"Racial self-help" or "blaming the victim"?: 50 years after its publication, the Moynihan Report still provokes debate about the causes and cures of African-American in­equality

Obama's interpretation of the report has inspired outrage from Ta-Nehisi Coates. Here's why the controversy endures

Published July 19, 2015 2:00PM (EDT)

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Barack Obama       (Random House/Nina Subin/Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Barack Obama (Random House/Nina Subin/Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Excerpted from "Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy"

Crisis of Equality

In his 2006 bestseller The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama praised the Moynihan Report, which famously predicted that female-headed families would impede African American progress after the passage of civil rights legislation. Obama repeated a common account of the controversy sparked by the 1965 report: “Moynihan was accused of racism . . . ​when he raised alarms about the rise of out-of-wedlock births among the black poor.” Responding to the most famous criticism of the report—that it “blamed the victim”—Obama portrayed the uproar against Moynihan as a telling example of how “liberal policy-makers and civil rights leaders had erred” when “in their urgency to avoid blaming the victims of historical racism, they tended to downplay or ignore evidence that entrenched behavioral patterns among the black poor really ­were contributing to intergenerational poverty.”

By suggesting that African Americans take responsibility for their social advancement, Obama drew on a powerful interpretation of the Moynihan Report: urging racial self-­help. “[A] transformation of attitudes has to begin in the home, and in neighborhoods, and in places of worship,” he argued. As the first black president, Obama continued to echo the Moynihan Report. In 2014, he launched My Brother’s Keeper, a program that identified lack of father figures as a central problem facing young men of color. His comment in an interview that year strikingly recalled the report’s analysis of a “tangle of pathology,” interconnected social ills afflicting African Americans: “There’s no contradiction to say that there are issues of personal responsibility that have to be addressed, while still acknowledging that some of the specific pathologies in the African-­American community are a direct result of our history.”

Responding to Obama’s comment, prominent African American commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates was outraged that the president pointed his finger at African Americans rather than at institutional barriers to advancement. “I can’t think of a single credible historian of our 500-year tenure here,” he retorted, “who has concluded that our problem was a lack of ‘personal responsibility.’”  Six months earlier, however, Coates had appealed to an alternate interpretation of the Moynihan Report, one that advocated “national action” to address black male unemployment. To Coates, “Moynihan powerfully believed that government could actually fix ‘the race problem’” through jobs programs designed to make “more [black] men marriage-­material.” A half­-century after its publication, the Moynihan Report remains a contested reference point for debating the causes and cures of African American in­equality. The controversy endures because it elicits competing explanations for why African Americans, despite ostensibly having equal civil rights, experience a standard of living significantly lower than that of other Americans.

Officially titled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, the report was colloquially named after its author, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a member of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration. Moynihan wrote at the dawn of a new era in American race relations: landmark legislation in 1964 and 1965 ended Jim Crow segregation, granted formal equality to African Americans, and discredited overt arguments for white supremacy. Yet Moynihan’s opening sentence warned, “The United States is approaching a new crisis in race relations.” The crisis, he wrote, resulted from African American demands that went “beyond civil rights” to include economic “equality.”  Moynihan responded to civil rights leaders who had long ­advanced economic reforms designed to ensure a basic standard of living for all Americans. The 1963 March on Washington, after all, was for “jobs and freedom.” Yet Moynihan worried that achieving full racial equality would be hindered by what he viewed as the “crumbling” and “deteriorating” structure of many African American families reflected in high numbers of out-of-wedlock births and female-headed families. Family structure stood at the heart of what he notoriously labeled a “tangle of pathology” evident in high rates of juvenile delinquency, drug abuse, and poor educational achievement among African Americans. Moynihan’s thesis produced conflicting notions about how to combat racial inequality. For liberals, it suggested the need to provide jobs for black men to stabilize families. For conservatives, however, it suggested the need for racial self-­help: for African American leaders to morally uplift blacks by inculcating family values.

The Moynihan Report sparked an explosive debate at the intersection of competing conceptions of race, gender, and poverty. The political dispute over the document was actually a short-­lived affair. Moynihan finished the report in March 1965. In June, it served as the basis for a major speech by President Johnson. In August, it became public. By November, the Johnson administration had disowned it in the face of mounting criticism. From the left, critics charged Moynihan with “blaming the victim”: by shifting attention to African Americans’ alleged family problems, he overlooked the institutions that oppressed them. Though the report lost direct relevance for public policy after 1965, intellectuals and political activists hotly debated it well into the 1970s. In the mid-1980s, the report witnessed a political and media revival that never fully dissipated. Even today, as Obama’s and Coates’s remarks suggest, it remains a litmus test for revealing an individual’s political beliefs.

Beyond Civil Rights diverges from prevailing accounts of the Moynihan Report controversy that focus on establishing the document’s intended meaning. Some scholars claim the report was a conservative document that reinforced racist stereotypes. Others defend it as a quintessentially liberal document, arguing that critics simply misunderstood it. In contrast, I argue that the report had multiple and conflicting meanings. It produced disparate reactions because of internal contradictions that reflected those of 1960s liberalism and because of its contentious assumptions about race, family, poverty, and government. Instead of focusing solely on Moynihan’s intentions, this book explains why and how the report became such a powerful symbol for a surprising range of groups including liberal intellectuals, Southern segregationists, civil rights leaders, Black Power advocates, feminists, neoconservatives, and Reaganite conservatives.

One prominent interpretation finds that the Moynihan Report pioneered using images of “matriarchal” African American families to undermine the welfare state, an effort that accelerated during the 1980s and 1990s with Republican attacks on welfare recipients, usually pictured as African American single mothers. For example, scholar Roderick Ferguson writes that the report “facilitated a conservative blockade of social welfare policy” through its “pathologizing of black mothers.” Historian Alice O’Connor depicts the report as a prime example of how liberal social science generated conservative welfare reform. However, the report was not inherently conservative. Ferguson and O’Connor conflate the report, a product of 1960s liberalism, with the late twentieth-­century attack on welfare led by conservative Republicans. By contrast, in the 1960s, many interpreted Moynihan’s emphasis on “social pathologies” to indicate the need for unprecedented “national action.” Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and socialist Michael Harrington both hailed the report; seeing it as inherently conservative makes it impossible to understand why.

Another common interpretation takes the Moynihan Report as an unequivocally liberal document. This view, first advanced by Lee Rainwater and William Yancey in The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy (1967) and stated most recently in James Patterson’s Freedom Is Not Enough (2010), correctly notes that Moynihan called attention to black family structure to push for jobs programs and other mea­sures to benefit African Americans. Interpreting the report as unambiguously liberal fails to explain its immediate attraction to 1960s conservatives such as William F. Buckley and long-­term appeal to neoconservatives and Reaganite conservatives. Moreover, even the report’s liberal call for job creation sprang from assumptions that struck 1960s liberals, radicals, and their present-day heirs as “conservative.” These included viewing African American culture as pathological, defending the patriarchal family, and relying on technocratic expertise rather than grassroots activism to generate reform.

Patterson is the most recent historian to misinterpret the dispute over the report as a simple case of “misunderstandings and misrepresentations.” The controversy resulted not from critics’ misunderstanding of Moynihan’s reformist intentions, but from the report’s ambiguities that allowed multiple interpretations. Misrepre­sen­ta­tions fed the debate, as they do in any significant controversy. But they did not occur solely on one side. If opponents sometimes missed Moynihan’s liberal intentions, he and his supporters often ignored the substance of their criticisms by reducing them to assertions that Moynihan was a “racist,” a charge few critics actually made. Viewing the controversy through Moynihan’s perspective, Patterson distorts critics’ views and overlooks important groups that challenged the report, such as African American feminists, who were its most thorough critics and among the most influential. Patterson and others also misstate the extent to which Moynihan suffered from the controversy: Nicolas Lemann’s claim that the report stands as the “most refuted document in American history” is vastly exaggerated. In fact, for fifty years, the report has received overwhelmingly positive media coverage. Far from damaging Moynihan’s career, the report launched him to a prominent professorship at Harvard University, a top post in Richard Nixon’s administration, and a long career in the Senate representing New York.

Liberals nostalgic for a mid-1960s moment when government officials contemplated ambitious programs to redress African American in­equality have been especially drawn to the idea that the Moynihan Report was misunderstood. For them, the report marked a lost opportunity for reforms that might have been enacted but for the unfortunate response the report generated. Conservatives similarly explain the controversy as a misunderstanding by treating left-wing critics’ attacks as irrational. For them, the Moynihan Report controversy marked the onset of “political correctness.” Conservatives claim criticism of the report by civil rights leaders and liberals suppressed an honest discussion about race. In their view, Moynihan’s critics convinced African Americans to perceive themselves as victims without responsibility for moral failings and civil rights leaders wrongly focused on criticizing Moynihan instead of exhorting blacks to strengthen their families. There is no necessary contradiction between conservatives’ advocacy of racial self-help and liberals’ support for government efforts to redress inequalities. However, in national po­liti­cal debate, conservative appropriations of the Moynihan Report to call for racial self-help denied national responsibility for persistent anti-black racism and gross economic in­equality.

Rehashing the same arguments over the Moynihan Report’s meaning brings us no closer to understanding the dispute. Indeed, the controversy was more historically significant than the document itself. It never was a two-sided contest between Moynihan and his left-wing critics, as it has been portrayed. Rather, it was a multi-cornered affair that cannot be reduced to a divide between liberals and conservatives or between liberals and radicals. Moynihan had defenders as well as critics among liberals, civil rights leaders, Black Power advocates, and conservatives. To provide a definitive account of the controversy, this book draws on extensive archival research, mostly in previously unused sources, and interviews with surviving participants. It explains the reactions of all major participants in the controversy, not just Moynihan’s. Analyzing contradictions and flaws in arguments on all sides reveals the debate’s complexity and offers a history without heroes or villains.

The controversy ranged so widely because it affected so many communities of discourse. The report connected academic research, public policy, and public debate. The controversy fed back into each of these arenas with continuing reverberations for the others. Because the report drew heavily on social science, the dispute rebounded into academic disciplines where its policy relevance infused scholarly debate with political significance. Media discussion inflamed criticism from intellectuals and political activists. The controversy’s impact also reached well beyond Moynihan’s elite circles. Hundreds of Americans wrote directly to Moynihan to share their views.

The controversy is best understood as a struggle to define the meaning of a highly publicized but unclear document. Participants fought to establish interpretations of the report that served their larger aims. The report’s ambiguity proved useful for Moynihan, who sought acclaim across the political spectrum, and for the Johnson administration, which adopted the civil rights movement’s rhetoric about economic equality but failed to endorse mea­sures such as the $100 billion Freedom Bud­get advocated by civil rights leaders. The report’s ambiguity helped it become a crucial text in American political culture, functioning like what cultural critic Raymond Williams termed a “keyword,” a familiar term that articulates social ideals but is open to diverse and conflicting interpretations. The character and impact of political ideas are often defined less by their inherent logic than by the struggle of forces that claim, contest, and modify them. Thus, examining the meanings Americans made of this single document illuminates broad transformations in American political culture.

What lent the report its enduring salience was its maddening inconsistency on key issues. Was family instability primarily cause or consequence of racial inequality? Were the “social pathologies” of African Americans race-specific, rooted in the history of slavery and racial discrimination, or were they class-specific, based on the overconcentration of African Americans among the urban poor? Was patriarchal family structure naturally superior, or did racial minorities simply have to conform to mainstream nuclear family norms if they wished to advance? Moynihan also articulated two distinct notions of “equality.” On one hand, equality meant a guaranteed basic living standard for all Americans. On the other, equality meant “equal results”—a class distribution among African Americans that matched other American ethnoracial groups.

How Moynihan framed African American inequality proved especially contentious because it involved several divisive issues in the post-civil rights era. The controversy reveals how discussions of race and class have remained deeply intertwined in American discourse. The report became a touchstone for discussing the merits of the liberal welfare state and Johnson’s Great Society programs. Partly because of its inconsistencies, the report served multiple political perspectives. Focus on male unemployment’s destructive effects on families indicated the need for an activist state to surpass the limited anti­poverty mea­sures enacted by Johnson and ensure full male employment and a guaranteed annual income. However, emphasis on how family structure determined economic success suggested that poverty resulted from the poor’s flawed cultural values. Especially since the 1980s, conservatives have cited the report to argue that poverty is best solved not by economic redistribution but by moral revitalization, particularly the restoration of patriarchal nuclear families.

Though the controversy framed American race relations in black and white, it held implications for other ethno-racial groups. For example, Moynihan’s proposal that African Americans should receive “equal results” extended to other racial minorities, justifying affirmative action programs initially designed for blacks that benefited other nonwhite groups. The debate over the report became linked to the similar and contemporaneous concept of a “culture of poverty,” a term made famous by anthropologist Oscar Lewis’s depictions of Mexican peasants and Puerto Ricans. The report was also based on Moynihan’s particular understanding of race, which emerged from co-authoring an influential 1963 study of New York City ethnic groups, Beyond the Melting Pot, which analogized African Americans to European immigrant groups. The book concluded that the success of any group depended on sociological characteristics, especially family structure. Moynihan, an Irish-American, frequently compared African Americans to nineteenth-century Irish immigrants to the United States.

A document born of a liberal mindset that valued the perspective of trained elites, the report generated challenges to established experts’ claims to understand African American life. Many African Americans criticized the Moynihan Report as yet another case of white domination of the study of African Americans. The Black Power movement attacked Moynihan, demanding control over how African Americans were represented. The related Black Sociology movement called for the “death of white sociology” and contended that Moynihan’s depiction of African American culture as “pathological” falsely presumed the superiority of “white” middle-class American norms. Black Feminists thought the report promoted racist stereotypes of black women. They targeted not only white liberals such as Moynihan but also African American men who wanted to restore black male authority in the family.

Gender ideals were barely contested in the report’s initial reception, but assumptions about family roles of men and women ­were always integral to the report. Like most postwar liberals, Moynihan defined economic equality in terms of the “family wage”—the ability of male breadwinners to provide for their families. The second wave of feminism ­rose in the years immediately after the report, so that by the late 1960s, debate about the report became explicitly as much about gender as about race. Second-wave feminists, white and black, challenged its patriarchal norms. The controversy became embroiled in growing debates over middle-class values and the nuclear family, the superiority of which were contested by the counterculture and gay liberation movement as well by second-wave feminism.

The combustibility of Moynihan’s assumptions about race, gender, and government was clearest in reactions to his most concrete policy for African American advancement: recruiting more black men into the military. The proposal fit a liberal strategy to provide jobs to male breadwinners to stabilize African American families and communities. It also reflected a belief that success in American society required middle-class values presumed lacking among African Americans. In the army, Moynihan alleged, black men would learn “discipline.” The proposal also reflected Moynihan’s belief that African American men suffered from a “matriarchal” culture. The military would provide them with “an utterly masculine world . . . ​a world away from women, a world run by strong men of unquestioned authority.” Moynihan’s suggestion, advanced during the rapid escalation of the Vietnam War, met opposition from several fronts. Even though many Black Power advocates agreed with Moynihan’s patriarchal ideals, they rejected military ser­vice as participation in an American imperialism that targeted nonwhites abroad just as it oppressed nonwhites at home. Men involved in the antiwar and countercultural movements rejected Moynihan’s equation of masculinity with submission to hierarchical discipline. Feminists viewed the plan as a brief for patriarchy. One mocked Moynihan for assuming “women are so terrible that it is a fantastic relief to get away from them.” “Never mind that the service is experiencing explosive racial problems,” she continued, “it is still better than being around women.”

Though the Moynihan Report controversy involved leftists and conservatives, it proved especially significant for liberals, who could not resolve the crisis of equality. Liberalism is defined here as a political ideology committed to reducing social and economic inequality within a capitalist, formally democratic system and to securing equal rights for ethnoracial minorities.19 An important constituency in the Democratic Party, liberals dominated mid-twentieth-century intellectual discourse. Attaining economic equality for African Americans, unlike securing legal and political rights, exposed the limits of postwar liberalism, divided liberals, and enabled challenges to liberalism to surface with new intensity.

The Moynihan Report controversy is sometimes mistakenly viewed as emblematic of a postwar liberal consensus that suddenly unraveled during the late 1960s. Rather than demonstrating a liberal consensus, the initial range of reactions to the document reveals an ideological diversity that predated the controversy. Far from a stable consensus, postwar liberalism itself contained diverse and conflicting strands. The report reflected these contradictions and typified a postwar liberal mindset that recognized structural economic barriers to African American achievement yet was committed to meritocratic notions that individuals and ethnic groups succeeded based on ability to compete in an open marketplace. The race-based economic inequality Moynihan identified was so entrenched in American society that readers could conclude either that government needed to enact radical reforms advocated by civil rights leaders or that it was incapable of addressing the problem. The report contained both the seeds of left-wing challenge that deepened liberals’ war on poverty and a neoconservative attack on the welfare state. Just as the Moynihan Report did not solely involve race, postwar liberalism did not become embattled only because of its commitment to African American equality, which was equivocal in any case. Rather, several forces converged to contest core postwar liberal assumptions articulated in the Moynihan Report such as: the government’s ability to alleviate economic in­e­qual­ity without reforming corporate capitalism, the cultural assimilation of ethnoracial minorities, the desirability of male-headed families, the efficacy of social engineering by experts and government officials, and the superiority of middle-class American values.

One way to track the controversy’s impact on liberalism is to examine the trajectory of the report’s author. In the late 1960s, Moynihan became one of the most prominent “neoconservatives,” a set of postwar liberals who moved right. The report contained a thread of neoconservatism in its suggestion that government might be unable to solve a problem rooted in family structure. Neoconservatives spun that into a blanket challenge to liberal social engineering. The controversy itself played a key role in pushing Moynihan and other neoconservatives to the right. Ultimately, Moynihan concluded that those who most forcefully called for racial equality—radical African Americans and their allies—were responsible for the racial discord of the late 1960s. In a notorious 1970 memo to President Nixon, in whose administration he then served, Moynihan advised a policy of “benign neglect” for discussing race. Moynihan and other neoconservatives anticipated conservatives’ appropriation of the report, which accelerated during the 1980s. Thus, late twentieth-century conservatism emerged not only as a reaction to postwar liberalism, but also as a development from it.

Because African Americans, despite considerable progress, have yet to achieve equality by any definition, the report retains its relevance. The controversy has significantly influenced how Americans discuss racial equality. Many ideas central to racial discourse in twenty-first-century America can be traced to the Moynihan Report controversy. The debate defined the image of an African American urban “underclass” with deviant cultural values commonly referenced by Obama and others. Justifications for affirmative action emerged from the report’s contention that African Americans deserve and require special preferences, as did the competing notion that African Americans benefit most from class-based programs for the poor and working class. Criticism of the report helped generate multiculturalism by challenging the document’s racial paternalism, asserting the positive value of a distinctive African American culture, and demanding that racial minorities be allowed to define themselves. Refuting the report’s assumption that anti-black racism would no longer hinder African American progress after civil rights helped establish the concept of “institutional racism” which recognizes per­sis­tent systemic racism. Finally, conservatives drew on the report to claim that that only individual achievement and racial self-help, not the welfare state, could lead to African American progress.

By pointing to cultural deficiencies among African Americans, the report explained without recourse to now-discredited notions of biological inferiority how racial inequality persists even if race supposedly no longer matters. Its call to go “beyond civil rights,” intended to highlight economic inequality, misleadingly implied that full legal and political equality had already been achieved. Hence many used the report to complement the dominant American ideology of the post-civil rights era: a willfully naïve color-blindness that suggests that racism no longer significantly factors in American life. The illusion of color-blindness allows Americans to overlook such contemporary realities that disproportionately affect African Americans as mass incarceration, blatantly unjust police violence, and even disenfranchisement.

Today, a report written to convince the Johnson administration to go “beyond civil rights” is used to rationalize that civil rights legislation alone could overcome centuries of injustice toward African Americans. This irony is one of many revealed by the history of the Moynihan Report dispute, in which racial inequality was entwined with questions of class, gender, social expertise, and the role of government. The astonishingly wide-ranging and long-running controversy over Moynihan’s views of African American families offers a revealing illustration of how Americans have discussed the tangled aspects of persistent African American inequality from the civil rights era to the present day.

Excerpted from "Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy" by Daniel Geary. Published by University of Pennsylvania Press. Copyright © 2015. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Daniel Geary

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