The Conversation

Readers write in about ‘The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration’ and more.

The Incarceration of African Americans

In the October cover story, Ta-Nehisi Coates explored America’s history of mass incarceration over the past 50 years. He traced the intellectual basis of the policy in part to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report on “The Negro Family.”

The article was every bit as harrowing, illuminating, and infuriating as its famous predecessor, “The Case for Reparations” …
Coates is one of the great social writers of our time, and singularly qualified to do work of this scale and ambition, which changes how Americans view their own history and how they view themselves. The Atlantic, for its part, is nearly singular in its willingness and ability to approve, finance, and pub-lish this kind of work. As beautiful a writer as he is, what makes Coates’s writing so powerful and so radicalizing is his reporting and research. His telling of history is nauseating precisely because it amounts to no more than the arresting arrangement of iron facts … There is very little that can be described as controversial in his pieces. The only controversy comes in how Americans react to them.
Greg Howard
Excerpt from a Deadspin article

In one significant respect, I think Coates fails his readership and fails to represent something vital about African Americans—his writing lacks hope …
I suspect it’s this deepening despair that coaxes Coates into making two lamentable errors in “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”
First, 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.
Second, I suspect it’s this hopelessness that tempts Coates to reject “respectability politics” perhaps too quickly or too sweepingly.
Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile
Excerpt from a article

The mother of Odell Newton (whose story of serving a life sentence for murder Coates tells) feels like she’s been in prison with her son for the past 41 years. Does the mother of Newton’s victim, Edward Mintz, feel like she is in the grave with Edward? Where is the photo of Edward Mintz’s family—how did they pick up the pieces of a life cut short senselessly?
Joan Lovell
Sarasota, Fla.

One thing that struck me is the lack of input from families suffering from having a loved one murdered by a previously violent criminal who was released after a five- or 10-year sentence, or by someone who was never imprisoned despite a life of criminal violence. Such an omission is nearly always the case when dealing with this topic from the perspective of the suffering families of those imprisoned for life.
If someone wishes to make the argument that most violent offenders, once they get into their 60s, have aged out of their violent tendencies, that’s a debate worth having. But to simply ignore the percentage of murders committed by people who are younger than that, and who have a previous history of engaging in felonious violence, is, well, incomplete.
Will Allison
Albuquerque, N.M.

What moral law tells you that when one life is taken or destroyed, so must another? Odell Newton murdered a man when he was 16. Surely the family of the murdered cabdriver feels that pain acutely every day, but why should that mean the end of the 16-year-old’s life as well? Our justice system is supposed to be about rehabilitation. Do my fellow readers not believe that to be worth pursuing?
Finally, readers who bring up the cabdriver’s family should remember that Mr. Newton is not paying a debt to that family. He is paying a debt that we decided he owed us, meaning society. So it is not enough to bring up the sorrow of the family of the victim. You must also answer the question “What does society gain by keeping this man in prison?” I hope people have a better answer to that than self-righteousness.
David Greve
Pittsburgh, Pa.

“Noting that fear of crime is well grounded does not make that fear a solid foundation for public policy,” Coates argues. Actually, “fear of crime” does make a solid foundation upon which policies addressing that crime must be constructed. Emptying our prisons is not one of them. Nor is blaming police a substitute for personal responsibility.
Not even Bernie Sanders is going to fulfill the author’s wish list of government make-work jobs, a guaranteed minimum income, and billions of dollars in reparations. Good thing, because 50 years of Great Society–government free stuff have emasculated the black man’s self-worth more than the old Jim Crow laws.
“Lower-class behavior in our cities” continues “shaking them apart,” as Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned all those decades ago.
David Blaska
Madison, Wis.

Mass incarceration is an abomination that has disproportionately harmed African Americans. The immediate goal must be to abolish it. The U.S. needs to bring its incarceration rate in line with those of other Western countries and to where it was before the great confinement took off in the 1970s.
Coates draws a straight line from slavery to today’s carceral state. There are important parallels between the abolition of slavery and the potential abolition of mass incarceration. If you were back in 1850, would you choose the unconditional abolition of slavery? Or would you prefer a phased-in abolition premised on working out the details of how to transition to civil and political equality, and to 40 acres and a mule for former slaves?
The crime crisis is directly related to deeper structural problems in ways that the crisis of the carceral state is not. The only legitimate long-term solution to the crime crisis is another Reconstruction—one that is more durable than the first Reconstruction, after the Civil War, and the second Reconstruction, during the civil-rights movement—even if it takes a long time and requires a major political struggle. The U.S. will finally have to spend what it takes—politically and financially—to rectify the abhorrent consequences for African Americans of centuries of cruel and unequal treatment.
Marie Gottschalk
Author, Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics
Excerpt from a article

Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a powerful case against what he calls the “carceral state,” but provides virtually no evidence linking his foil—Daniel Patrick Moynihan—to it.
He neither claims Moynihan’s 1965 report on the African American family was responsible for subsequent incarceration policies nor accuses Moynihan of orchestrating them. Instead, he locates one issue beside the other, inviting—all but goading—the reader to draw the causal inference he does not explicitly make. Coates implies. He generalizes. He kneads anecdotes into impressions. In short, he does to Moynihan what he falsely accuses Moynihan of doing to the African American family.
This irony is compounded by the fact that Moynihan preceded Coates to this criticism of incarceration policy. His 1993 essay “Defining Deviancy Down” warned that “we are building new prisons at a prodigious rate” and that there was “something of a competition in Congress to think up new offenses for which the death penalty seemed the only available deterrent.” He fought tirelessly for treatment over criminalization for drug offenders at the height of the incarceration craze, including helping to pass a 1988 law on the subject.
Coates’s distorted portrait of Moynihan is both unfair to its subject and unnecessary to the essay’s purpose, which is exploring the effects of the mass incarceration of African Americans. The portions of Coates’s essay that pertain to Moynihan could have been excised without detracting from, or even altering, his observations about incarceration, which serves only to accentuate the extent to which he traffics in guilt by editorial association.
That such incaution is precisely the accusation he levels against Moynihan suggests that if Coates was insensitive to the unfairness of his portrayal, he might at least have been attentive to its irony.
Greg Weiner
Author, American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan Worcester, Mass.

The article by Ta-Nehisi Coates on the mass incarceration of black men was predicated on a gratuitous smear of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, echoed in James Bennet’s editor’s note. Coates asserts that the Moynihan Report (“The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”), printed in 1965, was significantly responsible for the surge in incarcerations of black men for drugs and other crimes decades later. But in expressing his anguish and anger about a deplorable situation, Coates has tortured history. He is entitled to his own opinion but not—as Moynihan used to say—to his own facts. He offered no facts to support his claim, because there are none.
In subsequent comments on, Coates cited selectively from other writings for what he maintains is evidence of Moynihan’s racial biases. Most of these writings were not made public until recently, long after the problem of incarceration arose. Pat Moynihan’s extraordinary private memos and diary entries will long be viewed, studied, and debated as artifacts of a turbulent period of history. But the argument that they led to the mass imprisonment of black men is scurrilous and without foundation. Moynihan spoke out often against imprisoning rather than treating drug offenders. Few public officials in modern political history did more to advance the cause of strengthening black families through income support and other programs than Pat Moynihan.
Steven R. Weisman
Editor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary Bethesda, Md.

Ta-Nehisi Coates replies:

Steven R. Weisman charges that I have “tortured history” and “cited selectively” from Moynihan’s writings. What specifically is the context that would exonerate Moynihan for claiming that the black poor were “unusually self-damaging, that is to say, more so than is normal for such groups” or that crime among the black poor has “given the black middle class an incomparable weapon with which to threaten white America”? What specifically is the context that would make it inoffensive for Moynihan to claim that there is “a virulent form of anti-white feeling” among the black middle class? Weisman offers none, because there is none. The notion that these writings were private and thus, somehow, innocent is absurd—as though dehumanizing people behind their back is somehow more honorable than doing it to their face.
Weisman neglects to mention Moynihan’s vote for the 1994 crime bill, which helped drive mass incarceration. In what universe are senators not responsible for the legislation they support? In what world does the fact that one’s advice to presidents was private render it somehow less risible? As I have said repeatedly, Daniel Patrick Moynihan has a complicated legacy. In the main, his intentions were noble. But intentions are not enough. Mass incarceration is built on a view of black people as particularly criminal. Moynihan, as an aide to President Nixon, promoted this view. And then, as a senator, he voted for legislation that emerged from this view. The need to canonize Moynihan is no more intelligent than the need to brand him an intractable racist.

Story Update

Odell Newton (second from right) with his nephew Donnell, his sister Jackie, and his mother, Clara, just after his release from prison. October 8, 2015. (Sonia Kumar)

For his October cover story on mass incarceration and its effects on black families, Ta-Nehisi Coates spent time in Maryland with the family of Odell Newton, a man serving a life sentence for murdering a cabdriver in 1973, when Newton was 16. Coates explained that Newton, who suffered from lead poisoning as a young boy, had been recommended for release three times, but each time, the governor rejected the Parole Commission’s decision.

As the article went to press, Newton’s lawyers filed a motion in court arguing that his sentence violated state law. In Maryland, a murder conviction carries a mandatory life sentence. The judge who sentenced Newton was told by the prosecutor and by Newton’s own lawyer at the time that he could not suspend part of the sentence—but it turns out that he did have that authority.

“We argued that because of fundamental errors that occurred at the time he was sentenced, he was entitled to a new sentencing,” one of Newton’s lawyers, Sonia Kumar of the Maryland ACLU, explains.

The state’s attorney’s office agreed to settle the case. At a hearing on October 8, the state noted that family members of the murder victim, Edward Mintz, “had expressed forgiveness and wished Odell well,” according to Kumar.

Odell Newton was resentenced to time served and released from prison that same day.

“It’s a blessing to be out,” Newton told The Atlantic. “I love my family, and they’ve been showing it while I was in prison.” Although he must serve five years of probation, Newton said of his release, “It’s a good feeling.”

In Maryland, Kumar says, “anytime you have someone serving a life sentence coming home, that’s exceptional.”

RFK’s Record

The October issue’s Very Short Book Excerpt, “RFK Was a Crummy Lawyer,” highlighted a passage from James Neff’s Vendetta: Bobby Kennedy Versus Jimmy Hoffa that discussed Robert F. Kennedy’s shortcomings in the courtroom.

The book excerpt in the October issue repeats the view, attributed to Edward Bennett Williams, that Kennedy “failed to understand that every man deserved a defense if the system was to work.” That opinion fails to recognize what Robert Kennedy did on behalf of poor defendants, starting soon after he became attorney general.
He appointed a distinguished national committee to study the problem of poverty and the administration of federal criminal justice. He created the first Office of Criminal Justice in the Department of Justice. He convened a national conference on bail reform. And he sent to Congress a bill, based on the committee’s work, that became the Criminal Justice Act of 1964, creating the role of public defenders, who have represented people accused but without funds for the past half century. This should not be merely the “Department of Prosecution,” he once said, but truly the Department of Justice.
Jack Rosenthal
Special assistant to the attorney general, 1961–66
New York, N.Y.

Our Fragile Constitution

In October, Yoni Appelbaum argued that America’s Founders, taking their inspiration from Britain’s Stuart monarchy, established a fundamentally flawed system of government.
There are so many errors in Yoni Appelbaum’s article about our “fragile” constitution that it’s hard to know where to start any critique. Appelbaum calls our constitutional system a “mixed monarchy” and a “presidential democracy” (examples of presidential power including the ability to make treaties and—a very low bar indeed—to name his own Cabinet). In fact, no treaty amounts to more than scrap paper unless the Senate approves it, and while the president can tell the Senate who he’d like in his Cabinet, the Senate will decide. Every major power of the federal government is held by Congress; the president is the head of state but not the head of government, and while he can veto legislation, he can make few things happen unless Congress agrees. Any reasonable analysis of how well or poorly our federal government functions must at least start with an understanding of the imbalance between Congress’s considerable authority under Article 1 of the Constitution, and the president’s comparatively small charter under Article 2 (the order is no accident).
Mickey Edwards
Member of U.S. Congress representing Oklahoma, 1977–92
Washington, D.C.

Story Update

Alvaro Dominguez

“Moving to Mars,” by Alana Semuels (November), cited the lack of surface water on Mars as one obstacle to living there. Shortly after the article went to press, nasa announced that new evidence shows the planet does in fact have briny water flowing on its surface. “It took multiple spacecraft over several years to solve this mystery, and now we know there is liquid water on the surface of this cold, desert planet,” said Michael Meyer, the lead scientist for nasa’s Mars Exploration Program, while announcing the discovery. “It seems that the more we study Mars, the more we learn how life could be supported and where there are resources to support life in the future.”

The Big Question: What science-fiction gadget would be most valuable in real life?

(On, readers answered October’s Big Question and voted on one another’s responses. Here are the top vote-getters.)

5. Mr. Fusion from Back to the Future Part II, so all our garbage could be turned into energy to heat our homes and run our cars.

John McDougall

4. I’ll go with a time machine, despite H. G. Wells’s cautionary tale. I would like to go to 2021 to see how Deflategate turns out—it should be wrapped up by then.

— Gary Vallely

3. The neuralyzer from Men in Black would be equivalent to the “undo” command for computers. If I were arguing with my wife and started losing, I could erase her memory and try again.

— Fernando Nunez-Noda

2. Without question, the replicator from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Not only would I have any type of food and drink ready in an instant, I’d never need to spend any time looking for my car keys or that one crucial Lego piece my sons can’t seem to find.

— Toby Wahl

1. Easily, the transporter from Star Trek. Not only could you instantly beam yourself anywhere, but you would avoid TSA lines—and you wouldn’t need to take your shoes off.

— Doug Garr

Because of an editing error, “Amateur Hour” (Jonathan Rauch, November) misstated the “14-Year Rule.” The rule observes that no one gets elected president who needs longer than 14 years to get from his or her first gubernatorial or Senate victory to either the presidency or the vice presidency. The rule does not make any predictions about who will be elected vice president.

To contribute to The Conversation, please e-mail Include your full name, city, and state.