The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration. The Atlantic, October 2015. “American politicians are now eager to disown a failed criminal-justice system that’s left the U.S. with the largest incarcerated population in the world. But they’ve failed to reckon with history. Fifty years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report ‘The Negro Family’ tragically helped create this system, it’s time to reclaim his original intent.”

Chapter I

Influenced by the civil-rights movement, [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan focused on the black family. He believed that an undue optimism about the pending passage of civil-rights legislation was obscuring a pressing problem: a deficit of employed black men of strong character. He believed that this deficit went a long way toward explaining the African American community’s relative poverty. Moynihan began searching for a way to press the point within the [Lyndon] Johnson administration. “I felt I had to write a paper about the Negro family,” Moynihan later recalled, “to explain to the fellows how there was a problem more difficult than they knew.” In March of 1965, Moynihan printed up 100 copies of a report he and a small staff had labored over for only a few months.

The report was called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” Unsigned, it was meant to be an internal government document, with only one copy distributed at first and the other 99 kept locked in a vault. Running against the tide of optimism around civil rights, “The Negro Family” argued that the federal government was underestimating the damage done to black families by “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment” as well as a “racist virus in the American blood stream,” which would continue to plague blacks in the future: “That the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary–a lesser people might simply have died out, as indeed others have… But it may not be supposed that the Negro American community has not paid a fearful price for the incredible mistreatment to which it has been subjected over the past three centuries.”…

Moynihan believed that at the core of all these problems lay a black family structure mutated by white oppression: “In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.”…

In what would become the most famous passage in the report, Moynihan equated the black community with a diseased patient: “In a word, most Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world, and probably a majority are so entrapped….

President Johnson offered the first public preview of the Moynihan Report in a speech written by Moynihan and the former Kennedy aide Richard Goodwin at Howard University in June of 1965, in which he highlighted “the breakdown of the Negro family structure.” Johnson left no doubt about how this breakdown had come about. “For this, most of all, white America must accept responsibility,” Johnson said. Family breakdown “flows from centuries of oppression and persecution of the Negro man. It flows from the long years of degradation and discrimination, which have attacked his dignity and assaulted his ability to produce for his family.”

The press did not generally greet Johnson’s speech as a claim of white responsibility, but rather as a condemnation of “the failure of Negro family life,” as the journalist Mary McGrory put it. This interpretation was reinforced as second- and thirdhand accounts of the Moynihan Report, which had not been made public, began making the rounds. On August 18, the widely syndicated newspaper columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote that Moynihan’s document had exposed “the breakdown of the Negro family,” with its high rates of “broken homes, illegitimacy, and female-oriented homes.”…

People who read the newspapers but were not able to read the report could—and did—conclude that Johnson was conceding that no government effort could match the “tangle of pathology” that Moynihan had said beset the black family. Moynihan’s aim in writing “The Negro Family” had been to muster support for an all-out government assault on the structural social problems that held black families down. (“Family as an issue raised the possibility of enlisting the support of conservative groups for quite radical social programs,” he would later write.) Instead his report was portrayed as an argument for leaving the black family to fend for itself.

Moynihan himself was partly to blame for this. In its bombastic language, its omission of policy recommendations, its implication that black women were obstacles to black men’s assuming their proper station, and its unnecessarily covert handling, the Moynihan Report militated against its author’s aims….

[In the late 1960s Moynihan] began pushing for a minimum income for all American families. Nixon promoted Moynihan’s proposal—called the Family Assistance Plan—before the American public in a television address in August of 1969, and officially presented it to Congress in October. This was a personal victory for Moynihan—a triumph in an argument he had been waging since the War on Poverty began, over the need to help families, not individuals…. The Family Assistance Plan died in the Senate….

From the mid-1970s to the mid-’80s, America’s incarceration rate doubled, from about 150 people per 100,000 to about 300 per 100,000. From the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s, it doubled again. By 2007, it had reached a historic high of 767 people per 100,000, before registering a modest decline to 707 people per 100,000 in 2012. In absolute terms, America’s prison and jail population from 1970 until today has increased sevenfold, from some 300,000 people to 2.2 million. The United States now accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s inhabitants—and about 25 percent of its incarcerated inhabitants. In 2000, one in 10 black males between the ages of 20 and 40 was incarcerated—10 times the rate of their white peers. In 2010, a third of all black male high-school dropouts between the ages of 20 and 39 were imprisoned, compared with only 13 percent of their white peers….

As the civil-rights movement wound down, Moynihan looked out and saw a black population reeling under the effects of 350 years of bondage and plunder. He believed that these effects could be addressed through state action. They were—through the mass incarceration of millions of black people.

Chapter II

The Gray Wastes—our carceral state, a sprawling netherworld of prisons and jails—are a relatively recent invention. Through the middle of the 20th century, America’s imprisonment rate hovered at about 110 people per 100,000. Presently, America’s incarceration rate (which accounts for people in prisons and jails) is roughly 12 times the rate in Sweden, eight times the rate in Italy, seven times the rate in Canada, five times the rate in Australia, and four times the rate in Poland. America’s closest to-scale competitor is Russia—and with an autocratic Vladimir Putin locking up about 450 people per 100,000, compared with our 700 or so, it isn’t much of a competition. China has about four times America’s population, but American jails and prisons hold half a million more people. “In short,” an authoritative report issued last year by the National Research Council concluded, “the current U.S. rate of incarceration is unprecedented by both historical and comparative standards.”

What caused this? Crime would seem the obvious culprit: Between 1963 and 1993, the murder rate doubled, the robbery rate quadrupled, and the aggravated-assault rate nearly quintupled. But the relationship between crime and incarceration is more discordant than it appears. Imprisonment rates actually fell from the 1960s through the early ’70s, even as violent crime increased. From the mid-’70s to the late ’80s, both imprisonment rates and violent-crime rates rose. Then, from the early ’90s to the present, violent-crime rates fell while imprisonment rates increased. The incarceration rate rose independent of crime–but not of criminal-justice policy….

The rise and fall in crime in the late 20th century was an international phenomenon. Crime rates rose and fell in the United States and Canada at roughly the same clip—but in Canada, imprisonment rates held steady. “If greatly increased severity of punishment and higher imprisonment rates caused American crime rates to fall after 1990,” the researchers Michael Tonry and David P. Farrington have written, then “what caused the Canadian rates to fall?” The riddle is not particular to North America. In the latter half of the 20th century, crime rose and then fell in Nordic countries as well. During the period of rising crime, incarceration rates held steady in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden—but declined in Finland [and Finland’s crime rate didn’t shoot up]…. Bruce Western, a sociologist at Harvard and one of the leading academic experts on American incarceration, looked at the growth in state prisons in recent years and concluded that a 66 percent increase in the state prison population between 1993 and 2001 had reduced the rate of serious crime by a modest 2 to 5 percent—at a cost to taxpayers of $53 billion.

This bloating of the prison population may not have reduced crime much, but it increased misery among the group that so concerned Moynihan. Among all black males born since the late 1970s, one in four went to prison by their mid-‘30s; among those who dropped out of high school, seven in 10 did….

The emergence of the carceral state has had far-reaching consequences for the economic viability of black families. Employment and poverty statistics traditionally omit the incarcerated from the official numbers. When Western recalculated the jobless rates for the year 2000 to include incarcerated young black men, he found that joblessness among all young black men went from 24 to 32 percent; among those who never went to college, it went from 30 to 42 percent. The upshot is stark. Even in the booming ’90s, when nearly every American demographic group improved its economic position, black men were left out. The illusion of wage and employment progress among African American males was made possible only through the erasure of the most vulnerable among them from the official statistics….

The Gray Wastes differ in both size and mission from the penal systems of earlier eras. As African Americans began filling cells in the 1970s, rehabilitation was largely abandoned in favor of retribution—the idea that prison should not reform convicts but punish them….

Chapter III

Ex-offenders are excluded from a wide variety of jobs, running the gamut from septic-tank cleaner to barber to real-estate agent, depending on the state. And in the limited job pool that ex-offenders can swim in, blacks and whites are not equal. For her research, [Devah] Pager [a Harvard sociologist] pulled together four testers to pose as men looking for low-wage work. One white man and one black man would pose as job seekers without a criminal record, and another black man and white man would pose as job seekers with a criminal record. The negative credential of prison impaired the employment efforts of both the black man and the white man, but it impaired those of the black man more. Startlingly, the effect was not limited to the black man with a criminal record. The black man without a criminal record fared worse than the white man with one. “High levels of incarceration cast a shadow of criminality over all black men, implicating even those (in the majority) who have remained crime free,” Pager writes. Effectively, the job market in America regards black men who have never been criminals as though they were….

In America, the men and women who find themselves lost in the Gray Wastes are not picked at random. A series of risk factors—mental illness, illiteracy, drug addiction, poverty—increases one’s chances of ending up in the ranks of the incarcerated…. Sixty-eight percent of jail inmates were struggling with substance dependence or abuse in 2002. One can imagine a separate world where the state would see these maladies through the lens of government education or public-health programs. Instead it has decided to see them through the lens of criminal justice. As the number of prison beds has risen in this country, the number of public-psychiatric-hospital beds has fallen. The Gray Wastes draw from the most socioeconomically unfortunate among us, and thus take particular interest in those who are black….

Chapter IV

It is impossible to conceive of the Gray Wastes without first conceiving of a large swath of its inhabitants as both more than criminal and less than human. These inhabitants, black people, are the preeminent outlaws of the American imagination. Black criminality is literally written into the American Constitution—the Fugitive Slave Clause, in Article IV of that document, declared that any “Person held to Service or Labour” who escaped from one state to another could be “delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” From America’s very founding, the pursuit of the right to labor, and the right to live free of whipping and of the sale of one’s children, were verboten for blacks.

The crime of absconding was thought to be linked to other criminal inclinations among blacks…. Nearly a century and a half before the infamy of Willie Horton, a portrait emerged of blacks as highly prone to criminality, and generally beyond the scope of rehabilitation. In this fashion, black villainy justified white oppression—which was seen not as oppression but as “the corner-stone of our republican edifice.”…

Randall Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard, writes that “many jurisdictions made slaves into ‘criminals’ by prohibiting them from pursuing a wide range of activities that whites were typically free to pursue.” Among these activities were: learning to read, leaving their masters’ property without a proper pass, engaging in ‘unbecoming’ conduct in the presence of a white female, assembling to worship outside the supervisory presence of a white person, neglecting to step out of the way when a white person approached on a walkway, smoking in public, walking with a cane, making loud noises, or defending themselves from assaults. Antebellum Virginia had 73 crimes that could garner the death penalty for slaves—and only one for whites…. Blacks were criminal brutes by nature, and something more than the law of civilized men was needed to protect the white public….

Before Emancipation, enslaved blacks were rarely lynched, because whites were loathe to destroy their own property. But after the Civil War, the number of lynchings rose, peaked at the turn of the century, then persisted at a high level until just before the Second World War, not petering out entirely until the height of the civil-rights movement, in the 1960s. The lethal wave was justified by a familiar archetype—“the shadow of the Negro criminal,” which, according to John Rankin, a congressman from Mississippi speaking in 1922, hung “like the sword of Damocles over the head of every white woman.” Lynching, though extralegal, found support in the local, state, and national governments of America….

The persistent and systematic notion that blacks were especially prone to crime extended even to the state’s view of black leadership. J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI for nearly half a century, harassed three generations of leaders. In 1919, he attacked the black nationalist Marcus Garvey as “the foremost radical among his race,” then ruthlessly pursued Garvey into jail and deportation. In 1964, he attacked Martin Luther King Jr. as “the most notorious liar in the country,” and hounded him, bugging his hotel rooms, his office, and his home, until his death. Hoover declared the Black Panther Party to be “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and authorized a repressive, lethal campaign against its leaders that culminated in the assassination of Fred Hampton in December of 1969.

Today Hoover is viewed unsympathetically as having stood outside mainstream ideas of law and order. But Hoover’s pursuit of King was known to both President Kennedy and President Johnson, King’s ostensible allies. Moreover, Hoover was operating within an American tradition of criminalizing black leadership. In its time, the Underground Railroad was regarded by supporters of slavery as an interstate criminal enterprise devoted to the theft of property. Harriet Tubman, purloiner of many thousands of dollars in human bodies, was considered a bandit of the highest order. “I appear before you this evening as a thief and a robber,” Frederick Douglass told his audiences. “I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master, and ran off with them.”

In Douglass’s time, to stand up for black rights was to condone black criminality. The same was true in King’s time. The same is true today. Appearing on Meet the Press to discuss the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani—in the fashion of many others—responded to black critics of law enforcement exactly as his forebears would have: “How about you reduce crime? … The white police officers wouldn’t be there if you weren’t killing each other 70 to 75 percent of the time.”…

When the Justice Department investigated the Ferguson police department in the wake of Michael Brown’s death, it found a police force that disproportionately ticketed and arrested blacks and viewed them “less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.” This was not because the police department was uniquely evil—it was because Ferguson was looking to make money. “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs,” the report concluded…. This was not public safety driving policy—it was law enforcement tasked with the job of municipal plunder.

It is patently true that black communities, home to a class of people regularly discriminated against and impoverished, have long suffered higher crime rates. The historian David M. Oshinsky notes in his book “Worse Than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice that from 1900 to 1930, African Americans in Mississippi “comprised about 67 percent of the killers in Mississippi and 80 percent of the victims.” As much as African Americans complained of violence perpetrated by white terrorists, the lack of legal protection from everyday neighbor-on-neighbor violence was never then, and has never been, far from their minds.

Chapter V

The American response to crime cannot be divorced from a history of equating black struggle—individual and collective—with black villainy. And so it is unsurprising that in the midst of the civil-rights movement, rising crime was repeatedly linked with black advancement….

Nixon’s war on crime was more rhetoric than substance. “I was cranking out that bullshit on Nixon’s crime policy before he was elected,” wrote White House counsel John Dean, in his memoir of his time in the administration. “And it was bullshit, too. We knew it.” Indeed, if sinking crime rates are the measure of success, Nixon’s war on crime was a dismal failure. The rate of every type of violent crime—murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault—was up by the end of Nixon’s tenure. The true target of Nixon’s war on crime lay elsewhere. Describing the Nixon campaign’s strategy for assembling enough votes to win the 1972 election, Nixon’s aide John Ehrlichman later wrote, “We’ll go after the racists.… That subliminal appeal to the antiblack voter was always in Nixon’s statements and speeches on schools and housing.” According to H. R. Haldeman, another Nixon aide, the president believed that when it came to welfare, the “whole problem [was] really the blacks.” Of course, the civil-rights movement had made it unacceptable to say this directly. “The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to,” Haldeman wrote in his diary. But there was no need to devise new systems from scratch: When Nixon proclaimed drugs “public enemy No. 1,” or declared “war against the criminal elements which increasingly threaten our cities, our homes, and our lives,” he didn’t need to name the threat. A centuries-long legacy of equating blacks with criminals and moral degenerates did the work for him….

As incarceration rates rose and prison terms became longer, the idea of rehabilitation was mostly abandoned in favor of incapacitation. Mandatory minimums—sentences that set a minimum length of punishment for the convicted—were a bipartisan achievement of the 1980s backed not just by conservatives such as Strom Thurmond but by liberals such as Ted Kennedy. Conservatives believed mandatory sentencing would prevent judges from exercising too much leniency; liberals believed it would prevent racism from infecting the bench. But reform didn’t just provide sentencing guidelines—it also cut back on alternatives (parole, for instance) and generally lengthened time served. Before reform, prisoners typically served 40 to 70 percent of their sentences. After reform, they served 87 to 100 percent of their sentences. Moreover, despite what liberals had hoped for, bias was not eliminated, because discretion now lay with prosecutors, who could determine the length of a sentence by deciding what crimes to charge someone with. District attorneys with reelection to consider could demonstrate their zeal to protect the public with the number of criminals jailed and the length of their stay.

Prosecutors were not alone in their quest to appear tough on crime. In the 1980s and ’90s, legislators, focusing on the scourge of crack cocaine, vied with one another to appear toughest. There was no real doubt as to who would be the target of this newfound toughness….

The suite of drug laws adopted in the 1980s and ’90s did little to reduce crime, but a lot to normalize prison in black communities. “No single offense type has more directly contributed to contemporary racial disparities in imprisonment than drug crimes,” Devah Pager, the Harvard sociologist, has written. “Between 1983 and 1997, the number of African Americans admitted to prison for drug offenses increased more than twenty-six-fold, relative to a sevenfold increase for whites…. By 2001, there were more than twice as many African Americans as whites in state prison for drug offenses.”… To reiterate an important point: Surveys have concluded that blacks and whites use drugs at roughly the same rates. And yet by the close of the 20th century, prison was a more common experience for young black men than college graduation or military service….

Dark predictions of rising crime did not bear out. Like the bestial blacks of the 19th century, super-predators proved to be the stuff of myth. This realization cannot be regarded strictly as a matter of hindsight. As the historian Naomi Murakawa has shown in her book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, many Democrats knew exactly what they were doing—playing on fear for political gain—and did it anyway….

In 1994, President Clinton signed a new crime bill, which offered grants to states that built prisons and cut back on parole. Clinton recently said that he regrets his pivotal role in driving up the country’s incarceration numbers…. But even in trying to explain his policies, Clinton neglected to retract the assumption underlying them—that incarcerating large swaths of one population was a purely well-intended, logical, and nonracist response to crime. Even at the time of its passage, Democrats—much like the Republican Nixon a quarter century earlier—knew that the 1994 crime bill was actually about something more than that. Writing about the bill in 1993, Clinton’s aides Bruce Reed and Jose Cerda III urged the president to seize the issue “at a time when public concern about crime is the highest it has been since Richard Nixon stole the issue from the Democrats in 1968.”…

Chapter VI

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles found guilty of crimes other than homicide were unconstitutional. Two years later, it held the same for mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile homicide offenders….

In Maryland, the average lifer who has been recommended for but not granted release is 60 years old. These men and women are past the age of “criminal menopause,” as some put it, and most pose no threat to their community. Even so, the Maryland Parole Commission’s recommendation is not easily attained: Between 2006 and 2014, it recommended only about 80 out of more than 2,100 eligible lifers for release. Almost none of those 80 or so men and women, despite meeting a stringent set of requirements, was granted release by the governor…. The choice given to judges to levy sentences for life either with or without parole no longer has any meaning….

Chapter VII

Born in the late 1950s, Odell Newton was part of the generation that so troubled Moynihan when he wrote his report on “The Negro Family.” But Odell had the very bulwark that Moynihan treasured—a stable family—and it did not save him from incarceration. It would be wrong to conclude from this that family is irrelevant. But families don’t exist independent of their environment. Odell was born in the midst of an era of government-backed housing discrimination. Indeed, Baltimore was a pioneer in this practice—in 1910, the city council had zoned the city by race. “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums,” J. Barry Mahool, Baltimore’s mayor, said. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such explicit racial-zoning schemes unconstitutional, in 1917, the city turned to other means–restrictive covenants, civic associations, and redlining–to keep blacks isolated.

These efforts curtailed the ability of black people to buy better housing, to move to better neighborhoods, and to build wealth. Also, by confining black people to the same neighborhoods, these efforts ensured that people who were discriminated against, and hence had little, tended to be neighbors only with others who also had little. Thus while an individual in that community might be high-achieving, even high-earning, his or her ability to increase that achievement and wealth and social capital, through friendship, marriage, or neighborhood organizations, would always be limited….

That families are better off the stronger and more stable they are is self-evidently important. But so is the notion that no family can ever be made impregnable, that families are social structures existing within larger social structures….

Like so many urban riots during the long, hot summers of the 1960s, Detroit’s began with law enforcement…. As Thomas J. Sugrue, a historian at New York University, observes in his book The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, “Between 1947 and 1963, Detroit lost 134,000 manufacturing jobs, while its population of working-aged men and women actually increased.” From the end of the 1940s to the beginning of the 1960s, Detroit suffered four major recessions. Automakers began moving to other parts of the country, and eventually to other parts of the world. The loss of jobs meant a loss of buying power, affecting drugstores, grocery stores, restaurants, and department stores. “By the late 1950s,” Sugrue writes, Detroit’s “industrial landscape had become almost unrecognizable.”

Black residents of Detroit had to cope not just with the same structural problems as white residents but also with pervasive racism. Within a precarious economy, black people generally worked the lowest-paying jobs. They came home from those jobs to the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where most of them used their substandard wages to pay inflated prices for inferior housing. Attempts to escape into white neighborhoods were frustrated by restrictive covenants, racist real-estate agents, block associations, and residents whose tactics included, as Sugrue writes, “harassment, mass demonstrations, picketing, effigy burning, window breaking, arson, vandalism, and physical attacks.” Some blacks were richer than others. Some were better educated than others. But all were constricted, not by a tangle of pathologies, but by a tangle of structural perils.

The fires of 1967 conveniently obscured those perils. But the structural problems, along with the wave of deindustrialization, were what gifted America with the modern “Negro problem.” By the 1970s, the government institution charged with mediating these problems was, in the main, the criminal-justice system….

The blacks incarcerated in this country are not like the majority of Americans. They do not merely hail from poor communities—they hail from communities that have been imperiled across both the deep and immediate past, and continue to be imperiled today. Peril is generational for black people in America—and incarceration is our current mechanism for ensuring that the peril continues. Incarceration pushes you out of the job market. Incarceration disqualifies you from feeding your family with food stamps. Incarceration allows for housing discrimination based on a criminal-background check. Incarceration increases your risk of homelessness. Incarceration increases your chances of being incarcerated again. “The prison boom helps us understand how racial inequality in America was sustained, despite great optimism for the social progress of African Americans,” Bruce Western, the Harvard sociologist, writes. “The prison boom is not the main cause of inequality between blacks and whites in America, but it did foreclose upward mobility and deflate hopes for racial equality.”

If generational peril is the pit in which all black people are born, incarceration is the trapdoor closing overhead….

Chapter VIII

[Patrick Moynihan’s “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”] is a flawed work in part because it is a fundamentally sexist document that promotes the importance not just of family but of patriarchy, arguing that black men should be empowered at the expense of black women…. Moynihan wrote to President Johnson in 1965[:] “We must not rest until every able-bodied Negro male is working. Even if we have to displace some females.” Moynihan was evidently unconcerned that he might be arguing for propping up an order in which women were bound to men by a paycheck, in which “family” still meant the right of a husband to rape his wife and intramarital violence was still treated as a purely domestic and nonlegal matter….

Crime really did begin to rise during the early 1970s. But by this point, Moynihan had changed…. 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….

[Moynihan’s] vision dominates liberal political discourse today [2015]. One hears Moynihan in Barack Obama’s cultural critique of black fathers and black families. Strains of Moynihan’s thinking ran through Bill Clinton…. He argued for a policy initiative on three fronts—jobs, family, and crime—but the country’s commitment to each of these propositions proved unequal. Incarceration soared during Clinton’s two terms. There’s very little evidence that it brought down crime—and abundant evidence that it hindered employment for black men, and accelerated the kind of family breakdown that Clinton and Moynihan both lamented. In their efforts to strengthen the black family, Clinton and Moynihan—and Obama, too—aspired to combine government social programs with cultural critiques of ghetto pathology (the “both/and” notion, as Obama has termed it), and they believed that Americans were capable of taking in critiques of black culture and white racism at once. But this underestimated the weight of the country’s history.

For African Americans, unfreedom is the historical norm. 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 1900, the black-white incarceration disparity in the North was seven to one–roughly the same disparity that exists today on a national scale….

Chapter IX

In his inaugural year as the governor of Texas, 1995, George W. Bush presided over a government that opened a new prison nearly every week. Under Bush, the state’s prison budget rose from $1.4 billion to $2.4 billion, and the total number of prison beds went from about 118,000 to more than 166,000. Almost a decade later Bush, by then the president of the United States, decided that he, and the rest of the country, had made a mistake. “This year, some 600,000 inmates will be released from prison back into society,” Bush said during his 2004 State of the Union address. “We know from long experience that if they can’t find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit crime and return to prison.”

As we enter the 2016 presidential-election cycle, candidates on both sides of the partisan divide are echoing Bush’s call….

But the task is Herculean. The changes needed to achieve an incarceration rate in line with the rest of the developed world are staggering. 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…. One 2004 study found that the proportion of “unambiguously low-level drug offenders” could be less than 6 percent in state prisons and less than 2 percent in federal ones….

Mass incarceration is, ultimately, a problem of troublesome entanglements. To war seriously against the disparity in unfreedom requires a war against a disparity in resources. And to war against a disparity in resources is to confront a history in which both the plunder and the mass incarceration of blacks are accepted commonplaces. Our current debate over criminal-justice reform pretends that it is possible to disentangle ourselves without significantly disturbing the other aspects of our lives, that one can extract the thread of mass incarceration from the larger tapestry of racist American policy.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan knew better. His 1965 report on “The Negro Family” was explosive for what it claimed about black mothers and black fathers—but if it had contained all of Moynihan’s thinking on the subject, including his policy recommendations, it likely would have been politically nuclear….

His point was simple if impolitic: Blacks were suffering from the effects of centuries of ill treatment at the hands of white society. Ending that ill treatment would not be enough; the country would have to make amends for it. “It may be that without unequal treatment in the immediate future there is no way for [African Americans] to achieve anything like equal status in the long run,” Moynihan wrote.

As we look ahead to what politicians are now saying will be the end of mass incarceration, we are confronted with the reality of what Moynihan observed in 1965, intensified and compounded by the past 50 years of the carceral state. What of the “damages” wrought by mass incarceration? What of the black men whose wages remained stagnant for decades largely due to our correctional policy? What of the 20th-century wars on drugs repeatedly pursued on racist grounds, and their devastating effects on black communities?…

A serious reformation of our carceral policy—one seeking a smaller prison population, and a prison population that looks more like America—cannot concern itself merely with sentencing reform, cannot pretend as though the past 50 years of criminal-justice policy did not do real damage. And so it is not possible to truly reform our justice system without reforming the institutional structures, the communities, and the politics that surround it….

Moynihan may have left any recommendations as to “favored treatment” for blacks out of his report. But the question has not disappeared. In fact, it is more urgent than ever. The economic and political marginalization of black people virtually ensured that they would be the ones who would bear the weight of what one of President Nixon’s own aides called his “bullshit” crime policy, and thus be fed into the maw of the Gray Wastes. And should crime rates rise again, there is no reason to believe that black people, black communities, black families will not be fed into the great maw again. Indeed, the experience of mass incarceration, the warehousing and deprivation of whole swaths of our country, the transformation of that deprivation into wealth transmitted through government jobs and private investment, the pursuit of the War on Drugs on nakedly racist grounds, have only intensified the ancient American dilemma’s white-hot core—the problem of “past unequal treatment,” the difficulty of “damages,” the question of reparations.