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A Family Affair

James T. Patterson
Freedom is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life, from LBJ to Obama
Harvard University Press, 2010

In American politics, you either blame the victim or defend him. The dichotomy is as facile as it is obtuse. Daniel Patrick Moynihan came face to face with that intransigence in August 1965, when a report he wrote for internal consumption at the Labor Department, entitled “The Negro Family: A Plan for Action,” was leaked to the press in the wake of the worst urban violence in U.S. history—the riot in the predominantly black Watts area of Los Angeles. Dubbed the “Moynihan Report,” it described staggering rates of out-of-wedlock births and broken homes in black urban centers as pathologies that were feeding on themselves and threatened a “complete breakdown” of poor black families. The furor was unsparing: Moynihan was blaming the victim.

In Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life, from LBJ to Obama, Brown University historian James T. Patterson argues the heightened racial polarization of the time distorted a report whose insights have proved painfully prescient. As Moynihan himself put it two years later, the five days of looting and police clashes in Watts that played out on TV transformed inner-city blacks from “victims” into “aggressors” in the eyes of once-sympathetic whites and “threw the civil rights movement entirely off balance.” The report, though in the works for months, was viewed as a kind of post-mortem on the riots. The alarming deterioration of poor black families in America’s cities, evidenced by soaring rates of illegitimate births and welfare dependency, spawned Watts. The timing of the report made that unintended link irresistible to a public grasping for answers.

The notion that their sexual mores and family structure were the underlying roots of the riots, and, more broadly, their economic plight—not the racial discrimination and the decades of economic frustration that was at the time in full display in the Jim Crow South—sparked outrage among blacks and many white liberals. Ironically, Moynihan, a white New Yorker who would go on to become a U.S. Senator, was in agreement with these critics.

“His central message blamed white racism and structural forces, especially high rates of poverty and unemployment among young black men and the isolation of ever larger distressed people in highly crowded and segregated inner cities,” Patterson writes.

It didn’t matter. The report couldn’t overcome what Patterson describes as its “large liabilities”: it dealt mainly with sex and family life, its messenger was white, and its timing was atrocious. Patterson, whose account is often muddled by an unwieldy stream of statistics, also blames the report’s poor reception on the in-artful and hyperbolic language Moynihan used. In an attempt to capture the urgency of the problems he saw, he wound up hurting his own cause. 

One of the most devastating critiques of the report came from white Boston psychologist and civil rights activist William Ryan in an article which appeared in the Nation and the NAACP journal Crisis, and which would later be expanded into a book entitled Blaming the Victim. As Patterson recounts, Ryan charged Moynihan’s report “encourages a new form of subtle racism” and “seduces the reader into believing it is not racism and discrimination but the weakness and defects of the Negro himself that account for inequality.” The report, in short, was “irresponsible nonsense.”

Moynihan had his defenders, too. Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, apologized to him in a letter, saying of Ryan’s broadside that it was a “silly and sinister distortion to classify as racist this inevitable discussion of a recognized phase of our own so-called race problem.”

The damage, however, was already done. The consequences were more far-reaching than just the fate of the report, too. While the public debate deteriorated further into talk of welfare queens and victimization, government action to help poor black families—Moynihan’s aim—was by and large muted in the years following the report, according to Patterson.

In a speech at Howard University in June 1965, almost a year after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson said that “freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: now you are free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.” Moynihan, who died in 2003, co-drafted that speech.

The problems Moynihan was trying to draw urgent attention to have in many cases worsened and been exacerbated by a surge in incarceration and drug addiction in the years since the report. It’s the kind of vindication one suspects Moynihan would find hollow.


Lester Pimentel


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2010

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