Culture

The Distorted World of Ta-Nehisi Coates

(Photo: Wikimedia/Eduardo Montes-Bradley)
He can be eloquent, but he overlooks vast amounts of evidence about African-American life.

Hard on the heels of his number-one best-selling book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates has now published a mega treatise in The Atlantic misleadingly titled “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” I say “misleading” because aside from a brief summary of the 1965 Moynihan Report and a few nods to the effects of incarceration on children and the costs of visiting relatives upstate, you won’t find much to chew on about the black family — or any families, for that matter. It’s hard to know whether Coates is being evasive or is just indifferent to the reams of writing on the topic — I suspect it’s the latter — but it doesn’t much matter. The effect is equivocation all the way down.

Coates has been understandably lauded for his prose: “a stunning piece of writing,” New York Times film critic A. O. Scott tweeted about this most recent effort. Unlike so many dreary writers with his views, he nimbly avoids cant and cliché. The rich, almost sensual wall of sound he creates has already put him on the National Book Award short list, and other nominations are certain to be coming. But once you trek past the Solzhenitsyn quote, cut down the dense bramble of sometimes gripping, sometimes extraneous historical and biographical details, and push through the striking metaphors and the heart-tugging, enraging anecdotes of white cruelty, you reach a clearing where three basic points will appear — the first two uncontroversial, the third a symptom of his equivocations. They are the following:

1. Incarcerated men have a hard time both supporting and engaging with their families while they are in prison and after they are released.

2. Prison is a demoralizing, dangerous place.

3. Mass incarceration is the latest iteration of the American oppression of black people.

Why Coates decided to frame these ideas around Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” will strike alert readers as something of a puzzle, as is the Atlantic’s editors’ assertion that Moynihan “helped create the system” of mass incarceration. That paper, meant to be in-house for the Johnson administration but leaked to the press, sounded an alarm about a rise in welfare rolls — in other words, in black single-parent households — despite continued improvement in black male employment.

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According to social-science wisdom then and now, jobs were supposed to make men more “marriageable,” to use modern terminology, and yet that was proving not to be the case. Moynihan rightly suspected that we were on the verge of a cultural revolution. As he recalled three decades later:

The work began in the most orthodox setting, the U.S. Department of Labor, to establish at some level of statistical conciseness what “everyone knew”: that economic conditions determine social conditions. Whereupon, it turned out that what everyone knew was evidently not so.

(For those interested in a deeper dive into the report, see here.)

It’s possible that Coates and the folks at The Atlantic are convinced that the belief that family breakdown poses a threat to black children and communities, what the writer simplistically calls “respectability politics,” is a root cause of mass incarceration. The case is never made. Regardless, Moynihan was writing more than a decade before the phenomenon was even a glimmer in the eye of an increasingly crime-weary public. His only mention of prison is as a source of crime data. He does, however, note that fatherless boys are more prone to delinquency, a fact that has been confirmed repeatedly in research since then, though one never mentioned by Coates.

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This is not a one-time lapse. Coates’s article is marked by the sin of omission. You might think that an article on the Moynihan report and the black family would mention somewhere that today 72 percent of black children, up from 24 percent when the report was written, are born to unmarried mothers. You might assume that an analyst of the black family would explain that large numbers of those children — far more than mass incarceration can explain, by the way — will have at best erratic relationships with their fathers. You would expect him to show how one of the main reasons fathers fade out of their children’s lives is “multi-partner fertility” — parents who have children by a series of partners — and that multi-partner fertility is particularly widespread among blacks and incarcerated men. He might look at the research suggesting that children living with an unrelated father are more likely to suffer abuse. You would expect him to ponder all of this because there is abundant evidence that boys growing up under these conditions have less self-control than those growing up in more stable families, and most of all, because those boys are far more prone to commit crimes. You would think at least some of this would find its way into the pages of a 17,000-word piece called “The Black Family in an Age of Mass Incarceration,” but you would be wrong.

#share#What makes all of this especially surprising is that Coates has made his own fatherhood a central fact of his public identity and a rich source of intimacy with his readers. As someone who wrote his recent book in the form of a letter to his adored son, he clearly believes, as Moynihan put it, that “the child learns a way of looking at life in his early years.” But instead of bringing either research or his own experience to bear on Moynihan’s argument about what families, and specifically fathers, do, in a rare lapse into boilerplate, Coates damns the whole line of thought as “patriarchal.” “’The Negro Family’ is a flawed work in part because it is a fundamentally sexist document that promotes the importance not just of family but of patriarchy.”

Worse, Coates ignores the rage that Moynihan’s concerns over the family evoked. He asserts rather that “the controversy [over the report] transformed [him] into one of the most celebrated public intellectuals of his era.” Yet the Johnson administration quickly disavowed the report; for decades much of the academic and policy community reviled the document and its “racist” author, so much so that in 1987 William Julius Wilson, no ideological ally of Moynihan’s, criticized his profession for the “vitriol” that made them blind to a problem that had reached “catastrophic proportions.” “Celebrated,” indeed. Sometimes you read a statement that is so shockingly slanted that it makes everything you read by that writer suspect forever. For me, that is one of those sentences.

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If Coates is not particularly interested in how families socialize children and why it might matter when fathers are no longer part of the deal, he is preoccupied with “the persistent and systematic notion that blacks were especially prone to crime. “ He is at his best recounting the way such abominations as vicious slave owners, lynchings, and the Constitution’s fugitive-slave clause turned the natural human urge for freedom and self-defense into “acts of villainy.” He is surely right that some politicians exploited public fears of black violence. He is also correct that the public and legislatures have been slow to readjust criminal-justice policy to the decline in crime that began in the 1990s (and may or may not be reversing itself as I write). A large number of people across the political spectrum have come to believe the criminal-justice system is in need of a serious overhaul.

But the reform-minded won’t find much guidance here. Coates bundles together the slave girl who kills her owner after he raped her for five years and impregnated her twice with a 16-year-old who shot and killed a cabbie for no apparent reason and places them into a box labeled “the myth of black criminality.” He overstates the extent of the prison population serving sentences for drug offenses while understating the crisis that faced the country by the late 1960s and 1970s. “The principal source of the intensifying war on crime was white anxiety about social control,” he writes, ignoring the tens of thousands of dead and maimed bodies piling up in urban morgues, not to mention the fact that black leaders and politicians were also demanding that the criminals plaguing their communities be taken off the streets.

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The gross injustice of the fugitive-slave clause, of 1950s federal housing policy, and of lead poisoning cannot erase the fact that black men commit seven times as many murders as whites do (2008 numbers). The majority of black (and white) prisoners have committed violent crimes. Even after reasonable reforms like releasing some of the 10 percent of prisoners over 55, reducing or abolishing drug laws, rethinking juvenile sentences, and, more controversially, shortening sentences for some violent offenders, blacks will still disproportionately populate the nation’s prisons. “If we reserve prisons for people who’ve committed the most serious crimes that pose major threats to public safety,” says Marie Gottschalk, the very liberal author of Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, “we’re probably going to have fewer African Americans overall in prison but higher racial disparities in the prison population.” No doubt, as Coates describes, the costs of visiting a loved one in prison, hiring lawyers, and forgoing possible income, on the arguable assumption that many of the men in question have been contributing to family coffers, are a hardship for the poor. Most people would probably consider it an even bigger hardship to have a violent partner, father, or brother in the house and on the streets.

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“By 2000, more than 1 million black children had a father in jail or prison — and roughly half of those fathers were living in the same household as their kids when they were locked up,” Coates writes in a rare moment of concern about the experience of black children. “Paternal incarceration is associated with behavior problems and delinquency, especially among boys.” If you think this would make Coates consider the behavior problems associated with paternal absence caused by abandonment, parental separations, and serial step siblings, you would be wrong.

“Through it all, the children suffer,” he concludes. Yes. They do.

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