Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Moynihan Report 1965

Most of you may not be gray enough to remember the uproar caused by the Moynihan Report, but I remember.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) served as assistant secretary of labor under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and it was in that capacity that he issued a report in March 1965 titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”

Originally intended as an internal memorandum providing support for Johnson’s War on Poverty, the report asserted that a disturbing proportion of African-American families suffered from instability and breakdown, that this condition resulted in a cycle of joblessness and poverty, and that the root of the problem was the psychological and social damage caused by slavery.

Soon after being issued, the report was leaked to the press and immediately became the object of violent controversy. Critics accused Moynihan of attacking the black family, stigmatizing black men, and marginalizing black women. One such response to what came to be called “The Moynihan Report” was the book “Blaming the Victim” (1970) by William Ryan (who coined this still-popular phrase). On the other hand, prominent black leaders like Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and Martin Luther King Jr. endorsed Moynihan’s findings.

An excellent piece on the Moynihan Report - From The Black Family: 40 Years of Lies by Kay S. Hymowitz :

Convinced that “the Negro revolution . . . , a movement for equality as well as for liberty,” was now at risk, Moynihan wanted to make several arguments in his report. The first was empirical and would quickly become indisputable: single-parent families were on the rise in the ghetto. But other points were more speculative and sparked a partisan dispute that has lasted to this day. Moynihan argued that the rise in single-mother families was not due to a lack of jobs but rather to a destructive vein in ghetto culture that could be traced back to slavery and Jim Crow discrimination. Though black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier had already introduced the idea in the 1930s, Moynihan’s argument defied conventional social-science wisdom. As he wrote later, “The work began in the most orthodox setting, the U.S. Department of Labor, to establish at some level of statistical conciseness what ‘everyone knew’: that economic conditions determine social conditions. Whereupon, it turned out that what everyone knew was evidently not so.”

But Moynihan went much further than merely overthrowing familiar explanations about the cause of poverty. He also described, through pages of disquieting charts and graphs, the emergence of a “tangle of pathology,” including delinquency, joblessness, school failure, crime, and fatherlessness that characterized ghetto—or what would come to be called underclass—behavior. Moynihan may have borrowed the term “pathology” from Kenneth Clark’s The Dark Ghetto, also published that year. But as both a descendant and a scholar of what he called “the wild Irish slums”—he had written a chapter on the poor Irish in the classic Beyond the Melting Pot—the assistant secretary of labor was no stranger to ghetto self-destruction. He knew the dangers it posed to “the basic socializing unit” of the family. And he suspected that the risks were magnified in the case of blacks, since their “matriarchal” family had the effect of abandoning men, leaving them adrift and “alienated.”

More than most social scientists, Moynihan, steeped in history and anthropology, understood what families do. They “shape their children’s character and ability,” he wrote. “By and large, adult conduct in society is learned as a child.” What children learned in the “disorganized home[s]” of the ghetto, as he described through his forest of graphs, was that adults do not finish school, get jobs, or, in the case of men, take care of their children or obey the law. Marriage, on the other hand, provides a “stable home” for children to learn common virtues. Implicit in Moynihan’s analysis was that marriage orients men and women toward the future, asking them not just to commit to each other but to plan, to earn, to save, and to devote themselves to advancing their children’s prospects. Single mothers in the ghetto, on the other hand, tended to drift into pregnancy, often more than once and by more than one man, and to float through the chaos around them. Such mothers are unlikely to “shape their children’s character and ability” in ways that lead to upward mobility. Separate and unequal families, in other words, meant that blacks would have their liberty, but that they would be strangers to equality. Hence Moynihan’s conclusion: “a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure.”

Astonishingly, even for that surprising time, the Johnson administration agreed. Prompted by Moynihan’s still-unpublished study, Johnson delivered a speech at the Howard University commencement that called for “the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights.” The president began his speech with the era’s conventional civil rights language, condemning inequality and calling for more funding of medical care, training, and education for Negroes. But he also broke into new territory, analyzing the family problem with what strikes the contemporary ear as shocking candor. He announced: “Negro poverty is not white poverty.” He described “the breakdown of the Negro family structure,” which he said was “the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice and present prejudice.” “When the family collapses, it is the children that are usually damaged,” Johnson continued. “When it happens on a massive scale, the community itself is crippled.”

Johnson was to call this his “greatest civil rights speech,” but he was just about the only one to see it that way. By that summer, the Moynihan report that was its inspiration was under attack from all sides. Civil servants in the “permanent government” at Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) and at the Children’s Bureau muttered about the report’s “subtle racism.” Academics picked apart its statistics. Black leaders like Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) director Floyd McKissick scolded that, rather than the family, “[i]t’s the damn system that needs changing.”

Less forgivable was the refusal to grapple seriously—either at the time or in the months, years, even decades to come—with the basic cultural insight contained in the report: that ghetto families were at risk of raising generations of children unable to seize the opportunity that the civil rights movement had opened up for them. Instead, critics changed the subject, accusing Moynihan—wrongfully, as any honest reading of “The Negro Family” proves—of ignoring joblessness and discrimination. Family instability is a “peripheral issue,” warned Whitney Young, executive director of the National Urban League. “The problem is discrimination.” The protest generating the most buzz came from William Ryan, a CORE activist, in “Savage Discovery: The Moynihan Report,” published in The Nation and later reprinted in the NAACP’s official publication. Ryan, though a psychologist, did not hear Moynihan’s point that as the family goes, so go the children. He heard code for the archaic charge of black licentiousness. He described the report as a “highly sophomoric treatment of illegitimacy” and insisted that whites’ broader access to abortion, contraception, and adoption hid the fact that they were no less “promiscuous” than blacks. Most memorably, he accused Moynihan of “blaming the victim,” a phrase that would become the title of his 1971 book and the fear-inducing censor of future plain speaking about the ghetto’s decay.

That Ryan’s phrase turned out to have more cultural staying power than anything in the Moynihan report is a tragic emblem of the course of the subsequent discussion about the ghetto family. For white liberals and the black establishment, poverty became a zero-sum game: either you believed, as they did, that there was a defect in the system, or you believed that there was a defect in the individual. It was as if critiquing the family meant that you supported inferior schools, even that you were a racist. Though “The Negro Family” had been a masterpiece of complex analysis that implied that individuals were intricately entwined in a variety of systems—familial, cultural, and economic—it gave birth to a hardened, either/or politics from which the country has barely recovered.

By autumn, when a White House conference on civil rights took place, the Moynihan report, initially planned as its centerpiece, had been disappeared. Johnson himself, having just introduced large numbers of ground troops into Vietnam, went mum on the subject, steering clear of the word “family” in the next State of the Union message. This was a moment when the nation had the resources, the leadership (the president had been overwhelmingly elected, and he had the largest majorities in the House and Senate since the New Deal), and the will “to make a total . . . commitment to the cause of Negro equality,” Moynihan lamented in a 1967 postmortem of his report in Commentary. Instead, he declared, the nation had disastrously decided to punt on Johnson’s “next and more profound stage in the battle for civil rights.” “The issue of the Negro family was dead.”

Well, not exactly. Over the next 15 years, the black family question actually became a growth industry inside academe, the foundations, and the government. But it wasn’t the same family that had worried Moynihan and that in the real world continued to self-destruct at unprecedented rates. Scholars invented a fantasy family—strong and healthy, a poor man’s Brady Bunch—whose function was not to reflect truth but to soothe injured black self-esteem and to bolster the emerging feminist critique of male privilege, bourgeois individualism, and the nuclear family. The literature of this period was so evasive, so implausible, so far removed from what was really unfolding in the ghetto, that if you didn’t know better, you might conclude that people actually wanted to keep the black family separate and unequal.

----- I have often been accused of "blaming the victim" when I point out much of the self-inflicted self-destruction in black America. And I've been called worse when questioning if the social and political powers that be have intentionally socially nutured the decades-long self-destruction of the black family in America.

This sunny Sunday morning as my soup kettle simmers, I can come up with only 2 reasons for liberals/progressives who still cling to their fantasy : They are uninformed, misinformed, or simply stupid, or they profit from continuing the industry of "blame the system first."


Anonymous said...

The information you have regarding the Moynihan Report was extremly helpful!!! Thank you.

Kate-A said...

You're welcome.

Chloe, WGBH "Basic Black" said...

45 years after the publication of the Moynihan Report on "The Negro Family", PBS’s Basic Black will be looking at the current state of the black family and how it has evolved since the report's publication. Join us TONIGHT, Thursday June 3rd at 7:30 pm EST LIVE at or on channel 2 in Boston. You can also participate in a live chat at starting at 7:20 pm

Anonymous said...

Your analysis is right on the money! UN-Finished Business Ministries Inc. will have a series of lectures on the issue in a renewed effort to bring Consciousness to the Collective.
It's a shame that this document is not labeled on of the most significant reports on race relations.
We hope to revise the Report's significance in light of the Negro Family Today!
Hotep {Peace}

Kate-A said...

Thanks. Credit goes to Moynihan and Kay S. Hymowitz.

Sam van den Berg said...

Kay Hymowitz' paper inspired me to write the following comment in a South African newspaper under an article about yet another rape and murder of two toddlers in a decaying and unserviced Black settlement. The article was headlined "Police to probe parents ..." : The ANC's song might as well be: Probe the parents, probe the community, probe colonialism, probe Global Warming,but for God's sake don't probe us. In almost twenty years (a full generation) the ANC has failed miserably in preventing a rising tide of unemployment, poverty and social distress. They have failed to lift a finger to bring unrestrained population growth under control -- except by legalising large-scale fetocide (an unfortunate necessity when all else fails -- I agree -- but there was hardly an 'all else' to fail, was there?). It is known that ensuring that all girls are educated to the highest level possible can have a dramatic impact on unwanted births. But our education system has been in a state of turmoil from the beginning. Proper and intensive health-care interventions were essential, but health-care is in a state of collapse. Unemployment has been spiraling out of control. The tide of HIV/AIDS brought to us along the trucking routes of Africa was left unchecked. Malaria and TB which had been under control, has been running out of control again. There has been no real attempt to rescue the family from decay and defend it against the attacks from certain politically correct quarters. Anyone who doubts that government policies have a bearing on the deeper hell that black families have descended into after the purgatory of apartheid should read Kay S Hymowitz' paper on 'The [American] Black family -- 40 years of lies' in the City Journal (Summer 2005). It is as good as an indictment before the International Court of Justice for crimes against humanity -- not only for the USA, but also South Africa. Will we allow twenty years of lies to become forty years of lies?

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