slavery.” Solzhenitsyn, “Wherever the law is, crime can be found.”
I “Lower-class behavior in our cities is shaking them apart” Daniel Patrick Moynihan ‘s 1965 “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” –federal government underestimating damage to black families by “three centuries of unimaginable mistreatment [and] racist virus in the American blood stream.” Black family structure was mutated by white oppressiojn.by oppression of black men. Moynihan’s aim: muster support for all-out government assault on problems that held black families down. Instead white society saw it as reason to give up and imposed mass incarceration of black men as response.
II “We are incarcerating too few criminals” U.S. incarceration rate rose independent of actual crime, but as result of tough-on-crime laws. A 1992 U.S. Justice Dep’t report; “we are incarcerating too few criminals, and public is suffering as result.” But other countries experience says otherwise. Adverse effect on black families. Prisoners are excluded from employment statistics. Parental incarceration is associated with behavior problems & delinquency, esp. among boys. Laws impose adverse consequences after release from prison. Reduction of rehabilitation programs in prisons.
III “You don’t take a shower after 9 o’clock” Horrible life in prisons.
IV “The crime-stained blackness of the Negro” In 1868 white supremacist, society had to defend itself against “crime-stained blackness of the Negro.” Many laws against blacks during slavery. Lynchings continued until just before WWII and not ending until Civil Rights Movement. Even W. E. B. DuBois said Negroes had to correct immorality, crime and laziness. J. Edgar Hoover had same view. To stand up for black rights is often seen as condoning black criminality. Intensifying war on crime associated with white anxiety about social control.
V “The “baddest generation any society has ever known” U.S. has associated black struggle with black villainy. In Nixon 2nd term incarceration rates began historic rise; his subliminal appeal to the antiblack voter. Idea of rehabilitation abandoned with mandatory minimums and alternatives to prison. Prisons often located in all-white rural areas providing jobs to whites. Liberals like Bill Clinton supported these efforts.
VI “It’s like I’m in prison with him” Discretionary parole for lifers is nonexistent. Families of inmates feel like they are in prison with their sons or husbands.
VII “Our value system became surviving versus living” Housing discrimination keeps blacks isolated. “Compounded deprivation.”
VIII “The Negro poor having become more openly violent” Moynihan of 1965 has been proved right. He later became more critical of blacks, which is more accepted today. For African-Americans “unfreedom” is the norm. Slavery for 250 years; then Jim Crow, debt peonage and convict labor.
IX “Now comes the proposition that the Negro is entitled to damages” Now Democrats and Republicans seem to agree that mass incarceration is a problem that needs to be addressed. Herculean task. Poses the issue of reparations.

[1] This is ground already trod by Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (Rev. ed. 2010, 2012).

[2] Williams, Report Details Economic Hardships for Inmate Families, N.Y. Times (Sept. 15, 2015).




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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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