The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s terrific writing about race in the USA only showed up on my radar recently, after he published the magisterial The Case for Reparations, which reckons with the notion that Black people should perhaps be repaid something for centuries of enslavement and systematic oppression. It certainly raised some interesting questions for me as a Canadian, knowing that our treatment of indigenous peoples begs many of the same uncomfortable questions.

I just finished reading his more recent article The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration, which lays bare the systematic destruction of black families and communities through punitive imprisonment.

This is normally where I would quote something that attempts to summarize either the article itself, or what particularly grabbed me in it. But this article is too long, and too filled with an almost clinical accounting of the systematic horrors visited upon African Americans to even know where to begin.1

Okay, I’ll supply just one quote:

Ex-offenders are excluded from a wide variety of jobs, running the gamut from septic-tank cleaner to barber to real-estate agent, depending on the state. And in the limited job pool that ex-offenders can swim in, blacks and whites are not equal. For her research, [Harvard sociologist Devah] Pager pulled together four testers to pose as men looking for low-wage work. One white man and one black man would pose as job seekers without a criminal record, and another black man and white man would pose as job seekers with a criminal record. The negative credential of prison impaired the employment efforts of both the black man and the white man, but it impaired those of the black man more. Startlingly, the effect was not limited to the black man with a criminal record. The black man without a criminal record fared worse than the white man with one. “High levels of incarceration cast a shadow of criminality over all black men, implicating even those (in the majority) who have remained crime free,” Pager writes. Effectively, the job market in America regards black men who have never been criminals as though they were.

  1. My current workflow for articles that I might blog about is to send them to Instapaper, where I can highlight things that might be quotable. I usually have somewhere around 3–7 highlights. This had 31. 

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