One doesnt build a safety net for a race of predators. One builds a cage
September 14, 2015 7:43 PM   Subscribe

In his latest essay for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates (previously) examines "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration."

Following his widely heralded book this summer, Between the World and Me, Coates dives deep into the mass incarceration of African-Americans and the criminal justice policy that put the U.S. on this path. Ultimately, he thinks the answer will be rooted in the subject of his previous large essay: Reparations (Previously).
posted by DynamiteToast (37 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
 
In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.

Fighting racism with sexism. The mind boggles.
posted by benzenedream at 8:15 PM on September 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


Believe it or not Moynihan had even worse stuff to say in that respect:

'“Men must have jobs,” Moynihan wrote to President Johnson in 1965. “We must not rest until every able-bodied Negro male is working. Even if we have to displace some females.”'...

'More on this count: In 1967, Time magazine put Moynihan on the cover, dubbing him an “urbanologist.” Discussing what he’d do about the problem among blacks in cities, Moynihan said, “When these Negro G.I.s come back from Viet Nam, I would meet them with a real estate agent, a girl who looks like Diahann Carroll, and a list of jobs. I’d try to get half of them into the grade schools, teaching kids who’ve never had anyone but women telling them what to do.” Everything about this quote is wrong.' (From Section 8)
posted by DynamiteToast at 8:20 PM on September 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


TNC is a bona fide national treasure.
posted by Aizkolari at 8:42 PM on September 14, 2015 [15 favorites]


The changes needed to achieve an incarceration rate in line with the rest of the developed world are staggering. In 1972, the U.S. incarceration rate was 161 per 100,000—slightly higher than the English and Welsh incarceration rate today (148 per 100,000). To return to that 1972 level, America would have to cut its prison and jail population by some 80 percent.
posted by T.D. Strange at 8:49 PM on September 14, 2015


In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.

Fighting racism with sexism. The mind boggles.


This was written in 1965, which means that in America at that time, a matriarchal structure did in all likelihood make it much more difficult to assimilate into the patriarchal society of white America.

It has *nothing* to do with "fighting racism with sexism". Look at how hard it is today, still, for unmarried women of any color to be taken seriously as heads of households. Women are still paid less, still expected to do only certain jobs, still expected to raise children, be nice, be empathic, &c. Now imagine this is 1965 and consider how a society hampered just by the economic realities of a matriarchal structure would fare. It's fucked up, and I believe that Moynihan brought \ his own baggage into the report*, but that doesn't mean that the way women are treated in this country can't have a huge, lasting effect on entire subsets of the population. Even public housing was not administered to families with a father out of work, so fathers had to live somewhere else for their kids and wives to have a place in public housing. Imagine the effect of that on a family, and multiply it by thousands of families subjected to it. The idea that woman earners were not equal to male earners and that men and their families did not deserve "handouts" if the men did not have jobs is fully rooted in patriarchy. This is just one type of the kind of thing that helped decimate communities of color.

* even Coates points this out: "Moynihan himself was partly to blame for this. In its bombastic language, its omission of policy recommendations, its implication that black women were obstacles to black men’s assuming their proper station, and its unnecessarily covert handling, the Moynihan Report militated against its author’s aims."
posted by oneirodynia at 8:52 PM on September 14, 2015 [15 favorites]


Wow the comments on the NPR link. Do. Not. Read.
posted by rtha at 8:54 PM on September 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Still absorbing the substance of this. Probably will be for a while.

At a craft level, I am full of admiration for how the various threads of TNC's work have matured and started coming together. I'm not sure if this makes sense, but I feel like I'm reading long chapters -- each of which stand alone perfectly and are complete in themselves -- of some mighty and comprehensive book on white supremacy in the 20th century.
posted by feckless at 8:56 PM on September 14, 2015 [22 favorites]


Every time something by TNC is posted, I feel like I should say something to acknowledge what important work he's doing - but anything I could say feels weak in comparison to articles like this, which are devastatingly powerful.

It has *nothing* to do with "fighting racism with sexism".

I don't know, I think that appealing to a traditional patriarchal family structure as a strategy for getting conservatives on board is a pretty textbook example of fighting racism with sexism.

Coates addresses the sexism again later toward the conclusion of the piece, much more strongly than in the shorter quote you pulled:
But if Moynihan’s past critics exhibited an ignorance of his oeuvre and his intent, his current defenders exhibit a naïveté in defense of their hero. “The Negro Family” is a flawed work in part because it is a fundamentally sexist document that promotes the importance not just of family but of patriarchy, arguing that black men should be empowered at the expense of black women. “Men must have jobs,” Moynihan wrote to President Johnson in 1965. “We must not rest until every able-bodied Negro male is working. Even if we have to displace some females.” Moynihan was evidently unconcerned that he might be arguing for propping up an order in which women were bound to men by a paycheck , in which “family” still meant the right of a husband to rape his wife and intramarital violence was still treated as a purely domestic and nonlegal matter.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:09 PM on September 14, 2015 [11 favorites]


Far too long for me. The stamina required to get to even a prima facie statement of the case ultimately being made is huge. Fuck Moynihan's childhood, get to the point.
posted by Segundus at 9:41 PM on September 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


Far too long for me. The stamina required to get to even a prima facie statement of the case ultimately being made is huge. Fuck Moynihan's childhood, get to the point.

I mean I'm not gonna act like it's not long, but sorry you feel that way and I think you're missing out. That being said if you feel like you just want to skip the more historical research in favor of the more human interest/original reporting stuff, then check Parts 3, 6, 7, and 9.
posted by DynamiteToast at 9:52 PM on September 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


Every time something by TNC is posted, I feel like I should say something to acknowledge what important work he's doing

"ALL THE PULITZERS!"

It would be a start, at least.
posted by Panjandrum at 11:03 PM on September 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


Just finished the piece. So contra some frustration (understandable) with the introductory life history of Moynihan, it's actually important. His change in views mirrors the way we've changed over time to maintain the same policy - white supremacy - while carefully being able to claim it's actually other things. And he was so close. You can actually see parallels to smaller justice arguments where an ally gets fed up because those he's trying to help don't just look up to him and ends up advocating for things against his original beliefs.
posted by R343L at 11:07 PM on September 14, 2015 [9 favorites]


Far too long for me.

Imagine living through (and under) it.
posted by Etrigan at 3:37 AM on September 15, 2015 [14 favorites]


I'm really beginning to like Coates' work but I have to admit that I'm a little disappointed to get through such a long piece discussing violence in metropolitan areas with even a mention of the role tetraethyl lead additives to gasoline apparently played in exacerbating violence and criminality during the time where leaded gasoline was commonly sold (post war to late eighties).
posted by The Correspondent on the Continent at 4:28 AM on September 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


“Prison is no longer a rare or extreme event among our nation’s most marginalized groups,” Devah Pager, a sociologist at Harvard, has written. “Rather it has now become a normal and anticipated marker in the transition to adulthood.”

This is beyond depressing. This is infuriating.
posted by Kitteh at 5:21 AM on September 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


I'm a little disappointed to get through such a long piece discussing violence in metropolitan areas with even a mention of the role tetraethyl lead additives to gasoline apparently played in exacerbating violence and criminality during the time where leaded gasoline was commonly sold (post war to late eighties).

This theory is still pretty . . . outré.
posted by listen, lady at 6:22 AM on September 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Reparations would be great. File under: not gonna happen.

However, many courts and jurisdictions are pushing de-institutionalization. There's a sea change going on in California corrections. It is now not political suicide for politicians to support such efforts. We should all vote for them.
posted by jetsetsc at 6:32 AM on September 15, 2015


Appropriate to how tentative the lead theory is , since it clearly has had some effect but how much crime can be attributed is hard, in fact the article does mention lead in two places which are fairly convincing. The story of one man convicted of murder talks about his childhood illness where doctors discovered he was sick due to lead paint (then a later childhood with emotional and behavioral challenges). Then in another place the piece mentions a lawyer whose lead cases are overwhelmingly black.
posted by R343L at 6:34 AM on September 15, 2015


Also given the point of TNC's work that the maintainence of white supremacy requires black people to be treated differently and worse, sticking with known and arguable causes like greater likelihood to grow up in buildings with lead paint is much more believable than arguing they live closer to roads and exposed to more leaded gasoline (as I don't think the lead gasoline has gotten that far in explaining crime variance.) He doesn't have to explain the overall worldwide trend in crime patterns (possibly partially due to lead gasoline). He just has to explain that we treated black people very differently during those periods in ways that had nothing to do with crime rates. Likely if he'd mentioned it, even in passing, the piece would be criticized for stepping past what's provable (which it already will be.)
posted by R343L at 6:40 AM on September 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Once again Coates demonstrates why he deserves multiple Pulitzers. As much as I, too would have liked more about rising crime and lead, that ignores the time before lead was heavily prevalent in the bodies of Americans and especially African Americans. As he points out, the legacy of oppression and incarceration goes back far further, with the South only not bothering to incarcerate African Americans because of the fear and social control.

I'd like to think that the current movement concerning the treatment of African Americans by police, especially with all the videos that are now surfacing, is the beginnings of a movement to recognize how this oppression and discrimination still continues, but I worry that, at best, it will merely result in a slightly lower arrest rate. (Which would still be an improvement, but would be a teaspoon removed from the ocean.)
posted by Hactar at 6:53 AM on September 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


One small point that (to me, at least) really shows the care Coates took is the word "carceral". He uses it eleven times (plus once in a quote), never explaining it, while using "penal" only three times (plus once in a quote and once in a proper name), and each time he uses the latter, it's very obviously to mean "punishment" as distinct from "incarceration" or to distinguish the previous system from today.

The system, which had previously been on some spectrum from punishment to justice to rehabilitation, is now about incarceration in and of itself -- we put people in prison because we put people in prison.

And I've said it before, and I'll say it again -- every Pulitzer for commentary from the last decade will some day have an asterisk and a note, "* -- Inexplicably, not Ta-Nehisi Coates."
posted by Etrigan at 7:18 AM on September 15, 2015 [17 favorites]


When Western recalculated the jobless rates for the year 2000 to include incarcerated young black men, he found that joblessness among all young black men went from 24 to 32 percent; among those who never went to college, it went from 30 to 42 percent. [...] The illusion of wage and employment progress among African American males was made possible only through the erasure of the most vulnerable among them from the official statistics.

I'm speechless.
posted by hat_eater at 7:20 AM on September 15, 2015 [11 favorites]


That was really a great read and very important. The little tiny nuances of white oppression that Coates details in this piece are overwhelming, and things you don't think about even when you do this sort of work all the time.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:32 AM on September 15, 2015


The Case for Hope:
Coates repeats the significant failure he recognizes in an earlier Moynihan. Coates tells us that the fatal flaw in Moynihan’s infamous report was Moynihan’s decision to omit specific policy solutions. Having seen that so clearly, it’s odd that Coates should repeat that failure so often in the important writing he now undertakes. A mind as formidable as Coates’s ought not stop with descriptive analysis, however compelling its portrayal of the problem. It should push itself to hazard a prescription, to call for some specific redress. But such solution sharing requires hope.
I like Coates a lot and I feel a deep affinity for his refusal to offer mainstream policy remedies in the face of the impossible debt that only true reparations could repay. (I'm a panacea skeptic, after all.) But there's at least something to this point.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:16 AM on September 15, 2015


But there's at least something to this point.

It's valid to criticize someone for talking about problems but not offering solutions, but when they offer a solution that you simply don't like because it seems politically untenable or not "mainstream" enough, well, I don't find that kind of criticism compelling at all.

Coates seems to believe that direct economic support to those damaged by these decades of oppression and subjugation is the only sensible way forward. If you think this can't possibly happen, well, he acknowledges in his NPR interview that it may be decades off, but that doesn't mean he has to champion some other set of more achievable goals if he believes they won't work. The fact that the real answer is very hard doesn't mean you're required to offer easier incrementalist answers just to demonstrate your seriousness.
posted by tonycpsu at 11:37 AM on September 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


Coates seems to believe that direct economic support to those damaged by these decades of oppression and subjugation is the only sensible way forward.

It is A sensible way forward, for sure.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:40 AM on September 15, 2015


Er, after reviewing that comment this:

Coates seems to believe that direct economic support to those damaged by these decades of oppression and subjugation is the only sensible way forward.

doesn't capture what I meant to say. Coates does point out in the piece that sentencing reform, drug decriminalization, etc. are all incremental ways to attack the problem, but he feels all of those incremental steps are not enough, and reparations need to be part of the solution.
posted by tonycpsu at 11:41 AM on September 15, 2015


Coates addresses this directly in the NPR interview:
CORNISH: You know, you write that Moynihan, in his report, stopped short of issuing actual policy recommendations, for better or worse. That might've detracted from the power of his argument. You, too, also, (laughter) point out things. You don't necessarily make policy recommendations.

COATES: Oh, I have a great policy recommendation (laughter). It's in here. I think what people mean when they say that is, what policy recommendation do you have that could make it through Congress right now? I don't have a policy recommendation like that. But the policy recommendation I have in this piece is the same one I had a year ago, and in fact, it's the same one Moynihan had in the 1960s - as he called it, unequal treatment, and as I call it, reparations.

That is an actual policy, as much as people don't want to deal with that, because it's a hard policy to actually bring into effect. But the basic idea is, you have a community of people through the lion's share of American history who've experienced, as Moynihan said, unequal treatment. The notion that you can just try - you know, make some sort of thing towards that unequal treatment and everything will be OK is preposterous.

I don't think we can keep doing this thing where we look from year to year to year, put our heads down - OK, what can we get done right now? I understand that legislatures have to do that, but people like me who are writers - we have to talk about the kind of policy solutions that, you know, could happen in a country with a different frame of mind maybe 20 years from now, 30 years from now 'cause I think it's a very, very long war.
posted by DynamiteToast at 11:43 AM on September 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


In comparing Coates directly with Moynihan, let us also remember that Moynihan was Assistant Secretary of Labor and wrote his Report to the President of the United States, while Coates is a columnist who wrote his article to the readers of The Atlantic. Only one of those people failed to provide concrete solutions in a venue where concrete solutions were the more important part of the analysis.
posted by Etrigan at 11:48 AM on September 15, 2015 [4 favorites]




It must be hard for TNC to constantly be asked for "realistic" policies given the political climate. Like telling a doctor, "Yes, you've been stabbed but don't dare ask for medicine or bandages, the people who stabbed you won't support it."
posted by ghharr at 12:41 PM on September 15, 2015 [11 favorites]


Mass Incarceration and the Problem of Language, a note by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I think what we name things has meaning. I also think that much of the vocabulary employed in the world of policy, activism, and the academy should be spurned by writers. I am deeply sympathetic to the authors of the phrase “School To Prison Pipeline,” but it’s not a phrase I can ever use. “School To Prison Pipeline” is a phrase that causes lightbulbs to go off among people who are already skeptical of state and institutional power. But my job, as a writer, is to explain as clearly as possible, and avoid language that assumes agreement.

This is not a favor to those I disagree with. It is an essential step in the quest to be able to explain, with detail and nuance, the world around me. Of course, I fail at that all the time. Brevity and clarity are sometimes at odds—but the writer strives for both. In that vein, if you ever catch me earnestly employing the phrase “white privilege” or telling someone to “admit their privilege,” take away the keyboard. It’s over for me.

Indeed, if I’d had my druthers, I would not have used the word “mass incarceration” in my latest piece.

It is has the same problem as “white privilege”—it’s an abstraction which deadens the very real violence that lurks behind the term. “Mass Incarceration” ultimately won. But I did not give up my quest for some new language to evoke what I felt going through the research and reporting. I thought about using Moloch to capture the entirety of our perverted criminal justice system—something about the idea of child sacrifice seemed apt. My wife vetoed that. I had a few others and eventually picked up my old Manual of the Planes and came up with this:
The Gray Waste is the plane of strongly focused evil within the D&D cosmology; its main theme is that of hopelessness and despair. In the Gray Waste, colors fade to muted shades of gray (except for the occasional portal, which are colored bronze, silver, or gold, depending on where they lead) and the land itself works to remain as soulless as possible. Extended visits to the plane cause travelers to lose interest in leaving; soon after, the entrapping effect of the plane takes over, causing increased apathy and despair. Eventually their sanity and memories fade away, and they become permanent petitioners of the plane.

According to Trenton Webb's critical review of Planes of Conflict for British RPG magazine Arcane, the Gray Waste "erodes the sense of purpose that is the hallmark of an alignment-based philosophy. One symptom of this is the place's ability to fade the colour from a character's clothes!"
You just can’t beat that. And you don’t have to be D&D-lover (like me) to love that phrase. I think our world could use more poetry and so often I find that poetry is most alive in the world of pop culture—in hip-hop, comic books, pro wrestling, pro football. On the street. Richard Braceful, who I interviewed for this piece, told me that a man given life in the prison where he served was said to have “letters but no numbers.” I thought that was so evocative. I’ve always thought that beautiful language came up from the bottom, even if it’s ultimately studied at the top.
posted by DynamiteToast at 6:54 AM on September 16, 2015 [9 favorites]


Noted ESPN blowhard Jason Whitlock with the pitch...

Coates with a swing and a long drive... it's deep, and I don't think it's playable.
posted by tonycpsu at 1:48 PM on September 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


reading thru ezra klein's vox interview with coates, to paraphrase:
EK: Tell me about the pit. You said that by the time these men go to prison, five other things have already happened to make them low-marriage material. What are these other things? What makes up the pit?

TNC: If you're African-American in this country, you're one or two generations out of Jim Crow, and so you’ve got parents and grandparents who missed certain education opportunities or couldn’t take advantage of certain home loan programs. Because of segregation, you live around other families just like you. You tend to go to a poorer school, or maybe you leave school early. So now you’re not that employable...

EK: I hadn't understood until this discussion that the reason you focus so much on housing laws in your work is that your understanding of African-American poverty is so much about neighborhood composition...

TNC: People think the black ghetto was like any immigrant ghetto. But the black ghetto was shaped by federal policy. These are socially engineered neighborhoods... it's why I have to go back to housing. I know this piece is about incarceration, but housing is the root of so much family wealth in America. I don’t know how people in America think of the middle class and don’t think about government policy... It goes back to this idea of compound deprivation. People in that pit are taking losses this whole time. The pit is only growing deeper. The damages you incur because your dad was in jail, because you live in a community where lots of other dads are in jail, because of the kinds of things you were exposed to — we have nothing on the program to deal with these damages.

EK: That gets to the end of the piece. It's really an echo of the reparations piece in a way I didn't see coming. It really argues that unless you can address the economic disparities that are powering the incarceration state, unless you can address the impoverishment that leads to incarceration, you can't really solve this.

TNC: Yeah, I don’t think you can. If by some feat of magic we returned to 1970 levels of incarceration, it’s not enough for me to see those levels reduced but still see a 5-to-1, 6-to-1, 7-to-1 black-to-white incarceration ratio. How do you get to a place where the black-to-white incarceration ratio is 1-to-1? That hasn't ever existed in post-slavery in America. It’s never happened. But if that’s what you want ultimately to happen, that’s a bigger conversation than imprisonment. It's a bigger conversation than drug laws.
it strikes me that one way to reconceptualize 'reparations' is as an economic stimulus (to perhaps make it politically more palatable... in a sanders administration!) by literally and figuratively digging black communities 'out of the pit' in a kind of comprehensive marshall plan/manhattan project/apollo program directed at getting the black-to-white incarceration ratio to 1:1, like doing whatever it takes -- from housing policy, improving schools and infrastructure investment, etc. -- to lift underprivileged neighborhoods to levels that are at least satisfactory to the people living there, if not the envy of the rest of the nation or world (like in a scandinavian sense ;)
posted by kliuless at 11:42 PM on September 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


it strikes me that one way to reconceptualize 'reparations' is as an economic stimulus (to perhaps make it politically more palatable... in a sanders administration!) by literally and figuratively digging black communities 'out of the pit' in a kind of comprehensive marshall plan/manhattan project/apollo program

Which would end up pissing off a lot of poor, exploited white people who have only “white pride” to console themselves with. Given how human psychology emphasises the magnitude of losses over gains, even lifting them up materially (with higher wages/better working conditions/&c.) would be drowned out by the loss of their position above the non-white people in the great order of things.
posted by acb at 5:06 AM on September 17, 2015


Someone always feels the need to come into threads like this to mention why any kind of reparations couldn't possibly work (some variation on "because white people will be sad/mad/angry" is always the reason). The reminder isn't necessary.
posted by rtha at 5:32 AM on September 17, 2015 [4 favorites]




« Older "I’m Sarah Nyberg, and I Was A Teenage Edgelord."   |   אלי אלי למה עזבתני Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments