Justice in America Episode 10: A Conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates
Josie and Clint talk with the author and journalist about race, politics, and mass incarceration.
Josie Duffy Rice, Clint Smith Sep 26, 2018
For our last episode of the season, we are thrilled to have Ta-Nehisi Coates—an author and journalist who has published essential work, from “The Case for Reparations” to his book Between the World and Me. In 2015, Ta-Nehisi published a piece entitled, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration”, which looked at the history of mass incarceration and at how it continues to devastate black communities. We talk to him about race, mass incarceration, his list of suggested reading, and the responsibility of black leaders to address systemic injustice.
We’ll be back this winter with more episodes. In the meantime, keep up with us on Twitter and Facebook. Thank you for all your incredible support during season one. Talk to you in a few months for season two!
Read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” in The Atlantic.
The Moynihan Report, discussed last week on the show and also featured heavily in Ta-Nehisi’s piece.
“The Case for Reparations,” another excellent piece by Ta-Nehisi.
Devah Pager’s Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration is an excellent book about the collateral consequences incarceration has on employment.
James Forman’s book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, was raised during this discussion and also featured last week.
Here’s Khalil Muhammad’s book, The Condemnation of Blackness.
Among the books recommended by Ta-Nehisi are Bruce Western’s Punishment and Inequality in America, Devah Pager’s Marked, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Texas Tough, by Robert Perkinson.
Justice in America is available on iTunes, Soundcloud, Sticher, GooglePlay Music, Spotify, and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Facebook and Twitter.
Our email is email@example.com.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Until people have different fundamental assumptions about their country, who has the right to be a citizen in a country, who has a right to enjoy the full suite of privileges, all of this is, you know, and I don’t mean to be dismissive, but in many ways it’s choreography. It’s not the actual thing. I can articulate a series of responses to make the mythical beliefs that I have respectable. But the mythical beliefs they are what they are and they actually aren’t that hard to get to. I mean, you know, we’ve seen enough data on what people who voted for Donald Trump think about who should be a citizen and who should be, who should have access to the suite of rights that come with that.
Josie Duffy Rice: Hey everyone. I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Clint Smith: And I’m Clint Smith.
Josie: And this is Justice in America. Each show we discuss a topic in the American criminal justice system and we try to explain what it is and how it works.
Clint: Thank you so much to everyone for joining us today. You can find us on Twitter @Justice_ Podcast and like our Facebook page, you can just find us there at Justice in America. Also subscribe and rate us on iTunes, we’d love to hear from you.
Josie: So today is our last episode of season one.
Clint: Man, what a ride.
Josie: We’ve really, really enjoyed talking to you all about the criminal justice system and diving in deeper on all sorts of topics and we’ll be back with season two this winter. In the meantime, let us know what you’d like to hear more about. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clint: So at the beginning of this episode you heard a clip from our guest today, Ta-Nehisi Coates. We’re super excited to have Ta-Nehisi on today. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, if you care about these issues and care about issues of racial justice, you are likely familiar with his work. Ta-Nehisi is a journalist, a writer, an author, someone who has written some of the most powerful, thought provoking, probing work of our time from “The Case For Reparations” to Between the World and Me to Eight Years in Power. He’s also one of our leading voices on race and racism in America, it’s cultural, social, political implications, and he’s also brought a sort of historical rigor as a journalist to the public discourse around racism that for a long time felt like it had been missing and I think we’re contextualizing so much of the important work around our criminal justice system, around our housing system, around every facet of our social and political landscape when it comes to inequality in ways that we hadn’t previously done. So Ta-Nehisi is a friend and someone we greatly admire and we’re thrilled to have him on and thrilled you all will get to hear from him.
Josie: Yeah. This is so exciting. About three years ago, Ta-Nehisi published a piece called “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” He published it in The Atlantic and a few months ago, Clint and I went to New York, we sat down with him to talk about that piece among other things and we hope you enjoy it.
Josie: Great. So thanks for joining us.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Thanks for having me.
Josie: Do I have to call you Mr. Coates?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Absolutely not.
Josie: (Laughs) So let’s start with “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” So much of the work on mass incarceration, when you look at the history of it, either starts kind of in 1980 when the tide starts shifting, um, when mass incarceration as we know it today starts really rearing its head or it takes a look from slavery or Jim Crow, kind of like obviously Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and a lot of the work that has built on her work. But your piece starts in 1965 with the Moynihan Report, same year as the Voting Rights Act, year after Civil Rights Act, and we want to know why you started there? And what made you start with the Moynihan Report as you look at mass incarceration?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Well, it was the fiftieth anniversary. I’ll start there. I mean, it was the fiftieth anniversary of the report and um, you know, there was all this rethinking around it and uh, one of the big talking points about Moynihan, the Moynihan Report, um, among conservatives and among the liberals of a certain stripe was that Moynihan had been right about the black family that if you looked at the statistics, you know, everything he said had actually borne out, but liberals and certain stripes of liberals and radicals and leftists etcetera, had ignored Moynihan. And I guess, um, what always beguiled me was how, with a few exceptions, and I’m thinking of William Julius Wilson for instance, with a few exceptions, largely people who said this, and especially people in power, really didn’t have any sort of policy behind that notion. It was mostly just finger waving. And so I thought it would be interesting to, on the one hand, look at the life of the report, look at, you know, where it came out of. And on the other hand, look at what the policy had been throughout most of American history towards African American families. You know, I was, I was interested in this trope that the real problem with the black community is the black family. Well, that’s fine. So how has America addressed black families and not shocking, what you find is quite punitive. And in it’s most, you know, uh, um, modern manifestation as mass incarceration. I also was deeply influenced by this notion, I’m sure you guys know, I’m sure, I know you guys are very familiar with this idea of mass incarceration as a tool not of crime control, but of social control. I thought it was very interesting to look at mass incarceration as actually a policy of social control, as a way of alieving, you know, uh, the demand for labor amongst African Americans as a way of alieving demand on, kind of on the other side for labor in certain white communities, as an actual social program. You know, in fact, you know, Moynihan was pleading, I think sincerely in this sense, you know, for social programs to address the African American community. And my argument was we did get a social program. We got mass incarceration. So yeah, that’s why I did it.
Clint: I’m interested in the Moynihan Report and I’m interested because Moynihan does this with a double move, right? Where on one hand he kind of backhandedly praises black families and then the other breath sort of derides them. Right? And so, you know, he says, quote “That the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary — a lesser people might simply have died out, as indeed others have… But it may not be supposed that the Negro American community has not paid a fearful price for the incredible mistreatment to which it has been subjected over the past three centuries.” Right? So that seems to me like a sort of very real acknowledgement of the structural and institutional oppression that black folks have experienced, as he said over the past three centuries. But then on the other hand, he says, quote, “In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is to out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.” Right? So then in this next move he also has this deeply pathological and sexist analysis and it’s interesting because I’m trying to hold both of these Moynihans at once.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: What is interesting about the report is he recognizes that and I think maybe a paragraph later says, listen, there’s nothing wrong with a matriarchal, you know, family setup, it’s just not the one that we have in America. I often think like reading that, as I was telling you, it’s like that he’s on on some level dealing, like I’m trying to say is you gotta know who Moynihan was. Right? And how he had a horrible father and how he attributed many of, you know, the struggles that he had, many of his hurts, you know, rightly or wrongly to the absence of a father. So he had that going on.
Clint: So this was deeply personal for him.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Deeply, deeply, and he wrote about. He said it. He said it, you know, this is not supposition or anything, you know, it’s actually, you know, a part of his sort of self analysis. And so I think when he looked at African American communities, if I’m trying to be as charitable as I can in terms of my interpretation, I think he saw some of what he thought had actually hindered him. You know, he had just this deep belief in fathers. At the same time, I think he also was trying to find some way to (a) get the attention of policy makers to be provocative and (b), you know, and you see this, you know, over liberal discourse, how do I talk to white America about this? Because you start breaking down that language, I mean it’s a really, you know, simple answer, you know, everybody knows that, you know, America at that period of time and even till today discriminates against black people in the job market. It’s just that simple. You know, and in fact discriminates against black men in a particular way because of how society imagined itself back then. But as you said, I think what he does, not just in a report, but even later, is he kinda implicates black women in it. Like he makes this comment to the press, you know, ‘if I had my way all these black GIs coming back, I would, you know, get them a job and a wife who looked like Diahann Carroll.’ I mean, that’s like, you know, his sort of rhetoric, you know, Negro men must be given jobs even if black women, even if Negro women must be taken out of those jobs, you know, there’s obviously an absence of white people in that analysis as actual actors. And so, um, this, I don’t know if this might be supposition, but knowing how liberal discourse is, I just don’t think that was unintentional. You know?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: And what he would say, he would say, the way he would defend himself is ‘listen, I’m actually building off quite a bit of sociology that African Americans have done, E. Franklin Frazier for instance,’ you know, so he was picking up from a particular strain that existed before him.
Josie: It’s interesting because he uses that phrase “tangle of pathology” to describe, I think the quote is, “most Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world, and probably a majority are so entrapped.” And the way that you put it in your article is that Moynihan equates the black community with a diseased patient and later on in your article you describe how Moynihan kind of intellectually devolves over time to conclude that like maybe these problems are endemic to black people and like starts kind of dabbling in genetic inferiority and all of these, you know, selling Nixon to Nixon basically. And the pathology thing really sticks with me because even when he is writing something that takes, that puts the onus on white America to some extent to make changes and acknowledge the role that they’ve played in what he sees is black pathology, he’s still talking about black pathology. And just how common that is on both sides of the aisle and how we see that now when people talk about the criminal justice system, you know, always black on black crime and all of this it ends up being about black pathology. So I don’t really have a question as much as I want to hear what you have to say about that.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: That’s correct. (Laughs)
Clint: (Laughing) What do you think about black pathology?
Josie: (Laughing) What do you think?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: No, it’s just like avoidance, right? Like it’s um, I think writing through any sort of discourse around the force of racism in this country and anytime we have a racial discussion is that we have a basic problem of power and there are people who have had power and privilege in this country who do not want to give it up. And so I think many of us are in search for a kind of language that will allow us to avoid that analysis. You know, I mean, what, what, what is the pathology that would not have been healed by some sort of, you know, jobs program, but a kind of, social programs that I think he actually had in mind but neglected to put in his report. And I think, you know, it’s like I can do the analysis, I know the solutions, but I’m going to keep the solutions out. The solutions are in fact the problem, you know what I mean? I think, um, we are looking for ways to talk that avoid what the central feature of this society is when you’re talking about, you know, why black people are, you know, where they are. One of the sad things that came after that report is some of the writing about black people and about black families is actually much worse than the report. You know, like there’s so many people who feel that they’ve taken up, you know, Moynihan’s, you know, name, omit the entire structural analysis and just, you know, go run with the whole family piece of it.
Clint: I was going to ask was, I mean, because in reflection, part of what I wonder is, is how much is Moynihan to blame for the way the Moynihan Report began to exist in the sort of cultural imagination?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right. About fifty percent.
Clint: You think so? (Laughs) We have to quantify it.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: (Laughing) Fifty percent because he did want to be provocative. He did want to, you know, cause a stir. Um, he said that, I think he was extremely, extremely thin skinned. I think when people got upset about it, how he internalized that anger and you know, put that anger, you know, into his policy when he, not just serving Nixon but just feeding Nixon outright racism.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: As far as I’m concerned about fifty percent, but I don’t think, um, it’s a dated document. I don’t think it was totally worthless. I think some of the people who took it up afterwards are a lot, you know, a lot worse, but I think the other thing is just this notion that you can say these sorts of things and when black people get mad, even if they are wrong to be mad, like that that’s somehow out of the ordinary, like black people don’t have the right to their anger, it’s the anger of black people that somehow kept the Moynihan Report from leading to all these great social programs which would have helped. I mean where was the appetite for any of this?
Clint: That’s interesting because what, three years later the Kerner Commission comes out, which has a very different analysis. Right?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yes. Right.
Clint: It’s still kind of talking about how the existence of black anger is very much the fault of the white institutions and the white supremacist institutions that have been set up. While I think, if I’m thinking about it now, like I wonder if it’s the Kerner Commission sees black anger and puts the onus sort of singularly on the system of racial oppression, whereas Moynihan sees the anger, sees the destitution and says ‘yes, there is, and was structural oppression, but’ right? In a way that I feel like the Kerner Commission doesn’t give a ‘but’. It’s like, ‘nah, this is why’ whereas Moynihan was like, yeah, I see what you’re-
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah it is. It’s a kind of a two step move. As you said Moynihan wants to do. ‘Yes, there is structural oppression. It’s created this thing and this thing is a problem also.’ I mean, I guess this goes back to like, you know, much of the critique I gave throughout the, you know, Obama’s presidency, it’s Barack Obama’s analysis, you know, uh, and it became basically the dominant analysis for liberals.
Clint: I mean that’s even an analysis that you combat. I mean, I remember you were back and forth with Jonathan Chait, right? I mean that’s the sort of-
Ta-Nehisi Coates: That’s his analysis too.
Clint: Exactly, right? ‘There was this thing and we recognize how horrific and egregious this thing was, but it also created this other thing that it now exists independent of thing A.’
Josie: He’s basically just saying ‘you guys are inherently deficient, but it’s not your fault.’
Josie: Just explicitly racist, you know, I mean-
Clint: But not seen as such by a lot of people. Right?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I wouldn’t say ‘inherently,’ they will say ‘culturally.’ ‘It’s not your fault that you’re culturally deficient.’
Josie: But in America, what’s the actual differentiation between those in practice?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: There isn’t one. I mean that’s the rhetorical.
Josie: Like whether or not you’re telling me it’s genetic or it’s just a product of being black in America. I can’t escape either of those two things. You know?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I mean the other thing it just fails on its own merits. I mean it’s just like, you know, and this was always my retort to that because on some level it sounds logical, it sounds like it’s just this kind of thought test experiment. You subject people to oppression, bad cultural habits develop as a result of that. And then even after the oppression leaves some of those cultural habits, have a life of their own. Oh, okay. Well, you know, maybe some of us who came up a certain way can almost see some, I’m talking about myself, can see some of that in our own lives. And when you start talking about this as some sort of explanatory force, well what is the most vicious ongoing oppression that black people in this country have known? 250 years of enslavement where folks didn’t even have a right to marry. And yet when you look at the historical record, what did black people do as soon as they were let out of slavery? People couldn’t stop them from running and trying to, you know-
Clint: Find family members.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Find family members. And so if anything, what we, where was the cultural pathology that came out of slavery? You know what I mean? And Moynihan would say, ‘well, you know, it was this matriarchal system dah dah dah dah dah.’ But I just, I mean, when you look at the actual historical record, this has no, I think one way to think about this is that there has always been, racism in America is many ways gendered. Okay. So if you are a black dude you didn’t have to worry about, you know, what somebody might do to you while you were working as a domestic, you know, in somebody else’s home, which is, you know, what large numbers of African American women in the south had to do. Right? By the same token, lynching was largely, though not totally, but largely perpetrated against black men, so they will use particular areas I think, but he just didn’t have the nuance to think about that or recognize that or you know, any of that. You know? And sometimes, I guess I was trying to be sympathetic to him when I first started writing the piece, it was like okay, maybe it’s just that it was dated, but people knew he was wrong at the time. At the time it came off as wrong. You know?
Clint: I want to pull back a bit and kind of just get to the origins of this piece. Right? So you have written extensively over the years about a range of topics. Not least of all housing segregation and the impact that it has on the sort of contemporary state of US and racial inequality, obviously most deeply examined in “The Case for Reparations.” Um, and, and you’ve examined a lot of things but, but there are certain things like “The Case for Reparations” that you a lot of very specific in depth treatment to. And I’m curious, what was the moment when you decided that you were going to spend, because you spent years on this piece, right?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: About a year.
Clint: Yeah. And so what is the moment where you said, this is what I want to write about and how do you think about it in conversation with some of the other stuff you’ve been writing and thinking about?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I felt like I didn’t understand enough. It was just that simple. I mean I think I had like a very surface level understanding of mass incarceration. I heard people say its social control before, but I didn’t like if you asked me and I sensed that they might be right, but if you asked me to make that argument, I couldn’t really make the argument. I didn’t understand what that meant. I didn’t understand what the scale of it was historically. I did not understand what the scale of it was geographically, you know, when you, when you talk about the world, I just, most of my writing starts with a very selfish desire to understand on my own level, you know, my wife’s a med student and a lot of times I’ll say to her when she’s studying, the way I try to, can you explain it to me? You know what I mean? Like it helps you to have to actually explain something. If I can write it clearly, I have it.
Clint: It’s the same thing with teaching right? I mean it’s the same thing when I’m asked to teach about a subject it’s much different than, it demands a different level of examination.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yes.
Clint: Then if you were to sort of passively-
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yes, yes, yes. I mean you got to be attuned to the details and uh, so for me this was just like a long project and you know, I had just a number of people, I was very fortunate, because when this piece, when I started researching this piece at that point, some other pieces had already come out and so it was, there were a number of scholars, you know, I’m thinking about like Bruce Western and Devah Pager, Matt Desmond and all of these guys who were willing to actually help me, you know what I mean? Understand the subject and provide me with research and time and talk back and forth. And it was such a good process.
Clint: Which is, basically were like the, the, you became a student at the Harvard Sociology Department.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I was trying to, I was working on it, I was working on it man. That’s like my dream though, you know what I mean? It was, and it was a good, you know, we had, you know, we had these dinners and you know, um, it was, I felt blessed. Like for me, the actual article, I mean that’s the thing that’s for the public, but all the other privileges, you know, just being able to sit around and listen to smart people talk and you know, do whatever. I mean, I’ve said this before, but it’s actually one of the problems with whatever accolades I’ve received at this point because people are actually less willing to do that now. You know, they want you to talk now. You know what I mean? They don’t want to, you know, sit back and talk.
Josie: Except for me and Clint. (Laughs)
Ta-Nehisi Coates: (Chuckles) Right. I should be interviewing y’all. Next time, when I get my own podcast.
Clint: You mentioned the, the geographic piece and like I remember when you were on tour for this, something that you kept saying, well you weren’t on tour, that’s the, I guess the secondary point, you weren’t necessarily on tour for this, but when Between the World and Me came out, you weren’t really, I almost felt like I saw you talking more about this piece than you were about the book.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I was trying to.
Clint: I mean at your talks you were talking about Prince and, and, and that specific sort of anecdotal story, but you went, I remember, I think you were on Seth Meyers or Jimmy Fallon or something, and you were talking about like Russia and China and talking about how, you know, Vladimir Putin locks up 450 people per 100,000 compared to the US, which is about 700 per 100,000.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Obscene.
Clint: And China has about four times America’s population but American jails and prisons hold half a million more people-
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Its obscene.
Clint: In a place that has four times more people than us. Its things that, you know, even for me, someone who thinks about this a lot, uh, you know, intuitively it’s like we have the highest prison population in the world and you hear that and it can almost lose its emotional vigor, right?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: That’s right. That’s right.
Clint: But when you, when you consider especially everything we know about Russia now, right? You know, this was even before that, but, but I mean, we incarcerate almost twice as many people, to some extent, you know, seventy five percent more people-
Josie: Per capita.
Clint: Than an authoritarian regime that assassinates journalists and activists. Yeah.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah. You know, one of the things I think that really exhibits this is this paper by this guy, Chris Muller, and he looked at the incarceration ratio in the north in the era before the civil rights movement and what he found was that ratio was actually exactly the same as it is today. Before the civil rights movement it was actually lower in the south, but the south ratio actually rose post civil rights movement and what it pointed to was the point that this was actually a tool of social control. That in fact, in the Jim Crow era, there was no need in the south for prisons to be a tool of social control because you had segregation, you had Jim Crow. But once that evaporated, they adopted the tool of the north, which was incarceration. Again, like it’s one thing for somebody to tell you rhetorically that it is a tool. But when you start seeing the numbers, when you start looking at the rhetoric that was around. When you start looking at the literal like, you know, you hear, you know, on one level, Michelle Alexander’s saying The New Jim Crow. But then you start looking at the quotes and how when people, you know, voice their concerns about integration, they say crime. They say crime. When you look at, you know, pro slavery stuff, they’re always saying crime over and over again. They’re justifying lynching with crime over and over again. And you realize that this is old, that considering black people as criminals that’s actually in our DNA. It did not start, you know, with Nixon. It did not start with Johnson. It did not start with Moynihan. That it was already, it was actually functionally already there.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: You know, um-
Clint: And that’s what Khalil Mohammad talks about so much.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Oh yes, very much. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Josie: I was just reading an article about a DA in Louisiana who, he has this really interesting quote where he says, you know, ‘everybody says that Louisiana has the highest prison population in the nation, the nation has the highest prison population in the world and they think that that’s because like Louisiana is doing something wrong and they are not actually taking into account that maybe people are’ like basically he says ‘like they can’t keep it together, they can’t, they can’t stop committing crimes’ that you know and to believe that you have to believe that people in Louisiana are more prone to criminality than-
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I’m just asking the question, and why would that be right?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: What, what, what’s, what’s particular here that would make that true?
Josie: The thing that’s interesting about Moynihan or looking at, you know, super predators, Bill Clinton’s language or Obama’s languages, there is a thought process behind those decisions or those people on what they think that doesn’t always exist in the local players that kind of carry these policies out. Right? And the reality is that probably nobody has asked the follow up question to this guy. What I always am left thinking about is how to grapple with a system where it’s not being carried out by one guy or one Congress or even one law enforcement agency. It’s like being carried out by so many people day in and day out in so many courtrooms and in so many backrooms.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: That’s the limit of facts right there, what you’re talking about there. Like I said, actually the limit of almost like quantitative knowledge itself, like the limits of journalism, the limits of scholarship, because I think what you’re describing is a set of assumptions that are so bone deep. You don’t need like this guy.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: You know what I mean? Like you know, this notion, like if I could just re educate him, if I just give him a set of facts, if I can give, you know, but I think there’s, I mean this is our problem. This is really, really our problem. I mean, I don’t know that we’ve found a way quite to talk about this, but when people say this is a racist country, it’s a correct statement and you see it in what you just said right there. Like it’s almost as though like the default setting is to do this. You just take your hands off the controls. You know what I mean? You don’t need anybody, you know, rigging stuff or moving things over here or you know, pulling levers. Certainly people do that and make it worse. But if you took your hands off the controls, the thing in and of itself, it will go, it will necessarily veer in a racist direction, you know?
Clint: And so I’m thinking about something you had mentioned and that’s kind of sort of silently moving beneath the surface of this entire conversation is, is this question of political culpability, right? So you have, you know, folk like Naomi Murakawa who writes, you know, an amazing book, The First Civil Right, which largely implicates liberals and Democrats in the creation or the expansion of the system of mass incarceration. Um, folks like Joe Biden, folks like Ted Kennedy, uh, which run counter to-
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Biden. Those Biden quotes, my God they are the worst.
Clint: Right. And you know-
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Ooooo. They think Clinton, sorry excuse me, they think Clinton was bad with that super predator. Biden was like, I mean have forgotten like he’s cozy uncle Joe now.
Clint: That’s why I’m a bit confused when people will put him as like the progressive champion who’s going to lead us from this moment.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Man, this dude. If there’s one politician who’s still in it, who you would lay, you know, like its him.
Clint: I mean, this goes to it, right? So this is. So there’s Naomi Murakawa and folks like James Forman have written about that. And then on the other end you have Michelle Alexander and a sort of larger school of thought that I think is more, occupies more of the sort of collective understanding and imagination of the American public, which is like you had these bad, like Nixon and Reagan and the war on drugs and they came in and put crack in black communities and then it went from 300,000 to 2.2 million and that’s how mass incarceration happened. So I’m curious, that’s all to say, I’m curious how you think about the idea of political culpability in this? Which political party to the extent that they can be disentangled, if they can at all, is responsible for where we are now?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I don’t know. It’s tough as you just heard I mean there are certain individual actors who I think were really, really bad. I think Biden is just glee. It’s just so distasteful. Like is this, you know, I don’t know, you guys probably have the quote in front of you, but when you start talking about the death penalty, about how we’re tougher, you know what I mean? Then you know, Republicans, I mean, it’s the glee with which he did it. I think he’s just really, really, really bad, you know, and there are people like that, you know, um-
Clint: And you have no sympathy for the argument that it was, you know, ‘94, for example, was a moment in which-
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I have sympathy for black people in those communities.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I have deep, deep sympathy as I, you know, grew up in, in, in, you know, in a community like that deep deep sympathy for people who were afraid and did not have the choice between the carrot and the stick. They just had to stick.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: That was all they were offered, you know what I mean? And I think like that’s the background of, you know, because people will say, I’m not, like people they say, well, you know, black people backed this stuff. I mean, what, what choice, you know what I mean? That to me, I mean, I think it’s a story that needs to be told. Let me be really, really clear about this. You know, I love James’ book, I just want to be, you know, straight about that.
Clint: And James is clear that, that black folks were asking for a whole bunch of stuff.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yes, exactly. I just don’t want this to come off as some sorta like shade or something like that.
Josie: No, no.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: You know what I mean? I’m just wanting to be, that’s why I’m saying that. So I, I have great, great sympathy for that. You know what I mean? When those are your choices. I don’t have sympathy for the Bidens. I don’t have sympathy for the Clintons. I just don’t, you know, I think, you know, those folks made morally reprehensible choices, you know, to the extent that I don’t know how you have, you know, and, and I guess this is like, like I was getting into, I don’t know how you have any sort of trust in politics now. Um, but I guess you shouldn’t trust anybody.
Clint: So you see in your mind there’s fundamental difference between Jesse Jackson saying, you know, ‘when I hear footsteps behind me, I’m so upset that when I turn around and see a white person, I feel relieved,’ which is a pretty remarkable quote to have from the leading civil rights activists of that age. But for you, that feels different than, than Biden who would argue, or a Clinton, who did argue throughout the campaign, she and her husband, that they were responding to what Jesse Jackson was saying.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: No they weren’t. They were weaponizing what Jesse Jackson said. Jesse Jackson is expressing something, you know, I mean, who is, you know, who grew up in these communities. Do you understand? Its very, very different. Listen, I have my list of frustrations that I have, you know what I mean? Me and my wife used to joke, you know, when we lived up in Harlem, you know, you wake up in the morning, you know what I mean, go to work and you see folks on the corner and you come home and you see the same negroes on the corner. You’re upset about that. Right? As an individual, I would never try to substitute that and claim that that’s analysis though, that’s not analysis. You know what I mean? It can be cathartic for us to say, you know, the sort of things that we say, you know, amongst ourselves, as any other group, you know, would.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: But that’s not analysis and I think, you know, what happened was the kind of cathartic feeling. I mean if you listen to like Obama when he’s on this, you know, respectability, when he does his father. Okay. Yeah. I mean you can nod your head and feel some of that. It does speak to some sort of thing that you’ve may feel here. It does not speak to anything that someone who is the president of the United States, carrying all the weight of what this country has done to black people, what his policies, I tried to outline in that article, towards the black family has been and what its policies should be going forward. None of that has anything to do with those frustrations or catharsis. You know, it has nothing to do with that. I’m sure when black folks were enslaved and in chains, you know, folks did stuff that, you know, they didn’t like that made them upset. You know what I mean? I think people just they confuse that kind of emotional catharsis with policy, you know what I mean? And some of those same people will then go and lecture you about other emotional catharsis, you know, and how bad that is. But that’s another story. I mean, I understand it. I wonder if Jesse would have said that if he had known what the consequences of it were. You know what I mean? I’m, I’m not condemning the feeling I get it, but, uh, I think these folks are not to be trusted. More than ever I think that.
Josie: Yeah, it is interesting because it’s also to me strikes me as generational and that like I think about when I was in high school, there was a shooting in Atlanta of a guy who shot a judge in the courthouse, it was like a siege and it took days for him to be found. And when he was found, he gave an entire, you know, he obviously had a lot of issues, but he also talked very frankly about like what it meant to be a black man in prison. When he was sort of going back, he felt like he couldn’t go back there and when his defense attorneys, who were from out of state, came to Atlanta to try to defend him in court and talk to the black community about what he had done, there was not a lot of sympathy for what he was saying. Obviously not for what he did, but also for what he was saying and I think about my own family and my parents and how like they also have the instinct of, if you do wrong, you need to pay these consequences. And what that, I find this to be a very interesting conversation right now because of who’s in the White House and how he’s using state action. Right? And what it means for people who grew up thinking that the state does stuff like the Civil Rights Act to trust the state enough to decide who should be punished. And I think it presents kind of a fundamental question that we’re kind of going back and forth on, I think on, on this podcast more generally is like how can America have prisons? Right? How can America lock people up? How can America take anybody’s sort of bodily autonomy and I’m not, I’m actually asking, it’s not rhetorical because we haven’t proven ourselves able to do that in a way that is fair or you know, not racially, not racist. I mean I have like, I have a, we all have kids, right? Like I, I, if someone hurts my kid, I want them to be punished. Like I understand that instinct of that there may be people who you wouldn’t want on the street, but I, that diverges for me, when we think about who’s actually taking them off the street and how do we grapple with the fact that even in times of high crime, right? Do we really want these people deciding who goes in and how they’re punished and for how long and you know, and where they’re held and like, what do we do with that? I don’t know. I don’t think there’s an answer, but to me that seems like fundamental.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Well, the problem that like on some deep level in terms of administering social service and I’m going to go ahead and include law enforcement in that, the United States government has a legitimacy problem. A basic, like that’s, you know, what it seems to be. I mean we trust it because it’s the only thing you have.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: And in some places people literally don’t trust it, you know what I mean? They say ‘no, okay, I’m gonna deal with it myself,’ you know what I mean? You know, and they call that stop snitching, but it’s like, no, I’m, I, I would much prefer to deal with this quote unquote “gang” on the corner, you know, where you know, maybe my cousin, you know, used to be a part of or somebodies aunt, son, you know, I guess that’d be my cousin too, would be part of, but I have some sort of ties, you know what I mean, to this institution that just sort of comes into the neighborhood. I have no idea what they’re going to do and then leaves. There’s no sort of accountability at all.
Clint: And that speaks to the phenomenon that Jill Leovy talks about in her book, Ghettoside right? Where not only do you not trust that institution to do its job, it’s that that institution harasses you and it’s in some way over polices you while at the very same time under policing you because they’re not actually solving any of the crimes in your community.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Clint: Right? So. So they come, you know, if they come driving through Baltimore, they come in and like rough you up and throw you against the wall and arrest you for doing something that ostensibly is not criminal, but at the same time there’s like fifty murders over the past couple months that have gone unsolved, right?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right. Yeah.
Clint: And so, so if they’re not going to actually demonstrate over the course of generations that they are capable of solving the most heinous of crimes, then it seems natural in some way that someone would then decide for themselves, ‘okay, well if they’re not going to do it, somebody is going to do it, it might as well be me.’
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right, right, right. Not only will they harass you the harassment will not actually lead to the resolution of the problem. Like it’s actually on two levels, you know what I mean? You can do the math and say, okay, I got to deal with this, but they go and get this dude. No, you’re gonna have to deal with it and they’re not going to get the dude either.
Josie: In part because of the harassment. Like, in spite of, and because of.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right, right, right, right, right. Exactly. Exactly.
Josie: So I was re reading Between the World and Me and there was this, um-
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Oh I’m so flattered. (Chuckles)
Josie: There’s this quote, because I don’t hear, I don’t talk to you enough, so there’s this quote that you said, which is “According to this theory ‘safety’ was a higher value than justice, perhaps the highest value.” And I’ve been thinking about that a lot because fear is weaponized so easily in American politics, right? Fear is weaponized so easily in communities where there isn’t any crime, there isn’t much crime at least. You know, there are places in America where not only is crime lower than it’s really ever been, it’s more geographically isolated than it’s ever been. And so there are places in America you could leave your door open every single day and you never have to worry, you know, you could leave your kid on the corner.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right. It’s not technically true that the city of Baltimore is dangerous, the whole city.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: There’s no, it’s not a true statement completely.
Josie: Right. You know, you hear people talking about Chicago, you go to Chicago, you’re walking around most of Chicago and you’re like, you know, it’s beautiful. There’s not, you know, this, this idea that in every, in these places you have to be scared for your life by being in the city limits is not accurate. But it goes back to this idea of safety, right? Which is and Clint and I were having this conversation recently about like if you want, if you, if you don’t want any crime, you can live in North Korea, you will have like no crime. But how do we think about re imagining safety to not only be civilian on civilian violence, but you know, what, what is state violence mean when we talk about safety?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right. But I think that goes back to the question of social control. Are you even actually talking about safety? You know, are you talking about um, something else? When I was a kid the story I always think about is when I was a kid, there was a boy who was kind of crazy. That was how we thought of him, he was crazy. His name was Chuckie and he was in our neighborhood and he was just a sort of dude who like if he was playing basketball and somebody fouled him he wanted to fight. Just really, really aggressive dude. And um, one time he got into it out in front of my house with another boy and it was like an area for construction where people had been doing some work and he pulled a metal stake out of the ground, sharp and he started swinging it and he’s swinging at the boy and my dad came outside and basically, you know, told me to go home dah dah dah. And that was the end of that. And I thought about how if my dad was a police officer, he just would’ve shot him and that would have been fine. But that’s okay. Like they are standards of violence. But had my dad shot Chuckie the neighborhood would have been rightly in an uproar. What are you doing? You had to shoot him? But we accept a level of violence from the state mostly, though not totally, but mostly directed at black people. We’re okay with that in a way that, you know, we just within our own neighborhoods, at least within black neighborhoods, we would not be, you know. Now what’s interesting, I don’t know, like there’s some sort of debate about where the borders of the state actually end, right? Like when you see like with ‘stand your ground’ and that sort of thing and people think, you know, it’s okay to, you know, do that. I don’t know how concerned about how really concerned people are about safety. I’m not sure. I wonder about that when they cite it, you know, for instance, safety when they knocked down the projects in Chicago, was safety really what they were dealing with? Was that really actually the issue? I’m not sure. Another reason not to be sure about that is, um, the way in which the effectiveness of political rhetoric around crime remains, no matter what is actually happening in terms of actual crime, but a way the rhetoric remains around police shootings, no matter how low the actual rate of and what I mean is police officers being shot, no matter how low the actual rate of police shootings is, you know, people are still that we live in this, you know, completely unsafe, you know, society.
Clint: And you talked about this in the, uh, in the piece, you cited Bruce Western, who was a sociologist at Harvard and is now at Columbia running their Justice Lab and, and he talks about how there was a 66 percent increase in the state prison population between 1993 and 2001. And that reduced the rate of crime by at most two to five percent at a cost of $53 billion to taxpayers. Right? So this, this idea that-
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Maybe they’re paying for something else.
Clint: You know, and exactly. And I think that the sort of pretense that we sort of have collectively bought into that, I think folks who care about this work are sort of trying to push the public to unlearn or decouple their sort of false understanding between the relationship between crime, violent crime and the amount of people in prisons is that we don’t actually have data that firmly states that there is a strong relationship between the amount of people you put in prison and the amount of crime, the amount that crime goes down.
Josie: But even if we did, to me, it strikes me that the people who make the policies can imagine that if there were two to five percent more crime, that would be them. Like they, they would be in that two to five percent. They’re saved, but they would never be in the 63 percent increase in prison. And that, you know, if you live in a free society, you take on some risk, right? What that optimal risk is, it changes when-
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Also we accept that in other areas. For instance, the argument is being made successfully right now that school shootings, that’s part of the risk of the Second Amendment.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: You risk that. That’s just part of it.
Clint: Is that even an argument that’s being made?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Bill O’Reilly made it.
Clint: Did he say that? Explicitly that’s just the risk of?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Literally he said that. He said ‘you live in a free society,’ after one of these shootings he said, ‘it’s one of the risks of living in a free society.’
Josie: But it is interesting, the Second Amendment thing is interesting because you, you, if you ask the same tough on crime, people, they can talk to you about statistics, right? They can tell you that like having a gun in the house, the chances of you having a gun in the house and shooting a family member are almost nil. You know, despite the stories you might hear, relative to the amount of guns that are out there, there are not so many actual gun violence that you would imagine. But they can’t seem to do that when you talk about black people, you know, the idea that like there are a lot of black people and the amount of crime that’s being committed by black people is still so small compared to how it’s discussed. Sort of in like a bigger popular culture.
Clint: I’m interested, specifically in this particular political moment about folks, you know, on social media, out in the world, what have you, will present a very sort of anti prison platform, right? Like, ‘I’m against prison.’ ‘We should abolish prison.’ ‘I read Angela Davis, prison is obsolete.’ ‘Let’s get rid of it.’ ‘Prison industrial complex is holistically horrific.’ Until someone they don’t like, whether it be in the Trump administration or somewhere else commits a crime and it’s fascinating because then I see those same people who are like, ‘lock them up, put them in jail, put them in prison, Paul Manafort needs to be.’ And I’m, and I’m in and that’s not even said in like a sanctimonious-
Ta-Nehisi Coates: We all think we should abolish prisons.
Clint: So this was like a sort of long way of getting to, to ask you that, um, I’m interested in the idea and we want to, you know, at some point on the podcast have on somebody to talk about this at length, but it’s just interesting because people present themselves as prison abolitionists and then that becomes inconsistent when they want Donald Trump to go to jail or they want Donald Trump to go to prison. And I am empathetic to where and I’m sympathetic to how difficult it is because it’s, it’s hard. Like it is hard to escape this, like the, the mindset that we’ve been inundated with around punishment. Right? And especially when it’s someone who we see as really deserving of punishment.
Josie: I mean it’s the same thing that you see with like DA elections, right? That Anita Alvarez in Chicago treated black people and brown people and poor people in Chicago like horribly for a decade and it wasn’t until she didn’t prosecute a cop for a shooting, for shooting Laquan McDonald that people were as outraged. Now people have been organizing around Anita Alvarez for, you know, black communities have been organized around her for awhile. And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t prosecute state actors when they act, you know, when they abuse authority in that way, but I’m only saying that like what actually galvanizes people is leniency in a way that is hard to, to reconcile with the amount of people who seem at least invested in the idea of mass incarceration and the harms it’s caused. You know, and again, to your point about party, that’s, that’s a lot of, that’s the left.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah. I mean, if you’d asked me this when I wrote this piece, I probably would have said I don’t think prisons should be abolished. I would have told you that there are people who do horrible things, who probably should be removed from society. But the second order question or the second question after that of course is, um, what percentage of those people actually, you know, you can’t take the most extreme case and then make the argument for the entire system, especially given the size of mass incarceration. Well, I always say now and when I think back on this piece and think about where I was before, you know, I, I just, you know, it’s a long way of answering this and I know we’ve talked about this before, I was one of these people who read Michelle Alexander and The New Jim Crow and was like, this feels a little over blown, not really new Jim crow dah dah dah and over the course of writing this and researching this I guess more than writing it I was like, yes it is. It’s totally, totally correct and I am, well, I would not say we should abolish prisons mostly because it’s not a point that I can really defend because I haven’t done the research. I don’t know dah dah dah dah. I am more open than I have ever been to hearing that argument. I am extremely open. I am convinced that it is probably at the very least contains more truth, you know, then the current, you know, sort of arguments we have behind our policy right now.
Josie: Well, you know, I think there’s this other thing which is to say nobody should be in prisons as they exist right now. Nobody should go through the system as it exists right now. It is fundamentally, it is fundamentally unjust, it is fundamentally unfair. Just by entering the system, you can be Ted Bundy and enter the system and I’m saying this is a school of thought necessarily, not again, like you guys, I’m teasing this out-
Ta-Nehisi Coates: The system right now is not, would not be fair to Ted Bundy.
Josie: It’s just not fair. So you can’t, it can’t play fair sometimes and play unfair other times because just inherently it’s diseased, right? It’s not the, it’s the, it’s the, the, the system is diseased and so how do you?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: the worst people deserve fairness and this is blanketly an unfair system.
Josie: Right because who decides who the worst people are? I mean we look at this right now with Donald Trump saying like, we should just kick people out if they’re illegal with no due process and no judge, that means that like they can come pick up any of us and kick us out. The system is, it has to serve, you know, the guilty in order to be able to serve the innocent.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right.
Josie: And I think that if, and again, I don’t necessarily know what this looks like, but there are countries where people are in prison and it is a much more humane system and it doesn’t mean that they love their lives. You know, I’ve like read Ted Bundy’s Wikipedia page and I know I don’t want him on my block. Right?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right.
Josie: I like, as a woman, you know, I’m way more likely to be at risk of violence from someone I’m, I know someone I’m close to than men are, you know, most women are killed by their partners. Like you, you want some, you want some sort of accountability. But can that accountability, I think even beyond can it come, can it exist as it does right now? Can it come from where it does right now? Can I come from, you know, a DoJ run by Jeff Sessions?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Can I raise something we talked about offline that I’ve been thinking about? I think about this with the NFL all the time and how they punish men who beat their, you know, that’s what their employees are, you know, men who beat their partners or assault their partners in any sort of way and on some level like everything, you know, you’re saying is exactly right. And yet it’s like I’m trusting the NFL to do this?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Like the NFL is going to? Like, like so who I think like what, what goes in and I only raise that to say this is a basic problem of legitimacy. I mean, who, who would you trust? You know what I mean? To make that determination? And I guess the other piece of that is for the majority of people living in this country, as we sit right now in 2018, there is no problem of legitimacy. That’s why they call the police on somebody that’s mowing the lawn.
Clint: I mean, if anything we’re in a political moment where like the legitimacy is being reinforced, right? I mean they see, and this is a point that I try to make people all the time-
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I mean Obama was illegitimate to them, literally, literally illegitimate.
Clint: But I mean even even notions of, you know, people that I tend to be around see what’s happening at the border, for example, and feel deeply outraged, feel deeply like this is a moral, morally horrendous thing that’s happening. There are a not insignificant amount of people who see that as the administration, the justice system, ICE, border control or whomever doing exactly what they should be doing. Right? Like when they imagine what justice looks like, that is justice to them and I, and, and it’s interesting like how do you combat or speak to or push back against those who, who fundamentally, and maybe this is a broader question that we, as we sort of move toward the tail end of this conversation, but in your writing about this, who do you, not even necessarily think of as your audience, because I think you’ve been clear that in many ways you are your audience, like you do this as a personal endeavor, um, but when you think about the fact that, like the things that would create empathy and outrage to some are the very things that would be like, ‘oh, well, you’re telling me about how good a job the system is doing, what it’s supposed to,’ how, how, who, how do you speak to or right into those very different audiences or places?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I don’t think you can. I mean obviously there will be and I’ve met people like just an experience like these occasional folks who have some sort of political change in mind, but I think what you are writing against, it’s not facts you are writing against literally centuries of mythology. How do you beat that? It’s like walking into somebody’s church right after the pastor, you know, just, you know, did his thing and standing up in the pulpit and saying ‘there is no god.’ And saying with these graphs and charts, ‘I can demonstrate to you that there is no god,’ you can’t, you can’t. Um, and I don’t know why we think we can. What has to happen is that they just, they have to be, you know, and I know like, uh, you know, it’s not something people really see and I get it, but I think that will ultimately be Obama’s greatest importance actually, I think it’s myth. I think there is a section of children who were born into the world while he was president and their first image of power and legitimacy will be somebody who was African American. And I think that, among other things, you know what I mean is the gradual chipping away. And that’s why these statues are important. People are like ‘oh it’s just symbols.’ Bullshit. Bullshit. Why do you think people support the policy? It’s all tied, until people have different fundamental assumptions about their country, who has the right to be a citizen in a country, who has a right to enjoy the full suite of privileges, all of this is, you know, and I don’t mean to be dismissive, but in many ways it’s choreography. It’s not the actual thing. I can articulate a series of responses to make the mythical beliefs that I have respectable. But the mythical beliefs they are what they are and they actually aren’t that hard to get to. I mean, you know, we’ve seen enough data on what people who voted for Donald Trump think about who should be a citizen and who should be, who should have access to the suite of rights that come with that. Hillary Clinton, you know what I mean? Who had all sorts of problems who I had all sorts of issues got crucified for that deplorables comment. It was correct. It was empirically correct. She and herself ran up against the myth of America. You know what I mean? Which is that most voters are good, that most people are good, that if they do the wrong thing, they actually have somehow been diluted. They, you know what I mean? They cannot be, you know, Lord help them, they don’t know what they doing. No they know exactly what they do. You’re right. You know what I mean? ICE is doing what they want ICE to do. It’s not a mistake that Trump was elected and, you know, is punishing, you know, specific groups. It’s not a mistake, you know what I mean?
Josie: He literally said he was going to do that.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: It’s not, I mean, he’s doing what he said he was gonna do and that, you know, I mean is an interest. It’s an actual interest to agree with people in this country is not a, you know, a jobs program, you know what I mean, but there’s always an element of, of royalty to the presidency. It makes them feel represented. You know what I mean? It makes them feel a certain way about their country and they want a president, you know, who does that. So I think until we get past those sorts of assumed ideas we’ll always have trouble coming to policy.
Josie: Um, in this article, you talk about people’s specific stories and interview specific people and almost all of them, if not all of them, are serving time or were serving time for a violent crime.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: It is a deliberate choice.
Josie: Yeah. And I wanted to ask about that deliberate choice because that is not the narrative that we usually hear around mass incarceration.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah. Um, I think I was going towards some of the questions that you just asked about, you know, the worst people and that sort of thing. Um, there is a rhetorical move that a lot of people in government or court, I guess not just in government, people who want reform, I mean, and trying to get, you know, sort of the question that Clint was pointing to, you know, how you talk to people? Okay, let me show you the person who I think, let me find you the Rosa Parks, not the Claudette Colvin, you know, let me show you the person who I think on your terms will be most sympathetic to you. And that is the kid who was on the corner slinging a dime bag of weed and somehow got thirty years in prison.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: You know what I mean? But you know, as, as, as both of you know, we look at the, you know, the prison population in the states and we’re really going to talk about decarceration or even abolition. That’s not actually where the problem is. You know what I mean? And I wanted to make the argument that even on the question, because that’s one of the freeing things about being a journalist. I’m not a senator, I’m not, you know, I’m not trying to, you know what I mean? I have the luxury of going to the, you know, the harsh truth of it. Even the people who we consider quote unquote, you know, “violent” criminals we’re way harsher than other countries are like for the same crime, the same crime. And so, you know, it really gets the question of why is and even harsh on our own terms. For instance, harsher now than we were thirty years ago. Harsher than we’ve been for most of American history. Why? Why is that? Why did we suddenly develop a new and different view of evil? You know, how, how can it be that you were at, you know, crime rates that mirror, you know, the 1950s in many of our cities and yet, if what we say we’re concerned about is safety or crime, you know, we, we punish, you know, in, in, in such a way as though, you know, we’re in the midst of one of the greatest crime waves that ever happened, you know? And, and that was the other piece, you know, even the justification that while it was a crime wave that began in the, you know, the, the, you know, late sixties and you know, the one in eighties, nineties blah blah blah, you know, these were actually global phenomenons and America was unique in how it dealt with it. So there’s this constant uniqueness of like you can do the, you can separate out all of these other things that people using. One of the things that you know frequently said, ‘well yeah, you guys are talking about these nonviolent offenders, but actually the majority of people in the state population are very, very violent offenders.’ Okay, well let’s talk about them. That’s have that conversation. You know, I think like one of the things we do is we duck arguments and you know, just as a journalist I was really trained to go to the core opposition argument, you know what I mean? To take it, you know, at its most sympathetic fashion and then slice it to ribbons. (Laughs)
Josie: Right, right. It’s also interesting just thinking about what it, what is the violent, what does it mean to be a violent criminal?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yes, yes, yes, yes.
Josie: How many kids are in juvenile for school yard fights?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah. What was the article we were talking about where you were present when something else happened and you might not have done anything?
Josie: Felony murder. Yeah.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah.
Josie: Yeah exactly.
Clint: So as we wrap up, I think, you know, so many of the folks listening and, and you know, selfishly, myself and Josie are just really curious about sort of extended readings that people can take on as they sort of continue to delve into this project. I’m curious for you, what are three books that have been especially formative in shaping your thinking about criminal justice?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Um, the first book I would recommend just off the top is Texas Tough, Robert Perkinson. Um, that book is incredible. I think one of the things that’s missing right now is a broad narrative history of mass incarceration. One that pulls it all together. This is the closest I’ve seen to that effort and it is absolutely, absolutely incredible. It’s centered on Texas, but it’s actually a national book as some of the stuff in that book is just, I mean, just ridiculous. Just absolutely, absolutely. I highly, highly recommend, um, I don’t know why that book don’t come up, but it’s an incredible book. Incredible book, very, very readable too. Um, Bruce Western’s Punishment and Inequality [in America], which was very much the basis and foundation of much of the work I did, you know, in, in, in, in that piece that was the book that just got me right? That allow me to see, you know, initially incarceration as a tool of social control. Um, and then Devah Pager’s Marked, which, um, I think actually gets to the question of myth even though she’s not actually saying that because she talks about how even African American men specifically who have not served time are regarded, once you control for everything, like white people who served time, like the mark is there, it’s there whether you actually were in prison or not.
Clint: But as a black person who was not sentenced to a crime, you are still less likely to get a job than a white person who was sentenced to a crime.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right. The society kind of considers you a criminal anyway.
Clint: Which is interesting because when you think of ban the box, right? We operate under this like, oh, if you just ban the box, then it’s going to open up all these possibilities. But there’s been this research-
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Not until these myths go. Not until the myths go.
Clint: That shows if you ban the box more employers just assume criminality of more black folks even when they’re not.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: But again, this gets back to the question of fact versus myth, right? I mean, the problem is not the fact of the box. The problem is the myth that they believe you are a criminal no matter what. You know and I mytho persists even after the box goes. Um, was that three?
Josie: Yeah do you have more?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Probably, um, I would recommend, uh, you know, everybody’s read it, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. I think it was one of the earliest books to, um, give us a language for what’s actually happening. I think the theory on it is exactly correct.
Josie: We’ve been here with author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates. Thank you so much for joining us.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Thanks for having me.
Clint: That was Ta-Nehisi Coates. Can’t think of a better way to end the season. Thank you so much Ta-Nehisi.
Josie: Yeah, that was amazing. And uh, that’s it from us for season one. We’ve covered so much this season from bail to immigration, from plea deals to prosecutors. And again, we’ll be back for season two this winter where we’ll be talking about the drug war, public defense, power hungry sheriffs, faulty forensic evidence,and more.
Clint: I can’t believe it’s over. Season one has been such a good ride. I’ve learned so much. It’s been amazing working with you Josie. In the meantime, for all you listeners, you can find us on Twitter @Justice_Podcast we’ll still be keeping up the social media presence and tweeting out different clips and highlights from season one. You can also like our Facebook page, you can find this as always at Justice in America. You can email us at email@example.com and you can always find more resources and additional information about the things that we’re talking about here at theappeal.org, which is publishing some of the best criminal justice journalism out here right now, and if you haven’t subscribed to their newsletter, I highly recommend it.
Josie: Yeah. Thank you so much and thank you Clint. From the bottom of our hearts we really appreciate you all listening. It’s been an incredible experience for us, we’re so excited to see what’s next and we hope you’ve enjoyed it too.
Clint: This episode was recorded at Beatstreet NYC and the engineer was Mat Longoria. Justice in America is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Additional research support was by Joanna Wald. Thank you all so much.
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