Defending Moynihan's Legacy

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

Atlantic reader Greg Weiner, who teaches political science at Assumption College and wrote American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, emails a long and comprehensive defense of Moynihan:

Ta-Nehisi Coates in his cover story makes a powerful case against what he calls the “carceral state” but virtually none linking his foil—Daniel Patrick Moynihan—to it.  Coates neither claims Moynihan’s 1965 report on the African-American family was responsible for subsequent incarceration policies nor accuses Moynihan of orchestrating them.  Instead, he locates one issue aside the other, inviting, all but goading, the reader to draw the causal inference he does not explicitly make.  Coates implies.  He generalizes.  He kneads anecdotes into impressions.  In short, Coates does to Moynihan what he falsely accuses Moynihan of doing to the African-American family.  

This irony is compounded by the fact that Moynihan preceded Coates to this criticism of incarceration policy.  His 1993 essay “Defining Deviancy Down” warned that “[w]e are building new prisons at a prodigious rate” and that there was “something of a competition in Congress to think up new offenses for which the death penalty seemed the only available deterrent.”  He fought tirelessly for treatment over criminalization at the height of the incarceration craze, including authoring a 1988 law on the subject.  

On some points, Coates is simply mistaken.  

The suggestion that the Moynihan Report somehow made Moynihan’s reputation, which in fact it nearly left in tatters, verges on the absurd.  Moynihan was extensively published well before the Report, including his and Nathan Glazer’s landmark Beyond the Melting Pot, first published in 1963. After it, Moynihan was dogged by accusations of racism for years, charges Coates’ treatment of him have now revived even as Coates bizarrely suggests the Report giving rise to them improved Moynihan’s stature.  

That he attracted prominent press attention “between 1965 and 1979,” a period during which he worked in the Nixon White House, served as ambassador to India and the United Nations, was elected to the Senate and wrote extensively on issues ranging from urban to foreign affairs, is hardly attributable to the Moynihan Report.

Similarly, Coates implies that Moynihan accepted a position with Richard Nixon because he was “embittered by the attacks launched against him,” though he still “professed concern for the family.”  This has it backward.  Moynihan joined the Nixon White House precisely because of his concern with the family, in which, it should be noted, he had never relented. His solution to the problem of family structure was the guaranteed income, or FAP, and Nixon was willing to push it at a time when the Democratic Party was, Moynihan believed, “exhausted.”

On the basis of a single quotation, Coates also claims that by the late 1980s Moynihan “seem[ed] to abandon scholarship for rhetoric,” and that “[g]one was any talk of root causes.”  This is patently wrong.  Moynihan published his book Family and Nation at precisely this time, in 1987.  He spoke about the family crisis—across racial lines—from the Senate floor, on television, in lectures and other forums.

On other points, Coates characterizes the Moynihan Report at a step of remove.  On Coates’ reading, for example, “Moynihan believed [the] matriarchal structure [of many African-American families] robbed black men of their birthright,” while saying the Report implies that “black women were obstacles to black men’s assuming their proper station.”  Moynihan had actually observed an incongruity between the authority structure within African-American families and that of the larger, male-dominated society.

This characterization of the Report is compounded when Coates inexplicably ascribes blame to Moynihan for how others characterized the Report.  Moynihan obviously and repeatedly held white racism responsible for the crisis besetting the African-American family.  In Coates’ portrayal, Moynihan inherits blame for the contrary impression columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak left.

One reason for this blame, Coates writes, is Moynihan’s “omission of specific policy recommendations.”  This misapprehends Moynihan’s intent.  He believed stating a broad policy goal would do more to spur specific policy solutions than confining them to an explicit list.  He did have a specific agenda.  It included jobs that would enable African-American men to support their families.  It would surely have been front and center at Lyndon Johnson’s White House conference on the topic had Moynihan not been excluded precisely because of the charges of racism whose impact Coates downplays.

Meanwhile, the causal inferences Coates leaves dangling have been picked up and more explicitly linked in this space, including by Atlantic editor James Bennet, who writes that “[f]or [the carceral state], Coates holds Moynihan, in part responsible.”  Tressie McMillan Cottom similarly claims that Moynihan “went on to participate in the kind of policies and ideology that perpetuated the conditions he was originally critiquing.”  She does not specify how. Neither does Alex Lichtenstein explain his accusation of Moynihan’s “subsequent reactionary politics.”

All these writers are connecting the dots that Coates arranges for them on the page.  The distorted portrait of Moynihan that results is both unfair to its subject and unnecessary to Coates’ purpose, which is exploring the effects of the mass incarceration of African-Americans.  The portions of Coates’ essay that pertain to Moynihan could have been excised without detracting from, or even altering, his observations about incarceration, which only serves to accentuate the extent to which he traffics in guilt by editorial association.  That such incaution is precisely the accusation he levels against Moynihan suggests that if Coates was insensitive to the unfairness of his portrayal, he might at least have been attentive to its irony.

Ta-Nehisi is currently writing a response to our reader and will post it shortly. Do you have anything to add regarding Moynihan’s career, or the debate over TNC’s cover story more generally? Email