By Alan Bean
A recent post touched on Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” (You can read Moynihan’s report here.) A New York Times article celebrating the political incorrectness of Jonathan Haidt suggested that many prominent sociologists now agreed with Moynihan’s controversial ideas. Below I have pasted two examples of this phenomenon, one by Harvard’s William Julius Wilson, the other by James T. Patterson, a Brown University history professor.
First, let me share a few of my own thoughts. We must distinguish between Moynihan’s actual report and the version of that report reflected in contemporary media accounts. Moynihan, a trained sociologist, touched on a wide variety of issues, but the media chose to focus on his “tangle of pathology” in the black family. In Moynihan’s defense, he didn’t actually say that all black families were disintegrating. Middle class blacks were doing just fine, he acknowledged; it was the folks in the urban slums he worried about.
Feminists criticized Moynihan for concentrating on black males while decrying the matriarchal nature of the black family. The patrician Moynihan was actually arguing the importance of strong mothers and fathers, but he was concerned about the absence of fathers in many poor black families.
Moynihan’s tone is part of the problem. He regarded the typical white middle class family of the 1950s as the ideal to which all families should aspire. The report is written from the ivory tower from one used to roaming the corridors of Washington power and his report reflects an attitude of paternalistic condescension. There isn’t much sense criticizing Moynihan for his style, however. He was a creature of his time. There can be little doubt that he was trying to be sensitive but simply didn’t know how to go about it.
There is much to admire in Moynihan’s report on the black family. His historical survey lays responsibility for black poverty squarely at the feet of white America. A great admirer of the civil rights movement, Moynihan lamented that “the racist virus in the American blood stream still afflicts us.”
Note, however, that when he speaks of the “American blood stream” he is thinking of white people. Moynihan is writing as a white man for the edification and education of other white men and women and people of color were naturally put off.
Moynihan argues persuasively that the black family in America bears the scars of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. He was particularly concerned about the high rates of unemployment in poor urban neighborhoods and declared the policy of restricting welfare to single-parent families to be an unmitigated disaster.
Moynihan wrote in 1965, a year after the Voting Rights Act was passed and riots erupted in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Although he likely didn’t realize it at the time, Lyndon Johnson was pouring too much money into the Vietnam war to maintain his early enthusiasm for the Great Society. Johnson took the problems in Watts, and the continued critique of black leaders like Martin Luther King, as a personal affront. Even in 1965, backlash against the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. All of this may account for Moynihan’s focus on the “tangle of pathology” and his failure to propose concrete remedies for the social anguish he catalogued.
Moynihan saw unemployment as the big problem, but you’d never know it by perusing his conclusions. He hints repeatedly that the black family would not join the American mainstream until black fathers had access to solid work and decent salaries. But he rarely makes this point explicitly, and this goes to the heart of the problem. By failing to advocate for jobs and economic opportunity, Moynihan squandered his big chance to push public policy in a progressive direction. Instead, he concluded his study with a single recommendation:
The policy of the United States is to bring the Negro American to full and equal sharing in the responsibilities and rewards of citizenship. To this end, the programs of the Federal government bearing on this objective shall be designed to have the effect, directly or indirectly, of enhancing the stability and resources of the Negro American family.
The goal was fixing the black family, not job creation. Hardly anyone read the Moynihan report, they read the headlines it generated. And those headlines focused on the “tangle of pathology” in the black family. Small government conservatives naturally concluded that since poverty was a product of a pathological culture, the onus was on black people to get their domestic act together. They used Moynihan’s report to argue that welfare leads to dependency and dependency creates poverty, a view still shared by a solid majority of white voters. Moynihan didn’t say any of this, but his lame, unfocused recommendations allowed his report to be distorted beyond recognition.
Similarly, the report links crime and unemployment, but the lack of a clear policy recommendation reinforced the idea that black people are naturally violent. Instead of responding to the report by making productive work a human right, America, after fifteen years of dithering indecision, started building prisons. Our primary response to urban poverty has been mass incarceration and we show little inclination to change course.
That’s my take. Please read the discussions below and share your thoughts.
It amuses me every time I read that some of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s critics dismiss the importance of his scholarly work—arguing that he rarely published in peer-review journals, that his writings on poverty and welfare were shoddy, and that, as one critic put it, ‘he had not made a positive contribution to public understanding of these topics.’”
I categorically reject such views. Indeed, Moynihan made major contributions to social science in three areas: (1) race and ethnic relations; (2) poverty and family structure; and (3) social science and public policy. His book, Beyond the Melting Pot, co-authored with Nathan Glazer, is one of the most widely cited books on race and ethnic relations. This book effectively challenged the view that immigrants would eventually lose their ethnic identities by showing that ethnicity is an enduring social form, persisting through successive generations.
Moynihan’s study of the relationship between poverty and family structure, famously known as the Moynihan Report, is, as I noted in a recent article in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, an important and prophetic document. It is important because it continues to be a reference for studies on the black family and the plight of low-skilled black males. It was prophetic because Moynihan’s predictions about the fragmentation of the African American Family and its connection to inner-city poverty were largely borne out, and since 1990, social scientists and civil rights leaders have echoed his concerns about black make joblessness and the need for social policies that would address their skills deficits and change behavioral responses that emanate from severe employment constraints.
Moynihan attempted to synthesize structural and cultural analyses to understand the dynamics of poor black families and the plight of low-skilled black males. And now, more than forty years after the public release of his report, we are seeing the beginnings of a more sophisticated synthesis of structure and culture by social scientists who readily acknowledge Moynihan’s important contribution to this subject.
Also, he was one the first social scientists to call attention to the growing gap between the black middle class and the black poor—a gap that has continued to widen and has been the focus of a lot of research and writings, including my own.
Finally, Moynihan was among the early social scientists who recognized that as racial barriers fall in the face of anti-discrimination legislation, the cumulative effects of racial oppression will make it extremely difficult for many poor African Americans to take advantage of opportunities provided by the civil rights movement. Accordingly, he recommended a shift in civil-rights activity to increase the resources of the black family.
Since Moynihan’s writings on race and ethnic relations and on poverty and family structure have been the focus of so much subsequent research—indeed the number of studies boggles the mind—I strongly feel that he ranks among some of our most important social scientists.
Although many of Moynihan’s ideas represent an original synthesis of existing scholarship, his work was bold and controversial. But, the controversy was productive. I think that my colleague at Harvard, Theda Skocpol, put it best. She stated that Moynihan’s taste for controversy has influenced both his political and academic careers. And that he had an extraordinary ability to dramatize an issue by putting his finger on things. For example, she states, his report on the black family performed a national service in dramatizing the issue of family structure, and many people ‘who care about inequality are fully aware of its contribution.’ I fully agree. This man’s work was agenda setting. I am so pleased that he is finally getting the full recognition that he deserves. Thank you.
By James T. Patterson
James T. Patterson is professor of history emeritus at Brown University. His latest book is “Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life—from LBJ to Obama” (Basic Books, 2010).
When Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” reached the White House in March 1965, it sparked great enthusiasm among high officials of the Johnson administration. Moynihan, a fervent liberal, was then serving as an assistant secretary of labor. “Pat,” some of them said, “you’ve got it.” The president soon asked him to draft a major address that he was scheduled to deliver at Howard University on June 4. The speech foretold a bold new course of governmental action that would seek “equality as a fact and as a result” for American Negroes. Johnson later said, and with justice, that it was the greatest civil rights speech he had ever made.
No one outside top administration circles then knew of the seventy-eight-page report, which Moynihan had written as an in-house document. It highlighted what he called the “steady deterioration of the Negro family over the past generation” that had led to a “tangle of pathology.” Backed by sixty-one footnotes, the report was cool and clinical, documenting “matriarchy,” rising “illegitimacy,” and increasing welfare take-up among lower-class black families.
As administration officials were pondering how to proceed that summer, snippets from the report began leaking into newspaper stories and columns, whereupon it became known as the “Moynihan Report.” Criticisms of it—most based on sketchy or inaccurate news accounts—aroused increasingly angry controversy. By the end of the year, militant civil rights activists—misunderstanding and in some cases deliberately misrepresenting it—were accusing Moynihan of being a racist and of having “blamed the victim.”
Calmer heads attempted to save the day for the report. Kenneth Clark, the black psychologist whose writings had featured the phrase “tangle of pathology,” fired back, “If Pat is a racist, I am. He highlights the total pattern of segregation and discrimination. Is a doctor responsible for a disease simply because he diagnoses it?”
The critics, however, triumphed. President Johnson, after calling in July for major escalation of the war in Vietnam, focused increasingly on foreign policy issues. In early August, the Watts riots infuriated him, causing him to step back from civil rights concerns. Reluctant to confront militant foes of the report, he consigned it to oblivion.
Moynihan was deeply hurt by the attacks. Later he wrote that L.B.J.’s Howard address was his “last peacetime speech,” and that abandonment of its ideals represented a tragic “Moment Lost” in the history of American race relations.
His lament was probably overstated: subsequent events make it clear that the majority of Americans have never possessed the will—or policymakers the know-how—to remedy the deep-set social ills of the ghettos. Still, chances for serious policymaking seemed uniquely promising in mid-1965, when liberals commanded greater political power than at any point in modern American history. If government ever had a chance to deal with the miseries of inner-city blacks, it was at that time.
Thereafter, of course, the plight of lower-class African Americans has become far more serious. In 1965, 25 percent of black babies were born out of wedlock. Today, roughly 72 percent are—including more than 80 percent in many inner cities. Their chances in life, dimmed by family disruptions and poverty, are grim.
It is evident now that Moynihan failed in 1965 to foresee how deeply his grim observations would offend black people (and some white liberals) who heard or read about them in the papers. Other critics complained that the report, calling for careful study of the situation, avoided specific policy recommendations. Feminists later objected to his focus on the plight of men—and to the patriarchal assumptions (widespread in 1965) that seemed to them to underlie it.
Since the late 1980s, a few black scholars have dared to praise the report, notably William Julius Wilson, whose The Truly Disadvantaged in 1987 described “social pathologies of the ghetto.” In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama also wrote favorably of the report. But many black militants have persisted in misunderstanding or misrepresenting it. Blaming white racism for black problems, they have failed to see—some apparently do not wish to see—that Moynihan was a clear-headed advocate of social justice. And many white liberals, fearful as L.B.J. had been of alienating black leaders (or of being called racists themselves), have also shied away from frank discussion of one of America’s most pressing social issues.
This is a very great shame, for far from blaming the victim, Moynihan identified what he memorably called a “racist virus in the American bloodstream” as the source of “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment” of black Americans. Though he dwelt on the disastrous legacies of slavery, his report focused on contemporary economic problems, notably black male unemployment. It was a structural, not cultural, explanation for the subordination of black people—one that made a “Case for National Action.”
Long interested in the Moynihan Report and its tortured history, I finally wrote a book about it. Published earlier this year by Basic Books, it is titled Freedom Is Not Enough, the theme of the speech that LBJ gave at Howard in 1965. My book’s subtitle, The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life from LBJ to Obama, explores the sad fate that met Moynihan’s efforts in 1965 and thereafter.
In writing the book, I had reason to believe that most people today who know of the report realize that it was a prophetic call to arms. A Harvard-sponsored conference of leading scholars agreed in 2007 with this assessment—see Douglas Massey and Robert Sampson, eds., The Moynihan Report Revisited: Lessons and Reflections After Four Decades (Sage Publications, 2009). I echoed this view in a New York Times op-ed this past May.
Imagine, then, my dismay when I came across a front-page article in the New York Times on October 18. A sweeping headline reads, “‘Culture of Poverty,’ Long an Academic Slur, Makes a Comeback.” The article’s author, Patricia Cohen, starts by noting that though Moynihan did not coin the phrase, he “introduced the idea of a ‘culture of poverty’ to the public” in his report of 1965. She goes on to write that the report described an “inescapable ‘tangle of pathology.’”
Cohen then proceeds at considerable length to argue that the phrase, long avoided by scholars as politically incorrect, is now becoming more widely accepted. This is not so—careful scholars still do not use it. What she should have made more clear is that many scholars—she mentions Wilson among them—now believe that studies of lower-class black life should cite cultural as well as structural forces (such as white racism and economic exploitation) in studies of lower-class black life. This sensible approach is indeed widespread today, though it is hardly a new (or newsworthy) development.
Cohen is also wrong to throw Moynihan into this story. If any single writer can be said to have introduced to the public the idea of “culture of poverty,” it was Michael Harrington, who highlighted it in his widely discussed book, The Other America (1962). Moynihan, by contrast, did not use the phrase “culture of poverty”—or even the word “culture” —in his report. Cohen thus joins the crowd of critics who have missed his message—that white racism and economic injustice are the sources of black family disintegration, and that the “tangle of pathology,” though savage, is not “inescapable.” On the contrary, Moynihan believed that “National Action” had a chance to unravel it. Thus the title of my plaint today: will misrepresentations of the much-maligned Moynihan Report ever stop? It seems not. And the miseries of the ghetto live on.