The piece tackles the long-standing dilemma through the prism of late-senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan‘s transformative 50-year-old government report, “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action,” which “tragically helped” to mold the nation’s prison system.
Coates notes that after years of damage to the Black family through criminalization, incarceration, and poverty, it is now time to reclaim the report’s original intent, which essentially boils down to reparations.
From The Atlantic:
Crime really did begin to rise during the early 1970s. But by this point, Moynihan had changed. According to the Moynihan of the Nixon era, middle-class blacks were not hardworking Americans attempting to get ahead—they were mobsters demanding protection money in exchange for the safety of America’s cities. And the “unusually self-damaging” black poor were hapless tools, the knife at the throat of blameless white America. In casting African Americans as beyond the purview of polite and civilized society, in referring to them as a race of criminals, Moynihan joined the long tradition of black criminalization. In so doing, he undermined his own stated aims in writing “The Negro Family” in the first place. One does not build a safety net for a race of predators. One builds a cage.
Coates says “unfreedom is the historical norm” for African-Americans:
Enslavement lasted for nearly 250 years. The 150 years that followed have encompassed debt peonage, convict lease-labor, and mass incarceration—a period that overlapped with Jim Crow. This provides a telling geographic comparison. Under Jim Crow, blacks in the South lived in a police state. Rates of incarceration were not that high—they didn’t need to be, because state social control of blacks was nearly total. Then, as African Americans migrated north, a police state grew up around them there, too. In the cities of the North, “European immigrants’ struggle” for the credential of whiteness gave them the motive to oppress blacks, writes Christopher Muller, a sociologist at Columbia who studies incarceration: “A central way European immigrants advanced politically in the years preceding the first Great Migration was by securing patronage positions in municipal services such as law enforcement.” By 1900, the black incarceration rate in the North was about 600 per 100,000—slightly lower than the national incarceration rate today.
“Decarceration” raises difficult questions, he says:
In 1972, the U.S. incarceration rate was 161 per 100,000—slightly higher than the English and Welsh incarceration rate today (148 per 100,000). To return to that 1972 level, America would have to cut its prison and jail population by some 80 percent. The popular notion that this can largely be accomplished by releasing nonviolent drug offenders is false—as of 2012, 54 percent of all inmates in state prisons had been sentenced for violent offenses. The myth is that “we have a lot of people in prison and a bunch of good guys, and we can easily see the difference between the good guys and the bad guys,” says Marie Gottschalk, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the recent book Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics. Her point is that it’s often hard to tell a nonviolent offender from a violent offender.
You can read the article in its entirety, here. Let us know what you think about Coates’ piece in the comments below.
SOURCE: The Atlantic | PHOTO CREDIT: Getty
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