The Moynihan Report at Fifty
The Long Reach of Intellectual Racism
June 24, 2015
Jun 24, 2015
24 Min read time
The long reach of intellectual racism.
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1977. Photo: Thomas J. O'Halloran, Library of Congress.
Fifty years ago, in July 1965, a social science study with a prosaic title—“The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”—was leaked to the press. Its author was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a young and obscure assistant secretary in the Department of Labor.
The timing of the Moynihan report, as it came to be called, was significant. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Civil Rights Movement had achieved its legislative objectives, and its future was in abeyance. Movement leaders were planning a second phase, one that would mark a decisive shift from the pursuit of liberty to that of equality. This meant addressing the deep inequalities that were not only the legacy of past racism, but also entrenched in all of the major institutions of American society. The report had been completed in March, and on June 5 President Lyndon Johnson would deliver a historic commencement address at Howard University in which he would endorse this “next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights.”
A few weeks after Moynihan’s report was leaked to the press, the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles exploded in violence, triggered by an incident with police that rapidly escalated into five days of disorder and left thirty-four people dead. Pundits and politicians seized upon the report to cast blame for the “riot” on the deterioration of “the Negro family.” The report warned, “The family structure of lower class Negroes is highly unstable, and in many urban centers is approaching complete breakdown.”
Critics condemned the report for pathologizing female-headed households and black families in particular. The most trenchant criticism, however, was that the preoccupation with black families shifted blame away from institutionalized inequalities and heaped it on the very groups that were victims of those inequalities. As James Farmer, cofounder and national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, wrote with blunt eloquence, “We are sick unto death of being analyzed, mesmerized, bought, sold, and slobbered over while the same evils that are the ingredients of our oppression go unattended.”
After Watts, pundits seized on the report to blame black poverty on black families.
Today, in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore, family dysfunction is again cited by politicians, pundits, and scholars as the root of the problem. Rand Paul publicly twaddles about “the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society.” David Brooks opines in the New York Times, “The real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.” And sociologist Orlando Patterson asserts that “fundamental change” can come only from “within the black community: a reduction in the number of kids born to single, usually poor, women.”
Now Moynihan is celebrated for his prescience. As the report’s cheerleaders would have it, its author was pummeled for speaking the unvarnished truth but has been vindicated by history. After all, at the time he wrote, 45 percent of nonwhite children lived in “broken homes,” and more than half of nonwhite children were on Aid for Dependent Children (AFDC). Today 72 percent of African American children live in “single-parent households,” and AFDC has been abolished. The terminology has been sanitized, but the prevalence of single-parent households among African Americans dwarfs even Moynihan’s expectations. (Among whites it has increased from 3 percent in 1963 to about 30 percent today.)
There was nothing groundbreaking in the Moynihan report, as commentators pointed out when it was published. He had only collated easily available statistics. However, he went far beyond observing that black families were unstable. “At the center of the tangle of the pathology is the weakness of the Negro family,” he wrote. “Once or twice removed, it will be found to be the principal source of most of the aberrant, inadequate, or anti-social behavior that did not establish, but now serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and deprivation.”
Moynihan was obsessed with a single figure, a correlation between decreased unemployment and rising numbers of blacks on AFDC. With some coaching from the sociologist James Q. Wilson—famous for developing the “broken windows” theory of policing—Moynihan called this the “scissors effect” and argued that welfare dependency was self-perpetuating since it increased even when the unemployment rate decreased. In Poverty Knowledge (2001), Alice O’Connor thoroughly debunks the scissors effect by showing that the increase in blacks on AFDC merely reflected the easing of eligibility rules and the migration of blacks to northern cities.
This analytical error signaled an ideological one. We might wonder why Moynihan, a political scientist working in the Labor Department, was inclined to undertake a study of black families at the very moment when the Civil Rights Movement had triumphed in Congress and was preparing for what Johnson would call “the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights.” A careful examination of the source material that Moynihan drew from makes clear that he and a close circle of scholars were alarmed by the new direction of the Civil Rights Movement as it shifted from issues of liberty to issues of equality. In principle, these critics were for equality of opportunity but adamantly opposed any suggestion of equality of outcomes that might entail preferential treatment. Moynihan and his defenders were not wrong in regarding “compensatory treatment” as an embryonic form of what a decade later came to be called affirmative action. In retrospect, the conflict between civil rights leaders and liberals over the Moynihan report was a dress rehearsal for the bitter and protracted affirmative action battle.
From Liberty to Equality
Three months before the Howard commencement speech, President Johnson addressed a special session of Congress to mark the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The historic speech culminated with the president proclaiming, in his Southern drawl, “And we shall overcome.” The speechwriter was Richard Goodwin, who had given the Great Society its name. In his autobiography, Goodwin recounts Johnson congratulating him on the voting rights speech but eager to go further. “Now, voting rights are important, but it’s only the tail on the pig, when we ought to be going for the whole hog,” Johnson said. “We’ve got the biggest pulpit in the world up here, and we ought to use it to do a little preaching.” The sermon would be delivered at Howard.
Goodwin was initially tasked with writing the June 5 commencement address, a job he would eventually share with Moynihan. The details of how Goodwin, an arch liberal, came to collaborate with Moynihan, a nascent neoconservative, on the Howard address are a matter of some speculation. According to historian James T. Patterson, in May Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz sent a summary of the report to the White House, along with a memo describing it as “nine pages of dynamite about the Negro situation.” According to Moynihan’s own account, Bill Moyers, then Johnson’s press secretary, prevailed on the president to ask for Moynihan’s help drafting the speech. According to Godfrey Hodgson, Moynihan’s biographer, “There is some dispute about Moynihan’s precise part in the drafting of the Howard speech.”  However, certain passages are vintage Goodwin, while others could only have been written by Moynihan.
Appropriately called “To Fulfill These Rights,” the speech was conceived as a prelude to a conference of movement leaders, scholars, and government officials in order to develop a blueprint for the next phase of the civil rights revolution. In the speech Johnson famously intoned, “Freedom is not enough.” He continued:
You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.
Johnson’s oratory then went a critical step further:
This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.
These last words could only have been written by Goodwin, since they invoke the logic and language of reparations to address past wrongs. With the pronouncement that “equality” would be the hallmark of “the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights,” Goodwin was giving Johnson what he asked for: the whole hog.
Alas, at this exact juncture, the speech took an abrupt turn:
Equal opportunity is essential, but not enough . . . . Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhoods you live in, by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man.
With this sleight of hand, the focus shifts from the powerful societal institutions that produce and reproduce racial inequality to “the family you live with.”
The two positions encapsulated in the Howard address represented two sides of a crucial public policy debate. Even before the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, movement leaders were anticipating a second phase of the struggle, the shift from liberty to equality. As Martin Luther King put it, “What good is it to be allowed to eat in a restaurant if you can’t afford a hamburger?”—a refrain that was repeated, with minor variations, by other leaders. Paying for the proverbial hamburger implied a profound policy change. It meant driving a wedge into the wall of occupational apartheid that began with slavery and, in the North as well as the South, relegated blacks to the periphery of the job market—to laborious, low-wage, servile, dead-end jobs, or to no jobs at all.
Civil rights leaders were anticipating a second phase of struggle—from liberty to equality.
By 1965 movement leaders were evolving a discourse and a corresponding plan of action around the idea of “compensatory treatment” with respect to jobs and education. As early as October 1963, the issue of compensation had been debated in no less a public forum than the New York Times Magazine. Arguing for compensation was Whitney Young, executive director of the National Urban League. Already on the defensive, Young wrote:
The Urban League is asking for a special effort, not for special privileges. This effort has been described as ‘preferential treatment,’ ‘indemnification,’ ‘special consideration,’ ‘compensatory activity.’ These are ‘scare’ phrases that obscure the meaning of the proposal and go against the grain of our native sense of fair play. . . . What we ask now is for a brief period there be a deliberate and massive effort to include the Negro citizen in the mainstream of American life.
Arguing against compensation was Kyle Haselden, an editor of The Christian Century and author of The Racial Problem in Christian Perspective (1959). Haselden contended that “our goal should be parity, not preferment.” And he struck the chord that would pervade anti-affirmative discourse down to the present: “Compensation for Negroes is a subtle but pernicious form of racism.”
One of the strongest sources of opposition to compensation came from an unexpected venue: Commentary, renowned in the 1960s as a preeminent journal of liberal thought and a haven for New York intellectuals.
To Commentary’s editors and writers (dubbed “the family”), the mere mention of compensation aroused the specter of quotas, a rude reminder of laws in Russia that restricted Jewish access to colleges and the professions. Jewish leaders also remembered the limits on Jewish enrollment during the 1920s in elite American colleges, including Harvard and Columbia. Finally, there was memory of the national origins quotas enacted in 1924, which restricted immigration by Eastern European Jews and which Jewish leaders sought for decades to reform.
In short, quotas in any shape or form were anathema to Jewish leaders. Nathan Glazer, a sociologist and frequent contributor to Commentary, would later write that affirmative action was reminiscent of the Nuremburg Laws.
Glazer was among the luminaries at a roundtable on “liberalism and the Negro,” organized by Commentary at New York’s Town Hall in March 1964. Joining him were Sidney Hook, Gunnar Myrdal, and James Baldwin, whose early essays had been published in Commentary. Glazer, Hook, and Myrdal declared their blanket opposition to any system of racial preference. Glazer touted the success of New York’s Fair Employment Practices Law, implying that racial justice could be achieved within the same liberal framework that worked for other groups. Hook argued that, by lowering the standards for African Americans, preference was patronizing and, in effect, treated blacks as second-class citizens. Myrdal cautioned that preference amounted to tokenism and that what was needed was a program to lift all poor people out of poverty.
Baldwin stood alone. When Hook gloated over the expansion of ethical principles in American society, Baldwin responded:
What strikes me here is that you are an American talking about American society and I am an American talking about American society—both of us very concerned with it—and yet your version of American society is really very difficult for me to recognize. My experience in it has simply not been yours.
The day’s proceedings only corroborated the observation with which Commentary Editor-in-Chief Norman Podhoretz opened the discussion: there was “a widening split between the Negro movement and the white liberal community.”
The Invisible Hand
Let us return to the question of what possessed Moynihan, whose doctorate was in international relations, to conduct a study of black families from his remote perch in the Department of Labor. Where did he turn up the intellectual fodder for such a study? The answer is in plain sight if we track the endnotes in the report. They reveal not only his ideological proclivities but also his heavy reliance on one scholar in particular—Glazer, with whom he coauthored Beyond the Melting Pot (1963).
In the third endnote, Moynihan writes, “For a view that present Negro demands go beyond this traditional [liberal] position see Nathan Glazer, ‘Negroes and Jews: The New Challenge to Pluralism,’ Commentary, December 1964.” In this article, Glazer states that black demands for preferential hiring and the rhetoric of equal results constitute a threat “to the kind of society in which Jews succeeded and which Jewish liberalism considers desirable.”
Endnotes seven and sixty refer to Beyond the Melting Pot. Although Moynihan and Glazer are listed as coauthors, the introduction states that Glazer wrote the chapters on “The Negroes,” “The Puerto Ricans,” “The Jews,” and “The Italians,” and Moynihan wrote the chapter on “The Irish.” “The Negroes” warrants close scrutiny. Glazer asks why schools that were “adequate enough” for children of other groups in the past “seem nevertheless inadequate for the present wave of children.” His answer:
There is little question where the major part of the answer must be found: in the home and family and community . . . . It is there that the heritage of two hundred years of slavery and a hundred years of discrimination is concentrated; and it is there that we find the serious obstacles to the ability to make use of a free educational system to advance into higher occupations and to eliminate the massive problems that afflict colored Americans and the city.
In other words, the ravages of past racism and slavery so damaged black Americans that their children were unable to take advantage of schools that had provided ladders of opportunity for Jews and other immigrants. Thus Glazer evades the issue at hand: the extent to which racism was still embedded in major institutions in the North and South, most deleteriously in the realm of jobs and education.
Other endnotes suggest that Glazer’s pet theory about the dysfunctional black family was the basis for the Moynihan report. Endnotes twelve through fourteen refer to Glazer’s introduction to the 1963 edition of Stanley Elkins’s controversial book Slavery, which compares black slavery to the concentration camps in terms of the psychic damage inflicted upon its victims. Endnotes eighteen through twenty cite E. Franklin Frazier’s 1939 study The Negro Family in the United States, which, in 1966, Glazer published in “a revised and abridged” edition. In his foreword he asserts that Frazier’s book had “lost nothing in immediacy and relevance.” However, Glazer totally misrepresents Frazier’s study and selects passages that serve his argument concerning the dysfunctional black family. According to Frazier’s biographer, Anthony Platt, Frazier sought to correct the bias of existing studies that, in Frazier’s words, “have most often dealt with the pathological side of family life and have become the basis of unwarranted generalization, concerning the character of the whole group.” Platt takes direct aim at Moynihan:
Although [Frazier] regarded instabilities in family life as a tremendous impediment to social and racial equality, he found it almost impossible to separate the family from other institutions, and certainly he did not subscribe to the view that disorganized family life was the chief handicap of the black community, no matter how much . . . Moynihan and others attributed this view to him.
To his credit, Moynihan was scrupulous in citing his sources, but in doing so, he reveals the extent to which he depended on Glazer and those who had nourished his ideas. Thus we can say with only slight exaggeration that Glazer was the invisible hand behind the Moynihan report. Indeed, Glazer says as much in a recent interview for a special issue of Education Next, published by the Hoover Institution, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the report:
Moynihan collaborated with me on the book Beyond the Melting Pot in the early 1960s, an experience that may have done a good deal to orient him to family problems and family structure, which I emphasized to him in explaining the idea of the book. I was at that time strongly influenced by the culture-personality school of anthropology, which placed great weight on early family influences.
But how does a theory of culture and personality square with Moynihan’s call for “national action” to repair the black family? Perhaps this is why Moynihan offered only vague policy recommendations, as sociologist Herbert Gans pointed out in Commonweal in 1965. Worse than that, Gans cautioned, “The vacuum that is created when no recommendations are attached to a policy proposal can easily be filled by undesirable solutions and the report’s conclusions can be conveniently misrepresented.” Other critics warned, “Moynihan’s Report would stir up trouble by defining insoluble problems.”
Glazer suggested that two daily mail deliveries would create good jobs for black men.
Indeed, Glazer is on record saying that the problems of the Negro family were not amenable to governmental interventions. As he wrote in his foreword to the 1966 edition of Frazier’s book, “Do we know enough about family life and the significance of any kind of intervention within it to sanction a large effort to restructure or reform the lower class of Negro family? I doubt it.”
Glazer did suggest one policy option, which he attributed to Moynihan: “restoring two mail deliveries a day—in effect creating fifty thousand new jobs in the postal service and perhaps fifty thousand new fathers of families for a community where they are too few.” Here we see where Glazer and Moynihan’s conception of black poverty as self-perpetuating leads: a cul-de-sac where American society bears no political or moral responsibility for remedying racial inequalities. Their best response to occupational caste is to spawn yet another occupational caste, an army of black men delivering mail twice a day.
Otherwise, Moynihan and Glazer were out of ideas. Moynihan’s whole argument was that poverty had become self-perpetuating and that “measures that have worked in the past will not work here.” He offered only a vacuous call for “a national effort . . . directed to a new kind of national goal: the establishment of a stable Negro family structure.”
It was widely rumored that Moynihan leaked the report to the press. One way or the other, the report unleashed a storm of controversy. The “To Fulfill These Rights” conference was postponed; when it finally happened, Goodwin called it “a total and irretrievable failure.” Soon after the leak, the August 1965 Watts “riot” in Los Angeles, precipitated by an act of police brutality, brought the seething resentments of the black community to the surface in a spasm of violence.
According to Robert Dallek, Johnson’s biographer, in the aftermath of the report Johnson “approached the issue of black rights with greater caution than had been the case in the first two years of his term. He wanted the discussion of black rights, and particularly of affirmative action to advance black opportunity, temporarily put aside.”
Thus the fall of 1965 signaled the death knell of “the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights.” Moynihan had done his part to derail the movement. Even as he was pilloried by a legion of critics—scholars, civil rights leaders, and black and liberal commentators—the idea of compensatory programs in hiring and education became a political taboo even on the left. Moynihan suffered no lasting damage: he was catapulted from obscurity to national prominence, eventually serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and India and then as a U.S. senator for New York for four terms.
Yet, in the larger scheme of things, it cannot be said that Moynihan altered the course of history, in spite of the damage he did to the struggle for racial justice. The controversy stoked by his report forewarned of trouble to come. The next blow came with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, based in large part on a Southern strategy that appealed to a mounting white backlash. Had Moynihan never drafted his report on “The Negro Family,” had Goodwin’s conference taken place as originally planned, the seeds for counterrevolution had nonetheless been sown. Over the next half century this counterrevolution would stunt and roll back many of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement.
The Taboo of Preferential Treatment
A hidden and momentous agenda lurked behind the Moynihan report. Like Glazer, Moynihan was a steadfast critic of what came to be known as affirmative action. Again, we can rely on his own words. In a long August 1968 Atlantic Monthly article, “The New Racialism,” Moynihan berates liberals for abandoning their traditional opposition to decentralized government and then focuses on Ocean Hill-Brownsville in New York City, where school decentralization had degenerated into virulent conflict between blacks and Jews. “Let me be blunt,” he writes:
If ethnic quotas are to be imposed on American universities and similarly quasipublic institutions, it is Jews who will be almost driven out. . . . If ethnic quotas should come to Harvard (surely they won’t!), something like seven out of eight Jewish undergraduates would have to leave, and I would imagine it to be a higher proportion in the graduate schools.
But nobody, not even the strongest proponents of affirmative action, contemplated a system of proportional representation that would place a ceiling of three percent on Jews, commensurate with their presence in the population at large. The goal of affirmative action was not exclusion but inclusion. It was not aimed at overrepresented groups, least of all Jews, but meant to provide opportunity for groups that, throughout American history, had been excluded from whole industries and job sectors as well as institutions of higher learning. Yet Moynihan unabashedly whipped up Jewish resentment, and his fear mongering gave warrant to the organized campaign to nip affirmative action in the bud.
Moynihan was colorblind long before that idea became a mantra on the right.
Moynihan was ardently colorblind long before that idea had become a mantra on the Supreme Court and the right. In 1965, when the eminent sociologist Everett Hughes asked him whether more might be accomplished by addressing the issue of poverty than by targeting programs for blacks, Moynihan responded, “In order to do anything about Negro Americans on the scale that our data would indicate, we have to declare that we are doing it for everybody.”
Whether to advocate universal or race-specific policy is a legitimate issue for debate. The problem is that Moynihan pretended that movement leaders had no program for the “next and more profound stage,” even though it was precisely the call for compensatory treatment in hiring and education that spawned the report. Moynihan was not alone in his belief that compensation was not politically viable. But instead of openly engaging this issue, he used the red herring of the Negro family to shift the focus of analysis away from the principle enunciated in Johnson’s Howard address: “We seek not just freedom but opportunity—not just legal equity but human ability—not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and a result.” In doing so Moynihan unleashed a furious debate that killed all discussion of compensatory programs. And in a February 1967 Commentary essay, “The President & the Negro: The Moment Lost,” he would blame his critics for the imbroglio he had caused.
Through the Rearview Mirror of History
We can make better sense of “the moment lost” by examining the destinies of the cast of characters in this societal drama.
Soon after Nixon’s election in 1968, Moynihan was appointed the president’s counselor for urban affairs. No longer was the next stage in the battle for civil rights on his policy agenda. On the contrary, in his famous 1969 memo to Nixon, Moynihan declared:
The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect.’ The subject has been too much talked about. The forum has been too much taken over to hysterics, paranoids, and boodlers on all sides. We need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades.
In 1972, after edging out Bella Abzug in the New York Democratic primary, Moynihan was elected to office, where he came to be known as the “philosopher-king” of the Senate. Goodwin resigned as Johnson’s speechwriter in 1965, resisting the president’s arm-twisting to remain on the job. In 1968 he was drawn back into politics to write speeches for Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. Devastated by the assassination of Robert Kennedy and disillusioned by Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War, Goodwin retreated to a small house in Maine, where he wrote books, articles, and a play. In his 1988 book Remembering America, Goodwin laments the nation’s retreat from the noble idealism of the ’60s, “preferring instead to fortify the barriers—of race, of class, of income—against which the fair expectations and ‘inalienable rights’ of millions are dashed.” With those quotation marks bracketing “inalienable rights,” Goodwin signified his resignation to the very cynicism he had so long combated with rhetorical elegance.
Glazer continued to wage battle against the apparition of quotas. In a 1982 cover story for The Nation, Earl Shorris, author of Jews Without Mercy: A Lament (1982), identified Glazer as “the chief neoconservative theoretician in the fight against affirmative action programs,” who argued that “what is good for the blacks is no longer good for the Jews.” Then, in 1997, to the consternation of his allies at Commentary, Glazer announced that he had changed his mind. And in 2003 he signed an amicus brief defending the University of Michigan’s affirmative action admissions policies. By then affirmative action had been essentially gutted in a long series of Supreme Court rulings, thanks in part to a discourse Glazer had propagated.
The loss of affirmative action has dealt a severe blow to the struggle for racial justice. Already we see steep declines in the numbers of African Americans admitted to elite colleges and represented in labor markets—not only in the professions and corporate management, but also in blue-collar occupations and the public sector, which has long been a mainstay of black employment.
The most grievous loss, however, comes at the expense of our nation’s democratic covenant. The triumphant anti-affirmative action crusaders who sanctimoniously waged battle against an abstraction bear moral responsibility for the real-life consequences. The United States is not the more democratic nation they imagine, but a nation ever more riven by racial inequalities that are the festering legacy of two centuries of slavery and a century of Jim Crow.
1. Godfrey Hodgson, The Gentleman from New York. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000: p. 96.
2. Mai M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004: Chapter 7.
3. Anthony M. Platt, E. Franklin Frazier Reconsidered. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1991: pp. 137, 141.
4. Earl Shorris, “The Jews of the New Right,” The Nation (May 8, 1982): p. 557.
Help fund the next generation of Black journalists, editors, and publishers.
Boston Review’s Black Voices in the Public Sphere Fellowship is designed to address the profound lack of diversity in the media by providing aspiring Black media professionals with training, mentorship, networking opportunities, and career development workshops. The program is being funded with the generous support of Derek Schrier, chair of Boston Review’s board of advisors, the Ford Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, but we still have $50,000 left to raise to fully fund the fellowship for the next two years. To help reach that goal, if you make a tax-deductible donation to our fellowship fund through August 31 it will be matched 1:1, up to $25,000—so please act now to double your impact. To learn more about the program and our 2021-2022 fellows, click here.
June 24, 2015
24 Min read time