Revisiting the Moynihan Report, Cont.

The much-vilified report would never be written today, but not for the reasons you think.

There was some good conversation in comments yesterday about Daniel Patrick Moynihan's The Negro Family: A Call For National Action, on the black family, and some of the resulting pushback. Horde Legionnaire Socioprof offered this link to a 2009 issue of Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. In it, Moynihan's legacy is re-assessed from several perspectives. 

I am just beginning to go through the volume. But the first essay argues that Moynihan was unfairly tarred as a racist by people who had not read the report. Apparently portions of it were leaked early, many of them taken out of context. I have my own critiques of The Negro Family. I think the slavery portion doesn't hold up as well as some of the other portions of the report. I also think anyone considering its arguments about slavery should check out Herb Gutman's The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom.

But Moynihan's argument differs substantially from the kind of ahistorical shaming you see from people who attack black culture as the font of the race problem. The opening chapter is written by Douglass Massey and Robert Sampson. I'm not very familiar with Sampson, but I know Massey's work well. He is a pioneer in understanding the continuing effects of segregation and the piracy of black wealth that characterized mid-20th century domestic policy. Here are their thoughts on what Moynihan was actually trying to accomplish:

The key to arresting the alarming rise in family instability, he felt, was a dedicated federal effort to provide jobs for black men. He was, after all, assistant secretary in the Department of Labor, not in the Department Health, Education, and Welfare; his purview was the workforce and not the family. The crisis in the black family was his justification for a federal jobs program. Along with education, training, and apprenticeship programs that would enhance the employability of black men, he favored a major public works effort that would guarantee jobs to all able-bodied workers. If full employment for black males -- especially young black males -- could be achieved, he thought, then family stability could be restored and government would be in a better position to attack more entrenched problems such as discrimination and segregation.

I tend to think that it would be really hard to separate out segregation from employment and family stability. That's a subject worthy of debate. But Moynihan didn't get a debate. He got condemnation:

Perhaps a major effort to generate employment for low-income, minority workers was never in the cards. Even LBJ was skeptical of government work programs. But something else also transpired to seal the fate of Moynihan, his report, and its emphasis on federal employment programs. Immediately after the president's speech at Howard University, someone leaked the Moynihan Report to journalists, who naturally published the florid language and incendiary prose that was meant to stir passions within the administration while ignoring the more prosaic but critical structural analysis embedded in the report.

Soon, headlines blared that Moynihan was calling the black family pathological and blaming it for the problems of the ghetto, which suggested that he was laying the onus of black educational failure, joblessness, and criminality on female matriarchs. Moynihan-bashing quickly became a boom industry in the liberal press, led by the journalist William Ryan, who in The Nation coined the term "blaming the victim" to describe the report (Ryan 1971).

Moreover, in the context of an emergent black power movement, Moynihan s emphasis on humiliated black men could not have been less timely, and in the context of a coalescing feminist movement, his pairing of matriarchy and pathology could not have been less welcome. Young black militants and newly self-aware feminists joined in the rising tide of vilification, and Moynihan was widely pilloried not only as a racist, but a sexist to boot.

A great irony is that few of his vociferous critics had actually read Moynihan's report. It was still an internal document with a very limited number of copies. Most people had only read selective extracts published in columns and stories about the report, which when combined yielded a bowdlerized version of its arguments. One wonders, for example, whether critics who claimed Moynihan was racist had read even the first page of the report, where it was claimed that "the racist virus in the American blood stream still afflicts us." The report was not actually "published" and widely distributed until 1967, when Rainwater and Yancey included a facsimile in their analysis of "the politics of controversy."

By then, of course, it was too late; Moynihan's report had been consigned to the netherworld of the politically incorrect, where it would remain for decades. One can only imagine the even more vociferous reaction that would have ensued had the Moynihan Report been leaked in the technological world of today, with its capacity for instantaneous and frenzied distribution the world over.

Perhaps. There's also an argument that the Moynihan Report actually would have done better today -- a two-year lag-time in publication is unthinkable. Moreover, in 1967 the tools of publication were only in a few hands. Today they belong to anyone with an Internet connection.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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