Reporter's Notebook

Debating Mass Incarceration
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Below is all our discussion related to the October 2015 cover storyThe Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” For a back-and-forth between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg, go here. For TNC’s rebuttal to National Review’s Kay Hymowitz, go here. If you’d like to contribute, email hello@theatlantic.com.

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Why Has Crime Declined in the U.S.? Cont'd

A reader floats a plausible theory:

As much as it pains me to say it as a privacy advocate, I would like to suggest that the decline in crime rates starting in the ‘90s might have to do with the ubiquity of video cameras.

In the wake of Ta-Nehisi’s cover story on mass incarceration, The Atlantic last week published a strong dissent from Kay Hymowitz. She had written an initial criticism of the cover story over at National Review, which he responded to here. From Hymowitz’s latest critique:

Children suffer when their parents go to prison, [Coates] writes. Yet he says nothing about the suffering of black children growing up in chaotic families, though that suffering is itself highly correlated with the scourge of ghetto crime and incarceration.

Seventy-two percent of black children are born to unmarried mothers. The majority of those children will see contact with their fathers “drop sharply”; within a few years, about a third of dads will basically just disappear. Children don’t take well to the succession of partners, step- and half-siblings that follow their parents’ breakup. Studies, not just a few, but a slew ofthem, connect “multi-partner fertility” and father absence to behavior problems, aggression, and later criminality among boys even when controlling for race and income. Doesn’t that suggest black-family disruption could have some bearing on crime and incarceration rates?

Before 1960, when poverty and racism were by all accounts far worse, the black family was considerably more stable. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the large majority of black women were married before they had children. Black children were less likely than whites to grow up in two-parent homes, but only slightly so. It was only after 1960, even as more black men were finding jobs and even as legal discrimination was being dismantled with civil-rights legislation, that the family began to unravel.

That essay elicited over 1400 comments—an unwieldily number to even read, let alone edit into a productive discussion. So below are a handful of those comments, if readers are interested in getting a debate going. The first:

I had a sociology professor in the ‘70s predict the breakdown of the black family. He said it would be an unintended consequence of the Women’s Liberation Movement, which was just coming into its own. Women worked some, during WW2. But most were still at “home” prior to the advent of Women’s Lib—after which, we joined the workforce in large numbers. Black women had always worked as domestics, but it didn’t pay much. After Women’s Lib, they too (along with white women) joined the larger workforce.

My professor’s theory was that black women were seen as less “threatening” to whites than black men.

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. ...