When Black Leaders Were For More Incarceration

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

A reader replies to Kay Hymowitz’s rebuttal to Ta-Nehisi’s cover story on mass incarceration:

I’m sure ACLU, NAACP, and the slew of liberal establishments are going to cry foul for articles like this one from Hymowitz. But it’s a breath of fresh air coming from a generally liberal-leaning media outlet like The Atlantic.

Yes, police brutality is wrong and racism still exists, but there are more reasons for incarceration of black males than just the color of their skin or the blame on drugs. Violent crimes are all too real, and it is equally wrong to simply advocate shorter sentence for all black violent crime offenders just because of their skin, which in and of itself would not help lift the black community and neighborhoods out of their blight. As Hymowitz has rightly argued, putting these violent offenders back on the street would likely do more harm than good for the black neighborhoods.

That last point makes me think of a recent New Yorker essay from Kelefa Sanneh that was largely a response to Ta-Nehisi’s new book. Sanneh focuses on the history of black politicians and community activists pushing for more imprisonment:

[Black Silent Majority is] a provocative new history by Michael Javen Fortner, a professor of urban studies who wants to complicate our understanding of crime and punishment in black America. He points out that while African-Americans have long been disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for committing crime, they have also, for just as long, been disproportionately victimized by it. His focus is New York in the nineteen-sixties and early seventies, when crime rates shot up, creating a demand in African-American communities for more police officers, more arrests, more convictions, and longer prison sentences. ...

Like many scholars and activists, Fortner is profoundly disturbed by our modern system of criminal justice, calling mass incarceration “a glaring and dreadful stain on the fabric of American history.” But he thinks this history is incomplete if it ignores what he calls “black agency”: he wants us to see African-Americans not merely as victims of politics but as active participants in it, too. At a moment of growing concern about how our criminal-justice system harms African-Americans, Fortner seeks to show that African-American leaders, urged on by members of the community, helped create that system in the first place.

And that momentum carried into the late ‘80s:

A decade later, during the crack years, African-Americans in Congress faced a similarly difficult choice in considering the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. The law established a minimum sentence of five years for trafficking five hundred grams of cocaine or five grams of crack cocaine. Years later, activists criticized this hundred-to-one disparity as unfair to African-Americans, who were more likely to be convicted of selling crack cocaine. But the bill passed with support from two-thirds of the African-Americans then in Congress, including Charles Rangel, from Harlem, whom President Reagan singled out for praise during the signing ceremony.

None of this directly refutes [Michelle] Alexander’s argument that the modern carceral state is a new version of Jim Crow. Indeed, Fortner thinks that black leaders, though right to be concerned about crime, were wrong to think that exorbitant mandatory sentences—rather than better-funded rehabilitation programs and structural anti-poverty efforts—were the answer. (Rangel later worked to end the crack-versus-cocaine disparity.)

When Alexander calls our criminal-justice system “the new Jim Crow,” she is drawing an imperfect parallel that tells us more about what this system does than about why it exists. It is possible, as Fortner shows, to be skeptical of the drug war while also noting that no small number of its supporters believed, as fervently as any activist today, that black lives matter.

The reason Black Lives Matter has a lot of eyes rolling is not because people don’t care about black people and don’t understand the problem with police. The problem is that the typical black man in a particular kind of community is at much, much more risk of being killed by another black man. And you can’t argue it away. … [I]n short, Black Lives Matter is very important. It could make a very important difference in modern black history. But for it to be a movement that resonates historically, it has to add a new wing where it firmly says and stands behind the idea that black lives matter when black people take them too.

Conor’s response:

Black Lives Matter activists are often silent about black-on-black killings. Perhaps that is a P.R. mistake. But the reforms they are urging strike me as a more realistic path to decreasing those killings than publicly haranguing would-be murderers to be peaceful. Black Lives Matter participants are civic activists, not respected high-school teachers or social workers or reformed gang members who can influence their former brethren.

Since police departments are ultimately responsive to political institutions, fighting for police reforms with civic activism is a relatively straightforward project. ... Fighting to stop black-on-black murder is much less straightforward project. And the tools available to civic activists are a much poorer fit for it: the undesirable behavior is already against the law; lots of attention has been paid to the problem for decades, so awareness-raising isn’t all that valuable; and there are few obvious best-practices to spread.

Circling back, a reader responds to this reader quoting Thomas Sowell:

The gut-wrenching claim that “the black family survived centuries of slavery” flies in the face of fact. At the whim of the slave owner, children were separated from parents, wives were separated from husbands.  

The easy explanation that “liberal policy” is the cause for increased crime or family instability masks the methodical ghettoization that occurred to ease white fears of black people with whom they did not want to associate. The architecture of urban environments, including the highways that allowed white flight to residence but convenient access to the city center amenities, gutted cities and thus their schools and limited the wealth which typically accrues in home ownership. The necessary policing to control ghettos contributed to the urban riots of the 60s, which fueled the fear that left urban environments at risk and gave rise to the easy stereotyping of shiftless black people living on the dole (see 'welfare queen'), instead of a population methodically cut off from opportunity.

Jim Elliott adds:

I encourage every single one of your readers who is interested in the “breakdown of the black family” to read Jason DeParle’s American Dream. They should flip to the part (early on in the book, if I recall) where DeParle interviews Hattie Mae Crenshaw. Your readers will see how the idea that the black family “survived centuries of slavery and generations of Jim Crow” only to perish at the wicked hands of liberalism, sagging pants, and hippity-hoppity music is just so much balderdash. The black family was never given a chance in the first place. Early parenthood, abuse, absentee fathers ... these are historical problems for the black family, stretching back to slavery, not to Johnson’s War on Poverty.