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We Read the Ta-Nehisi Coates ‘Mass Incarceration’ Article, and You Should, Too

We Read the Ta-Nehisi Coates ‘Mass Incarceration’ Article, and You Should, Too: © Myron Jay Dorf / CORBIS

© Myron Jay Dorf / CORBIS

Ta-Nehisi Coates. You’ve likely heard his name. He’s a New York Times bestselling author and one of America’s most esteemed public intellectuals. He’s also about to write the new Black Panther comic book for Marvel. Just as Walt Whitman once said of himself, Coates “contains multitudes.” The MacArthur Foundation very recently awarded him with one of its prestigious annual genius grants. How does one go about attaining one of those? You drop serious cultural criticism on a country that is still trying to square its racial past and present. In his latest piece for The Atlantic, Coates published a sprawling expose on the mass incarceration of black Americans and the terrible costs whole families must pay.

The article is a heavyweight. It clocks in at nearly 17,000 words. Obviously, that sort of word count might keep many from reading it. But you should read it. Of course, we both know you’re a busy person. You have many things competing for your attention. Make the time. Coates and his work are an important part of our cultural conversation. Consider this sort of a cheat sheet for the article. We hope it piques your interest enough to dive into the whole thing.


It’s important, first, that you be familiar with the subject of mass incarceration. We, as a society, are locking up our fellow citizens at staggering rates and greatly reducing the chances of success for their children and their whole families. While many before have appealed for prison reform on moral grounds, Coates’ worldview is shaped by his atheism. He argues on ethical grounds. He makes his case as a citizen of a nation of laws. He’s not one who is moved by Jesus to do the right thing. Coates makes it clear that what’s being done in America is systemic. It is intentional. It flows directly from the racism of the past. Only now the continued subjugation of black Americans is handled by the penal system. It is the new form of Jim Crow repression.

One thing to keep in mind about America’s program of mass incarceration: the imprisoned are there because they (presumably) made terrible choices. This is inarguable, for the guilty. As you likely know, or are learning, the conditions of your life determine your choices. As Viola Davis recently pointed out in her acceptance speech for her historic Emmy win, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” This is true not just for women of color, but for all families of color. The greatest divide is opportunity.

In his article, Coates makes it abundantly clear that for black American families, mass incarceration is more damaging than “one’s conditions determining their choices.” Mass incarceration determines the conditions of a prisoner’s family, and thus, their choices as well. As one mother quoted by Coates tells us, “It’s like I’m in prison with him.”

Here are a few horrifying statistics from the article:

1 in 4 black men born since the late 1970s have spent time in prison
Between 1993 and 2001 the American prison population increased 66 percent
The serious crime rate only fell by 2-5 percent
Locking up all those prisoners has cost us $53 billion dollars

This graph makes clear with a few jagged lines the recent history of mass incarceration in America.

001 zaron-graph

Robert Sampson. Data from: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics; Uniform Crime Reporting System

In order to make sense of those numbers, Coates provides some context for America’s ever-increasing rate of incarceration.

The Gray Wastes—our carceral state, a sprawling netherworld of prisons and jails—are a relatively recent invention. Through the middle of the 20th century, America’s imprisonment rate hovered at about 110 people per 100,000. Presently, America’s incarceration rate (which accounts for people in prisons and jails) is roughly 12 times the rate in Sweden, eight times the rate in Italy, seven times the rate in Canada, five times the rate in Australia, and four times the rate in Poland. America’s closest to-scale competitor is Russia—and with an autocratic Vladimir Putin locking up about 450 people per 100,000, compared with our 700 or so, it isn’t much of a competition. China has about four times America’s population, but American jails and prisons hold half a million more people.

How did this start? Why are we locking up so many Americans? And why are so many of the ones we imprison black Americans? There are rather easy answers to those questions.

Coates’ essay is framed as an examination of the Moynihan Report and its repercussions. Before Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a senator, he was a public intellectual, much like Coates is today. Wanting to better understand the problems that far too often seemed to doom black Americans to a lifetime of poverty, Moynihan focused on the family. He compiled his findings and published them with the unmistakable title, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”

The problem was Moynihan didn’t include an action plan. Instead, he articulated the problem and left it for others to solve. He assumed he’d done the difficult work of understanding the crisis. He laid it out in very straightforward language. And he made sure to clearly place the blame in the hands of white America.

In a word, most Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world, and probably a majority are so entrapped. Many of those who escape do so for one generation only: as things now are, their children may have to run the gauntlet all over again. That is not the least vicious aspect of the world that white America has made for the Negro.

Photo via A Capella Books

Ta-Nehisi Coates / photo via A Cappella Books

At first, as Coates points out, it seemed like the Moynihan Report would be an instrumental tool to help make America a better society. President Johnson held it up as a means to help address the nation’s historic systemic racism. As Coates explains it:

President Johnson offered the first public preview of the Moynihan Report in a speech written by Moynihan and the former Kennedy aide Richard Goodwin at Howard University in June of 1965, in which he highlighted “the breakdown of the Negro family structure.” Johnson left no doubt about how this breakdown had come about. “For this, most of all, white America must accept responsibility,” Johnson said. Family breakdown “flows from centuries of oppression and persecution of the Negro man. It flows from the long years of degradation and discrimination, which have attacked his dignity and assaulted his ability to produce for his family.”

American politics are slow by design. Compromise is stitched into the fabric of our lawmaking. Consequently, public debate can and often does shape the intentions of lawmakers. In response to what would come to be called the Moynihan Report, American politicians set to work debating the “Negro family crisis.” At that same time, Moynihan found himself the focus of a backlash of criticism of his report. After President Johnson left office, President Nixon took up the cause of fixing the damage done to the black families of America. He also listened to Moynihan, and with his help pushed for a guaranteed minimum income for all American families.

Nixon promoted Moynihan’s proposal—called the Family Assistance Plan—before the American public in a television address in August of 1969, and officially presented it to Congress in October.

Despite backing by a Republican president, the Family Assistance Plan was killed on the Senate floor. Moynihan and Nixon would both move onto other things. And America would find a new way to deal with the problems of the black family.

Coates reveals that the new answer was: prison.

It was the method by which we chose to address the problems that preoccupied Moynihan, problems resulting from “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment.” At a cost of $80 billion a year, American correctional facilities are a social-service program—providing health care, meals, and shelter for a whole class of people.

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.

What does that look like? You see it every day on the news. But in hard numbers it works out like this:

From the mid-1970s to the mid-’80s, America’s incarceration rate doubled, from about 150 people per 100,000 to about 300 per 100,000.

From the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s, it doubled again.

By 2007, it had reached a historic high of 767 people per 100,000, before registering a modest decline to 707 people per 100,000 in 2012.

Here are two more dire statistics:

The United States now accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s inhabitants—and about 25 percent of its incarcerated inhabitants.

In 2000, one in 10 black males between the ages of 20 and 40 were incarcerated—10 times the rate of their white peers.

In order to address problems brought up by Moynihan, two sitting presidents attempted to shape American policy. Yet, a Republican and Democrat both failed to fix the damage done to black families by America. As a result of their failure, the problems born of America’s racist past were blamed on the black families. The failures of America to live up to its laws were seen as the failure of black America. The problems were seen as endemic to the community. Thus, they were to blame. And if they were to blame, they should be punished. This flawed thinking led directly to the creation of a prison industry that further destroyed the hopes and dreams of black Americans and their families. The irony is painful.

As Coates makes evident, it was in a Democratic president like Bill Clinton and liberal senators like Joe Biden that our culture of mass incarceration would find its greatest champions.

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.”

Of course, the medal for mass incarceration can’t be solely pinned on the lapels of Democratic politicians. They were attempting to prove they were hard on crime like the Republicans. And this hard-on-crime stance dated back to Richard Nixon, the same president who’d attempted to help black families after being motivated by the Moynihan Report.

Rather than follow Nixon’s lead of positive social programs like a guaranteed minimum income for all American families, politicians from both parties decided to follow his battle cry of punishing criminals to restore law and order in America.

In 1966, Richard Nixon picked up the charge, linking rising crime rates to Martin Luther King’s campaign of civil disobedience. The decline of law and order “can be traced directly to the spread of the corrosive doctrine that every citizen possesses an inherent right to decide for himself which laws to obey and when to obey them.” The cure, as Nixon saw it, was not addressing criminogenic conditions, but locking up more people. “Doubling the conviction rate in this country would do far more to cure crime in America than quadrupling the funds for [the] War on Poverty,” he said in 1968.

But the saddest part is that the men beating the drum knew that the war they were enlisting others to fight was all based on “bullshit.”

Nixon’s war on crime was more rhetoric than substance. “I was cranking out that bullshit on Nixon’s crime policy before he was elected,” wrote White House counsel John Dean, in his memoir of his time in the administration. “And it was bullshit, too. We knew it.” Indeed, if sinking crime rates are the measure of success, Nixon’s war on crime was a dismal failure. The rate of every type of violent crime—murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault—was up by the end of Nixon’s tenure. The true target of Nixon’s war on crime lay elsewhere. Describing the Nixon campaign’s strategy for assembling enough votes to win the 1972 election, Nixon’s aide John Ehrlichman later wrote, “We’ll go after the racists … That subliminal appeal to the antiblack voter was always in Nixon’s statements and speeches on schools and housing.”

They employed a dog whistle campaign of racism to win back the White House, and then Nixon’s team fell victim to its own campaign and began to buy the hype it was selling. When it found that it motivated the base, it became a party platform. And when the Democrats wanted to retake the White House in the 1990s, they followed Nixon’s lead and made it part of their platform, too. Meanwhile, for decades, black American families suffered under this political gamesmanship.

In his article, Coates examines the human costs. He shows us lives ruined, families pushed to the brink, and a legacy of how this “hard on crime” political stance that began as a way to motivate racist voters continues to doom black Americans’ futures. This is the real cost of America’s racist program of mass incarceration.

If you prefer to think of it in hard economic costs, America pays $80 billion a year to maintain our ever-growing prison problem. For all that money spent, those dollars seems to have little effect on our crime rate, yet mass incarceration does have a staggering effect on black Americans. In terms of effectiveness, it’s far better at keeping black people poor than it is effective as a crime deterrent. Which suggests to Coates that it’s a means of racist social control, more than a means to rehabilitate wayward citizens.

That early-20th-century rates of black imprisonment were lower in the South than in the North reveals how the carceral state functions as a system of control. 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. Mass incarceration became the national model of social control. Indeed, while the Gray Wastes have expanded their population, their most significant characteristic remains unchanged: In 1900, the black-white incarceration disparity in the North was seven to one —roughly the same disparity that exists today on a national scale.

The troubles with any attempts to deal with our racist program of mass incarceration is that it is entangled with poverty in a way that makes it clear that poverty is as much a problem as the prison system. The two amplify each other.

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.”

Which leaves us with the final question: What can we do? How do we undo the wrongs done to black America as a result of mass incarceration? It’s the sort of question that begets more questions than it supplies answers. Coates wrestles with it in his concluding thoughts, which, we encourage you to read, here, along with the rest of the piece.


Zaron Burnett is a roving correspondent for Playboy. Follow him on Twitter: Zaron3.

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