It seems like a foolish thing that we black people have to remind ourselves and the world of what Ta-Nehisi Coates felt moved to remind his son this year. “[Y]ou must understand, no matter the point ... that I didn’t always have things, but I had people – I always had people. … You need to know that I was loved,” Coates wrote in his latest book, “Between the World and Me.”
It was in the echo of Coates’ final words – “I was loved,” as if love, as in family, could at any time be snatched away – that I fell into a deep silence as I listened to MSNBC’s telecast of “Morning Joe” on Sept. 1. New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton was a guest of the program and had just affirmed former New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s manifestly racist proposition that the disintegration of nuclear families in black communities contributed greatly to the social and economic woes of society. I wasn’t surprised by Bratton’s ignorance regarding the realities of black families or his blatant dismissal of our love. However, I was alarmed by his remarks.
“Talk about being prescient about what was going to happen in black society, in terms of he was right on the money, the disintegration of family, the disintegration of values,” Bratton said of the now-disreputable Moynihan Report. He later added, “It’s gone beyond just the black community, although so much of what you are reading in The New York Times today is centered largely in communities of color in our major cities. We really need to find ways to deal with this.”
The “this” to which Bratton was referring is unclear to me. However, his derision for black Americans, particularly black males, comes across loud and clear. In a June 9 interview published in The Guardian, Bratton justified racial disparities in NYPD hiring practices, explaining, “We have a significant population gap among African-American males because so many of them have spent time in jail and, as such, we can’t hire them.”
By omitting from his explanation any critique (or, at the very least, acknowledgement) of racial bias in NYPD hiring practices, Bratton discounts the relationship between black men ensnared in the criminal justice system and the gross proliferation of predatory policing, such as the “stop, question and frisk” policy that leaves many young men of color deluged by the endless quandaries of a legal system weighted against them. For example, in 2006, 1 in every 14 black men was behind bars, compared with 1 in 106 white men. Today, black defendants are 15 percent more likely than white defendants to be imprisoned for misdemeanor crimes and drug offenses, 14 percent more likely than their white counterparts to be imprisoned on felony drug charges, and about 5 percent more likely to be sentenced to time in prison than white defendants facing similar charges.
In stark contrast to Moynihan – and Bratton’s – theory of broken black families, the crises plaguing black Americans can be explained by analyzing societal inequities that target black communities. In this light, black families – not always defined by mothers and fathers, but sometimes by grandmothers and faith leaders – can be viewed as a refuge blunting the effects of racist policing, job discrimination, poor schooling, inadequate health care and so forth. Despite the rhetoric condemning them, black families have proven adaptable to the needs of black people, and are perhaps the primary force behind our survival in a society perched against our existence.
Black families are themselves non-exempt from the systems that confound black life. Thus, if black families are disintegrating, the U.S. government has had a hand in their downfall.
An articled published in The San Jose Mercury Newson Aug. 18, 1996, provides clear evidence. It illustrates a clear link between the rise of crack cocaine use, which devastated black families throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, and the U.S. government:
For the better part of a decade, a San Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. … This drug network opened the first pipeline between Colombia’s cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles, a city now known as the "crack" capital of the world. The cocaine that flooded in helped spark a crack explosion in urban America … and provided the cash and connections needed for L.A.’s gangs to buy automatic weapons.
Disregarding the role of the state in destroying black lives/black life (there is a difference), Moynihan, not unlike Bratton, judged that “most Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world.” In doing so, both Moynihan and Bratton – major state players themselves – fail to acknowledge the myriad ways in which the state (through policies and practices that maintain mass unemployment, inferior systems of education, intense police surveillance and so on) acts as “the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community.”
To be sure, Bratton’s avowal of Moynihan is a deep dive into the abyss of paternalistic and racist rhetoric: excoriating blacks to work harder and to behave better to stem the tide of violence and crime in black communities without addressing the realities alighted against black life. According to Coates, a great number of people – including our current president – preach this sinful gospel of “‘personal responsibility’ in a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility.”
Though I wasn’t surprised by Bratton’s brazen endorsement of Moynihan, I was disturbed by it because the contemporary era has proven Moynihan wrong. Why would Bratton evoke Moynihan, whose dark portrayal of black life is scarcely recognizable today? In the last two decades, homicide rates, like other rates of violent crime in black communities, have been on the decline. Today, African-Americans are about half as likely to be involved in a homicide, either as perpetrator or as victim, as they were in the first two decades following the release of the Moynihan Report. And even as Bratton clings to theMoynihan Report, by his own admission, crime in New York City is in retreat.
Had Bratton picked up Coates’s “Between the World and Me” instead of the Moynihan Report, I wonder if he would have sensed the love and deep devotion residing in black families. I wonder, had he picked up Michelle Alexander’s “New Jim Crow” or Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy,” if he would have understood that one of the main problems afflicting black people is not bad parenting, but bad policing. Instead of focusing on broken windows and broken families, it would be a gift for Commissioner Bratton to focus on new reading material – texts that might help him fix broken policing instead of ones that encourage him to blame black families for the hell that he is partly responsible for maintaining.
David E. Kirkland is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He is also the director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.