Racial inequity is a perennial scourge of American public life. Recent events—the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner (among others), public debates over police and prison reform, and the tragic killings in Charleston this summer—have brought the issue squarely into the national spotlight once again, prompting a flood of opinion pieces and policy proposals. Rather than focus on individual incidents, this week’s briefing highlights pieces that situate the current phase of the conversation on race in a larger historical and cultural climate, seeking a way forward by striving to understand the past. (Be advised: several of this week’s pieces are long—but, we think, worth your consideration.)
The central piece in this week’s briefing is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent Atlantic feature, titled “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” Coates, recently named a MacArthur Fellow, has become one of the nation’s most influential voices on race issues. In this impassioned, well-researched, and clear-voiced article, Coates gives names and faces to the staggering statistics on incarceration in the United States, a phenomenon that disproportionately affects black males and their families. Coates traces the stifling generational effects of the aggressive prison reforms of the 1980s and 1990s—chiefly mandatory minimum sentences and limited parole—which led to a fivefold increase in the national incarceration rate between 1975 and 2005. His article also sheds light on deeply-embedded cultural barriers to decarceration, especially the collective “moral logic” that makes the widespread use of life sentences a plausible solution to the problem of violent crime—a moral logic that is, Coates argues, “peculiarly American.”
Perhaps most significantly, Coates’ piece artfully shows that mass incarceration is “a problem of troublesome entanglements,” situated within a centuries-long history of racial inequity in this country—evident not only in slavery, but also in Jim Crow laws, the separate-but-equal doctrine, racist housing policy, and even recent political expressions of “war on crime.” Any attempted solution must be rooted in a deep understanding of the overlapping social, historical, and economic forces that have contributed to the problem. As Coates concludes, “it is not possible to truly reform our justice system without reforming the institutional structures, the communities, and the politics that surround it.”
Coates has in many ways functioned as a prophetic voice, calling institutions of government and criminal justice to account for their role in perpetuating generational inequity. But some critics have pointed out that his message suffers from a lack of hope. Thabiti Anyabwile, in this short Atlantic piece, applauds Coates’ insight and candor but worries that his despairing tone cannot inspire the sustained collective action necessary for lasting change. According to Anyabwile, this hopelessness prevents Coates from offering constructive policy proposals to address the problems he so clearly identifies. It also causes him to reject the notion of “respectability politics,” a strategy of attentiveness to public presentation and conduct that undergirded much of the Civil Rights Movement. Coates has succeeded in giving his readers a new perspective on an old problem—but many are left asking, where do we go from here?
This week’s final two articles identify sources of hope from within African American history. The first, a reasoned and compelling defense of respectability politics by Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, offers a source of political hope by reminding readers of the real, transformative progress that has been made through “intelligent, brave, persistent collective action.” Although Coates and other critics have dismissed respectability politics as docile self-blaming, Kennedy maintains that “carefully organized protests were among the manifold influences that have dramatically transformed America” since the Jim Crow era. Kennedy insists that the heart of respectability politics is “an underlying optimism…a belief that even in the teeth of recalcitrant bigotry and cruel indifference, blacks can still wrest from this society more liberty and equality.”
In this week’s final piece, New Yorker editor David Remnick highlights a source of spiritual hope by following up with residents of Charleston, S.C. three months after this summer’s killings. What emerges most powerfully from his interviews is the healing and sustaining role of the black church—which Remnick calls “the most powerful of all African-American institutions”—in communities ravaged by racially motivated violence. Throughout the piece, Remnick marvels at church members’ extraordinary capacity for “forgiveness and forbearance.” (It’s worth noting that Coates has attributed his inability to “access” such radical forgiveness to his lack of exposure to the church.) The stories Remnick shares make clear that while the painful problem of racial inequity won’t disappear quickly, neither will the black church’s determination to maintain hope in the face of injustice, and to continue to live out what one elderly Charleston interviewee calls “the resolute patience of a long-suffering people.”