In the October 2015 issue of The Atlantic, award-winning journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates has penned an expansive and compelling cover story titled “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” The starting point for this essay is a discussion of the controversial Moynihan Report (officially known as The Negro Family: The Case for National Action).
Written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, sociologist and aide to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson (and later Nixon), the 1965 report contended that “the gap between the Negro and most other groups in American society is widening.” Moynihan further attempted to explain the spreading gulf between Black and White America by what he called the “tangle of pathology” in the Black community. The Moynihan Report promptly elicited responses from many in the African American community and those on the left who labeled it as short-sighted, patronizing, ill-informed, and even racist.
Moynihan, who considered himself well-intentioned, was personally devastated by such attacks and eventually decided to withdraw from public life. Nevertheless, he continued to hold onto the premise of his report as poverty and despair continued to increase in America’s cities.
Of Moynihan, Coates writes that “he pointed out that his pessimistic predictions were now becoming reality. Crime was increasing. So were the number of children in poor, female-headed families.”
In lieu of such trends and the escalating poverty in the nation’s urban centers, Coates highlights the precipitous increase in America’s prison population, which beginning in the 1970s, essentially doubled with each new decade. In fact, the number of imprisoned Americans has grown by more than 700 percent over the past 40 years.
In The Atlantic essay, Coates presents a thought-provoking historical and sociological narrative that explores the American penal system dating back to the antebellum South and the Fugitive Slave Act. He further discusses its evolution from reconstruction, through the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras, up until today.
Coates also compares America’s incarceration rates to a number of countries throughout Europe and Asia, while discussing his own research and recent travels across the United States in order to witness firsthand the effects that America’s “prison pipeline” is having on its Black communities. This journey yielded case studies from the cities of Baltimore and Detroit for his essay and Coates further offers anecdotal accounts from states such as California, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.
However, Coates saves the case of Minnesota for the final pages of his story. In doing so, he cites a lengthy 2009 research paper by Dr. Richard S. Frase. Dr. Frase, the Benjamin N. Berger Professor of Criminal Law at the University of Minnesota, drew attention to the state’s disparate poverty rate in his study writing that “The black family poverty rate in Minnesota was over six times higher than the white poverty rate, whereas for the United States as a whole the black poverty rate was 3.4 times higher.”
Frase’s research forcefully makes the link between poverty and incarceration rates as he reveals that during the 1980s and 1990s “Minnesota’s black per capita incarceration rates were about 20 times higher than white rates — the highest ration reported for any state.” And although these disparities have waned slightly, Minnesota still performs poorly in this area.
As a report from the Bureau of Justice confirms, Minnesota has one of the lowest per capita incarceration rates in the nation, yet ranks near the top of all 50 states in its disproportionate imprisonment of people of color, particularly African Americans and Native Americans.
Although Black Minnesotans make up less than six percent of the state’s total population, they account for more than 37 percent of the Minnesota prison population. Likewise, the current poverty rate among Black residents in this state is nearly 38 percent (41 percent for those born in the U.S.) as compared to just over eight percent of Whites and an overall Minnesota poverty rate of 11.5 percent.
The correlation between poverty and America’s prison system is clear. As Coates eloquently writes in the final pages of his October cover story, “The lesson of Minnesota is that the chasm in incarceration rates is deeply tied to the socioeconomic chasm between black and white America. The two are self-reinforcing — impoverished black people are more likely to end up in prison, and that experience breeds impoverishment. An array of laws, differing across the country but all emanating from our tendency toward punitive criminal justice — limiting or banning food stamps for drug felons; prohibiting ex-offenders from obtaining public housing — ensure this.”
The question for us remains, what can we do to fix this?
Clarence Hightower, executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties, holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street, St. Paul, MN 55104.