Race Is Always the Issue

Blackness has been relentlessly disparaged in American discourse—both covertly and overtly.

Elvert Barnes / Flickr

Every conversation about resources in the United States is also about race and racism. Like parents choosing a neighborhood for its “good schools,” Americans talk about prison and crime as a means of discussing race and racism in polite company.

One needn’t hate Hispanics to choose a school system with no Hispanics. One need not say that black people are violent apes to call the police when an injured human being who happens to be black knocks on your door for help. Freedom—from being stopped and frisked; from predatory criminal justice fines; from cells—is arguably the resource from which every other resource flows: education, marriage, income, wealth, happiness, actualization. In “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a decoder ring for the language of criminality, revealing that it rests on the idea that America can only be great so long as America is fundamentally white.

The articulation of America’s greatness is rarely as strong as when the country is preparing to elect its next leader. If nothing else, the political class generates tons of text and ideas for ordinary readers to parse. Coates parses the ideology of white racism in crime policy and rhetoric from the Fugitive Slave Clause through Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and on to Bernie Sanders. The occasion is the 50th anniversary of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”

During my doctoral training, Moynihan was offered as a cautionary tale to young academics. Moynihan, they said, dared to tell the truth about the culture of poverty in black communities. As a result, the liberal elite and angry black-activist oligarchy ran him out of society’s good graces, if not exactly out of town. We were warned against dabbling in social prescriptions: “Look what they did to Moynihan!”

We should all be so lucky as to be punished the way Moynihan was punished. Moynihan was a sociologist and a junior government official when he wrote his now-infamous treatise on the moral and economic decay of the black family. By the time he died in 2003, Moynihan was more than just a sociologist. He entered the rarified world of power. He worked with presidents. He commanded audiences within the cognitive elite. He had, I was once told by someone at a conference who’d had a bit too much to drink, a fantastic office at Harvard. Moynihan made it.

That he made it despite being “made into a racist,” as he put it, refutes the idea that being labeled a racist is some scarlet letter. It also raises questions about the renewed interest in revitalizing Moynihan’s reputation. Orlando Patterson and Ethan Fosse wrote in a new book that “history has been kind to Moynihan.” I agree. History has been kind to Moynihan. But it is not that empirical evidence of a deep culture of poverty among blacks has proven Moynihan’s case. Instead, the rapid acceleration and ruthless efficiencies of incarceration have made Moynihan’s theses seem prescient by intensifying every structural condition of race, poverty, and criminality in the United States. Moynihan is prescient only if one ignores that Moynihan went on to participate in the kind of policies and ideology that perpetuated the conditions he was originally critiquing. That kind of prescience is called winning by owning the rules of the game.

As voters prepare to turn the board over to a new gamemaster, Coates argues that the rules are still the same. Bill Clinton signed a crime bill in 1994 that effectively paid states to build prisons and reduce parole so that those prisons might stay full. In 2015, activists are circulating clips of Hillary Clinton online. In one, she can be heard calling kids “super predators” as an argument in support of her husband’s crime policies. Hillary likely borrowed the “super predators” language from a 1996 book that predicted a new crime wave unless these hyped up, extra-terrestrial, mostly poor, and almost always dark young people were locked away.

As fortune (or power) would have it, the narrative of a crime wave is reemerging. In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests all across the country, standing against police brutality and extra-judicial murders, mass media, and the pundit class are coalescing around a narrative of growing violence in the streets. A Wall Street Journal reporter puts a fine point on the connection: “The most plausible explanation of the current surge in lawlessness is the intense agitation against American police departments over the past nine months.” Waves in the bathtub aren’t even that simple to explain, much less crime waves. No one with any serious training in data, statistics, and crime attributes isolated crimes to a national trend armed with only nine months of data.

But when crime is really a proxy for talking about race, the threshold for conclusions to be seen as scientifically rigorous always shifts. Always. Were the issue actually crime, statistics would tell you that crime continues its longitudinal trend downward nationally. Were the issue criminality, science would tell you that civil unrest stems from very different social processes than those which produce criminals. Were the issue safety, public policy would protect black taxpayers from being indiscriminately murdered by the police.

But the issue is race. There, the scientific threshold bows to the superiority of racial logic. Suddenly, crime waves exist in a vacuum and have arbitrary beginning and end points. The poor become at once both fragile and super predators. Blackness assumes the essential, biological, and irrefutable character of criminality. Donald Trump can run for president of the United States despite once allegedly saying, “Laziness is a trait in blacks.” Not only is history kind to those who espouse racist ideologies, but the present ain’t too bad either.

As yet, no candidate has engaged respectfully with Black Lives Matter, the contemporary analog to the black oligarchy that supposedly ran Moynihan into the ground. Hillary Clinton appeared tone deaf and high-handed in a recent video, showing her talking with some BLM activists. Bernie Sanders has probably fared the worst. When some activists who identified as members of BLM interrupted his speech at a Netroots event, Sanders came off as thoroughly exasperated.

On the other side, most of the Republican candidates ignore BLM activists or cast them as emblematic of a type of learned helplessness. Democratic action, it seems, is only for a white polity. Any democratic action taken by a black polity causes “strife,” as Republican candidate Ben Carson described BLM. On policy, both sides could not be more compatible. If resources are about race, then there isn’t much threat from either party to the status quo of commoditized black freedom.

Fifty years after the Moynihan report on the state of the black family, there is still no penalty for questioning the morality of black culture. From academia to politics to media, Americans talk about race and racism much as they always have. They fight proxy wars but the terms of battle are the same. Black freedom has always been circumscribed and the means of circumscription have proven resilient. Whether the supposed issue is crime or schools and whether the accepted cause is biological or cultural, black folks are always a problem not to be solved but contained.