With the publication of “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” Ta-Nehisi Coates has added an elegant and forceful voice to the growing frustration with the inefficacy and injustice of America’s criminal-justice system. Mandatory-sentencing laws, the War on Drugs, juvenile-justice sentences that seem to do more to create than deter criminals, racial arrest and sentencing disparities: All are ready for a tough national cross-examination.
But even in the unlikely event that Washington and state legislatures successfully adapt the nation’s crime policies to a safer, more racially sensitive era, the nation will still look around to find more black men in prison than it might expect or want. There’s a simple reason for that, one that Coates himself notes: Relative to other groups, blacks commit more crimes. To understand why is to tackle some very hard-to-talk-about realities of black family life. And on that issue—and despite his announced interest in the topic—Coates has been the opposite of lucid.
Coates puts forward two interconnected, but flawed, theories about mass incarceration. First, he argues that there is no relationship between crime and incarceration rates, pointing his readers to a chart showing two apparently disparate trend lines. The first line shows crime levels rising dramatically after 1960; the second shows the rise in incarceration rates coming some 15 years later. Because of the 15-year gap, Coates concludes something other than a crime wave must have led Americans to lock up so many black men after 1975. “Imprisonment rates actually fell from the 1960s through the early ’70s,” he writes “even as violent crime increased … The incarceration rate rose independent of crime—but not of criminal-justice policy.”
That conclusion ignores something American history teaches over and over: The democratic process is groaningly, and often tragically, slow. Policy lags the most pressing social problems: Today’s exhibit A is immigration. “Thought leaders were slow to catch up,” after crime rates began falling and incarceration rates rising in the early 1990s, Coates observes. So too were they slow to catch up in the 1960s as crime was on the rise while incarceration rates moved not at all. It takes time to distinguish trends from blips, national changes from local upticks; witness the current debate over the significance of murder rates that are rising in Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., while remaining relatively flat in New York and Los Angeles. Contemporary surveys of public opinion show precisely the expected reaction to rising crime. “Popular support for liberal policies on crime and rehabilitation grew steadily” from the 1930s until the mid 1960s,” according to Thomas and Mary Edsall. “At that juncture public opinion shifted decisively in a rightward direction as crime rates rose sharply.”
Courts and legislatures dawdled, as they often tend to do. Today’s agonizing pictures from Europe, though, illustrate how people, particularly parents, living under the threat of violence will vote with their feet if they possibly can. In the 1960s, whites still living in increasingly crime-ridden urban areas, and more than a few blacks, simply left for safer suburbs. (An excellent chronicle of how this played out in the South Bronx can be found here.) Those blacks who remained, often because of the discriminatory housing policies Coates describes, joined local community and church groups to demand more aggressive policing and harsher penalties for crimes, including for drug offenses.
Black alarm about crime raises doubts about Coates’s second theory, that “the carceral state” was a new “system of control,” of black people. According to this line of thinking, the reason Americans started putting more people in jail circa 1975—“mass incarceration” wasn’t “mass” for years after it started—was that they wanted to perpetuate a racial caste system, or as Coates puts it, to keep blacks “unfree.”
Coates is right that tough-on-crime laws will have a disproportionate effect on blacks since they are more likely to be offenders (and victims for that matter). Still, whites and Hispanics were hardly immune to their effects. Incarceration rates for white and Hispanic men almost tripled between 1960 and 2010. Today, 63 percent of inmates are white and Hispanic. If mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow, it somehow manages to get an awful lot—a strong majority, actually—of non-blacks into its clutches.
The Jim Crow theory is on slightly firmer ground when it comes to drug offenses. Blacks and whites appear to use and sell drugs at similar rates, yet blacks are considerably more likely to be arrested and to serve time in prison for drug offenses. The 1986 Anti Drug Abuse Act legislating harsher sentences for crack cocaine also helped to load the penal system with black prisoners.
I say “slightly firmer ground,” because chalking up these policies to racial animus leaves several challenges. For one thing, there is evidence linking the crack epidemic to a rise in violent crime; that is not true for powdered cocaine. Second, though there is a widespread impression the war on drugs explains most of black incarceration, that’s not remotely the case. Drug admissions account for only 20 percent of the rise among the incarcerated since 1980. Almost two-and-a-half times the number of black men are serving sentences for murder, assault, and the like in state and federal prisons as are serving time for using and selling drugs. Today, violent criminals continue to make up by far the largest cohort of the freshman class of prisoners—black, white, and Hispanic. Like most writers on this subject, Coates chastises the U.S. for having among the highest prison rates among advanced nations. The numbers are shocking but it seems worth noting that compared to other advanced nations, the United States also has by far the highest homicide rates even after years of decline.
The hardships suffered by people who have served time, and their families, are real and profound. Relatives, who are typically very poor to begin with, struggle to put together the cash for lawyers and family visits. Ex-offenders find themselves branded for life. Employers tend to throw away job applications from men they consider a risk to their business and maybe even their lives. Prison records may well play a role in the distressingly low black-male employment numbers.
But without considering the counterfactual, these genuine grievances float in ideological thin air. Would black families be better off if violent offenders had been in their homes or on the streets? Would black communities? In one of his follow up comments to his article, Coates urges shorter sentences for violent crimes. In some cases—especially for those reaching “criminal menopause”—that makes sense. But recidivism is extremely high among former prisoners: More than 70 percent of prisoners convicted of a violent crime will be rearrested within 5 years, a third of them for another violent crime. Of course, that means two-thirds will not be, but insofar as prison does have some “incapacitation effect,” that is, it takes criminals off the streets, shorter sentences may mean more crime. How to calculate the potential damage caused by longer prison sentences versus the risk of more street crime is a thorny moral and policy question. Those more inclined to weight the second over the first may well be wrong, especially in these relatively safe times. But does that make them complicit in a Jim Crow system—that is, racists?
What does all of this have to do with the black family? Far more than Coates leads readers to believe. Children suffer when their parents go to prison, he writes. Yet he says nothing about the suffering of black children growing up in chaotic families, though that suffering is itself highly correlated with the scourge of ghetto crime and incarceration. Seventy-two percent of black children are born to unmarried mothers. The majority of those children will see contact with their fathers “drop sharply”; within a few years, about a third of dads will basically just disappear. Children don’t take well to the succession of partners, step- and half-siblings that follow their parents’ breakup. Studies, not just a few, but a slew of them, connect “multi-partner fertility” and father absence to behavior problems, aggression, and later criminality among boys even when controlling for race and income. Doesn’t that suggest black-family disruption could have some bearing on crime and incarceration rates?
Before 1960, when poverty and racism were by all accounts far worse, the black family was considerably more stable. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the large majority of black women were married before they had children. Black children were less likely than whites to grow up in two-parent homes, but only slightly so. It was only after 1960, even as more black men were finding jobs and even as legal discrimination was being dismantled with civil-rights legislation, that the family began to unravel. It was precisely that unexpected disconnect that spurred Daniel Patrick Moynihan to warn that “the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself” in his 1965 report.
Waving all of this away as “respectability politics” ignores this history; it ignores anthropology; and it ignores many decades of research. It also risks neglecting the real suffering of black children and their communities.