Moynihan, Mass Incarceration, and Responsibility

Good intentions and deep sympathies cannot counter corrosive doctrines and destructive policy.


I want to respond to Greg Weiner’s contention that I’ve offered a distorted picture of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. There’s a lot wrong with Weiner’s note. I specifically object to the idea that the Moynihan Report left its authors reputation “in tatters.”

It is certainly true that Moynihan suffered through more than his share of unfair criticism after the release of The Case for National Action. It is also true that within two years of the Moynihan Report’s release, the author was being hailed on the cover of TIME magazine as America’s “urbanologist.” That same year Life magazine lauded Moynihan as the “idea broker in the race crisis.” After leaving the Johnson administration, Moynihan went on to a lucrative post at Harvard, became the urban affairs guru for one president and the UN ambassador for another, and then served for an unbroken four terms in the Senate. Furthermore, Moynihan’s central idea—that the problems of families are key to ending the problems of poverty—dominates the national discourse today. I suspect the president would take no insult in being described as a disciple of Moynihan. If this is all part and parcel of having your reputation destroyed, it is an enviable specimen of the genre.

Weiner’s claim is, of course, much larger. He accuses me of merely hinting at Moynihan bearing some responsibility for mass incarceration, and cleverly leaving the nasty work to the editor’s note written by James Bennet:

Coates demonstrates that white Americans’ fear of black Americans, and their impulse to control blacks, are integral to the rise of the carceral state. A result is that one of every four black men born since the late 1970s has spent time in prison, at profound cost to his family. For this, Coates holds Moynihan, in part, responsible.

Since Weiner believes I was being coy, let me directly state that I wholly concur with this interpretation. My argument is that mass incarceration is built on a long history of viewing black people as unequal in general, and criminal in the specific. Both of these trends can be found in Moynihan’s arguments. I detail them in the article right here. That said, I have no problem bearing down and expanding on this notion.

In March of 1969, Moynihan wrote to Richard Nixon, the newly elected president of the United States, to discuss black America. Nixon won, by the admission of his own aides, with a campaign strategy designed to appeal to racists. Seeking to explain the decline in law and order, Nixon pointed at the civil-rights movement, asserting that the decline could “be traced directly to the spread of the corrosive doctrine that every citizen possesses an inherent right to decide for himself which laws to obey and when to obey them.”
One might have hoped that Moynihan would be an enlightening influence on the president, from perspective or race. He wasn’t:

The Negro lower class would appear to be unusually self-damaging, that is to say, more so than is normal for such groups…

The Negro poor having become more openly violent—especially in the form of the rioting of the mid 1960’s—they have given the black middle class an incomparable weapon with which to threaten white America. This has been for many an altogether intoxicating experience. ‘Do this or the cities will burn…’ What building contracts and police graft were to the 19th-century urban Irish, the welfare department, Head Start, and Black Studies programs will be to the coming generation of Negroes. They are of course very wise in this respect.

Moynihan went further, ending his memo with a nod toward scientific racism. He alerted the president to the return of the question of “genetic potential” between blacks and whites “in impeccably respectable circles.” Moynihan pronounced himself opposed to this thesis, but added that it remained an “open question.”
This formulation—the black poor as criminal, and the black middle class as exploiters of criminality—was not a mere slip-up. In 1970, Moynihan wrote the president a memo on “the position of Negroes” at the end of Nixon’s first year:

With no real evidence, I would nonetheless suggest that a great deal of the crime, the fire setting, the rampant school violence, and other such phenomenon in the black community have become quasi-politicized. Hatred—revenge—against whites is now an acceptable excuse for doing what might have been done anyway. This is bad news for any society, especially when it takes the form which the Black Panthers seem to have adopted. This social alienation among the black lower classes is matched, and probably enhanced, by a virulent form of anti-white feeling among portions of the large and prospering black middle class. It would be difficult to overestimate the degree to which young well educated blacks detest white America.

The black poor were both criminally prone and anti-white, while the prospering black middle class was merely anti-white.
This view of black life contrasted sharply with Moynihan’s view of the white working class. On May 17, 1969, Moynihan wrote to Nixon, beginning by quoting a Pete Hamill column approvingly:

A new voice is being heard in America today. It is a voice that has been silent too long. It is a voice of people who have not taken to the streets before, who have not indulged in violence, who have not broken the law…. These forgotten Americans finally have become angry….

They have not really found a voice in American politics, but they are indeed angry. And have reason to be.

You ask, “What is our answer.” To which I suppose my first reaction would be to ask, “What is their question?” …

What is the question? It is this: How is the great mass of white working people to regain a sense of positive advantage from the operation of American government, and retain a steady loyalty to the processes of American society, at a time when those above and below them in the social hierarchy seem simultaneously to be robbing the system blind and contemptuously dismissing all its rules.

Moynihan wrote this right at the moment that Nixon is playing on old notions of blacks and criminality. He did very little to counter this stratagem; indeed, his memos endorse the underlying logic. Moynihan presented a portrait to the president of an America riven by two groups—hard-working, law-abiding, working-class whites and criminal and scheming blacks. He then complimented Nixon’s efforts to help the schemers in rather incredible terms:

During the past year intense efforts have been made by the administration to develop programs that will be of help to the blacks. I dare say, as much or more time and attention goes into this effort in this administration than any in history.

In re-reading through these memos, and others, one is struck by their mixed nature. I almost had the sense that Moynihan was trying to trick Nixon into embracing liberal policy. Through all of his memos Moynihan  remains thoroughly committed to government action to help black families. He believes the black poor to be “unusually self-damaging,” but he does not believe they should be left to their fate. He believes the government should invest in poor black communities. But this is accompanied by a telling dig—aiding the ghettoes would prevent the militant black middle class from threatening the “the larger society much as the desperate bank robber threatens to drop the vial of nitroglycerin.” Moynihan used the rhetoric of black criminalization, even in arguing for government aid. It takes a peculiar blindness to wonder why we built prisons instead.

The point is not that Moynihan wanted prisons.  I am certain the growth in incarceration truly horrified Moynihan. And I don’t doubt for a minute the sincerity in the words that Weiner quotes in Moynihan’s defense. But the possession of good intentions, and deep sympathies, does not absolve men with power of their responsibility, nor of their imprudence. Whatever his ultimate goals, Moynihan buttressed, and employed, the logic of black criminality and white victimhood. Are we to simply ignore this because we approve of Moynihan’s sympathies?

The white working men whom Moynihan lauded had long been about the business of keeping black men out of the building trades. Moynihan knew this. But when it came time to pay the debt, Moynihan put it elsewhere. “We must not rest until every able-bodied Negro male is working,” he wrote. “Even if we have to displace some females.”

Commenting on the plight of unemployment of black men in the 1960s to Time, Moynihan is not so much concerned with racism as he is with black women playing their proper position:

When these Negro G.I.s come back from Viet Nam, I would meet them with a real estate agent, a girl who looks like Diahann Carroll, and a list of jobs. I’d try to get half of them into the grade schools, teaching kids who’ve never had anyone but women telling them what to do.

Perhaps this is all too abstract for Weiner. Perhaps he is not convinced that merely encouraging a belief in black criminality at the highest levels of government is sufficient. Perhaps one believes mass incarceration not to be a matter of where policy comes from, but of who ultimately supported and enacted the policy. From this perspective, for Moynihan to be “partly responsible” for mass incarceration he would need to have supported policy that directly encouraged it. I don’t agree with this standard. But even if I did, it would offer no defense.

In 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act, the largest crime bill passed in American history. The 1994 Crime Bill, as it has come to be known, is also arguably the federal government’s greatest contribution to the moral catastrophe of mass incarceration. It literally funded it. The law funneled money into states that built more prisons and took up “truth in sentencing” laws that lengthened time served. It had the perverse effect of encouraging the growth of prisons, even as crime fell. Daniel Patrick Moynihan voted for that bill.

I spent the past year poring over books on and by Moynihan and examining as many memos written by him and articles on him as I could get my hands on. I came away with tremendous respect for his intelligence, his foresight and his broad, ranging curiosity. I did not come away from the research thinking him a racist. I did not come away thinking he was a conservative. But this is precisely the point. The story of mass incarceration, of American racism, is not simply a story of evil racists. It is also the story of people trying to help. And it is also the story of these same people not fully understanding the ugly traditions alive in their own country. Black criminalization is such a tradition and when Moynihan employed it he was playing with fire. Others got burned.