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.”
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.”
Clinton’s focus on work echoed William Julius Wilson’s analysis, more than Moynihan’s – relations between Clinton and Moynihan were testy. Addressing family, social pathologies and other cultural problems had for too long been considered Republican territory. Clinton endorsed the “changes we can make from the outside in,” meaning with government intervention, along with “changes we're going to have to make from the inside out, or the others won't matter.”
Pooh-poohing Clinton’s anti-crime and pro-family initiatives, Coates calls the crime wave “an international phenomenon.” He notes a 1990s crime drop in the U.S., Canada and the Nordic countries. But most Europeans were not as lucky. As the U.S. homicide rate dropped 28 percent from 1995 through 1999 and the violent crime rate fell 20 percent, the European homicide rate only dipped 4 percent while violent crime increased 11 percent.
Coates reflects the new, upside-down conventional wisdom by triumphantly declaring that because imprisonment rates fell when crime soared during the 1970s, and then soared when crime fell 20 years later, something is wrong. But the traditional argument is precisely that: jailing criminals reduces crime.
Economist Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame attributes the 1990s crime reduction to “the increasing number of police, the skyrocketing number of prisoners, the ebbing of the crack epidemic and legalization of abortion in the 1970s.”
Coates goes to the heart of central battles raging today, including the Black Lives Matter critique: the system is rigged against blacks. Even in the Age of Obama bigotry persists; but Coates overemphasizes The Moynihan Report and the original Constitution’s racism while belittling the last half century’s progress. When Coates writes “for African Americans, unfreedom is the historical norm,” he makes no distinction between 2015, 1965, or even 1865.
As an American, I mourn the ongoing curse of racism, the way unconscious recoils, unstated assumptions, and unfair expectations fester poisonously with historical patterns, shortsighted policymaking and, occasionally, rank hatred. But, as an historian, I cannot accept such a simplistic, doctrinaire explanation for such a multi-dimensional phenomenon as mass incarceration, especially because hundreds of thousands of whites are also imprisoned and because the reduced crime rates helped save thousands of lives, black and white.
Moynihan characteristically synthesized between conservative and liberal extremes, noting that “the central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”
Moynihan devoted his life to mobilizing America’s political will to make necessary changes, while challenging American culture to heal itself. To Moynihan, “thanks” to the special “interaction” between politics and culture, we’re “a better society in nearly all respects than we were.” Monocausal denunciations against racism are emotionally satisfying, but we need multi-dimensional political and cultural strategies to break the crime-prison cycle, emptying America’s prisons by discouraging our mass production of criminals.