During my doctoral training, Moynihan was offered as a cautionary tale to young academics. Moynihan, they said, dared to tell the truth about the culture of poverty in black communities. As a result, the liberal elite and angry black-activist oligarchy ran him out of society’s good graces, if not exactly out of town. We were warned against dabbling in social prescriptions: “Look what they did to Moynihan!”
We should all be so lucky as to be punished the way Moynihan was punished. Moynihan was a sociologist and a junior government official when he wrote his now-infamous treatise on the moral and economic decay of the black family. By the time he died in 2003, Moynihan was more than just a sociologist. He entered the rarified world of power. He worked with presidents. He commanded audiences within the cognitive elite. He had, I was once told by someone at a conference who’d had a bit too much to drink, a fantastic office at Harvard. Moynihan made it.
That he made it despite being “made into a racist,” as he put it, refutes the idea that being labeled a racist is some scarlet letter. It also raises questions about the renewed interest in revitalizing Moynihan’s reputation. Orlando Patterson and Ethan Fosse wrote in a new book that “history has been kind to Moynihan.” I agree. History has been kind to Moynihan. But it is not that empirical evidence of a deep culture of poverty among blacks has proven Moynihan’s case. Instead, the rapid acceleration and ruthless efficiencies of incarceration have made Moynihan’s theses seem prescient by intensifying every structural condition of race, poverty, and criminality in the United States. Moynihan is prescient only if one ignores that Moynihan went on to participate in the kind of policies and ideology that perpetuated the conditions he was originally critiquing. That kind of prescience is called winning by owning the rules of the game.
As voters prepare to turn the board over to a new gamemaster, Coates argues that the rules are still the same. Bill Clinton signed a crime bill in 1994 that effectively paid states to build prisons and reduce parole so that those prisons might stay full. In 2015, activists are circulating clips of Hillary Clinton online. In one, she can be heard calling kids “super predators” as an argument in support of her husband’s crime policies. Hillary likely borrowed the “super predators” language from a 1996 book that predicted a new crime wave unless these hyped up, extra-terrestrial, mostly poor, and almost always dark young people were locked away.
As fortune (or power) would have it, the narrative of a crime wave is reemerging. In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests all across the country, standing against police brutality and extra-judicial murders, mass media, and the pundit class are coalescing around a narrative of growing violence in the streets. A Wall Street Journal reporter puts a fine point on the connection: “The most plausible explanation of the current surge in lawlessness is the intense agitation against American police departments over the past nine months.” Waves in the bathtub aren’t even that simple to explain, much less crime waves. No one with any serious training in data, statistics, and crime attributes isolated crimes to a national trend armed with only nine months of data.