When Ta-Nehisi Coates says that America’s bloated and enormously expensive dependence on imprisonment has created a “social service program … for a whole class of people,” he hits the nail on the head. Perhaps correctional expenditures—police, courts, jails, prisons, halfway houses, parole offices, and all the rest—are better classified as “welfare” expenditures.

Mass incarceration is not just (or even mainly) a response to crime, but rather a perverse form of social spending that uses state power to address a host of social problems at the back end, from poverty to drug addiction to misbehavior in school. These are problems that voters, taxpayers, and politicians—especially white voters, taxpayers, and politicians—seem unwilling to address in any other way. And even as this spending exacts a toll on those it targets, it confers economic benefits on others, creating employment in white rural areas, an enormous government-sponsored market in prison supplies, and cheap labor for businesses. This is what the historian Mike Davis once called “carceral keynesianism.”

What created this system? Coates suggests that 50 years ago policymakers and pundits refused to heed—or willfully misread—Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dire warnings about the dissolution of the “Negro family” and his rather inchoate “case for national action.” Rather than redressing the problem of racism and “Negro” poverty, instead they turned to the expansion of a criminal justice system in the name of “law and order.” Although Coates is justifiably hard on Moynihan—for his sexism and faith in patriarchy, for his subsequent reactionary politics, and most of all for lacking the courage of his convictions—like the historian Daniel Geary, he sees the Moynihan of 1965 as a closet supporter of affirmative action.

But, in characteristic fashion, he goes beyond this, asking readers to think in new ways about disturbing phenomena that they may take for granted. Bringing together Moynihan’s concerns about black family structure with the cold fact of mass incarceration produces a striking conclusion: Mass incarceration actually causes crime. In its long-term impact on the black family, mass incarceration has many of the disintegrative effects that Moynihan attributed to slavery. It certainly has a similar multigenerational impact; the children of imprisoned people have a much higher chance of themselves being incarcerated as adults.

Incarceration, as Coates notes, is a central element in the “tangle of perils”—as opposed to Moynihan’s “tangle of pathology”—of growing up black and poor in America. Moynihan argued in 1965 that in the face of history and structural racism, “the fabric of conventional social relationships has all but disintegrated” in many urban black neighborhoods. A half-century later, mass incarceration perpetuates this phenomenon more than any other factor. Still, I doubt that reparative “affirmative action for neighborhoods,” advocated by Robert Sampson, will be adopted any time soon. I can hear the objection now: That would be “rewarding crime.”

The terrible failures of America’s criminal-justice system can actually, from a certain perspective, be seen as policy successes. The high rate of recidivism suggests that prisons fail to rehabilitate those who are locked up. Yet if two-thirds of parolees return to prison, perhaps it is because the economy offers them no jobs and the welfare state excludes them as ex-felons. Their return to the social services provided by incarceration, from this angle, makes a degree of sense.  And the point of Coates’s essay is that these people the economy has no room for and the state is unwilling to care for are, as they have always been, disproportionately of African descent.

There is no way to dispute this: In the post-civil-rights era, racial policy drives mass incarceration. Indeed, mass incarceration is racial policy. As Coates shows, the association of blacks and criminality in the white mind is so deeply rooted in American history as to be virtually unassailable. Moynihan himself observed that in 1960, 37 percent of the prison population was black.

Still, this continuity does leave open important questions—why did the incarceration rate, which remained steady for a century after the end of slavery, spike after 1970? Why did the black incarceration rate, which had always exceeded that of whites, increase so much more rapidly in the same era?

One view is that cries for “law and order” in the late 1960s brought together southern Democrats and conservative Republicans under the umbrella of the “southern strategy.” Unable any longer to object openly to housing and school integration, civil rights, or black political power, politicians decried instead the threat of “crime” and “welfare” as shorthand for white racial resentment.  

Some historians point more specifically to the drug laws, most notoriously those advocated by Governor Nelson Rockefeller in New York in the early 1970s, which became a national model for punishing narcotics offenders, with predictable effects on prison populations. Here, as Coates shows, a racialized criminal justice system had extraordinarily skewed effects.   

Others, most notably the historians Naomi Murakawa and Heather Thompson, see liberal Democrats as the culprits, emphasizing Lyndon Johnson’s Safe Streets Act of 1968 and the resulting vast expansion of federal intervention in crime control (re-upped by President Clinton in the 1990s). The political scientist Michael Fortner argues in his controversial new book, The Black Silent Majority, that it was working- and middle-class African Americans, not just conservative whites, who clamored in the 1970s for a more robust penal system to clean up their decaying neighborhoods.   

Coates acknowledges most of these views, but ultimately seems to favor the “southern strategy” explanation. It is true, as he notes, that by the 1990s the resort to mass incarceration as social policy had become a bipartisan affair. Nevertheless, a certain kind of reactionary politics got the ball rolling—that is, a reaction to the emancipation of Black people after 1965, the relatively lower incarceration rates for blacks living in the Jim Crow South up until the 1960s—a region effectively, in Coates’s words, a “police state” as far as African Americans were concerned—testifies to this. As civil rights spread in the South and black self-assertion spread in the North,  politicians in both regions and of both parties turned to incarceration to assuage white anxieties and preserve racial control.

The search for historical explanations, and the heartening recent bipartisan recognition that as social policy mass incarceration is unsustainable, provide reasons to be hopeful. Yet, if the past is any guide—and as a historian, I have to believe it is—penal reform in the United States rarely attacks the root of the problem, which is racial and economic injustice. A century ago, in the face of national outcry, the brutal practice  in the southern states of leasing prisoners to the highest bidder to work in coal mines, turpentine farms, and phosphate mines came to an end. It was, however, replaced by the chain gang on southern roads. Touted as a great and humane reform, the public road gang itself soon became a notorious symbol of racial cruelty and injustice.  Today, we are back to seeing prison privatization as a potential solution to the incarceration crisis.  

Coates is right: To reform criminal justice requires “reforming the institutional structure, the communities, and the politics that surround it.” Mustering the requisite political and social resolve to make those changes may seem impossible. But consider this: How would the nation react if one out of every four white men between the ages of 20 and 35 spent time in prison?