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Ta-Nehisi Coates: ‘We made that decision’ to have mass incarceration

Ta-Nehisi Coates, newly named MacArthur fellow who has been shortlisted for the National Book Award, speaks to Gwen Ifill about his writings on the “gray waste” of mass incarceration and racial inequality, and why he makes the case for reparations for Black Americans.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    But, first, another take on our legal system, this time, a conversation with the writer who is among the newest class of MacArthur fellows, and today was named a finalist for a National Book Award for his writing about race, crime and punishment.

    The book is “Between the World and Me,” and his latest contribution to “The Atlantic” magazine examines the black family in the age of mass incarceration.

    Ta-Nehisi Coates joins me now.

    Welcome.

  • TA-NEHISI COATES, The Atlantic:

    Thanks for having me, Gwen.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    It’s a very, very long magazine article, probably one of the longest, if not the longest, that “Atlantic” has ever published.

  • TA-NEHISI COATES:

    Yes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And in it and in your book and in a magazine article you wrote last year about reparations, it seems to reveal an ongoing sense of deep pessimism, not only about America, but especially about African-Americans.

  • TA-NEHISI COATES:

    Well, I wouldn’t call it pessimistic.

    I would call it, if I can use the word, realpolitik is probably a word that I would actually use. I think there’s a way of looking at African-American life and looking at the long struggle against racism in this country that is current within our politics, and then there’s a whole different way that people talk about when I go talk to academics, when I go talk to sociologists, and when I talk to historians.

    And that world, I guess, some would feel is pessimistic. I don’t think it’s pessimistic, because I think any struggle worth having takes place across generations. And so one of the things that, if that work does anything, it forgoes the possibility of great and tremendous change within our lifetime.

    But, you know, it’s not so pessimistic about the long term, I don’t think.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But when you talk about the gray wastes…

  • TA-NEHISI COATES:

    Right.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    … that is not an optimistic term. Explain what it is, first of all.

  • TA-NEHISI COATES:

    Well, it’s prison.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Yes.

  • TA-NEHISI COATES:

    I mean, the gray wastes is a description of our sprawling jail and prison system.

    I was looking for some sort of terminology that, as far as I could see accurately reflected, not just in terms of hard numbers, but compelled people to feel what it was. And the gray wastes is what I settle on.

    When you write about mass incarceration, when you write about housing discrimination, as I was writing about in the case of reparations, when you write about death at the hands of the police, as I was in “Between the World and Me,” the language does not tend to happy fun time. It tends to be hard.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Which is why I’m surprised you don’t see it as pessimistic.

    But let’s get back to that.

  • TA-NEHISI COATES:

    OK.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Because you frame this particular article with — you use Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the senator from New York, to frame this. He, in 1965, wrote a very famous report on the state of the Negro family, as it was called then.

  • TA-NEHISI COATES:

    Right, right.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    He played a role not only in writing that, but also on the other end, in creating some of the problems you say continue to exist.

  • TA-NEHISI COATES:

    Right, right.

    Well, in 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan does this report on the black family. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is very, very sympathetic to the black family, very, very sympathetic to black people in general and to the problem of race in this country.

    He was arguing — you know, effectively, he used the family as the lens to look at the community, assembled all these social economic indicators to show where black families were as compared to the rest, and hoped that what would follow was benevolent investment.

    The argument that I make in the piece is that, in fact, what followed was malevolent investment, that a lot of problems that Daniel Patrick Moynihan was dealing with in that report, we basically outsourced to our prison system, instead of our normal social service system.

    And the piece is all about why we did that. And, regrettably, some of that is within — some of the reason why we did that can be seen within the history of Daniel Moynihan himself.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You make a connection between the tangle of pathology that he famously wrote about…

  • TA-NEHISI COATES:

    Right.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    … and the tangle of perils that African-American men mostly face now.

  • TA-NEHISI COATES:

    Right, right, right.

    And I wanted to be clear about the difference. You know, the pathology summons these notions of a diseased patient, of somebody that is afflicted. And, for me, whenever I’m writing about racism, again, through all three of these pieces, I think people shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it’s a done thing.

    And the tangles of peril, I felt better conveyed the notion that somebody had done certain things, that we had made certain decisions about housing in this country, that we had made certain decisions about how we were going to punish certain crimes in this country, that we make decisions about any number of things in terms of how we’re going to invest our resources as a country. And that has effects.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You make a case, a connection between the efforts we took to fix crime, whether it was three strikes you’re out, or whether it was just the war on drugs, and you made that connection to that and mass incarceration as we see it now.

  • TA-NEHISI COATES:

    Yes.

    What we had, and certainly you can’t get away from the fact that we did have a crime rise in this country beginning in the early ’70s and proceeding into the ’80s and into and beginning to level off as you get into the ’90s, until it started to plunge, really, really plunge in the late ’90s and into the 2000s.

    And, oftentimes, that’s the argument we get for how we ended up with so many people in jail. The problem, of course, is that the crime rise and the subsequent fall that happened at the middle to the end of the 20th century actually is an international phenomena.

    Same thing happened in Canada. Same thing happened in Great Britain. Same thing happened across much of Europe. America is unique in mass incarceration, nevertheless. Everybody didn’t choose that as the answer for how they were going to deal with policy.

    We made that decision. And my argument is that you can’t divorce that from the history of looking at black people as though they have some sort of predilection towards criminality.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now, this won’t be the first time you have been asked this question. What about personal responsibility? What about the fact that numbers seem to show that African-Americans commit more crimes?

  • TA-NEHISI COATES:

    African-Americans do commit more crimes. There’s just no — no one can really make a — have a — as a percentage of the population of the country. There’s no way to get away from that.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, why is that the nation’s responsibility to fix it, if the community won’t fix it itself?

  • TA-NEHISI COATES:

    Because the conversation doesn’t end there.

    The conversation then has to become, why is that? Can it be said that African-American communities are the same as all other communities? Can it be said that African-American communities have the same amount of resources as all other communities? Can it be said that African-American — that other communities, like African-American communities, have the same history of people extracting resources out of their community?

    If you look at the policy, what the policies have been towards the African-American community historically in this country, that there’s more crime in African-American communities doesn’t, you know, come as a surprise.

    African-Americans in general tend to live in more criminogenic conditions than other communities. And so the fact that, you know, crime actually occurs, you know, more likely in those communities shouldn’t come as a particular surprise to anyone.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    What are the solutions?

  • TA-NEHISI COATES:

    Well, I think the first thing to do, as I have argued in my case for reparations, is reparations.

    And I know that doesn’t quite sound like a solution to everybody because it can’t be done right now. But I believe it’s a long-term solution, because the basic problem, the basic problem in this country with black people and with white people is that you have a huge discrepancy in wealth.

    And the easiest way, though not the only way, I can demonstrate that is the huge wealth gap. For every dollar of wealth that a white family has, African-American families have a nickel. That is not a mistake. That is not the result of magic.

    That is the result of done policy. That is the result of, you know, a long history of enslavement in this country, followed by Jim Crow, which was the extraction of resources, followed by erecting loan policies for home loans in this country that African-Americans were not given access to, followed by a safety net policy that black people did not have the same access to.

    It just does not make sense that you would have that, and then not do nothing, and then expect that everything is going to go away, that everything is going to be all right.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Ta-Nehisi Coates, congratulations on your honors that you have gotten recently.

  • TA-NEHISI COATES:

    Thank you. Thank you.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And thank you for talking to us.

  • TA-NEHISI COATES:

    Thank you, Gwen.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    On tomorrow’s program, we continue our look at mass incarceration, this time from the prisoner’s perspective. The NewsHour’s William Brangham was granted rare access to a maximum security jail in Maryland where a unique pilot program is trying to put a stop to the revolving prison door.

  • MAN:

    This idea that solely, solely taking someone’s freedom away changes behavior, in many cases, it changes it for the worse. And that’s not what America’s correctional facilities were founded on.

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