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“If generational peril is the pit in which all black people are born, incarceration is the trapdoor closing overhead.”

That’s a poignant statement written by Ta-Nehisi Coates in a report in the October issue of the Atlantic titled: “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” It’s a lengthy piece that marks the 50-year anniversary of “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action,” a report by ambassador, senator, sociologist, and American intellectual Daniel Patrick Moynihan, written “to explain to the fellows how there was a problem more difficult than they knew.” The problem, according to Moynihan, was that there was a deficit of employed black men and the pending civil rights legislation was not the answer to fix Black poverty. And so, influenced both by the civil rights movement and the war on poverty which he wanted to rectify with a national program that subsidized families through jobs programs for men and a guaranteed minimum income for every family, he began his research.

In his groundbreaking paper released in March of 1965, initially as only an internal government document, Moynihan boldly claimed that the federal government had underestimated the impact of slavery as well as a “racist virus in the American blood stream” (subsequent Jim Crow Laws), writing:

“That the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary—a lesser people might simply have died out, as indeed others have … But it may not be supposed that the Negro American community has not paid a fearful price for the incredible mistreatment to which it has been subjected over the past three centuries.

“The Negro family, battered and harassed by discrimination, injustice, and uprooting, is in the deepest trouble. While many young Negroes are moving ahead to unprecedented levels of achievement, many more are falling further and further behind.

“In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.

“In a word, most Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world, and probably a majority are so entrapped. Many of those who escape do so for one generation only: as things now are, their children may have to run the gauntlet all over again. That is not the least vicious aspect of the world that white America has made for the Negro.”

Sound familiar?

Despite its pointed claims, which we now know to be all too accurate, Coates does note it’s shortcoming: nowhere in the report were there any recommendations for addressing the ills to come. An omission that was intentional according to Moynihan who said, “It would have got in the way of the attention-arousing argument that a crisis was coming and that family stability was the best measure of success or failure in dealing with it.”

In reality, what got in the way when the report was released to the public was the overzealous focus on the “brokeness” of black people rather than the chain of events that led to the black condition. And that resulted in two realities which we’re currently still suffering with today: the persistent archetype of “The negro criminal” and mass incarceration. As Coates notes:

In absolute terms, America’s prison and jail population from 1970 until today has increased sevenfold, from some 300,000 people to 2.2 million. The United States now accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s inhabitants—and about 25 percent of its incarcerated inhabitants. In 2000, one in 10 black males between the ages of 20 and 40 was incarcerated—10 times the rate of their white peers. In 2010, a third of all black male high-school dropouts between the ages of 20 and 39 were imprisoned, compared with only 13 percent of their white peers….

As the civil-rights movement wound down, Moynihan looked out and saw a black population reeling under the effects of 350 years of bondage and plunder. He believed that these effects could be addressed through state action. They were—through the mass incarceration of millions of black people.

To showcase the racism intertwined in the prison industrial complex, Coates points out that violent-crime rates actually fell from the early ’90s to the present while imprisonment rates increased. “The incarceration rate rose independent of crime—but not of criminal-justice policy,” he writes, adding that “this bloating of the prison population may not have reduced crime much, but it increased misery among the group that so concerned Moynihan.”

Coates backs that statement up with the fact that among all black males born since the late 1970s, one in four went to prison by their mid-‘30s; among those who dropped out of high school,the number is even higher — seven in 10. Making the connection between incarceration rates and the issue Moynihan first set out to address — unemployment — Coates notes that in 2000 when the unemployment rate among Americans was recalculated to include young black men in jail, joblessness among all young black men increased from 24 to 32 percent, and among those who never went to college, that number went from 30 to 42 percent. “The illusion of wage and employment progress among African American males was made possible only through the erasure of the most vulnerable among them from the official statistics,” Coates writes.

Noting the way Moynihan’s narrative has thrived for decades among the country’s leaders, all the way to Barack Obama and his harsh words for the black family, Coates says “In their efforts to strengthen the black family, Clinton and Moynihan—and Obama, too—aspired to combine government social programs with cultural critiques of ghetto pathology (the “both/and” notion, as Obama has termed it), and they believed that Americans were capable of taking in critiques of black culture and white racism at once. But this underestimated the weight of the country’s history. For African Americans, unfreedom is the historical norm.”

The question that still remains is how do we fix it?


Image Credits: The Atlantic/Amazon

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