But without considering the counterfactual, these genuine grievances float in ideological thin air. Would black families be better off if violent offenders had been in their homes or on the streets? Would black communities? In one of his follow up comments to his article, Coates urges shorter sentences for violent crimes. In some cases—especially for those reaching “criminal menopause”—that makes sense. But recidivism is extremely high among former prisoners: More than 70 percent of prisoners convicted of a violent crime will be rearrested within 5 years, a third of them for another violent crime. Of course, that means two-thirds will not be, but insofar as prison does have some “incapacitation effect,” that is, it takes criminals off the streets, shorter sentences may mean more crime. How to calculate the potential damage caused by longer prison sentences versus the risk of more street crime is a thorny moral and policy question. Those more inclined to weight the second over the first may well be wrong, especially in these relatively safe times. But does that make them complicit in a Jim Crow system—that is, racists?
What does all of this have to do with the black family? Far more than Coates leads readers believe. Children suffer when their parents go to prison, he writes. Yet he says nothing about the suffering of black children growing up in chaotic families, though that suffering is itself highly correlated with the scourge of ghetto crime and incarceration. Seventy-two percent of black children are born to unmarried mothers. The majority of those children will see contact with their fathers “drop sharply;” within a few years; about a third of dads will basically just disappear. Children don’t take well to the succession of partners, step- and half-siblings that follow their parents’ breakup. Studies, not just a few, but a slew of them, connect “multi-partner fertility” and father absence to behavior problems, aggression, and later criminality among boys even when controlling for race and income. Doesn’t that suggest black-family disruption could have some bearing on crime and incarceration rates?