A Critique That Misses the Point

Mass incarceration is a complicated problem—and deserves to be treated as such.

Over at the National Review, Kay Hymowitz offers some praise from my writing skill and some demerits for my recent article on mass incarceration and the black family. I appreciate the praise, but I would appreciate it, and the demerits, a lot more if I could be assured that Hymowitz actually read the article.

I don’t know how, for instance, to reconcile the claim that I have overstated “the extent of the prison population serving sentences for drug offenses” with the actual article, which says, “The popular notion that [decarceration] can largely be accomplished by releasing nonviolent drug offenders is false—as of 2012, 54 percent of all inmates in state prisons had been sentenced for violent offenses.”

I don’t know what to make of the claim that I am “ignoring” violent crime given sentences like this: “Between 1963 and 1993, the murder rate doubled, the robbery rate quadrupled, and the aggravated-assault rate nearly quintupled.” I follow this with an argument over why the thesis that mass incarceration flowed from crime is incorrect. You can read that portion beginning in the second paragraph of the second chapter.

What Hymowitz did read, she is intent on misrepresenting. The point is not, as she asserts, to “bundle” a woman (Celia) who kills her slave master and rapist with a 16-year-old (Odell Newton) who shoots a taxi driver. The point is to expose a dubious benchmark. When a society has a history, as this one does, of treating ordinary self-improvement and self-protection within a minority population as criminal, it becomes easier to understand why it would treat actual criminality as something much more. Odell Newton—who was given a sentence of life with the possibility of parole, who has been repeatedly recommended for parole, and whose employers have said they would hire him were he paroled—is experiencing something “much more” than what he was sentenced to. History helps explain why.

William Julius Wilson—recipient of the Moynihan Prize—is introduced by Hymowitz as “no ideological ally of Moynihan,” a claim anyone familiar with his work will find bizarre. Then, as some sort of refutation, she quotes Wilson denouncing the vitriol Moynihan received, much as my article quoted Wilson denouncing the vitriol Moynihan received. She points out that focusing on violent crime will still leave us with a disproportionate number of African Americans incarcerated due to their disproportionate rate of offenses. I wrote the same thing in the last chapter, with one major difference—I attempted to explain why this is so. One need not buy my explanation. One can find my citation of Richard Frase’s study in Minnesota wanting. Hymowitz doesn’t even bother. She just pretends it isn’t there.

In other places Hymowitz offers a raft of statistics on the effects of absent fathers, on “multi-partner fertility,” and on the relationship between step fathers and abuse. It’s all very enlightening. But it doesn’t do much to disprove the central contention of my article. That contention is as follows: In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan attempted to coerce the American government into benevolent investment in black communities. Instead, the United States chose malevolent investment in black communities. My article attempts to explain why that choice was made, to trace its effects, and to suggest how those effects might be reversed. I assert that the choice can not be separated from Moynihan himself, nor from the tradition of liberal reform. I assert that “family” is a convenient but limiting lens for examining the tangle of perils which choke the black community. Finally, I assert that those perils—mass incarceration included—work in concert, and should be addressed in concert.

That’s it. Read the article. Granted, it’s long—too long for the National Review, evidently. But when you finish you will have already outdone the flagship of conservative American thought. It really isn’t that hard.