With the publication of “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” Ta-Nehisi Coates has added an elegant and forceful voice to the growing frustration with the inefficacy and injustice of America’s criminal-justice system. Mandatory-sentencing laws, the War on Drugs, juvenile-justice sentences that seem to do more to create than deter criminals, racial arrest and sentencing disparities: All are ready for a tough national cross-examination.
But even in the unlikely event that Washington and state legislatures successfully adapt the nation’s crime policies to a safer, more racially sensitive era, the nation will still look around to find more black men in prison than it might expect or want. There’s a simple reason for that, one that Coates himself notes: Relative to other groups, blacks commit more crimes. To understand why is to tackle some very hard-to-talk-about realities of black family life. And on that issue—and despite his announced interest in the topic—Coates has been the opposite of lucid.
Coates puts forward two interconnected, but flawed, theories about mass incarceration. First, he argues that there is no relationship between crime and incarceration rates, pointing his readers to a chart showing two apparently disparate trend lines. The first line shows crime levels rising dramatically after 1960; the second shows the rise in incarceration rates coming some 15 years later. Because of the 15-year gap, Coates concludes something other than a crime wave must have led Americans to lock up so many black men after 1975. “Imprisonment rates actually fell from the 1960s through the early ’70s,” he writes “even as violent crime increased … The incarceration rate rose independent of crime—but not of criminal-justice policy.”
That conclusion ignores something American history teaches over and over: The democratic process is groaningly, and often tragically, slow. Policy lags the most pressing social problems: Today’s exhibit A is immigration. “Thought leaders were slow to catch up,” after crime rates began falling and incarceration rates rising in the early 1990s, Coates observes. So too were they slow to catch up in the 1960s as crime was on the rise while incarceration rates moved not at all. It takes time to distinguish trends from blips, national changes from local upticks; witness the current debate over the significance of murder rates that are rising in Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., while remaining relatively flat in New York and Los Angeles. Contemporary surveys of public opinion show precisely the expected reaction to rising crime. “Popular support for liberal policies on crime and rehabilitation grew steadily” from the 1930s until the mid 1960s,” according to Thomas and Mary Edsall. “At that juncture public opinion shifted decisively in a rightward direction as crime rates rose sharply.”
Courts and legislatures dawdled, as they often tend to do. Today’s agonizing pictures from Europe, though, illustrate how people, particularly parents, living under the threat of violence will vote with their feet if they possibly can. In the 1960s, whites still living in increasingly crime-ridden urban areas, and more than a few blacks, simply left for safer suburbs. (An excellent chronicle of how this played out in the South Bronx can be found here.) Those blacks who remained,
often because of the discriminatory housing policies Coates describes, joined local community and church groups to demand more aggressive policing and harsher penalties for crimes, including for drug offenses.
Black alarm about crime raises doubts about Coates’s second theory, that “the carceral state” was a new “system of control,” of black people. According to this line of thinking, the reason Americans started putting more people in jail circa 1975—“mass incarceration” wasn’t “mass” for years after it started—was that they wanted to perpetuate a racial caste system, or as Coates puts it, to keep blacks “unfree.”
Coates is right that tough-on-crime laws will have a disproportionate effect on blacks since they are more likely to be offenders (and victims for that matter). Still, whites and Hispanics were hardly immune to their effects. Incarceration rates for white and Hispanic men almost tripled between 1960 and 2010. Today,63 percent of inmates are white and Hispanic. If mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow, it somehow manages to get an awful lot—a strong majority, actually—of non-blacks into its clutches.
The Jim Crow theory is on slightly firmer ground when it comes to drug offenses. Blacks and whites appear to use and sell drugs at similar rates, yet blacks are considerably more likely to be arrested and to serve time in prison for drug offenses. The 1986 Anti Drug Abuse Act legislating harsher sentences for crack cocaine also helped to load the penal system with black prisoners.
I say “slightly firmer ground,” because chalking up these policies to racial animus leaves several challenges. For one thing, there is evidence linking the crack epidemic to a rise in violent crime; that is not true for powdered cocaine. Second, though there is a widespread impression the war on drugs explains most of black incarceration, that’s not remotely the case. Drug admissions account for only 20 percent of the rise among the incarcerated since 1980. Almost two-and-a-half times the number of black men are serving sentences for murder, assault, and the like in state and federal prisons as are serving time for using and selling drugs. Today, violent criminals continue to make up by far the largest cohort of the freshman class of prisoners—black, white, and Hispanic. Like most writers on this subject, Coates chastises the U.S. for having among the highest prison rates among advanced nations. The numbers are shocking but it seems worth noting that compared to other advanced nations, the United States also has by far thehighest homicide rates even after years of decline.