A Call for Hope in the Age of Mass Incarceration

The four-letter word helped African Americans surpass challenges in the past, and it should still be present in the face of today’s struggles.

Gerald Herbert / AP

Ta-Nehisi Coates delivers another jeremiad against racism and white supremacy in his article, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” With skill, insight, and bite, Coates seems dedicated to reviving and reframing a conversation in the U.S. about reparations and long overdue justice for African Americans. Along the way, he’s even taken time to provide fresh reinterpretation of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and debates about the relationship between public policy and personal pathology in African American communities.

I hope he succeeds. I find his searing analysis compelling. I appreciate his attempt to put a face—a worn, mistreated, yet noble African American face—on the issues. His stripping away of euphemisms and niceties and political correctness lays bare the ugly truth about the U.S.—about Americans. The cuts could be healing.

But in one significant respect, I think Coates fails his readership and fails to represent something vital about African Americans—his writing lacks hope.

Otherwise brilliant, “The Case for Reparations” suffers the same hopelessness. Coates’s new book, Between the World and Me, carries its own heavy coat of despair. It’s not that Coates simply leaves off hope; he in some respects refuses it. Martin Luther King Jr. once famously observed, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Turning the phrase, Coates writes in Between the World and Me, “My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box.” He confesses to having “no sense that any just God was on [his] side.” He insists that the public “must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice.” And although Coates maintains he is not a cynic, he speculates that, “Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be.” While he writes, “This is not despair,” it looks an awful lot like it.

On the one hand, readers can readily understand the lack of optimism when Coates accurately describes the way mass incarceration robs a family:

Peril is generational for black people in America—and incarceration is our current mechanism for ensuring that the peril continues. Incarceration pushes you out of the job market. Incarceration disqualifies you from feeding your family with food stamps. Incarceration allows for housing discrimination based on a criminal background check. Incarceration increases your risk of homelessness. Incarceration increases your chances of being incarcerated again.

If incarceration pillages a person or family so completely, it’s difficult not to feel hopeless. The people in my southeast Washington, D.C. neighborhood know all too well the temptation to hopelessness. There’s a thick fog of despair that settles on entire blocks of families mangled and maligned by mass incarceration.

But have opponents of mass incarceration done their job by simply describing and detailing the phenomenon? Have public advocates rendered their best service to communities by refusing to point a way forward? Has it compounded the problem by leaving off solutions? Have our best public intellectuals been the best public servants, if they convey no hope?

I suspect not. And I suspect it’s this deepening despair that coaxes Coates into making two lamentable errors in “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”

First, Coates repeats the significant failure he recognizes in an earlier Moynihan. Coates tells us that the fatal flaw in Moynihan’s infamous report was Moynihan’s decision to omit specific policy solutions. Having seen that so clearly, it’s odd that Coates should repeat that failure so often in the important writing he now undertakes. A mind as formidable as Coates’s ought not stop with descriptive analysis, however compelling its portrayal of the problem. It should push itself to hazard a prescription, to call for some specific redress. But such solution sharing requires hope.

Second, I suspect it’s this hopelessness that tempts Coates to reject “respectability politics” perhaps too quickly or too sweepingly. For example, Coates finds in W.E.B. DuBois a harbinger of “respectability politics,” as DuBois calls for an end to criminal and misogynistic behavior among some African Americans in his day. For Coates, DuBois belongs to the “paralyzed black leadership” that capitulated to white racist criminalization of black people. But what if the U.S. risks rejecting respectability itself when it rejects respectability politics? And what if in inadvertently rejecting respectability the country rejects something more—namely the hope that gives rise to aspiration, including respectability?

Perhaps DuBois recognized the battering of women as a genuine matter of respectable character and behavior. That DuBois could simultaneously oppose black oppression and oppose black male mistreatment of black women ought to have been heralded as sober, responsible leadership. It ought to have been received as that kind of love that speaks the truth inside and outside the community. It ought to have been understood as that hope which believes better of the community and insists on doing better—yes, even being “twice as good” if necessary. Coates rejects that double standard. On some level he’s correct in doing so. But at another level, perhaps he is too sweeping in insisting “all [blacks] were constricted, not by a tangle of pathologies, but by a tangle of structural perils.” There are tangles of pathologies to be addressed, even if as William Julius Wilson points out, in More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner-City, the structural perils cause more and more negative consequences than the cultural and personal factors. There are pathologies to address, and one word for addressing them is “respectability.”

Both solution sharing and respectability require some measure of hope. You get neither with despair or cynicism. Hope was beneath the respectable Sunday-best attire worn to civil-rights marches. Hope was undergirding calls for respectable self control among sit-in demonstrators while being inhumanely sprayed with condiments at lunch counters. Hope was resting in the weary hearts of respectable marchers and demonstrators packed in jail cells following protests. In the fight against the new slavery of mass incarceration, communities need the kind of hope whose back licked up flesh-splitting whips and dared dream of freedom anyway; the kind of hope that defied two centuries of educational oppression and disenfranchisement to elect black politicians in Reconstruction and establish institutions of higher learning; the kind of hope that managed to hold heads up high even when Jim Crow posted signs of white supremacy at every water fountain and public entrance; the kind of hope that marched all over U.S. cities for equal rights, full enfranchisement and integration; and the kind of hope that gave rise to blues, jazz, protest songs, and gospel.

Black families affected by mass incarceration need hope that’s stronger than the vicissitudes of this life, built on better promises than social policy can offer. Inner-city communities need hope that places its members’ happiness beyond the reach of their enemies. Vulnerable families need hope stronger than the death that’s so frequently dealt out in its homes and hamlets.

African Americans could never have managed to survive without hope. Hope in things unseen has kept African Americans going and kept them sane in the face of unimaginable absurdity. Hope is not an abstraction or an escapist fantasy. Sometimes hope is the only real asset the oppressed have. That’s why I wish there was more hope in the very formidable writing and thinking of Ta-Nehisi Coates.