Defending Moynihan's Legacy, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

An African American psychiatrist, mother, and Atlantic reader emails a nuanced perspective on the themes of gender and family we’ve discussed thus far:

The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” is a beautifully written, timely piece about the tragedy of mass incarceration that is affecting the fabric of our society—and that, as Coates eloquently argues, is steeped in racist fear. He weaves Moynihan into it all, and discusses how this frequently misunderstood figure and his thoughts on family intersected with the plight of black folk over the past half century.  This is actually the larger theme. Beyond mass incarceration, Coates’ article is really about an even greater issue; the article might have well been entitled “Why Is the Black Family Suffering Today, and What Can We Do About It?”

I wholeheartedly agree with many of the responses I imagine Coates would give: The black family is suffering because of a legacy of white supremacy. Mass incarceration is a crisis of epic proportions, which is a culmination of centuries of racist policy and has exacerbated the problems of the black family a thousand-fold.

However, as I read Coates closely, a small but important-to-me issue keeps coming up: I’m not sure how important he thinks the black family really is. Black individuals, yes. As an ardent defender of our personhood, our worth, and value, he is a welcome voice. But the black family? I get the sense that Coates may be just a little suspicious of the whole concept of family, or at least the traditionally crafted version. I’d like to argue that he shouldn’t be.

When Coates summarizes Moynihan’s early suggestions about strengthening the black family, it is not without a good dose of 21st-century scoffing. He is overtly dismissive of Moynihan’s idea of creating a specific economic focus on black men. How patriarchal of him, Coates essentially says, to imagine that black women might want the option to embrace possibilities that their white sisters for too long had forced upon them, such as the option to remain at home with nursing babies and young children while being provided for financially by a spouse or partner.

In a portion of his essay that didn’t make it into final print version, Coates says that in Moynihan’s suggestions for strengthening black male employment, “there is little consideration of domestic violence, rape or the costs of incentivizing families in which women are bound to men by a paycheck.” A valid point. But what about the cost of incentivizing female-headed black households, as one could argue has been a theme of social policy over the last several decades?

Coates is rightfully wary of unchecked patriarchy. I’m no anti-feminist. Believe me, I know black women can do it all. We can run households, raise children, hold a job. We are amazing. We are fierce.

But I also know that we are tired. Tired and stressed. In fact, it has been argued that stress leads us to an earlier death than our white counterparts. And I have the utmost respect for single mothers. But as the female equal in a dual-partner, married household, I am extremely aware that single motherhood is a journey that would be far more demanding.

And as a psychiatrist, I hear the secret cries of the heart that many never hear. From heterosexual black women, I hear a near-universal longing for a shared life, for a strong black partner who will be emotionally present and physically enticing, but who will also help pay the bills.

My partner’s paycheck allows me to expend less time and energy in the workplace so that I have more emotional and physical reserve as we both parent. The energy of my body is not limitless. Particularly during my journey of breastfeeding, I felt overwhelming gratitude toward my partner at being able to provide this support for me.

It’s no idyllic, theoretical view of “family” that I uphold. No, the reason I’m concerned about the black family is the reality that parenting is hard. Women are exhausted. When our black men are disproportionately pushed out of the workforce, black women are less able to join their lives with a partner who might equally share their burdens. And when women are exhausted beyond our limits, our children suffer.

Mass incarceration is an evil which must be stopped. But what else can be done to strengthen the black family? Maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to patronize Moynihan for his antiquated views.

Perhaps America should go beyond releasing our brothers from the “Gray Wastes,” and even beyond legislative measures to decrease the negative impact of a prison record on employment prospects. Perhaps we can be purposeful about creating a society where black men are particularly supported in finding employment to help provide for their families. Large-scale job creation efforts aimed at black men specifically—not due to some imagined inadequacy on their part, but as a gesture that recognizes this country’s great debt to their bodies—would be a welcome development for our nation.

An earlier, more thorough defense of Moynihan is here. Email if you’d like to join this conversation on gender or the broader debate over TNC’s cover story.