In July 1965, an internal report from the U.S. Department of Labor was leaked to the press. The author was then-Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and the details of his report -- The Negro Family: The Case for National Action -- angered many leaders and supporters of the civil-rights movement. Moynihan's dire pronouncements on black family life in American ghettos ultimately pitted him, a lifelong New York Democrat and avowed champion of the urban poor, against the left for much of his political career.
Forty-five years after the report's release, James T. Patterson, a retired professor of history at Brown University and author of several books about 20th-century American political history, revisits the controversy in a book released last month, Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America's Struggle Over Black Family Life from LBJ to Obama. TAP wrestles with Patterson over the "tangle of pathology" at the heart of Moynihan's thesis on the plight of poor, black families.
Why were liberals so swift to condemn Moynihan's sociology in The Negro Family?
I can explain it, but it's a very unhappy thing that happened. Moynihan, of course, was a liberal Democrat. The subtitle made it very clear that what he was trying to do was describe the terrible situation among black, lower-class families. He was careful to distinguish that it was not true of all blacks and that there was a growing black middle class.
So it's clear that he was aware of and hotly opposed to racism and to the exploitation of blacks, and he thought that this had a long cumulative damage, but that if government stepped in, something could possibly alleviate the situation and stop the trends that he saw developing. You ask why many liberals -- whites and especially blacks -- opposed Moynihan's report. They weren't opposed to the language . . . so much as they were opposed to the descriptions. He concluded that the whole situation was what he called "a tangle of pathology." The problem was that the report was leaked at a time when militant blacks were separating from whites and did not like to hear this very unflattering description of matriarchy, high illegitimacy rates, delinquency, crime, drug abuse -- it's all in there.
Are you really suggesting that militant organizations were the only black leadership that was uncomfortable with the report? There does seem to be somewhat of an incendiary tone.
I think it's a shame that it happened to come out at this particular time in history, because [President] Johnson did throw [Moynihan] under the bus. He was having trouble with civil-rights leaders as it was, because they were reacting to what happened in Watts [the 1965 riot in Los Angeles], which actually surprised most of them as much as it appalled Johnson. And Johnson just didn't want to get into a fight with these people by supporting a report that they were opposing. So he just didn't do anything, and the report died on the vine. And as you pointed out earlier, the rest of the book indicates how it was used and abused and discussed by later people. And increasingly it is conservatives, including moderates, picking up on what Moynihan said.
You write about how, by the 1980s, figures like Eleanor Holmes Norton and Glenn Loury were revisiting the Moynihan report and willing to engage the data despite the tone. Why was that the case?
[Moynihan] wrote a number of articles during his most prolific time of writing for magazines at Harvard in the late 1960s, in which he deplored what he called "the great silence" of liberals -- white as well as black -- who he thought, in their hearts, agreed with what he'd said in the report. It's hard to know what they had in their hearts but were afraid to say so because they were afraid to challenge militant black orthodoxy. I think that most black people were afraid to speak out and to present a disunited front to the world.
Eleanor Holmes Norton is one of the earliest ones. It's been black women in many cases who have suffered from what's going on by virtue of having children without a father in the home and struggling in desperate poverty to get along. They really wanted to stop this, so the Moynihan report was one of the many weapons that they could use to say, look, someone's already told you this.
You address the revisionism of black slave family history. Why is slavery a potentially compelling explanation of marriage and birth rates in black communities to so many people?
It's not so much that I say it; Moynihan says it in the report. He relied upon the best scholarly evidence out there in 1965 to show the disorganizing effect of slavery: during which, of course, the man had no control over his wife and his children, [and] slave women were routinely sexually assaulted by white masters, so [enslaved men] had a real sense of emasculation and helplessness and anger.
Now, one might say, how can one prove that this kind of feeling and this kind of circumstance is carried on a generation or two or three after slavery? This is a good question. It's one I wrestle with throughout the book. To what extent do you begin to throw up your hands and say, look, after five or six or seven generations, this kind of thing is very hard to get rid of, or do you say as others have said, yeah, slavery did all of these things?
I would think that readers of your journal would be very uncomfortable with any interpretation that said, look, it's a cultural thing. Look, it's intergenerational. Look, it's deeper than just economics. And they would probably say that we've got to have a whole lot of unemployment programs. This is what Moynihan had in mind; he was worried about black unemployment.
But saying, "It's a cultural thing" -- what does that even mean?
It means that, somehow or another, a lower-class black child is brought up in an environment similar to his mother -- and father, if he has one -- and that he sort of absorbs or imbibes their situation. Moynihan used to say that it's not cultural in any deep sense that you're born with it, or that it's genetic, or anything like that. But each generation goes through a process very similar to the previous one, and it's practically contagious. It's very hard to get away from.