Hope in the Face of Mass Incarceration

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

We asked Thabiti Anyabwile, the lead pastor at Anacostia River Church in Washington, D.C., to respond to our new cover story, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” Anyabwile begins with high praise for the essay: “With skill, insight, and bite, Coates seems dedicated to reviving and reframing a conversation in the U.S. about reparations and long overdue justice for African Americans.” He then scrutinizes the essay at length, with nuance and grace, centering on the “lack of hope” in TNC’s writing:

Both solution sharing and respectability require some measure of hope. You get neither with despair or cynicism.

Hope was beneath the respectable Sunday-best attire worn to civil-rights marches. Hope was undergirding calls for respectable self control among sit-in demonstrators while being inhumanely sprayed with condiments at lunch counters. ... In the fight against the new slavery of mass incarceration, communities need the kind of hope whose back licked up flesh-splitting whips and dared dream of freedom anyway; the kind of hope that defied two centuries of educational oppression and disenfranchisement to elect black politicians in Reconstruction and establish institutions of higher learning; the kind of hope that managed to hold heads up high even when Jim Crow posted signs of white supremacy at every water fountain and public entrance; the kind of hope that marched all over U.S. cities for equal rights, full enfranchisement and integration ...

To get a better sense of where Anyabwile is coming from, check out his blog at The Gospel Coalition. In a comprehensive post back in March, he wondered, “How deep are the roots of racism?”

We thought we could stick the racists into the country’s past, next to a post marked “obsolete,” and gladly forget about it. But the roots of racism run deep. That’s why an entire police department [in Ferguson] and many others appear shot through with indications of that insidious root system. That’s why we’re now inundated with reports of municipal governments and court systems complying with police to raise revenue on the backs of African Americans. … The roots run deep, deeper than the natural eye can see, beneath the soil of our hearts, our cultures and our institutions.

And for Anyabwile, a father of three, the stakes are very close to home. Shortly after Michael Brown was killed last year, Anyabwile was afraid for his son in particular:

If I have a fear it would be one thing: bringing my son Titus to the United States [from the Cayman Islands]. He’s so tender and innocent and the States can be very hard on Black boys. That’s my one fear. This country destroying my boy. Ferguson is my fear. I could be the black dad approaching a white sheet stained with his son’s blood.