Letter to the Editor: The Moynihan Report at Fifty
Jun 30, 2015
2 Min read time
In his recent essay on the Moynihan report, Stephen Steinberg sees out of only one eye. He perceptively notes how conservatives have used the report—then and now—to redirect attention from racial injustice toward alleged family dysfunction. He correctly observes the crucial and overlooked influence of Nathan Glazer and Beyond the Melting Pot on Moynihan. And he rightly pinpoints those elements of the report—such as the “Moynihan’s scissors” graph—that undercut any case for “national action.”
Moynihan’s commitment to racial equality was more than “vacuous.”
But the liberal aspects of the report are occluded from Steinberg’s vision. Moynihan’s commitment to racial equality was more than “vacuous.” Were it not, it would be impossible to understand why the report was positively received by civil rights leaders Whitney Young and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as socialist Michael Harrington. Steinberg incorrectly writes that Moynihan “adamantly opposed any suggestion of equality of outcomes that might entail preferential treatment.” In truth, the first chapter of the Moynihan report explicitly accepts the Civil Rights Movement’s demand for “equality” as well as “liberty.” The passage of Johnson’s 1965 Howard speech that Steinberg says Moynihan could not have written—the one endorsing “equality as a fact and a result”—actually parallels the report’s rhetoric of moving beyond “equality of opportunity” toward “equality of results.” Moynihan’s advocacy of rough economic parity among ethno-racial groups undergirds the logic of affirmative action. In fact, in a 1963 memo to the Secretary of Labor, Moynihan argued, “I believe in quotas and a lot of other un-American devices. We have four centuries of exploitation to overcome and we will not do so by giving Negroes an equal opportunity with whites who are by now miles ahead.”
Steinberg is also mistaken in suggesting that the Moynihan report undermined the Johnson administration’s commitment to ensuring full racial equality. One reason the report lacked policy suggestions was that Moynihan knew that Johnson opposed his preferred measure: direct jobs creation targeted at African American men so they could stabilize their families by serving as breadwinners. Johnson’s Howard address, despite its soaring declaration that “freedom is not enough,” was just as empty of policy proposals as Moynihan’s report. As Moynihan himself acknowledged, “the fact that two Kennedy intellectuals [Moynihan and Goodwin] could slip a big speech past Lyndon Johnson hardly constituted a major national commitment.” Moreover, Moynihan’s ideas about “damaged” African American families were not some “pet theory” that he took from Glazer, but a dominant view among liberals at the time. The central tension Steinberg identifies between commitment to equality and notions of black family dysfunction existed not between Moynihan and other liberals but within the report itself. The report reflected the contradictions of 1960s liberalism that emerged in response to the Civil Rights Movement’s demand for full equality.
Though I criticize Steinberg for failing to see the report’s liberal elements, I am just as skeptical of myopic liberals who praise the report as representing a “lost opportunity” to achieve racial equality. And, like Steinberg, I am especially wary of conservatives who shamelessly apply Moynihan’s analysis to rationalize racial inequality. While I agree with Steinberg that Moynihan undermined his case for “national action” by positing a nearly self-perpetuating “tangle of pathology,” our critiques of the report need to be bifocal. We should criticize the report not because it undermined liberal racial policy but because it embodied liberalism’s flaws as well as its ambitions.
—Daniel Geary, author of Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy
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June 30, 2015
2 Min read time