The Moynihan Report Resurrected

The Moynihan Report Resurrected

Moynihan speaking to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 1976 (Library of Congress)

In March 1965, the Office of Policy Planning and Research at the United States Department of Labor produced a report entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” Written by an assistant secretary at the Department of Labor with social scientific training but with a short publishing history on race and racism, the document launched a national debate so powerful that it simply became known as the Moynihan Report, after its author, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Infamous on the left for his description of black family life as a “tangle of pathology” and celebrated on the right as a (perhaps the first?) victim of “political correctness,” Moynihan is more cited than read. Reflecting on the legacy of the report fifty years after it was first published, many commentators seem to agree: Moynihan was right to point out that family structure is central to the perpetuation of poverty among African Americans. Whether from conservatives like the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley or from liberals like the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, this adulation of Moynihan centers on the idea that he was a “prescient” figure who boldly breached a “taboo” subject in order to tell hard truths. These writers portray Moynihan as a prophet without honor, whose unpopular message carried great potential but went sadly unheeded.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In recent months yet another report, this one from the Center for Contemporary Families, shows that his predictions of an increase in juvenile crime and in inequality due to the rise in single-parent families were spectacularly false. Not only was Moynihan wrong, but the controversial thesis of his work gained him unprecedented public attention—indeed, the report made him a household name. As both Ta-Nehisi Coates and Tressie McMillan Cottom point out in recent pieces in the Atlantic, the report’s condemnation of black family life made its author a celebrated public intellectual and launched his career in politics. Coates sees the mass incarceration of African Americans as the “national action” that America chose to undertake to address the problems Moynihan described. Moynihan’s framing of poverty as a problem of black families—of black people—has enabled political leaders for half a century to look away from restitution and towards punishment as a way to address social problems. We are still living in Moynihan’s moment.

Historian Daniel Geary, in his new book Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy, examines the ideological foundations of the report and unravels the various strands of debate it instigated at the time. Geary tells the story of the Moynihan Report through an unfamiliar set of interlocutors, from feminist activists like Merrillee A. Dolan, who condemned Moynihan for supporting the male-breadwinner model of the family, to unconventional anthropologists like Carol Stack, who used ethnographic evidence to challenge his diagnosis of dysfunction in black families. At his best, Geary highlights surprising and overlooked historical voices and draws our attention to the limitations of postwar liberalism in addressing racial inequality. Both the considerable strengths and the central weakness of the book derive from Geary’s portrayal of Moynihan primarily as a subject of intellectual controversy. By focusing on the debate the report inspired, he at times loses sight of its overall political impact and underestimates its most trenchant critics.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan grew up in a working-class New York family with New Deal–liberal politics. In an irony that Coates highlights, Moynihan was raised largely by his own single mother after his father left when he was ten. Moynihan developed a worldview that reflected both his Catholic upbringing and his family’s liberal ties. His belief in government’s responsibility to guarantee secure work with decent wages for its citizens was tied to his unshakable commitment to a model of the family based on, in the parlance of the time, men as breadwinners and women as homemakers. For Moynihan, alleviating poverty was inextricably linked to reinforcing a patriarchal family structure.

This belief shaped Moynihan’s selective promotion of the midcentury American welfare state. Although he supported minimum-wage policies and aggressive government action against male unemployment, Moynihan “paid little attention to the problems of women workers,” and he despised the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. Like many of the expert policymakers in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, he was profoundly optimistic about using social engineering to create a more just society, but he had little faith in the power of democratic action to achieve the same.

Moynihan pushed for a broader and more aggressive War on Poverty, while opposing its most radical component: the call for the “maximum feasible participation” of poor communities in designing and implementing their own anti-poverty programs. Geary mentions this opposition only in passing, but it cuts to the heart of the limitations of both Moynihan’s vision and postwar liberalism’s commitment to racial justice. Moynihan’s opposition was partly rooted in a technocrat’s disbelief that voices from the bottom of society could articulate their own needs. But it also reflected certain elements of the fraying liberal coalition around civil rights that Geary largely neglects: a growing fear of black political organizing and a sense that the empowerment of black communities through the civil rights movement needed to be tamed and controlled by the state.

“The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” had a remarkably short life as policy. Though it was hailed within the Johnson administration before it became public in July 1965, criticism from civil rights leaders led the president to disown the report within months of its release. The Watts rebellion in August forever altered the context of the report, as liberals and conservatives grasped at possible explanations for the newly visible militancy in urban black communities. As black activists grew less tolerant of white liberals who made a living explaining the problems of black America, and with white conservatives dead set against economic solutions to the nation’s racial tension, Moynihan’s report was “effectively dead” by November 1965.

Despite its early death as policy, the Moynihan Report had a long afterlife as controversy. Moynihan’s description of the black family as a “tangle of pathology” derived from his loosely defined, poorly supported claim that the “matriarchy” in black households—the rise in black single mothers—generated a cycle of poverty independent of the effects of white racism and economic deprivation. This became the touchstone of the report, even as commentators from across the political spectrum largely ignored Moynihan’s vague call for “national action.”

While Geary is skeptical of whether Moynihan can be invoked in the service of progressive causes today, he wants to recuperate, at least partially, the Moynihan who called for “national action” to combat unemployment among black men. He points out that Moynihan understood better than many white commentators that the mass mobilization of black Americans in the two decades after the Second World War was always “a movement for equality as well as for liberty.” Geary urges us to see in Moynihan’s commitment to equality a moment of genuine promise—an inchoate but encouraging demand for greater federal intervention against poverty. At the same time, he demonstrates that the steps Moynihan was willing to endorse in pursuit of that goal were woefully insufficient. Substantive proposals are entirely lacking from the Moynihan Report (as Geary points out in the new edition of the report he has helpfully annotated on the Atlantic’s website). The closest Moynihan came to a policy recommendation to reduce unemployment among black men was his call for greater recruitment of black men by the military, which looked more and more disastrous as the Johnson administration escalated the war in Vietnam. The persistence of employment discrimination, “last in, first out” hiring practices, and the deindustrialization of the city centers that were the major destinations of the Great Migration were completely absent from the report.

Even if we could ignore the report’s obsessive focus on the structure of the black family as a major cause of poverty, given these limitations, it is ultimately difficult to see where Moynihan’s call for “national action” would have led. Assessing Johnson’s famed Howard University speech of July 1965, co-written by Moynihan and heavily influenced by the ideas of the report, Geary emphasizes that the administration fell well short of the longstanding demands of civil rights organizations. Johnson’s speech—particularly his assertion that “freedom was not enough”—is usually considered a high-water mark of postwar liberalism, but in Geary’s hands, it becomes limp and inadequate rhetoric. Geary’s interpretation of what Johnson meant is clear: postwar liberalism’s staunchest advocates recognized the scale of the problem of African-American inequality, but failed to understand its true causes or necessary remedies.

Even if the report generated more rhetoric than policy during the Johnson administration, it had more policy consequences in the decades that followed than Geary examines. It would obviously be wrong to lay blame on a single technocrat for mass incarceration, welfare reform, and the host of other state actions that have exacerbated racial and economic injustice since 1965. However, to say, as Geary does, that “the Moynihan Report’s legacy is as mixed as its contents” is to ignore the connection between his pronouncements—which offered both social scientific legitimacy and government sanction to a view of black families as “pathological”—and the spate of policies that have blamed America’s racial problems not on extractive capitalism or institutional racism but on black communities themselves. Geary’s decision to interrogate only the intellectual aftermath of the Moynihan Report means that his assessment of its consequences on policy is limited.

As intellectual history, Beyond Civil Rights is skillful and well considered. Geary addresses the relationship between Moynihan’s portrayal of black families and the work of prominent black social scientists, especially E. Franklin Frazier and Kenneth Clark. While Moynihan drew heavily from their work, Geary points out that he also “put their findings to his own purposes.” Clark was the source of Moynihan’s use of the word “pathology,” but Clark used it to describe social problems, rather than to condemn individual behavior. Clark further identified current structural racism—rather than the legacy of past injustice—as the cause of the instability and precarity of many black communities.

Moynihan’s misappropriation of Frazier was even more pronounced. While Frazier emphasized the wrenching effects of slavery on black family life, often tying family structure to economic deprivation, he was much more radical than Moynihan’s use of his work might suggest. For instance, his ideas about family “disorganization” were less rigid and less patriarchal than Moynihan’s. Frazier’s conclusions were rooted in the views and experiences of community members themselves; he saw potential benefits in a variety of family structures, including those led by women, depending on a community’s circumstances. Moynihan, on the other hand, counted every “female-headed household” as a “disorganized” one. Frazier was also committed to a radical vision of bottom-up social change, one in which an interracial labor movement would bring increased political and economic power to African Americans. Although conservatives (and Moynihan himself) would cite his reliance on these black scholars as proof of his objectivity and goodwill, they ignored the significant discrepancies between the work of these scholars and Moynihan’s interpretation of their findings. Geary’s clear-headed analysis of Clark’s and Frazier’s arguments and their misappropriations by Moynihan is a major strength of the book. Geary plainly shows that this was not a case of a white scholar taking flak for saying what black scholars could get away with, as Moynihan’s response at the time implied.

By 1966, the report loomed large in conversations about the representation of black life among a younger generation of black intellectuals. From Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver to Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, Moynihan became the most visible target of black writers’ anger at the arrogance and presumptiveness of white sociologists who sought to encapsulate their experiences with dire statistics and vignettes of desperate living. Ellison—hardly a black nationalist—castigated those “white liberals . . . [who] eagerly presume to interpret Negro life” while “possessing little firsthand knowledge of any area of society other than their own.” A related resentment stemmed from a sense of exploitation. Moynihan made his name and built his career on describing the suffering of black people. Black scholars, however, were constantly overlooked in mainstream discussions of racism; the Black Studies movement that arose out of the crucible of Black Power offered them a larger stage to air their justifiable grievances. Geary recounts one sign of the changing times when black students and faculty at Stanford University protested the selection of Moynihan as commencement speaker in 1975. Leading the charge was St. Clair Drake, a black sociologist who had contributed to economist Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma and who had supported A. Philip Randolph’s message of interracial working-class solidarity two decades before. No stranger to interracial collaboration or “white sociology,” Drake’s vehement disavowal of Moynihan illuminated the extent to which Black Power and Black Studies had reshaped the discussion of racial representation in the United States.

Geary’s analysis of the feminist movement’s response to the Moynihan Report is another triumph of his scholarly attention. Advocates of equal employment opportunities for women, such as Pauli Murray and Betty Friedan, founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. Murray in particular understood that Moynihan’s promotion of employment opportunities for black men in order to make them the single-earner heads of nuclear families would inevitably take jobs away from black women. As the decade wore on, feminists associated with NOW, such as Merrillee A. Dolan, offered increasingly radical critiques of the report, implicating it in a system of middle-class patriarchal norms that extended beyond the workplace to the family itself. Further, black feminists like Michele Wallace argued that the report “activated hostility toward African American women among African American men,” and that “just as black men were busiest attacking Moynihan, they were equally busy attacking the black woman for being a matriarch.” Geary notes that the appeal of black feminist critiques of the Moynihan Report extended far beyond the small radical organizations, like the Combahee River Collective, with which that movement is most closely associated. The much more mainstream ACLU lawyer (and, later, longtime Congresswoman) Eleanor Holmes Norton fervently contested the necessity or desirability of black families’ adherence to the white, middle-class norms on which Moynihan insisted.

Despite Moynihan’s liberal background and service in a Democratic administration, conservative outlets like the Wall Street Journal and National Review were among the first to embrace the report in a substantive way. Ignoring Moynihan’s call for massive federal intervention in the labor market, they highlighted his sections on the black family as a way to “explain” the Watts riots without reference to ongoing segregation and police brutality. While Moynihan was ruthless in his denunciation of critics who he believed were distorting his message, he was happy to be embraced by Review founder William F. Buckley, who misrepresented the report in equally stark ways. This willingness to cozy up to the right while scorning the left in the immediate aftermath of the report’s publication foreshadowed Moynihan’s eventual neoconservative turn.

The culmination of this shift came in 1970, when Moynihan—then a member of the Nixon administration—wrote a memo that called for “a period of benign neglect” in national discussions of race. While acknowledging that “the seeds of neoconservatism” existed in the original report, Geary nonetheless identifies a shift in Moynihan’s perspective. By arguing that “the main problem was not African American inequality, but intemperate discussions of race,” Moynihan left little room for his earlier call to “national action.” Geary portrays Moynihan’s turn to the right as the result of his desire for professional advancement and his thin-skinned attitude toward his critics, not as a sign of the affinity between his ideas and those of his more thoroughly conservative fans. This is, perhaps, wishful thinking. Further, while Geary bemoans the exhaustion of 1960s liberal reform—encapsulated in miniature in Moynihan’s own exasperation with his feminist and left-wing critics—he lays too much of the blame on the doorsteps of some of Moynihan’s most incisive and unforgiving critics.

Advocates of Black Power were some of the earliest and most forceful critics of Moynihan’s “pathological” view of black family life. Stokely Carmichael’s insistence that “the reason we’re in the bag we’re in isn’t because of my mama, it’s because of what they did to my mama” cut to the heart of the Moynihan Report’s failings. Geary suggests that the Black Power movement, with its focus on reclaiming black cultural power and self-determination, not only undersold the report’s progressive call to address black unemployment but also abandoned the radical economic proposals of the civil rights movement. He laments the “unfortunate and largely unintended consequence of the Moynihan Report controversy” that “Moynihan and many of his critics shifted debate about inequality away from political economy,” identifying Black Power as one of the principal culprits of this turn away from economic issues and toward questions of identity, self-representation, and cultural worth.

This widely held idea, echoed by Geary, is a misrepresentation; in fact, he shortchanges Black Power’s own economic message. Carmichael and his collaborator, the political scientist Charles V. Hamilton, devoted most of their 1967 book Black Power to the economic and political obstacles to black mobilization and empowerment in the South and North. Carmichael and Hamilton emphasized that at the core of the problem of “institutional racism”—a term they coined—was the lack of “decent housing, decent jobs, and adequate education.” Furthermore, activists regularly invoked the signs and language of Black Power in a variety of local struggles, whether organizing against discriminatory union leadership in Detroit’s Chrysler plants or fighting for tenants’ rights on Baltimore’s housing board.

Like many writers on today’s left who are disappointed with modes of organizing based in marginalized groups’ demands for recognition, Geary disregards the power of collective consciousness to spark broad-based political action. One of the legacies of the sixties—captured by slogans like “Black Power” and “the personal is political”—is that the arenas of political economy and culture cannot be so easily disaggregated. Degrading representations are social facts, imbricated in the political economy of their day. By treating Black Power primarily as a shift from economics toward culture in the national debate on inequality, Geary unfortunately ignores its invocation in campaigns for fair housing, equal employment, and welfare rights.

The controversy surrounding the Moynihan Report is certainly a tangle of threads, and Geary skillfully unravels it, eloquently tracing each strand of debate. The report’s central legacy, unfortunately, seems all too clear. The Moynihan Report, by identifying the culture and family structure of poor black people as the cause of their poverty, has given ammunition to opponents of anti-poverty programs for decades. More broadly, it has contributed to the sadly common view that racism is a thing of the past—that we need to look elsewhere for the causes of contemporary inequality. Activism undertaken beneath the sign of Black Lives Matter has unsettled this willful blindness to the ongoing violence, discrimination, and economic deprivation directed at African Americans. If, as Geary argues, we still need “national action to ensure social and economic equality for African Americans,” we must acknowledge and support the independent black political action that has been, and remains, so crucial to realizing that goal.


Sam Klug is a graduate student in history at Harvard University. He focuses on twentieth-century American history.

American Studies Now | UC Press [Advertisement]