Was the Moynihan Report racist?

By Alan Bean

A recent post touched on Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”  (You can read Moynihan’s report here.)  A New York Times article celebrating the political incorrectness of Jonathan Haidt suggested that many prominent sociologists now agreed with Moynihan’s controversial ideas.  Below I have pasted two examples of this phenomenon, one by Harvard’s William Julius Wilson, the other by James T. Patterson, a Brown University history professor.

First, let me share a few of my own thoughts.  We must distinguish between Moynihan’s actual report and the version of that report reflected in contemporary media accounts.  Moynihan, a trained sociologist, touched on a wide variety of issues, but the media chose to focus on his “tangle of pathology” in the black family.  In Moynihan’s defense, he didn’t actually say that all black families were disintegrating.  Middle class blacks were doing just fine, he acknowledged; it was the folks in the urban slums he worried about.  

Feminists criticized Moynihan for concentrating on black males while decrying the matriarchal nature of the black family.  The patrician Moynihan was actually arguing the importance of strong mothers and fathers, but he was concerned about the absence of fathers in many poor black families. 

Moynihan’s tone is part of the problem.  He regarded the typical white middle class family of the 1950s as the ideal to which all families should aspire.  The report is written from the ivory tower from one used to roaming the corridors of Washington power and his report reflects an attitude of paternalistic condescension.  There isn’t much sense criticizing Moynihan for his style, however.  He was a creature of his time.  There can be little doubt that he was trying to be sensitive but simply didn’t know how to go about it.

There is much to admire in Moynihan’s report on the black family.  His historical survey lays responsibility for black poverty squarely at the feet of white America.  A great admirer of the civil rights movement, Moynihan lamented that “the racist virus in the American blood stream still afflicts us.”

Note, however, that when he speaks of the “American blood stream” he is thinking of white people.  Moynihan is writing as a white man for the edification and education of other white men and  women and people of color were naturally put off.

Moynihan argues persuasively that the black family in America bears the scars of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.  He was particularly concerned about the high rates of unemployment in poor urban neighborhoods and declared the policy of restricting welfare to single-parent families to be an unmitigated disaster.

Moynihan wrote in 1965, a year after the Voting Rights Act was passed and riots erupted in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.  Although he likely didn’t realize it at the time, Lyndon Johnson was pouring too much money into the Vietnam war to maintain his early enthusiasm for the Great Society.  Johnson took the problems in Watts, and the continued critique of black leaders like Martin Luther King, as a personal affront.  Even in 1965, backlash against the civil rights movement was gaining momentum.  All of this may account for Moynihan’s focus on the “tangle of pathology” and his failure to propose concrete remedies for the social anguish he catalogued.

Moynihan saw unemployment as the big problem, but you’d never know it by perusing his conclusions.  He hints repeatedly that the black family would not join the American mainstream until black fathers had access to solid work and decent salaries.  But he rarely makes this point explicitly, and this goes to the heart of the problem.  By failing to advocate for jobs and economic opportunity, Moynihan squandered his big chance to push public policy in a progressive direction.  Instead, he concluded his study with a single recommendation:

The policy of the United States is to bring the Negro American to full and equal sharing in the responsibilities and rewards of citizenship. To this end, the programs of the Federal government bearing on this objective shall be designed to have the effect, directly or indirectly, of enhancing the stability and resources of the Negro American family. 

The goal was fixing the black family, not job creation.  Hardly anyone read the Moynihan report, they read the headlines it generated.  And those headlines focused on the “tangle of pathology” in the black family.  Small government conservatives naturally concluded that since poverty was a product of a pathological culture, the onus was on black people to get their domestic act together.  They used Moynihan’s report to argue that welfare leads to dependency and dependency creates poverty, a view still shared by a solid majority of white voters.  Moynihan didn’t say any of this, but his lame, unfocused recommendations allowed his report to be distorted beyond recognition.

Similarly, the report links crime and unemployment, but the lack of a clear policy recommendation reinforced the idea that black people are naturally violent.  Instead of responding to the report by making productive work a human right, America, after fifteen years of dithering indecision, started building prisons.  Our primary response to urban poverty has been mass incarceration and we show little inclination to change course.

That’s my take.  Please read the discussions below and share your thoughts.

William Julius Wilson on Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “Agenda-Setting” Contributions to Social Science

It amuses me every time I read that some of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s critics dismiss the importance of his scholarly work—arguing that he rarely published in peer-review journals, that his writings on poverty and welfare were shoddy, and that, as one critic put it, ‘he had not made a positive contribution to public understanding of these topics.'”

I categorically reject such views.  Indeed, Moynihan made major contributions to social science in three areas: (1) race and ethnic relations; (2) poverty and family structure; and (3) social science and public policy. His book, Beyond the Melting Pot, co-authored with Nathan Glazer, is one of the most widely cited books on race and ethnic relations.  This book effectively challenged the view that immigrants would eventually lose their ethnic identities by showing that ethnicity is an enduring social form, persisting through successive generations.

Moynihan’s study of the relationship between poverty and family structure, famously known as the Moynihan Report, is, as I noted in a recent article in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, an important and prophetic document.  It is important because it continues to be a reference for studies on the black family and the plight of low-skilled black males.  It was prophetic because Moynihan’s predictions about the fragmentation of the African American Family and its connection to inner-city poverty were largely borne out, and since 1990, social scientists and civil rights leaders have echoed his concerns about black make joblessness and the need for social policies that would address their skills deficits and change behavioral responses that emanate from severe employment constraints.

Moynihan attempted to synthesize structural and cultural analyses to understand the dynamics of poor black families and the plight of low-skilled black males.  And now, more than forty years after the public release of his report, we are seeing the beginnings of a more sophisticated synthesis of structure and culture by social scientists who readily acknowledge Moynihan’s important contribution to this subject.

Also, he was one the first social scientists to call attention to the growing gap between the black middle class and the black poor—a gap that has continued to widen and has been the focus of a lot of research and writings, including my own.

Finally, Moynihan was among the early social scientists who recognized that as racial barriers fall in the face of anti-discrimination legislation, the cumulative effects of racial oppression will make it extremely difficult for many poor African Americans to take advantage of opportunities provided by the civil rights movement.  Accordingly, he recommended a shift in civil-rights activity to increase the resources of the black family.

Since Moynihan’s writings on race and ethnic relations and on poverty and family structure have been the focus of so much subsequent research—indeed the number of studies boggles the mind—I strongly feel that he ranks among some of our most important social scientists.

Although many of Moynihan’s ideas represent an original synthesis of existing scholarship, his work was bold and controversial.  But, the controversy was productive.  I think that my colleague at Harvard, Theda Skocpol, put it best.  She stated that Moynihan’s taste for controversy has influenced both his political and academic careers.  And that he had an extraordinary ability to dramatize an issue by putting his finger on things.  For example, she states, his report on the black family performed a national service in dramatizing the issue of family structure, and many people ‘who care about inequality are fully aware of its contribution.’  I fully agree.  This man’s work was agenda setting.  I am so pleased that he is finally getting the full recognition that he deserves.  Thank you.

Misrepresenting the Moynihan Report—Will It Ever Stop?

By James T. Patterson

James T. Patterson is professor of history emeritus at Brown University. His latest book is “Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life—from LBJ to Obama” (Basic Books, 2010).

When Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” reached the White House in March 1965, it sparked great enthusiasm among high officials of the Johnson administration. Moynihan, a fervent liberal, was then serving as an assistant secretary of labor. “Pat,” some of them said, “you’ve got it.” The president soon asked him to draft a major address that he was scheduled to deliver at Howard University on June 4. The speech foretold a bold new course of governmental action that would seek “equality as a fact and as a result” for American Negroes. Johnson later said, and with justice, that it was the greatest civil rights speech he had ever made.

No one outside top administration circles then knew of the seventy-eight-page report, which Moynihan had written as an in-house document. It highlighted what he called the “steady deterioration of the Negro family over the past generation” that had led to a “tangle of pathology.” Backed by sixty-one footnotes, the report was cool and clinical, documenting “matriarchy,” rising “illegitimacy,” and increasing welfare take-up among lower-class black families.

As administration officials were pondering how to proceed that summer, snippets from the report began leaking into newspaper stories and columns, whereupon it became known as the “Moynihan Report.” Criticisms of it—most based on sketchy or inaccurate news accounts—aroused increasingly angry controversy. By the end of the year, militant civil rights activists—misunderstanding and in some cases deliberately misrepresenting it—were accusing Moynihan of being a racist and of having “blamed the victim.”

Calmer heads attempted to save the day for the report. Kenneth Clark, the black psychologist whose writings had featured the phrase “tangle of pathology,” fired back, “If Pat is a racist, I am. He highlights the total pattern of segregation and discrimination. Is a doctor responsible for a disease simply because he diagnoses it?”

The critics, however, triumphed. President Johnson, after calling in July for major escalation of the war in Vietnam, focused increasingly on foreign policy issues. In early August, the Watts riots infuriated him, causing him to step back from civil rights concerns. Reluctant to confront militant foes of the report, he consigned it to oblivion.

Moynihan was deeply hurt by the attacks. Later he wrote that L.B.J.’s Howard address was his “last peacetime speech,” and that abandonment of its ideals represented a tragic “Moment Lost” in the history of American race relations.

His lament was probably overstated: subsequent events make it clear that the majority of Americans have never possessed the will—or policymakers the know-how—to remedy the deep-set social ills of the ghettos. Still, chances for serious policymaking seemed uniquely promising in mid-1965, when liberals commanded greater political power than at any point in modern American history. If government ever had a chance to deal with the miseries of inner-city blacks, it was at that time.

Thereafter, of course, the plight of lower-class African Americans has become far more serious. In 1965, 25 percent of black babies were born out of wedlock. Today, roughly 72 percent are—including more than 80 percent in many inner cities. Their chances in life, dimmed by family disruptions and poverty, are grim.

It is evident now that Moynihan failed in 1965 to foresee how deeply his grim observations would offend black people (and some white liberals) who heard or read about them in the papers. Other critics complained that the report, calling for careful study of the situation, avoided specific policy recommendations. Feminists later objected to his focus on the plight of men—and to the patriarchal assumptions (widespread in 1965) that seemed to them to underlie it.

Since the late 1980s, a few black scholars have dared to praise the report, notably William Julius Wilson, whose The Truly Disadvantaged in 1987 described “social pathologies of the ghetto.” In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama also wrote favorably of the report. But many black militants have persisted in misunderstanding or misrepresenting it. Blaming white racism for black problems, they have failed to see—some apparently do not wish to see—that Moynihan was a clear-headed advocate of social justice. And many white liberals, fearful as L.B.J. had been of alienating black leaders (or of being called racists themselves), have also shied away from frank discussion of one of America’s most pressing social issues.

This is a very great shame, for far from blaming the victim, Moynihan identified what he memorably called a “racist virus in the American bloodstream” as the source of “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment” of black Americans. Though he dwelt on the disastrous legacies of slavery, his report focused on contemporary economic problems, notably black male unemployment. It was a structural, not cultural, explanation for the subordination of black people—one that made a “Case for National Action.”

Long interested in the Moynihan Report and its tortured history, I finally wrote a book about it. Published earlier this year by Basic Books, it is titled Freedom Is Not Enough, the theme of the speech that LBJ gave at Howard in 1965. My book’s subtitle, The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life from LBJ to Obama, explores the sad fate that met Moynihan’s efforts in 1965 and thereafter.

In writing the book, I had reason to believe that most people today who know of the report realize that it was a prophetic call to arms. A Harvard-sponsored conference of leading scholars agreed in 2007 with this assessment—see Douglas Massey and Robert Sampson, eds., The Moynihan Report Revisited: Lessons and Reflections After Four Decades (Sage Publications, 2009). I echoed this view in a New York Times op-ed this past May.

Imagine, then, my dismay when I came across a front-page article in the New York Times on October 18. A sweeping headline reads, “‘Culture of Poverty,’ Long an Academic Slur, Makes a Comeback.” The article’s author, Patricia Cohen, starts by noting that though Moynihan did not coin the phrase, he “introduced the idea of a ‘culture of poverty’ to the public” in his report of 1965. She goes on to write that the report described an “inescapable ‘tangle of pathology.’”

Cohen then proceeds at considerable length to argue that the phrase, long avoided by scholars as politically incorrect, is now becoming more widely accepted. This is not so—careful scholars still do not use it. What she should have made more clear is that many scholars—she mentions Wilson among them—now believe that studies of lower-class black life should cite cultural as well as structural forces (such as white racism and economic exploitation) in studies of lower-class black life. This sensible approach is indeed widespread today, though it is hardly a new (or newsworthy) development.

Cohen is also wrong to throw Moynihan into this story. If any single writer can be said to have introduced to the public the idea of “culture of poverty,” it was Michael Harrington, who highlighted it in his widely discussed book, The Other America (1962). Moynihan, by contrast, did not use the phrase “culture of poverty”—or even the word “culture” —in his report. Cohen thus joins the crowd of critics who have missed his message—that white racism and economic injustice are the sources of black family disintegration, and that the “tangle of pathology,” though savage, is not “inescapable.” On the contrary, Moynihan believed that “National Action” had a chance to unravel it. Thus the title of my plaint today: will misrepresentations of the much-maligned Moynihan Report ever stop? It seems not. And the miseries of the ghetto live on.

9 thoughts on “Was the Moynihan Report racist?

  1. Jim Crow >black flight to northern cities>white flight to suburbs>jobs flight out of urban areas to suburbs and finally out of the country>more inner city poverty > dysfuntional to non functional families > more poverty>more crime. When will it ever end?

  2. No I don’t and here is why.

    The connection between a broken family unit and a child growing up in poverty is indeed very strong; this is equally true for white or black families without a father present. According to the 2004 census Bureau only 6.4% of American married couples that were living together fell below the poverty level which ranges from between $12,334 for a family of two to $39,048 for a family of nine or more. The difference between blacks and whites living below the poverty level was only 3.9%. Black married-couple families posted 9.9% living below the poverty level, while white married-couples were not far behind at 6% below the poverty level. When you compare all households headed by a man with no wife this level rises to 13.8% and then jumps sharply to 30.5% for households headed by a woman without a husband present. When you look at children under 5 living in these fatherless households 52% of white children lived below the poverty level and the figure for blacks was 6.1% higher at 58.1%.”

    Although the most visible of the poor are located in the inner cities there is also a large number of extremely poor people in rural areas that are generally overlooked when we think about the poor. Also many poor white families have been made almost invisible by mixing into the suburbs.

    The issue of rural poverty is a predominantly a white problem as I found out upon visiting the following website


    White Rural Poverty

    The following article was written for the National Forum, in the summer 1996, by Wayne Flynt. I extracted the main points that I felt relevant here.

    “Whereas some 15 percent of all Americans live in poverty, 20 percent of rural Americans are poor (ten million people). The highest concentration of American poverty exists in rural America. Rural poverty rates as a percentage of rural population are higher than urban poverty rates as a percentage of urban population. Two-thirds of the rural poor are white and non-Hispanic. Rural poverty is not necessarily the result of laziness and personal failure. Half the rural poor work, and one-quarter of rural poor families have two family members who work; yet the families remain poor. During the decade of the 1980s ineffective government programs and low wages pushed 2.2-million American children into poverty. Of these, only one in ten poor children fits our stereotype of a black child living in a female-headed family on welfare in a big city. The percentage of poor children has crept up in the 1990s, and projections of child poverty based on the proposed 1996 welfare reforms portend even worse news. Already poor U.S. families with children are poorer than poor families in fifteen of the seventeen other industrialized nations. Cutting earned income tax credits for many low and moderate income families with children would push an additional three million people into poverty, half of them children (according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities).


    Housing costs tend to be lower in rural areas, but so do incomes. Whereas rural Americans constitute only 14 percent of the nation’s households, they occupy 22 percent of the housing units with severe physical deficiencies.

    The Department of Housing and Urban Development established a standard for affordable housing of 30 percent of income or less. In 1985 more than 70 percent of the rural poor paid more than 30 percent of their income for housing (42 percent paid at least half of their income on housing, and 26 percent paid 70 percent or more). A quarter of a century after America landed men on the moon, more than a half-million rural homes in the United States do not have clean running water. An inequitable distribution of resources among rural schools exists because urban and suburban districts had a greater capacity to generate educational revenue. Partly as a consequence of this funding inequity, students in rural and semi-rural schools ranked lower in educational achievement.

    Health Care:

    Half a-million Americans in 1990 lived in counties with no obstetrician, and more than 300,000 lived in counties that had no physician whatever. In sparsely settled regions where one in six residents lived in poverty, 18 percent of the residents also lacked health insurance. Every year since then a higher percentage of Americans have lost health insurance, and the rate of rural hospital closings has increased. Poor people tend to focus on immediate crises (like providing for housing, clothing, food, or health emergencies), and not on their long-term health. The less educated and affluent a person is in America, the more likely that person is to use tobacco products and abuse alcohol.

    Finally, rural poor people are more likely than other Americans to be without health insurance. For the uninsured urban poor, large inner-city teaching hospitals have traditionally provided health care through their emergency rooms. Such facilities are unavailable for the rural poor and even in cities are threatened by changes in Medicaid/Medicare payments and HMOs. Cancer mortality rates are much higher for the poor of all ethnic groups.”

    As you point out the militants made further dialog nearly impossible and their tactics angered not only the Johnson administration but many others. The result was the governments CoIntelPro against them. This program in turn angered the militants which then set off the California Prison race wars. The race wars fueled prison gangs which lead to further restrictions in prisons. On and on it has went in an endless cycle. Now we have the supermax prison and 23 hour a day isolation. With no rehabilitation programs.

    All because militants and others shouted “racist” when an honest effort to understand this intractable problem was made.

    Peaceful means and dialog would have been more successful in my opinion.

  3. Interesting that if you prowl the thousands of black gender war videos on YOUTUBE and Generation X, black men are saying the exact same things NOW that the Moynihan report said nearly 50 years ago.

  4. What an utter load of nonsense. Im a black woman and mother. The problem with black men is that they are sexist violent and walk around like the world owe them something. I moved from a poor black area to an affluent white area. Here people treat me with respect as a woman and mother both on the road and in the work-place. In the area I lived befor i got lewd comments and general disrespect. Black men need to stop blaming the world and get a grip. Its pathetic. Why is there no good black women for them? Because no working woman in their right mind want a malechauvenistic cheating pig who blames white people for everything. I dont and as far as dating a black brother, forget it. Why would I when there are plenty of RESPECTFUL balanced white men who dont treat women like a picese of dirt under their shoe.

  5. by the way, an article from 2007 had the following to say:

    Milton Allimadi, Founder and Publisher of The Black Star News, joined Gil Noble’s revered talk show, “Like It Is” this New Year’s Eve. Rosalind McLymont, Editor-In-Chief of The Network Journal and Herb Boyd of the Amsterdam News also joined Mr. Noble in a riveting discussion on the state of the Black community and strategies for solutions and empowerment now and for the future.

    When addressing the issue of corruption in government, Mr. Allimadi boldly stated, “The biggest form of corruption is the neglect of the Black community. It is immoral and corrupt to be talking about reconstruction in Iraq and to be funneling billions of dollars into Iraq when we are facing 50% unemployment of young Black men here in the United States. It’s unconscionable. How do we generate enough outrage to address this and to change this? This is the kind of thing that I care about.”

  6. Daniel Patrick Moynihan simply told the truth in his report and prdicted the future accuratly. In the political arena, the most dangerous thing to do for one’s survival is to be honest. But, he weathered the storm by responding with little affect and eventually became the U. S. Senator from New York.

    His precience can be seen as the years have gone by… When he wrote his
    report, about 3% of white babies were born without marriage; blacks were at
    25%. He could see the handwriting on the wall… Now whites are at 25% and blacks are at 75%

    Racism has been replaced by a class problem. Add whites as well. Kids born to dysfuntional families in dysfunctional communities — with women heding families and few positice male role models.

    Always blame the messenger!

  7. Amen Missy! I’m a white guy living in DC. i see that of which you speak every day. Quoting our recent mayor: “The bitch set me up!” Marion is not an exceptional black male, he is the rule. Respect for women is a vacuum in too many black communities.

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