Is the increase in black male incarcerations the reason for the black family breakdown?
This question refers to two separate phenomena, both of which are the subject of intense debate. The first, the "increase in black male incarcerations," refers to the enormous and disproportionate rise in incarceration rates among African American men since 1960. The result of this has been that over 25% of black males born after 1970 have been to prison before their mid-30s. On a policy level, this shocking statistic is widely attributed to the "war on drugs" and to criminal justice policies such as "mandatory minimum" sentences established as part of an effort to crack down on crime. New York City, which implemented such procedures as "stop and frisk" in response to rising crime rates, was emblematic of this approach to criminal justice. However, rising rates were also indicative of the deeply-rooted structural issues—too complex to explore in this limited space—that confront African-American communities.
The phrase "breakdown of the black family" is a loaded phrase rooted in an assumption from the 1960s about the roots of African American poverty. It was made famous by the so-called "Moynihan Report," a study commissioned by Senator Daniel Moynihan. Like all families, black families are not monolithic—they come in all shapes and sizes, and we should not assume that they are in danger of "breakdown" if they do not look like a paternalistic model imposed from above. However, there is no doubt that the trend of mass incarceration has had devastating effects on many black families (even if the concept of the "black family" is too simplistic). Of the black men imprisoned since 1960, more than half were the primary earners in their families and more than half also lived with their children. The vast majority were, contrary to myth, employed. Their incarceration was obviously damaging to the family as an economic unit and contributed to the cycles of poverty that have devastated many African American families. The problem persists even after they are released. Having a criminal record has a devastating effect on future earning power. There is also a strong correlation between parental incarceration and an increased likelihood of behavior problems—and criminal activity—among the children of the incarcerated men. While there are innumerable success stories, mass incarceration has been devastating for black families. Sociologists and other scholars point to even more insidious effects. Mass incarceration has contributed to the "criminalization" of black men in popular perception, and this has profound effects on professional opportunities for young black men. As author Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, "the job market in America regards black men who have never been criminals as though they were." Mass incarceration, as well as the systemic and structural conditions that are intertwined with it, have had tragic effects on black individuals, families, and communities.