Ta-Nehisi Coates Outlines Path To Mass Incarceration In 'The Atlantic' NPR's Audie Cornish talks with Ta-Nehisi Coates about his new article in the Atlantic about the mass incarceration of African-Americans and the criminal justice policy that put the U.S. on this path.

Ta-Nehisi Coates Outlines Path To Mass Incarceration In 'The Atlantic'

Ta-Nehisi Coates Outlines Path To Mass Incarceration In 'The Atlantic'

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NPR's Audie Cornish talks with Ta-Nehisi Coates about his new article in the Atlantic about the mass incarceration of African-Americans and the criminal justice policy that put the U.S. on this path.


That there are too many people in prison in the U.S. has become a rare point of political consensus. Why a disproportionate number of them are black is not. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, the policy that puts the U.S. on this path is the Moynihan report. In a new piece for The Atlantic magazine, he revisits that 1965 government report. It was titled "The Negro Family: The Case For National Action." Penned by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labor, it placed blame on single mothers and a, quote, "tangle of pathology affecting black youth.

TA-NEHISI COATES: When you start looking at people like that - somehow different - unusually self-damaging from other poor people in this country - then it becomes very easy to be open to solutions that are different, that you wouldn't use for other people, you know, who are struggling.

CORNISH: Coates says that perspective has long influenced U.S. policy makers.

COATES: We have an unfortunate tradition in this country, and it goes back, really, to our founding. And the idea, you know, within that tradition is that black people are somehow different. And the way we've looked at that, you know - one of the clearest places you can see that is in the area of crime. For instance, we quote from a report from a group of pro-slavery intellectuals. And what they say is, all of these guys who are running away are becoming criminals. That's the case for slavery...

CORNISH: They're running away from slavery, and it's because they're inherently criminal.

COATES: That's exactly it. Right, right, right. And without the protections of slavery, without the safeguards of slavery, that criminalization will be write at your doorstep. And unfortunately, that line as a justification for segregation continues right up through the 1960s. When you get that sort of other-izing, it's easy to see how the society comes up with different solutions to deal with their problems.

CORNISH: And you say at one point in the article, one does not build a safety net for predators; one builds a cage.

COATES: That's exactly it.

CORNISH: Kind of around this idea that if you start to see people of color as a problem, as predatory, you're less inclined to build social support for them. And you describe the prison system as a de facto social service program. In what way?

COATES: Well, it is. I mean, you - it is in prison that you find work. It is in prison that you find mental health care. It's in prison that you find health care, period. It's in prison that you find housing - all of the kind of social services that normally we might look and say, OK, maybe we as a society should do more for this group of people. We find ourselves doing those things in prison. And until relatively recently - until, you know, we had this tough-on-crime era the last, you know, 20 years ago, it was in prison that you found education and all these sorts of services that, you know, we really could be doing before folks went to prison.

CORNISH: During this most recent tough-on-crime wave, they were very much black communities who said, we need help; we want more policing; we are the victims of crimes; we are the victims of crimes at the hands of other black people.

COATES: Right.

CORNISH: What - I mean, what's your response to that? It's not as though there is not agency here.

COATES: Well, my response to that is that that makes sense. That makes sense. You know, the case that I make in the argument is not against having more police in the neighborhood. It's not against protection. But I think...

CORNISH: But I raise it 'cause you've described it as a policy against black people as though it was a very specific and written into the law.

COATES: But I think the problem here is that it was only through the prison system that we decided to address that. And I think had you talked to African-Americans at that time - and frankly, I think if you talk African-Americans today, they would say, yes, we want more police. But you know, somebody should do something about the jobs here. Somebody should do something about education. Somebody should do something about the fact that 40 percent or 50 percent of our population in prison and jails is experiencing mental health issues. In other words, there would've been a suite of solutions, but we made a decision to strictly and only address this through the criminal justice system.

CORNISH: Now, this issue, even the phrase mass incarceration has actually reached the heart of mainstream politics. You have candidates like Bernie Sanders talking about it in his agenda. You have the billionaire conservative brothers Charles and David Koch and the ACLU kind of together in the same push behind this. How significant is that political conversation to you? Do you see a shift?

COATES: I see a shift. I do see a shift. At the same time, I think people need to be aware of how difficult the task is. And I think the first thing is just the sheer numbers. I mean, you know, just - you're talking about just a broad, you know, system. And I don't know how we do that, to be honest with you. People like to talk about the drug war and the effects of the drug war. I think the drug war has been devastating for African-Americans. But when you're talking about reducing a prison population, that's not anywhere near enough. You have to have a conversation about violent crime.

And, yet, when I hear people talk about decarceration, you know, what I hear most of the time is people talking about, you know, drug war and non-violent offenders. But that's not going to do it. At some point, we have to decide, OK, how should we punish crimes like murder? Is it OK to just throw away the key? That's a very, very difficult conversation.

CORNISH: And you're pointing this out - right? - because there are a large number of people in prison who aren't low-level drug offenders - right? - kind of...

COATES: There are large - yes, yes, yes.

CORNISH: Decriminalization isn't going to solve the problem because so many people are locked up for violent offenses. How do you even make that argument, right? How do you turn to the public and say, even though they're here for a violent felony, maybe they shouldn't be here as long?

COATES: Because we weren't always this way. This is new. This is new. I mean, you know, the decision that because, you know - let's just go with the worst crime. Lets go with murder. Let's go with murder. The decision that you murdered somebody and therefore your entire life is forfeited is a very, very recent development. That happened, you know, in the 1970s and the 1980s and into the 1990s. For a long time, we just weren't that way. We paroled people. That's what we did. And, in fact, that's what the rest of the world does, in fact. The Western world does exactly that.

And the second part about that is - how effective is it, actually? It actually hasn't been that effective in terms of actually causing crime to drop. The fact of the matter is, the crime rise that we had in this country was an international crime rise. And yet, we were the only country that chose to incarcerate at this kind of level. Everybody else's crime dropped too. Why did we choose to do this? Is this intelligent? Is this moral? Is this how a compassionate society acts?

You know, I understand that those are not easy questions for a politician to ask. I got it. I got it. I know that's not the easiest case in the world to make. But if you're seriously interested in decarceration, you know, just focusing on non-violent drug offenders is not going to get us there. It's not enough, not even close.

CORNISH: You know, you write that Moynihan, in his report, stopped short of issuing actual policy recommendations, for better or worse. That might've detracted from the power of his argument. You, too, also, (laughter) point out things. You don't necessarily make policy recommendations.

COATES: Oh, I have a great policy recommendation (laughter). It's in here. I think what people mean when they say that is, what policy recommendation do you have that could make it through Congress right now? I don't have a policy recommendation like that. But the policy recommendation I have in this piece is the same one I had a year ago, and in fact, it's the same one Moynihan had in the 1960s - as he called it, unequal treatment, and as I call it, reparations.

That is an actual policy, as much as people don't want to deal with that, because it's a hard policy to actually bring into effect. But the basic idea is, you have a community of people through the lion's share of American history who've experienced, as Moynihan said, unequal treatment. The notion that you can just try - you know, make some sort of thing towards that unequal treatment and everything will be OK is preposterous.

I don't think we can keep doing this thing where we look from year to year to year, put our heads down - OK, what can we get done right now? I understand that legislatures have to do that, but people like me who are writers - we have to talk about the kind of policy solutions that, you know, could happen in a country with a different frame of mind maybe 20 years from now, 30 years from now 'cause I think it's a very, very long war.

CORNISH: Ta-Nehisi Coates, thank you so much for speaking with us.

COATES: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: Ta-Nehisi Coates - his new piece in The Atlantic magazine is titled "The Black Family In The Age Of Mass Incarceration."

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