George Will Is Not a Scientist, Man

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Last week George Will joined a panel on ABC News to commemorate the March on Washington. Will said the following:

"A young social scientist from Harvard working in the Labor Department published a report. His name was Daniel Patrick Moynahan. He said, 'There is a crisis in the African-American community, because 24 percent of African-American children are born to unmarried women. Today it's tripled to 72 percent. That, and not an absence of rights, is surely the biggest impediment."

The report Will is referencing is entitled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. That second part is particularly important because Moynihan's argument was not that the black community needed to be more moral. On the contrary, Moynihan strongly believed that American racism was central to what he saw as a "tangle of pathologies" afflicting black families. We can debate that terminology all day. I am not a fan, but my point is that Moynihan was not confused about the root causes:

That the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary -- a lesser people might simply have died out, as indeed others have. That the Negro community has not only survived, but in this political generation has entered national affairs as a moderate, humane, and constructive national force is the highest testament to the healing powers of the democratic ideal and the creative vitality of the Negro people.

But it may not be supposed that the Negro American community has not paid a fearful price for the incredible mistreatment to which it has been subjected over the past three centuries. In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is to out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.

There is, presumably, no special reason why a society in which males are dominant in family relationships is to be preferred to a matriarchal arrangement. However, it is clearly a disadvantage for a minority group to be operating on one principle, while the great majority of the population, and the one with the most advantages to begin with, is operating on another. This is the present situation of the Negro. Ours is a society which presumes male leadership in private and public affairs. The arrangements of society facilitate such leadership and reward it. A subculture, such as that of the Negro American, in which this is not the pattern, is placed at a distinct disadvantage.

Here an earlier word of caution should be repeated. These is much evidence that a considerable number of Negro families have managed to break out of the tangle of pathology and to establish themselves as stable, effective units, living according to patterns of American society in general. E. Franklin Frazier has suggested that the middle-class Negro American family is, if anything, more patriarchal and protective of its children than the general run of such families.27 Given equal opportunities, the children of these families will perform as well or better than their white peers. They need no help from anyone, and ask none.

While this phenomenon is not easily measured, one index is that middle class Negroes have even fewer children than middle class whites, indicating a desire to conserve the advances they have made and to insure that their children do as well or better. Negro women who marry early to uneducated laborers have more children than white women in the same situation; Negro women who marry at the common age for the middle class to educated men doing technical or professional work have only four fifths as many children as their white counterparts.

It might be estimated that as much as half of the Negro community falls into the middle class. However, the remaining half is in desperate and deteriorating circumstances. Moreover, because of housing segregation it is immensely difficult for the stable half to escape from the cultural influences of the unstable one. The children of middle class Negroes often as not must grow up in, or next to the slums, an experience almost unknown to white middle class children. They are therefore constantly exposed to the pathology of the disturbed group and constantly in danger of being drawn into it. It is for this reason that the propositions put forth in this study may be thought of as having a more or less general application.

In a word, most Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world, and probably a majority are so entrapped. Many of those who escape do so for one generation only: as things now are, their children may have to run the gauntlet all over again. That is not the least vicious aspect of the world that white America has made for the Negro.

There's a lot to debate here in terms of Moynihan's analysis. His thoughts on slavery breaking the black family, for instance, were thoroughly rebutted in Herb Gutman's masterful study The Black Family In Slavery And Freedom. I also think it's worth noting that the percentage of white single-parent births is now exactly where black births were in Moynihan's time. But no one thinks this has much to do with "matriarchy." But Moynihan, unlike George Will, believed racism to be at the core of any discussion about what afflicted the black family. Moreover, Moynihan -- unlike Will -- believed that because America had created this problem, it was America's responsibility to actually do something:
 

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.

With that in mind whenever I see conservatives embracing Moynihan, I wonder whether they've actually read the report. Moynihan wasn't calling for marriage classes, moral hectoring and austerity. He was a big government liberal who believed that a massive jobs program was the antidote to centuries of systemic racism. I have to say this goes for liberals too. I don't agree with parts of The Negro Family -- I think his stuff on slavery is pretty bad, for instance. And I remain skeptical of attempting to address the effects of racism, while changing the subject. But I don't think that the idea that Moynihan was blaming the victim holds up very well, either. People who are blaming the victim rarely call for massive job programs and subsidized childcare on the victim's behalf. The whole point of blaming is to evade responsibility. Whatever Moynihan's problems, he was not doing that.

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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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