Mass incarceration was a response to a huge crime wave that the academic predicted and tried to prevent. He’s no more responsible for what happened than a doctor who diagnoses a disease.
In this month’s 17,000 word Atlantic cover story, Ta-Nehisi Coates delivers a poignant but misleading polemic exploring mass African American incarceration. Coates puts a great deal of that blame on one man, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and his 1965 report on the deterioration of the “Negro Family.” In doing so, he gets both Moynihan wrong and minimizes the seriousness of the crime wave that terrorized Americans of all races starting in the 1960s.
Coates blasts “penal welfarism at its finest. Deindustrialization had presented an employment problem for America’s poor and working class of all races. Prison presented a solution: jobs for whites, and warehousing for blacks.”
No, mass incarceration is a response to the Great American Crime Wave that began in the 1960s and leveled off in the 1990s—and Moynihan saw it coming.
As Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty gained momentum, the 38-year-old Labor Department analyst warned about the epidemic of illegitimate black births. Despite all the progress leading up to 1965, “the circumstances of the Negro American community … has probably been getting worse, not better.”
The black family had been stable in 1954 while black and white youth unemployment rates were roughly equal in 1954. Paralleling the civil rights movement – and America’s deindustrialization, William Julius Wilson would later argue — black marriage rates dropped while black unemployment rates soared.
Moynihan argued then that establishing legal rights was not enough to help blacks; the challenge was ensuring equal opportunity. While he enraged critics by believing some reform had to come from within the African-American community, he also proposed, in a separate memo (which the Atlantic posted), a robust federal government role providing full employment and suburban housing, encouraging black enlistment in the military, distributing birth control widely, while tracking the efforts to provide better coordination and analysis.
Despite the recommendations being excluded, Moynihan’s report still inspired LBJ’s civil rights address at Howard University on June 4, 1965, when he demanded equal opportunity and ultimately justified affirmative action because “freedom is not enough.”
Coates views any talk of strengthening the black family and of denouncing what Moynihan called “ghetto pathology,” as perpetuating racist images of black criminality, while “underestimat[ing] the weight of the country’s history,” meaning racism.
Then as now, Moynihan was accused of “blaming the victim” with racist stereotyping.
“If Pat is a racist, I am,” said the leading black sociologist of the 1960s, Kenneth Clark. “Is a doctor responsible for a disease simply because he diagnoses it?”
While Coates knocks Moynihan and his report’s use by Richard Nixon, Coates is especially tough on Bill Clinton.
“Whatever the slings and arrows Moynihan suffered in the 1960s, his vision dominates liberal political discourse today. One hears Moynihan in Barack Obama’s cultural critique of black fathers and black families. Strains of Moynihan’s thinking ran through Bill Clinton’s presidency.”
When Coates writes “for African Americans, unfreedom is the historical norm,” he makes no distinction between 2015, 1965, or even 1865.
Before the White House, Clinton lived in the Arkansas governor’s mansion located in a Crime Watch neighborhood, so he empathized with the American masses suffering from crime or simply fearing crime.
More importantly, Clinton realized that the Great American Crime Wave mocked his party’s Great Society’s dreams. While recruiting more police officers – a critical factor in crime-fighting, even if Clinton now feels pressure to regret the move – Clinton embraced two revolutionary ideas, which too many Democrats had spent too many years resisting.
In his November 1993 speech to 5,000 African American ministers in the Memphis cathedral where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached his last sermon, Clinton recognized crime as a cultural issue, and, partially, a black issue – because blacks suffered disproportionately. He linked “the accumulated weight of crime and violence and the breakdown of family and community and the increase in drugs and the decrease in jobs.”