Ta-Nehisi Coates assails Minnesota's black poverty and prison pipeline

Despite low incarceration rates, Minnesota disproportionately locks up black people.

Despite low incarceration rates, Minnesota disproportionately locks up black people.

In the Atlantic Magazine’s October cover story, Ta-Nehisi Coates examines why America disproportionately locks up its black citizens and how it affects black families. He found the answer, at least part of it, in Minnesota.

Using polarizing civil rights-era Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-New York) as a launch pad, the decorated author holds up Minnesota as an example of why the prison system is a “moral abomination.” Even if the country ended its rather Stalinist epoch of mass incarceration, there’s no reason to believe the color gap behind bars would narrow, Coates argues.

Citing a 2009 study by University of Minnesota law professor Richard Frase, Coates writes that despite Minnesota’s “relatively sane justice policies” leading to some of the nation’s lowest incarceration rates, the state’s black-white ratio in the slammer is one of the country’s worst.

“Changing criminal-justice policy did very little to change the fact that blacks committed crimes at a higher rate than whites in Minnesota,” Coates writes. “Why did blacks in Minnesota commit crimes at a higher rate than whites? Because the state’s broad racial gulf in criminal offending mirrored another depressing gulf.”

According to Frase’s study, the poverty rate among black Minnesotans was more than six times higher than it was for whites. Minnesota’s black poverty rate more than tripled the national average.

Frase could not immediately be reached for comment. But according to his study, reports from the 1980s and ‘90s show the state's black incarceration rates per capita were around 20 times higher than those for whites. While the margin had slimmed by 2005, it was still far greater than the national clip.

“The lesson of Minnesota is that the chasm in incarceration rates is deeply tied to the socioeconomic chasm between black and white America,” Coates writes. “The two are self-reinforcing—impoverished black people are more likely to end up in prison, and that experience breeds impoverishment.”