Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle, Between the World and Me, and the forthcoming book We Were Eight Years in Power.
  • Reuters

    Moynihan, Mass Incarceration, and Responsibility

    Good intentions and deep sympathies cannot counter corrosive doctrines and destructive policy.

  • Ben Carson, Bigot

    Yesterday presidential candidate Ben Carson was asked if he could ever support a Muslim president. Carson, channeling a significant portion of the American electorate, said that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” This proclamation is presently receiving the rebuke that it deserves, though it could stand for even more, if only because of its ugly sanctimony.

    Ben Carson is a Christian—a fact he shares in common with all our greatest domestic terrorists and self-styled Indian-killers. From slave-holding to ethnic cleansing, Christianity has repeatedly been employed to sanctify our most shameful acts. One might counter that Christianity has also been employed to inspire our most honorable acts. But this is a level of complexity that Carson’s ilk do not grant to Islam. To Carson, Islam is terror and nothing else.

    Christians, fully conscious of their own pedigree, need not completely renounce their faith, nor repudiate their scripture. (If a man seeks to plunder you, Dr. Seuss will suffice for showing cause.) But you would think a wise Christian would be more humble. Carson is neither humble nor wise. Carson is a bigot playing to a base that considers bigotry to be a feature, not a bug.

  • Brad.K / Flickr

    A Critique That Misses the Point

    Mass incarceration is a complicated problem—and deserves to be treated as such.

  • The Case for Decarceration

    It’s interesting. People often ask me if I think reparations will happen and my answer is, “Not in my lifetime and probably not in my child’s lifetime.” But I wouldn’t go so far as you think I would—which is to say “America is not granting reparations to African Americans.” I wouldn’t say that because history, itself, shows that stranger things—more terrible and more lovely—have happened.

    What I suspect is that if reparations came about they would come, not simply as a result of agitation, but because of some exterior force in American life that made them necessary. That has been the case for every single advance in our politics around the divide of racism. You can’t imagine emancipation without Southerners deciding they wanted an entire country founded on the expansion and cultivation of slavery. You can’t imagine the civil-rights movement without the Cold War and without the Holocaust and the direct evidence of white supremacy taken to its logical conclusion. I can’t even imagine this moment of seemingly bipartisan (if somewhat thin) agreement around the perils of mass incarceration, without falling crime. Let that crime start to rise and this moment will be vapor.

    This is scary because we don’t know why these things happen. We still don’t have a good explanation for why crime rose and fell. And so our current consensus is essentially rooted in the weather. If it’s sunny tomorrow we decarcerate. (Yes, it's a word!) If it thunders we retrench.

    So no, I don’t put reparations off the table.

  • The Work of Generations

    Hey, Jeff. Yeah that was a fun convo. I respect Mayor Landrieu too, though my differences with him were, I think, pretty clear. One thing I want to clear up: I think I said “open the jails” or something like that when asked for my solution. I didn't mean let everyone, everywhere out. What I was trying to get at was this palatable—but fictitious—idea that we can decarcerate without having a very hard conversation over what we mean by “violent crime” and what kind of penalties we want to attach to it.

    So, in answer to your question, here are a few places I'd start:

    1. Old people. To my mind, the point of prison is two-fold—to protect the public from dangerous criminals and to attach meaningful sanction to acts which harm society. I know that there are others who believe that vengeance on behalf of victims should play some role. I am less than convinced. The argument has a strong hold on me emotionally. But I am mixed on how much of a role what victims and victims families think should happen to offenders. I just don't know. At any rate, 10 percent of our prisoners are over 55. By 2030, that number will grow to a third. This is, all at once, the population least likely to re-offend and (one of) the population most vulnerable to the violence of prisons. Shortly after I closed my piece, 58-year-old Odell Newton—who is featured—was attacked by some younger prisoners. So I agree with your cousin, Burl Cain. Start with those who've gone through “criminal menopause.”

    2. I'd lessen the sentences for violent crimes. This isn't a matter of “who” I'd release, so much as who I'd keep from staying so long. Life with parole used to be a thing in this country—and then it became politically advantageous to run against it. I would look at the rest of our peers around the world and work really hard to bring our penalties in line with them. Decarceration, I suspect, is going to be the work of generations. A good way to begin the process is to stop feeding people into the system in the first place.

    3. Juvenile lifers. This isn't about numbers so much as it is about morality. Usually you are talking about people who committed violent acts as children. With our growing knowledge of neurology and how the human brain matures, I don't know how we justify life-terms for the acts of juveniles. I'd actually extend this beyond lifers and look at juveniles, period. If you are given a 10-year sentence as, say, a 16-year-old, your life is on the shelf. When you come out, no one is going to want to employ you. Whole careers will be inaccessible to you. You will be ineligible for several government programs meant to address poverty, and you will have a significant chance of going back to jail.

    4. “Non-violent drug offenders.” I think this case has been made pretty well by others, most impressively by Michelle Alexander. I agree with it. I just want to make sure the conversation doesn't end there. Still, this has value beyond the sheer size of our prison system. Drug arrests are not the reason why there are so many people in prison, but they are among the most common charges brought. This has meaning. An arrest record is a kind of brand—a credential, as Devah Pager argues—that makes garnering gainful employment difficult. When I argue against focusing merely on “nonviolent drug offenders,” it’s not because I don't think the Drug War meant anything. I just think it's meaning lies elsewhere.
  • Mass Incarceration and the Problem of Language

    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.

  • A Note on the Moynihan Report, Black Women and 'Urbanology'

    My piece on mass incarceration is long. I wish it wasn’t but it is. Believe it or not it was once even longer. The first draft clocked in around 19k and then ballooned in edits to 21k, before shrinking down to a svelte 17k. (I think that’s where we ended up .) Like James Bennet, I tend to cringe a little when people praise things I write for being “long.” I’m a Gza guy:

    To many songs, weak rhymes that’s mad long
    Make it brief son, half short and twice strong

    Still working on that. My brilliant editor Scott Stossel helped me lose a lot of fat, but I think next month I’ll send him some haiku.

    Still,  there is one thing I would have liked to have said more about. I had a rather lengthy section toward the end on the intellectual roots of the Moynihan report. I am going to reproduce those paragraphs here. These were neither fact-checked, nor copy-edited. It’s just “the raw.” I’m reproducing it this way for two reasons:

    1.) I think it’s good for young writers, and even readers, to have some idea of what a first draft looks like. (In my case, it looks a lot like my blogging.) I think it’s important that people know that there is no magic in writing. It’s just pushing words.

    2.) Had “Notes” existed at the time, I likely would have written something like this. It’s a redo for me. I think it’s cool to have an unedited record of how something strikes you.

    To my mind, The Moynihan Report is rooted in some really ugly assumptions in mid-20th century sociology and psychology about black people in general and black women in particular. The book that helped me process this, more than any other, is Daryl Michael Scott’s Contempt and Pity. I wish I could have said more about this theme, and that book, in the original piece.

    But without further adieu, here we go:

  • A Family Weathers a Life Sentence

    Odell Newton was 16 when he killed a cab driver. Four decades later, his family is still hoping for his release.

  • Greg Kahn

    The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration

    American politicians are now eager to disown a failed criminal-justice system that’s left the U.S. with the largest incarcerated population in the world. But they've failed to reckon with history. Fifty years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report “The Negro Family” tragically helped create this system, it's time to reclaim his original intent.

  • Mass Incarceration, Visualized

    In this animated interview, the sociologist Bruce Western explains the current inevitability of prison for certain demographics of young black men.

  • NYPD Brutalizes Wrong Innocent Man

    Earlier this week, former tennis star James Blake was manhandled and detained by the NYPD. The arresting officer had mistaken Blake for a suspect in an credit card fraud ring. Commissioner Bill Bratton quickly called Blake and apologized. That strikes me as the right thing to do. But what of the original suspect? The Times offers a detail that should not be overlooked:

    The team of officers, looking for suspects in a credit card fraud ring, were relying on a courier who identified Mr. Blake as one of the buyers, the police said. The officers also had an Instagram photo of someone believed to be involved. That person, who Mr. Bratton said looked like Mr. Blake’s “twin brother,” turned out to have no role in the scheme.

    The suspect allegedly looked like Mr. Blake’s “twin brother.” But that “twin brother” was innocent. It’s very easy to imagine the NYPD giving the same treatment they gave Blake to another innocent man. And then it’s worth asking whether an apology would be forthcoming from anyone, and whether any of us would be talking about this at all. When you have an incident like this it becomes a kind of spectacle, but to understand what’s really been driving the conversation the past few months, it’s essential to think beyond the celebrity factor. The question isn’t simply whether the NYPD treated Blake unfairly. It’s how many others are treated unfairly and written off simply as the cost of doing business.

  • Never Marry Again in Slavery

    A short note about The Atlantic’s October cover story, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration”

  • The Enduring Myth of Black Criminality

    Ta-Nehisi Coates explores how mass incarceration has affected African American families.

  • There Is No Ferguson Effect

    The Times has a story today on the rise in homicide in some American cities. It’s an important story—one which is hurt by the utterly baseless suggestion that those who protested against Ferguson may well have blood on their hands:

    Among some experts and rank-and-file officers, the notion that less aggressive policing has emboldened criminals — known as the “Ferguson effect” in some circles — is a popular theory for the uptick in violence.

    “The equilibrium has changed between police and offenders,” said Alfred Blumstein, a professor and a criminologist at Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University.

    Others doubt the theory or say data has not emerged to prove it. Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said homicides in St. Louis, for instance, had already begun an arc upward in 2014 before a white police officer killed an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, in nearby Ferguson. That data, he said, suggests that other factors may be in play.

    One might defend these paragraphs on the grounds of objectivity. But the writing here is not so much objective as it is vague. Note the deployment of qualifiers and weasel words—“some experts,” “some circles,” “other factors.” Note the juxtaposing of one expert opinion unhampered by facts (“the equilibrium has changed”) with another expert opinion directly rooted in one crucial fact (the rise in homicides in St. Louis precedes the Ferguson protests.)

  • When Malcolm X Met Robert Penn Warren

    If you have a moment, check out this interview between two of the more interesting minds of the 20th century. In 1965, Robert Penn Warren published a book called Who Speaks For The Negro? in which he interviewed a number of prominent African-Americans. Warren was one of the giants of 20th century literature, and a reformed white supremacist who came to regret his views.

    I can’t really be so objective about Malcolm X—no one else did more to help me ground the problem of white supremacy in concrete terms. At his best, Malcolm was the ultimate anti-sentimentalist. He was uninterested in the “moral nature” of white liberals, and unconcerned with unknowable matters of the “heart.” This is the spirit I felt in James Baldwin. This is the spirit I feel in Tony Judt. In Edith Wharton. Perhaps that sounds odd. I can’t call it. I can only tell you how it hits me. When Ellen Olenska says to Newland Archer, “Oh my dear, where is that country?” I hear so much about what is familiar to me in Baltimore, in New York, in Paris. The things we revile can’t merely be wished away.

    Warren is searching for the possibility of white innocence—for “that country”—but Malcolm won’t give it to him:

  • It Was No Compliment to Call Bill Clinton 'The First Black President'

    In 1998, Toni Morrison wrote a comment for The New Yorker arguing that  “white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime.”  Last week the New York Times, implicitly cited Morrison’s piece, and claimed the author was giving Clinton “a compliment.” This interpretation of Morrison’s claim is as common as it is erroneous.

    The popular interpretation of Morrison’s point (exhibited here) holds that, summoning all of her powers, the writer gazed into the very essence of Clinton, and found him sufficiently soulful. In fact, Morrison’s point had little to do with soul of any kind.  She was not much concerned with Clinton’s knowledge of Ebonics, his style of handshake, nor whether he pledged Alpha or Q.  Morrison was concerned with power.

    Race has never been much about skin color, or physical features, so much as the need to name someone before doing something to them. Race is not a sober-minded description of peoples. It is  casus belli.

    Dig Morrison’s description of Clinton’s blackness:

  • Jonathan Hickman's Secret Wars

    In 1984, when Marvel premiered its mega-super-hero crossover, Secret Wars, I was lost. I didn’t know many of the heroes, and only knew half the villains. I read it because I had to. I was a child and my parents owned one TV and that TV had six channels. We had no VCR.  (What you have heard is true—I am quite old.) Worrying about “continuity” and whether I would “understand” were rich people’s problems. Reading anything, for me meant getting lost.  And so very often, I found myself taking on reading—including comics—that at didn’t understand. It was either be lost or be bored. And boredom was the enemy, and the enemy was always advancing.  

    Now in an era where the entire entertainment landscape is Choose Your Own Adventure, it’s tougher to argue for comic books—especially legacy ones that rely on years of history. But being the oldster that I am, I am going to make an argument for the ultimate oldster book:

  • Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

    Tell Your Stories

    The author of Between the World and Me asks readers to submit their own experiences with racism and its physical consequences.

  • Darhil Crooks / The Atlantic

    Letter to My Son

    “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates Reads From Between the World and Me

    A new book from father to son on race in America