Hope in the Face of Mass Incarceration, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader, Allene Swienckowski, shares an outlook similar to Thabiti Anyabwile, the Anacostia pastor we heard from earlier:

As a marginally educated black woman, several decades older than Mr. Coates, I disagree with his written and stated identification of what it means and feels like to him to be black in America today. His stringent and unabated hopelessness about the futures of blacks in America is not reflective of every black person in this country. 

Without a doubt, there are oppressive elements to being black in America that have and do negatively affect the lives of black folks, such as high arrest numbers for minor offenses, mass incarceration, high unemployment, depressed opportunities in the inner cities, etc, etc.  And I am completely aware of my family’s history in this country, having met a great-grandmother who had been a slave. As a child, my father danced for quarters on the street and my mother and grandmother cleaned white folks’ houses.

But this legacy of living black in America did not wrest away my hope for the future.

Perhaps my optimism for the future is because of my parents. The reality is, my legacy of optimism stretches back several generations. Both of my grandfathers owned their own homes in Detroit and Dayton. My mother’s father was a high school teacher and my father’s father worked for Frigidaire and was a Mason, as was his father. My father, at one point in his life, worked three jobs and would only buy homes in “white neighborhoods” before owning the first health club, even before Jack LaLane.

Yes, it’s true that when my father worked in the grocery warehouse for Ralph’s Supermarket in Glendale, California, he was routinely stopped by the police because it was illegal in the 1960s for blacks to be out after dark in Glendale, despite that my father working the swing and graveyard shifts. My mother acquired skills as a secretary and worked as an executive secretary. They bought homes, paid for me to attend private schools and pursued the lifestyle of Buppies.

I don’t believe that the chains of slavery and racism are the only rational explanation for the state of black lives in America today. It took me many years of living as an adult to understand that everything that happened to me or should have happened, was not based solely on the color of my skin.  I did not understand the dynamic of how white people relate to one another, much less as to how they relate to minorities.

I believe that black intellectualism, as accepted by the white gate keepers, the white intelligentsia, requires black angst to simmer in a miasma of disenfranchisement. I believe that the thinking black man, such as James Baldwin and now Coates, is a non-threatening educated entity that will never achieve the same type of power in the white world of literary acceptance simply because the world largely only relates to the ideas of the Western white man.

I think that every race and person in America has to be aware of our history, the reality of who we are as people in the hope that we each can lead productive and fulfilling lives. To assume that blacks will never achieve social parity in this country is a tragedy.