On a visit to Chicago one summer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, riding on the Dan Ryan, saw for the first time the dilapidated, high-rise public housing projects stretching beside the expressway. The projects were a “moral disaster,” he thought, not just for the residents but also for “the metropolis of commuters who drove by, each day, and with their quiet acquiescence tolerated such a thing.”
Coates recalls this in his latest memoir, Between the World and Me. The book is framed as a letter to his adolescent son, but it’s really a letter to a wider audience—to all of us guilty of the drive-by acquiescence that has allowed blacks to be fleeced and brutalized throughout this nation’s history. After inflicting four decades of injuries, physical and psychological, on the impoverished African-Americans who lived in them, the high-rises along the Dan Ryan have, thankfully, been demolished. But many of the former occupants lost access to public housing in the process, and most have had little choice but to settle in neighborhoods just as racially segregated and nearly as dangerous—outcomes that have triggered less widespread condemnation.
In the last two years, Coates, a national correspondent for the Atlantic, has illuminated America’s racism as well as any writer. People have been reading and listening to the 40-year-old, and the attention is merited. Toni Morrison has called Coates “the James Baldwin of our era.” Between the World and Me is a best seller. Earlier this month, Coates was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” His Chicago Humanities Festival talk on Saturday is sold out. (We sought to interview him, but he was unavailable.)
In “The Case for Reparations,” in the Atlantic in 2014, he showed how slavery was succeeded by rampant discrimination against blacks, particularly in housing. (The story’s lead character is a longtime resident of Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood.) “To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy . . . is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying,” Coates wrote. “When we think of white supremacy, we picture colored only signs, but we should picture pirate flags.”
Coates clearly doesn’t mince words in his stories. But I think he could have more fully explored root causes in his Atlantic piece in August, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”
In the article, Coates recounts the saga of “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”—a report authored by then-Labor Department official Daniel Patrick Moynihan, published 50 years ago, in 1965. Moynihan wrote in the report that the Negro family, battered by “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment”—the result of a “racist virus in the American blood stream”—was “in the deepest trouble.” Moynihan, who had a doctorate in sociology, pointed to a “tangle of pathology” ensnaring black youth—rising out-of-wedlock births, welfare dependency, widespread unemployment of black fathers. The first press accounts focused on Moynihan’s portrayal of the troubled black family, and neglected the “racist virus” that Moynihan said had caused it. Partly because of this, civil rights leaders attacked Moynihan and the report for blaming the victim.
Moynihan favored a massive jobs program as the principal solution to the problems he described. But the acrimony over his report, combined with the race riots that broke out around the time of its release and the fading of the civil rights movement, bent the nation in a different direction. Instead of a jobs program to help blacks with their economic problems, the U.S. turned, in the 1970s and ’80s, to an imprisonment boom to treat a symptom of those problems—rising violent crime, especially among urban blacks.
Coates asserts that mass incarceration did little to reduce violent crime. That’s debatable. Crime rates did decline, starting in the 1990s, but experts and studies differ on why. What mass incarceration clearly has done, as Coates demonstrates, is make the employment prospects of black men much worse.
Mass incarceration was certainly a cynical, destructive, political reaction—but it was a reaction to a genuine problem. Coates allows that from 1963 through 1993, the nation’s murder rate doubled, the robbery rate quadrupled, and the aggravated assault rate quintupled. Blacks commit violent crimes at greatly disproportionate rates. A 2008 Bureau of Justice Statistics report showed the homicide offending rate for blacks to be seven times the rate for whites. Why the difference in violent offending? In an 18,000-word article on crime, punishment, and families, Coates doesn’t explore that question. Poverty and centuries of oppression no doubt are the fundamental causes, but it would be helpful to know more about the particular means by which they produce violence.
Research has indicated that poor black children are exposed to more violence than other children, not only in their neighborhoods, but also in their homes. Evidence also strongly suggests that children frequently exposed to violence—boys especially—are more likely to be violent themselves later in life. Yet family violence has never gotten the attention it merits in the media. I cop to a bias here. I’ve been reporting on impoverished African-Americans in Chicago for years, and family violence has been a central issue in the lives of the people I’ve written about—again and again and again. I’ve been disappointed that journalists seem to shy away from the subject.
Disappointed, but not surprised. As Moynihan learned, it’s hard to talk about problems in poor black families without sounding like you’re blaming the victim. And given the harm this nation has done to black families for generations, how could African-Americans not be rankled by the raising of the issue?
Coates does address the subject in Between the World and Me. He grew up in a struggling, violent black neighborhood in West Baltimore. Beatings of children by parents were common, he writes. Coates attributes this to the fears of parents about the peril their children faced in the neighborhood, from both peers and the police. His father “beat me as if someone might steal me away, because that is exactly what was happening in the streets around us. Everyone had lost a child, somehow, to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to guns. . . . I would hear it in Dad’s voice—’Either I can beat him, or the police.'”
Coates and his childhood friends “cracked jokes on the boy whose mother wore him out with a beating in front of the entire fifth-grade class.” They laughed about the girl “whose mother was known to reach for anything—cable wires, extension cords, pots, pans. We were laughing, but I know that we were afraid of those who loved us most.”
In an interview with Slate in July, Coates said he believes that black parents “at every socioeconomic level” hit their kids more than white parents hit theirs. “I think folks are resolved to scare the hell out of their kids,” he said. “I was young when my son was born and I was scared as hell that he would wind up a drug dealer or in prison or whatever.” But Coates added: “I told my son recently, and I hit him four times, that if I had to do it again, I never would have hit him. . . . It’s still violence. You are perpetrating the thing you are trying to get them to stay out of the way of.”
Coates discussed race, parenting, and punishment on the Atlantic blog five years ago. When it’s relevant, I wish he’d work his intimate understanding of this challenging issue into his full-length articles. It’s certainly relevant in a discussion of crime and punishment. As Coates observes in the recent Atlantic article: “Mass incarceration is, ultimately, a problem of troublesome entanglements. . . . It is not possible to truly reform our justice system without reforming the institutional structures, the communities, and the politics that surround it.”
We need studies of affluent white families as well, of course—perhaps even more. We need to know why they dependably produce people whose response to our nation’s deplorable racial inequities is to quietly tolerate them. v