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

Show None Newer Notes

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. ...

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 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.

The falling crime rate since the early 1990s has a number of documented causes and even more correlations associated with it, forming a very inconclusive picture—as we illustrated yesterday. Soon after publishing that note, we received a tweet calling for a clarification on the second chart we posted, the one showing the breakdown of possible causes for falling crime since the year 2000:

It’s another great question. I reached out to Inimai Chettiar, whose team at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law gathered the existing evidence on falling crime since the ‘90s and created those two charts we posted. Chettiar, who authored that Atlantic piece from earlier this year, was kind enough to expand on the minor role of crack. Here she is via email:

Spotlighting the Atlantic documentary on Angola prison, Whitney Benns made the very provocative argument last week that its work program is tantamount to slavery:

Those troubling opening scenes of the documentary offer visual proof of a truth that America has worked hard to ignore: In a sense, slavery never ended at Angola; it was reinvented. … [I]nmates at Angola, once cleared by the prison doctor, can be forced to work under threat of punishment as severe as solitary confinement. Legally, this labor may be totally uncompensated; more typically inmates are paid meagerly—as little as two cents per hour—for their full-time work in the fields, manufacturing warehouses, or kitchens. How is this legal? Didn’t the Thirteenth Amendment abolish all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude in this country?

Benns goes on to insist that “Angola is not the exception; it is the rule.” But a reader who used to work in a Texas prison, Matthew Lewis, challenges that narrative:

Firstly, I want to be clear: Being a white male, I can never fully understand the emotional effect a person of color feels when they when they see a field of nothing but black men working a field while chained with armed men in uniform patrolling them on horseback when shotguns. I fully acknowledge that systemic racism occurs and has occurred for centuries.

With that being said, the forcing of offenders in America’s prisons is done in an effort to promote a positive change in offender behavior.

Responding to our request for more evidence related to the lead/crime connection, a reader points to economist Rick Nevin, one of the leading researchers investigating that connection. Nevin wrote as recently as last month about how different cohorts were affected by lead:

The crime decline in recent years has been slower than the earlier decline in blood lead because steep arrest rate declines for youths have been partially offset by rising arrest rates for older adults. … This shift in arrest rates shows ongoing massive declines for youths born across decades of declining lead exposure, smaller arrest rate declines for adults born in the early years of the lead exposure decline, and increasing arrest rates for older adults born when lead exposure was increasing.

The shift in arrest rates has caused a corresponding shift in prison incarceration. From 2001 to 2013, incarceration rates fell by 59% for males ages 18-19 and 30% for males in their 20s, but increased 33% for men ages 40-44 and surged 86% for men ages 45-54. Proponents of “tough-on-crime” sentencing credit prison incapacitation for much of the USA crime decline – “when a criminal is locked up, he’s not ransacking your house” – but the largest arrest rate declines have occurred among younger age groups with large contemporaneous incarceration rate declines. ... Mendel reports that lead exposure can explain juvenile justice trends that cannot be explained by reform efforts or other crime theories.

Mark Kleiman, on the other hand, voiced skepticism on the lead/crime connection in response to Kevin Drum’s widely lauded 2013 essay, invoking the work of economist Philip J. Cook and criminologist John Laub. Another skeptic at the time was Ronald Bailey:

We’ve had a flood of thoughtful, nuanced questions in response to our call-out about mass incarceration. We asked what our readers wanted to know in the wake of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s cover story—what lingering questions they had and what else about the topic they were curious about.

One question in particular leapt out among the responses: Why did the U.S. see crime rates rise, and then fall, over the past two generations?

That’s the question tackled by this short documentary on Angola prison:

A reader adds:

I was struck by the video Jeff Goldberg did on Angola prison and how it fit into the broader discussion he had with TNC about mass incarceration. Seeking to learn more about the prison, about which I knew little, I happened upon a book by one of its most famous prisoners, Wilbert Rideau: In the Place of Justice. The story is a chronicle of Rideau’s time at Angola, his role as editor of the prison newspaper, and his eventual release. It is also one man’s chronicle of Angola, and the changes it underwent during his time there (early ‘70s until early 2000s).

The book is well-written and harrowing. It is relevant to the debate on many levels, but the one most germane to the exchange between TNC and Goldberg is Rideau’s description of the tenure of Burl Cain.

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.

A reader mentioned something I think is really worth expanding on. He initially shared the sentiments of these readers who lacked any sympathy for the central subject of TNC’s cover story, Odell Newton, who murdered a cab driver at age 16. But then the reader noted a line from an interview Ta-Nehisi did with Ezra Klein:

“Odell Newton, who is in jail for murder, and also nearly died from severe lead poisoning when he was 4.”

That changes things a bit. I’m not sure how bad the damage to Mr. Newton was, but given that he nearly died from lead poisoning, I’m sure it wasn’t nothing. How much of a mitigating factor that is, I don’t know, but it is something for which an accounting should be made. Where I’m from, mental deficits are mitigating factors, even for murderers.

We debated that last point previously in Notes here and here. Ta-Nehisi mentions in his piece how Newton’s lead poisoning almost killed him at age four, and how Newton’s repeated failures to get a G.E.D. probably stemmed from that poisoning, which is proven to cause cognitive and behavioral problems. And Ta-Nehisi notes the racial disparities:

A lawyer who handled more than 4,000 lead-poisoning cases across three decades recently described his client list to The Washington Post: “Nearly 99.9 percent of my clients were black.”

But that’s about it; Ta-Nehisi doesn’t explicitly mention the credible theory that lead poisoning is partly responsible for the spike in violent crime and incarceration of black Americans starting in the 1960s, before the U.S. government in the late 1970s banned the use of lead paint and severely restricted leaded gasoline. One of the most vocal advocates for the lead/crime theory is Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum. Here’s a concise summary from Drum:

Both gasoline lead and lead paint were most prevalent in the postwar era in the inner core of big cities, the former because that’s where cars were densest and the latter because slumlords had little incentive to clean up old buildings. Because African-Americans were disproportionately represented in inner-city populations during the high-lead era, they were disproportionately exposed to lead as children. The result was higher rates of violent crime when black kids grew up in the 70s and 80s.

And from a deep investigation by Drum that became a cover story:

An African American psychiatrist, mother, and Atlantic reader emails a nuanced perspective on the themes of gender and family we’ve discussed thus far:

The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” is a beautifully written, timely piece about the tragedy of mass incarceration that is affecting the fabric of our society—and that, as Coates eloquently argues, is steeped in racist fear. He weaves Moynihan into it all, and discusses how this frequently misunderstood figure and his thoughts on family intersected with the plight of black folk over the past half century.  This is actually the larger theme. Beyond mass incarceration, Coates’ article is really about an even greater issue; the article might have well been entitled “Why Is the Black Family Suffering Today, and What Can We Do About It?”

I wholeheartedly agree with many of the responses I imagine Coates would give: The black family is suffering because of a legacy of white supremacy. Mass incarceration is a crisis of epic proportions, which is a culmination of centuries of racist policy and has exacerbated the problems of the black family a thousand-fold.

However, as I read Coates closely, a small but important-to-me issue keeps coming up: I’m not sure how important he thinks the black family really is. Black individuals, yes. As an ardent defender of our personhood, our worth, and value, he is a welcome voice. But the black family? I get the sense that Coates may be just a little suspicious of the whole concept of family, or at least the traditionally crafted version. I’d like to argue that he shouldn’t be.