Must-Read: Ta-Nehisi Coates: Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Responsibility for Mass Incarceration

Must-Read: I think Ta-Nehisi Coates has this right: As I read it, Moynihan tried to use, in the context of the rising crime wave, Richard Nixon’s and others’ racist fears of young Black men and even the Black middle class to mobilize support for massive federal support for poor Black communities in the ghetto and elsewhere. He most of all wanted America’s poor children in the future to have mothers supported by society in a way that his mother had not been, and to have more of a chance of a father in their lives in a constructive way than he had had. But in his political-ideological-intellectual maneuvering to try to accomplish this good end, he gave hostages to very bad currents of thought:

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Responsibility for Mass Incarceration: “I almost had the sense that Moynihan was trying to trick Nixon into embracing liberal policy…

…Through all of his memos Moynihan  remains thoroughly committed to government action to help black families. He believes the black poor to be ‘unusually self-damaging,’ but he does not believe they should be left to their fate. He believes the government should invest in poor black communities. But this is accompanied by a telling dig–aiding the ghettoes would prevent the militant black middle class from threatening the ‘the larger society much as the desperate bank robber threatens to drop the vial of nitroglycerin.’ Moynihan used the rhetoric of black criminalization, even in arguing for government aid. It takes a peculiar blindness to wonder why we built prisons instead. The point is not that Moynihan wanted prisons.  I am certain the growth in incarceration truly horrified Moynihan. And I don’t doubt for a minute the sincerity in the words that Weiner quotes in Moynihan’s defense. But the possession of good intentions, and deep sympathies, does not absolve men with power of their responsibility, nor of their imprudence. Whatever his ultimate goals, Moynihan buttressed, and employed, the logic of black criminality and white victimhood. Are we to simply ignore this because we approve of Moynihan’s sympathies?

September 27, 2015

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