Mass incarceration and the black family

In 1965, Daniel P. Moynihan wrote a report for the Johnson administration saying that black American families were breaking down, and that this created problems that could not be solved through civil rights legislation or existing social welfare programs.

Atlantic840Moynihan, who himself grew up in a broken home, argued that African-American boys needed strong fathers to be breadwinners and role models, and that without this influence, they were more likely to become drifters and criminals.

His intent was to promote jobs programs for African-American men, but the impact of this report, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in cover article in The Atlantic, was the opposite.

It was taken as an indication that the black American family was inherently dysfunctional and that nothing could be done about it.   Critics such as Charles Murray said that welfare programs, especially Aid to Dependent Children, undermined the family because they made it possible for mothers to get along without the income of a male breadwinner.

The federal government’s policy instead was to protect society from poor black people by stepping up law enforcement and sending more people to prison and for longer periods of time.

The rate of incarceration in the United States is roughly five times what it was when Moynihan wrote his report, and many times any comparable country.

Those incarcerated are disproportionately poor black menThey are arrested much more frequently than middle-class or white men for victim-less crimes or for such vague offenses as loitering.

As Coates pointed out, this is highly destructive to the black family, and in the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy.   A black man in prison cannot fulfill the role of a father, and, once freed, is barred from many occupations by law and most jobs by custom.

So you have more fatherless families, and more families in which the husband and father is unable to fulfill the role of provider and protector.

Nowadays there are those who say that the traditional male role is out-of-date.   I’m of an older generation and have trouble accepting this.   I don’t think, for example, that women should be drafted into the military.

However you see this, it is one thing for a husband and wife to agree between themselves that the wife should be the main income-earner and the husband should be a house-husband.  It is another thing for the man to be barred from employment for making one bad mistake in life, or even less than that.

American political leaders are coming to realize that mass incarceration is a problem and not an answer.  But even if the policy were to be reversed overnight, which is unlikely, its consequences will linger.


The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration by Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic.  A long article, but well worth close reading.  I recommend obtaining a copy of the magazine instead of trying to read it all on-screen.

A note on the Moynihan Report, black women and ‘urbanology’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  [added later]

What’s the Solution to Mass Incarceration?, an exchange between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg [added 9/16/2015]

Modern Segregation by Richard Rothstein for the Economic Policy Institute.   A presentation on how the Federal Housing Administration enforced racial segregation, including in the North, in the years following World War Two.  Another policy whose consequences linger.

De Facto vs. De Jure Segregation by Mike the Mad Biologist.  A summary of Rothstein’s presentation.

My People, Black and White by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.  [added later]  Not all black men or black families are broken down by the system.


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