Fifty years ago, in July 1965, a social science study with a prosaic title—“The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”—was leaked to the press. Its author was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a young and obscure assistant secretary in the Department of Labor.
The timing of the Moynihan report, as it came to be called, was significant. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Civil Rights Movement had achieved its legislative objectives, and its future was in abeyance. Movement leaders were planning a second phase, one that would mark a decisive shift from the pursuit of liberty to that of equality. This meant addressing the deep inequalities that were not only the legacy of past racism, but also entrenched in all of the major institutions of American society. The report had beeny completed in March, and on June 5 President Lyndon Johnson would deliver a historic commencement address at Howard University in which he would endorse this “next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights.”
A few weeks after Moynihan’s report was leaked to the press, the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles exploded in violence, triggered by an incident with police that rapidly escalated into five days of disorder and left thirty-four people dead. Pundits and politicians seized upon the report to cast blame for the “riot” on the deterioration of “the Negro family.” The report warned, “The family structure of lower class Negroes is highly unstable, and in many urban centers is approaching complete breakdown.”
Critics condemned the report for pathologizing female-headed households and black families in particular. The most trenchant criticism, however, was that the preoccupation with black families shifted blame away from institutionalized inequalities and heaped it on the very groups that were victims of those inequalities. As James Farmer, cofounder and national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, wrote with blunt eloquence, “We are sick unto death of being analyzed, mesmerized, bought, sold, and slobbered over while the same evils that are the ingredients of our oppression go unattended.”
Today, in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore, family dysfunction is again cited by politicians, pundits, and scholars as the root of the problem. Rand Paul publicly twaddles about “the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society.” David Brooks opines in the New York Times, “The real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.” And sociologist Orlando Patterson asserts that “fundamental change” can come only from “within the black community: a reduction in the number of kids born to single, usually poor, women.”
Now Moynihan is celebrated for his prescience. As the report’s cheerleaders would have it, its author was pummeled for speaking the unvarnished truth but has been vindicated by history. After all, at the time he wrote, 45 percent of nonwhite children lived in “broken homes,” and more than half of nonwhite children were on Aid for Dependent Children (AFDC). Today 72 percent of African American children live in “single-parent households,” and AFDC has been abolished. The terminology has been sanitized, but the prevalence of single-parent households among African Americans dwarfs even Moynihan’s expectations. (Among whites it has increased from 3 percent in 1963 to about 30 percent today.)
There was nothing groundbreaking in the Moynihan report, as commentators pointed out when it was published. He had only collated easily available statistics. However, he went far beyond observing that black families were unstable. “At the center of the tangle of the pathology is the weakness of the Negro family,” he wrote. “Once or twice removed, it will be found to be the principal source of most of the aberrant, inadequate, or anti-social behavior that did not establish, but now serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and deprivation.”
Moynihan was obsessed with a single figure, a correlation between decreased unemployment and rising numbers of blacks on AFDC. With some coaching from the sociologist James Q. Wilson—famous for developing the “broken windows” theory of policing—Moynihan called this the “scissors effect” and argued that welfare dependency was self-perpetuating since it increased even when the unemployment rate decreased. In Poverty Knowledge (2001), Alice O’Connor thoroughly debunks the scissors effect by showing that the increase in blacks on AFDC merely reflected the easing of eligibility rules and the migration of blacks to northern cities.
This analytical error signaled an ideological one. We might wonder why Moynihan, a political scientist working in the Labor Department, was inclined to undertake a study of black families at the very moment when the Civil Rights Movement had triumphed in Congress and was preparing for what Johnson would call “the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights.” A careful examination of the source material that Moynihan drew from makes clear that he and a close circle of scholars were alarmed by the new direction of the Civil Rights Movement as it shifted from issues of liberty to issues of equality. In principle, these critics were for equality of opportunity but adamantly opposed any suggestion of equality of outcomes that might entail preferential treatment. Moynihan and his defenders were not wrong in regarding “compensatory treatment” as an embryonic form of what a decade later came to be called affirmative action. In retrospect, the conflict between civil rights leaders and liberals over the Moynihan report was a dress rehearsal for the bitter and protracted affirmative action battle.
for the rest of this article, go to http://bostonreview.net/us/stephen-steinberg-moynihan-report-black-families-nathan-glazer