Understanding How We Talk About Inequality in America: Reflections on the Moynihan Report

15361Today we have a guest post from Daniel Geary, Mark Pigott Associate Professor in U.S. History at Trinity College Dublin and author of Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy, now out in paperback. Beyond Civil Rights is a fresh look at one of the 20th century's most controversial documents fifty years after its publication. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's government report The Negro Family: A Case for National Action, issued shortly after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, was intended to highlight socioeconomic inequality among African American families. However, the report's central argument that families headed by single mothers were inhibiting African American progress touched off a heated controversy. The long-running dispute over Moynihan's conclusions changed how Americans talk about race, the family, and poverty. Here, Geary shares some insights into where these debates—and the role of the Moynihan report within them—stand today.

On August 31, 2015, New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton controversially declared that he had discovered the cause of a recent crime wave in a fifty-year-old government report written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Talk about being prescient about what was going to happen in black society, in terms of he was right on the money, the disintegration of family, the disintegration of values.”

Bratton’s remarks, made in the broader context of growing outrage against police violence and mass incarceration, seemed to attribute black criminality to the flawed family structure and cultural values of African Americans. They are but one indication of the enduring salience of the Moynihan Report, the 1965 government document officially entitled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, which argued that the damaged family structure of many African American families (as reflected in high rates of female-headed families and out-of-wedlock births) would hinder efforts to achieve racial equality following the passage of civil rights legislation. Family structure, Moynihan argued, stood at the heart of what he notoriously labeled a “tangle of pathology” evident in high rates of juvenile delinquency, drug abuse, and poor educational achievement among African Americans.

As the author of Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy, I should hardly have been surprised by Bratton’s remarks nor by the half-century anniversary invocations of the report by conservative think-tanks (the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institute, and the Manhattan Institute) and by journalists of various ideological persuasions such as Nicholas Kristof, George Will, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. For the thesis of my book is that for fifty years the Moynihan report has generated debate about the causes of persistent inequality in America. It has been a Rorschach test, inviting viewers to see in it what they want, as well as a litmus test, reflecting deep ideological cleavages.

Bratton presented his comments as a spontaneous reaction to something he just happened to read over the weekend, but his remarks fit in a long line of arguments coming out of the Moynihan Report, repeatedly articulated by conservatives, which attribute inequality and social problems such as crime among African Americans to the social and cultural characteristics of African Americans themselves, namely the “disintegration of the family” (as Bratton put it).

But hearing Bratton’s remarks was also a bizarre experience for me. I spent many years trying to view the Moynihan Report historically, to explain the context in which it was written and in which different arguments about it had formed. And here was a prominent political figure using the report as if it had been written yesterday and its analysis explained events today.

New York mayor Bill De Blasio probably didn’t read my book, but he did convey some sense of the Moynihan Report’s historicity when he publicly rebuked his police commissioner the day following his remarks. “That report is literally half a century old and I think society has changed a lot,” De Blasio said. “I think there are some assumptions in that report that just don’t hold today.”

Interestingly, though Bratton hinted at a well-worn conservative interpretation of the report in his initial comments, his subsequent remarks two days later—in the face of criticism from the mayor and some members of the city council, one of whom called the report “racist”—appealed to a different reading of the report, one that emphasized the need for government action to redress historical wrongs: “it was a call to action, to assist a community that has been impacted like no other community in our history.”

By invoking different interpretations of the report in the same week, Bratton illustrated one of my book’s central arguments: the Moynihan Report was open to multiple ideological uses. In making the argument, I break with most previous histories of the Moynihan Report controversy, which sought primarily to establish the document’s true meaning. I argue the report has been so open to competing interpretations because of its own inconsistencies as well as its embodiment of a series of contentious assumptions about race, gender, social expertise, and the role of government that came under challenge in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Nearly all uses of the Moynihan Report in 2015 fit either of the established patterns: attributing persistent inequality to African Americans’ flawed familial and cultural values or calling for “national action” to redress persistent racial inequality. The exception was Ta-Nehisi Coates’s widely-read essay in The Atlantic, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” (I was delighted to be asked by The Atlantic to create an annotated on-line edition of the Moynihan Report to accompany Coates’s piece.)

Coates uses the Moynihan Report to highlight how mass incarceration emerged from the failure to take action in Moynihan’s time and to argue that the devastating long-term effects on African American families and communities from mass incarceration are similar to those Moynihan attributed to slavery and Jim Crow. I think Coates is mistaken in assuming that the Moynihan Report makes an unambiguous case for national action, but he recognizes the report’s limitations especially in terms of its commitment to patriarchy.

Unlike police commissioner Bratton, who picked up the report as explaining current events, Coates engages it in a way that fully recognizes the report’s historicity. I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t think such inventive use could be made of the Moynihan Report. By the time I finished my book, I had become so tired of the same arguments endlessly repeated. So I was delighted to see Coates articulate one of the central arguments of my book: only if we recognize how the Moynihan Report was a product of its time can we use it effectively to understand our own time.

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