We Were Eight Years in Power (part 2)

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My favorite essay from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s collection is “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” which he wrote in the seventh year of the Obama presidency. Here Coates insightfully connects two social developments–a policy debate over black families that started in the mid-1960s, and a dramatic increase in incarceration that started in the mid-1970s. He says he was excited about this story because “I believed that ‘family’ had been ceded to moral scolds who cared more about shaming people than actually helping families.”

Redefining the problem

Coates begins his story with the failure of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s liberal vision for black family progress. Moynihan, who worked in both the Johnson and Nixon administrations before becoming a US Senator, wanted to go beyond civil rights legislation to help undo the damage to families resulting from centuries of racism and discrimination. In his own words, “Family as an issue raised the possibility of enlisting the support of conservative groups for quite radical social programs,” such as a guaranteed minimum income for every family. That turned out to be overly optimistic.

The so-called “Moynihan Report,” whose real title was “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” was originally intended for internal government discussion, but soon became public. Moynihan described the problem not just as poverty and discrimination, but as the “matriarchal” family structure that resulted from a shortage of successful male breadwinners. For him, achieving “family stability” was as important as achieving economic justice.

For conservatives, however, the report served as a golden opportunity to shift the blame for the plight of black families from racism and discrimination to their own family behaviors, such as bearing children outside of marriage. It didn’t help, I would add, that Moynihan had overstated the case by exaggerating the stability of white families, just at a time when the sexual and gender revolutions were starting to challenge conventional norms there too. Moynihan was surprised when civil rights advocates accused him of racism for contributing to a pejorative stereotype of black families.

As for the guaranteed minimum income idea, President Nixon proposed a modest one in his Family Assistance Plan, but it failed to pass Congress. Coates does not mention what I have read elsewhere, that Moynihan eventually soured on his own proposal when a pilot study found a higher rate of marital breakup for recipients of a guaranteed income than in a control group of non-recipients. Moynihan, whose own childhood Coates describes as “a tangle of poverty, remarriage, relocation, and single motherhood,” saw family stability as the key indicator of policy success. He was not prepared for the possibility that some individuals would take the opportunity provided by a guaranteed income to leave unsatisfying relationships.

Black vilification, then and now

The critique of black family “pathology” became part of a long history of black vilification. Earlier in the book, Coates defines black enslavement as a twofold problem:

First there is the actual enslavement and all that has followed from it, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. But then there was the manufactured story that was told to ennoble and sanctify that enslavement.

Racial domination has always been accompanied by stories that serve to explain and justify it. The common theme in these stories is that something is wrong with the oppressed people themselves, rendering them unfit for independence and equality.

Based on my teaching experience, I would add that these stories have changed in some important ways over the years. Almost never did I hear from my white students an explicit assertion of African racial inferiority. On the contrary, they much preferred a story of equal opportunity but individual failure. Now that anti-discrimination laws have been passed and racism is on the decline, the story goes, doors that were closed are now open. The corollary is that people who still don’t get through those doors have less reason to blame white society and more reason to blame themselves. The family and personal problems that Moynihan saw as effects of racial inequality can be interpreted as causes of inequality. Black people would be successful if they would just live right, not dropping out of school, getting in trouble with the law, or having children they aren’t ready to support. What is strongly implied if not explicitly stated is that there must be something wrong with these people after all. The critique of black family instability by Mohnihan and others helped reinforce those attitudes.

The Republican philosophy of limited government is not in itself racist. But its surge in popularity among whites during the Nixon and Reagan presidencies is at the very least somewhat suspicious. After the Democrats embraced civil rights and the War on Poverty, whites turned Republican by the millions, turning what had been the Democratic “Solid South” into the essential core of the Republican base. Coates quotes Nixon’s domestic policy advisor John Ehrlichman as later admitting that “subliminal appeal to the antiblack voter was always in Nixon’s statements and speeches….” At the same time, public policy turned away from the War on Poverty to the War on Crime.

Mass incarceration

Coates says, “One does not build a safety net for a race of predators. One builds a cage.” Stories of black inferiority and failure have always implied a need for strong social control, but the forms of control have varied. In the early twentieth century:

…Jim Crow applied the control in the South. Mass incarceration did it in the North. After the civil rights movement triumphed in the 1960s and toppled Jim Crow laws, the South adopted the tactics of the North, and its rates of imprisonment surged far past the North’s.

Since 1970, the number of people in prisons and jails increased seven-fold, from about 300,000 to 2.2 million. (Adjusted for population growth, that was still a five-fold increase.) The United States leads the world in incarceration rate, with Putin’s Russia a distant second. “The United States now accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s inhabitants–and about 25 percent of its incarcerated inhabitants.” For males age 20-40, the black incarceration rate is ten times the white rate.

The rising incarceration rate is partly a response to an increase in crime that occurred after 1970. To see it as only that, however, overlooks some other considerations:

  • After the 1980s, rates of violent crime fell but rates of incarceration continued to rise.
  • Other countries also experienced a rise and fall in crime rates, but came through it without such a large increase in incarceration.
  • Who we imprison depends on what we choose to criminalize and where we choose to look for offenders. “Surveys have concluded that blacks and whites use drugs at roughly the same rates,” but arrests for drug possession are much higher for blacks.
  • A large proportion of the imprisoned are mentally ill, functionally illiterate, addicted and/or impoverished, suggesting that the U.S. relies on imprisonment to address social problems that would better be handled in the community.
  • Imprisonment has additional economic functions such as providing jobs for whites in rurally-located correctional institutions, and disguising our black unemployment problem. People in prison aren’t counted as unemployed because they’re not in the labor force.

Coates’s main point is that resources that could have been used to uplift and integrate black people were used instead to stigmatize and exclude them.

Criminal justice reform

Shrinking the prison population will require a lot more than just shorter sentences or earlier parole. We will need to think about what we define as crime, how else we might address social problems of mental illness, under-education, drug abuse and poverty; and how to reduce racial bias in arrests, prosecutions and sentencing.

Coates also points out that a smaller correctional system is not necessarily a fairer one. Among states, Minnesota has one of the lowest rates of incarceration, but one of the highest disparities between black and white incarceration. He ends by saying that we cannot pretend “that one can extract the thread of mass incarceration from the larger tapestry of racist American policy.”


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