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Ta-Nehisi Coates on the impacts of poverty to prison

A row of Secure Housing Units at the Corcoran State Prison in California in 2013. The prison has a separate facility built for  inmates held in solitary.
A row of Secure Housing Units at the Corcoran State Prison in California in 2013. The prison has a separate facility built for inmates held in solitary.
Robert Galbraith/Reuters /Landov

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America's prisons hold a disproportionate number of African-American men, and it's unclear why.

Fifty years ago, a Labor Department employee named Daniel Patrick Moynihan attempted to get to the heart of the problem in his report, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action." The controversial document said high rates of welfare dependency, incarceration and unemployment were all rooted in slavery and oppressive Jim Crow laws.

While Moynihan identified several key issues, he stopped short of making policy suggestions. Half a century later, what's changed?

Atlantic national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates tells Take Two that Moynihan intended for the report to bring change for to America's communities of color, but few officials wanted to take on the task.

“What he was trying to do was assemble enough of an effort to actually get something done about the situation in African American communities, and so his thought was the way to do that was through talking about the family.”

Coates says Moynihan chose a family focus in order to appeal to more conservative American ideals. The report makes the case the many of black America's problems can be traced to the shortage of  strong, employed and empowered father figures at home. But Coates says 1960s America wasn’t quite ready to hear their options.

“He left it out, because he was very very much aware that including the solutions would get us into conversations about who was on board for what.”

Coates says this was a ‘huge error.’ Without policy recommendations, the report was left up to interpretation. As a result, Moynihan’s document had the opposite effect, and, arguably fortified the institutional racism inveterate to American social policy.

Years later, in response to a wave of crime, the US began imprisoning at a rate that far surpassed other developed countries.

“The crime rise was actually an international phenomenon,” Coates explains.

“America is not necessarily unique in having experienced a rise of crime. It is unique in the percentage, [and] the proportion of its minority portion that it decided to lock up.”

Moynihan’s report suggested a multi-pronged approach for creating change in communities of color. As crime rose, however, Coates says the only policy that lawmakers were willing to get behind included longer jail terms for people of color. He says the impact of imprisonment have far-reaching effects, often setting young blacks up for a life of crime.

“It’s removed people from their homes and its removed people from communities in ways we did not used to do for the same crimes … It’s made going to prison what it used to be to go into the Army. It’s had a disastrous effect on the black community.”

Press the play button above to hear more from The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Joining Take Two to discuss: