Daniel Geary on the fraught heritage of The Moynihan Report

GearyToday we have a guest post from Daniel Geary, author of Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy. If you need more, see this round-up of his writing elsewhere on the web in the wake of the report's fiftieth anniversary.

My book, Beyond Civil Rights, traces the various ways Americans have interpreted the controversial Moynihan Report since it was written a half-century ago. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 government report, The Negro Family, argued that the “unstable” family structure of African Americans—as reflected in high rates of female-headed families and out-of-wedlock births—was a primary barrier to achieving racial equality. Debate over the report’s conclusions and their meaning has raged ever since its release shortly after the Watts Uprising. Some have argued that the report was liberal in nature: an argument for “national action” to stabilize black families through jobs programs. Others have seen it as essentially conservative: rooting racial inequality in family structure rather than institutional racism or political economy. My book argues that the report was inherently ambiguous and that the meanings people have made of Moynihan’s analysis are at least as interesting and important as the document itself.

My own experience with the report helped me recognize its openness to multiple readings. I first heard about it in 1996 as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. President Bill Clinton had just signed into law a draconian welfare bill passed by the Republican-led Congress. My professor said that the Moynihan Report pioneered the image of “welfare queens”—unfit African American mothers reliant on public support—conservatives were using to dismantle supports for the poor. As a labor activist, I was impressed with the report’s resonance with contemporary policies that widened inequality in American society.

For over a decade, I dismissed the Moynihan Report as conservative—until I actually read it while conducting preliminary research for a second book. I immediately noticed how Moynihan’s analysis differed from conservative anti-welfare rhetoric. Moynihan’s central concern, it appeared to me then, was to provide jobs to African American men to stabilize their families. He clearly acknowledged that civil rights alone could not achieve racial equality. This recognition seemed progressive or even radical in an era dominated by color-blind assertions that racism no longer factored significantly in American life.

At that time, I was planning a book on how social science affected public policy in the twentieth-century U.S. and thought I would write one chapter on the Moynihan Report controversy. That chapter became a book after I visited the Moynihan Papers at the Library of Congress. There, in the largest personal papers collection held in the library’s Manuscripts Division, I found a tremendous wealth of material: drafts of the report; correspondence between Moynihan and notable political and intellectual figures; an unpublished book manuscript written by Moynihan expanding on the report; hundreds of letters written by ordinary individuals to Moynihan; and so much other rich material about the development of Moynihan’s ideas and the diverse reactions to them. I soon sensed that, while scholars had discussed The Negro Family almost to death, the full story of the Moynihan Report controversy had never been told. My hunch was confirmed when I looked for material in several other archives: from the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library to the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

When I began work, one of my aims was to show how The Negro Family was a product of 1960s liberalism, not 1990s conservatism. But as I went further with the project, I became skeptical of the increasingly dominant view that the report was an unequivocally liberal document. James Patterson, among others, advanced that interpretation in Freedom is Not Enough, published while I was completing my archival research. One of the last things someone in the midst of a scholarly project wants to hear is that an eminent figure in their field is publishing a book on their topic! Fortunately, my research was already leading me to conclusions different than Patterson’s. His claim that Moynihan’s critics had simply misunderstood his liberal intentions rang false to me.

Applying Occam’s Razor, I concluded that the simplest explanation for the competing interpretations of Moynihan’s report was that it had no obvious single meaning. I began to look for contradictions in Moynihan’s analysis that reflected the tensions in 1960 liberalism. Moynihan, I saw, undermined his own case for “national action” by positing a nearly self-perpetuating “tangle of pathology” based on family structure: if that were true, government efforts could never alleviate inequality. In fact, as I discovered, conservatives such as William F. Buckley immediately seized on the report to advocate racial self-help as an alternative to economic redistribution. In the late 1960s, Moynihan himself became a prominent representative of neoconservative intellectuals who questioned government’s ability to enact effective social reforms. Eventually, I even came to understand how 1990s conservative critics of welfare were drawn to the report even though they brazenly ignored its liberal elements.

As an intellectual historian, I am trained in understanding the complexity of ideas and their histories. I know that meanings of texts are produced as much by readers as by authors. For that reason, I wanted to move focus away from Moynihan’s intentions and ideas alone toward a comprehension of the heated and long-running dispute he unleashed. The report catalyzed vital debates about feminism, Black Power, neoconservatism, and liberalism. It remains a part of our political culture today as reflected in countless recent discussions of it in newspapers, magazines, and thinktanks. Discussions on its fiftieth anniversary have been refracted through recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere. The ways that so many people have tapped into the document’s conclusions, then and now, confirms for me one of my book’s central arguments: that the Moynihan Report controversy is a microcosm of how Americans have understood persistent racial, class, and gender inequality since the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

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Daniel Geary is Mark Pigott Assistant Professor in U.S. History at Trinity College Dublin and author of Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought. Beyond Civil Rights is available now.