Moynihan, Mass Incarceration, and Responsibility


Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic:

I want to respond to Greg Weiner’s contention that I’ve offered a distorted picture of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. There’s a lot wrong with Weiner’s note. I specifically object to the idea that the Moynihan Report left its authors reputation “in tatters.”

It is certainly true that Moynihan suffered through more than his share of unfair criticism after the release of The Case for National Action. It is also true that within two years of the Moynihan Report’s release, the author was being hailed on the cover of TIME magazine as America’s “urbanologist.” That same year Lifemagazine lauded Moynihan as the “idea broker in the race crisis.” After leaving the Johnson administration, Moynihan went on to a lucrative post at Harvard, became the urban affairs guru for one president and the UN ambassador for another, and then served for an unbroken four terms in the Senate. Furthermore, Moynihan’s central idea—that the problems of families are key to ending the problems of poverty—dominates the national discourse today. I suspect the president would take no insult in being described as a disciple of Moynihan. If this is all part and parcel of having your reputation destroyed, it is an enviable specimen of the genre.

Weiner’s claim is, of course, much larger. He accuses me of merely hinting at Moynihan bearing some responsibility for mass incarceration, and cleverly leaving the nasty work to the editor’s note written by James Bennet:

Coates demonstrates that white Americans’ fear of black Americans, and their impulse to control blacks, are integral to the rise of the carceral state. A result is that one of every four black men born since the late 1970s has spent time in prison, at profound cost to his family. For this, Coates holds Moynihan, in part, responsible.

Since Weiner believes I was being coy, let me directly state that I wholly concur with this interpretation. My argument is that mass incarceration is built on a long history of viewing black people as unequal in general, and criminal in the specific. Both of these trends can be found in Moynihan’s arguments.

More here.