Liberals Need to Admit the Moynihan Report Failed To Produce Progressive Reforms

The time for liberal apologetics for the report is long past overdue.

Daniel Geary

Patrick Moynihan and President Richard Nixon in 1970. (Flickr / Cliff)

I wish, as I recent­ly wrote in these pages, that lib­er­als would admit that the Moyni­han Report failed as a strat­e­gy for gen­er­at­ing pro­gres­sive reforms. Greg Wein­er writes as a lib­er­al who is gen­uine­ly con­cerned about the effects of pover­ty on fam­i­lies. I respect that. But he and oth­er lib­er­als are mis­tak­en when they cel­e­brate the Moyni­han Report as a solu­tion to inequality.

By arguing that family instability was the “fundamental” problem facing African Americans, Moynihan shifted attention away from institutional racism and class inequality.

Cit­ing Moynihan’s sup­port for a guar­an­teed annu­al income, Wein­er con­cludes, lib­er­al­ism owes Moyni­han a greater debt — and more regrets — than it real­izes, in which case a reprieve for the Moyni­han Report might be jus­ti­fied.” Had the Moyni­han Report sim­ply pro­posed jobs pro­grams and fam­i­ly allowances, the Left would have lit­tle quar­rel with it. But it did more than that. Moyni­han under­mined his own case for nation­al action” by posit­ing that African Amer­i­cans suf­fered from a self-per­pet­u­at­ing tan­gle of pathol­o­gy.” By argu­ing that fam­i­ly insta­bil­i­ty was the fun­da­men­tal” prob­lem fac­ing African Amer­i­cans, he shift­ed atten­tion away from insti­tu­tion­al racism and class inequality. 

Wein­er con­tests my analo­giz­ing of Moyni­han to Dr. Frankenstein:

Is the sug­ges­tion that Moyni­han should not have raised the issue lest ill uses be made of his con­cerns? Per­haps: This is not a mon­ster,” Geary warns, that lib­er­als can con­trol. High­light­ing fam­i­ly struc­ture is just as like­ly to ratio­nal­ize inequal­i­ty as it is to dra­ma­tize it.” …The sug­ges­tion is to avoid high­light­ing fam­i­ly struc­ture because of what doing so will ratio­nal­ize: to eschew cre­ation of the mon­ster” lest one side in the debate be unable to con­trol it.

Unlike Wein­er, I believe we can fault Moyni­han for the con­ser­v­a­tive uses to which his report has been put. If Moyni­han was mak­ing an unequiv­o­cal case for lib­er­al reform, why didn’t he dis­as­so­ci­ate him­self from his con­ser­v­a­tive admir­ers? In fact, Moyni­han was proud that William F. Buck­ley repeat­ed his views. He even declared, Every­thing Mr. Buck­ley has said on the Negro ques­tion is a pla­gia­rism tak­en straight out of my book [with Nathan Glaz­er], Beyond the Melt­ing Pot.

Sim­i­lar­ly, con­tem­po­rary lib­er­al sup­port­ers of the Moyni­han Report are ready to pounce any­time some­one on the Left points out the report’s flaws. They love to talk about how lib­er­als blew it” by crit­i­ciz­ing Moyni­han. But where are they when some­one like George Will writes a col­umn prais­ing Moyni­han for show­ing that cul­ture” explains inequal­i­ty and that lib­er­al gov­ern­ment reforms are only bound to fur­ther weak­en African Amer­i­can families?

Lib­er­al sup­port­ers of the report are curi­ous­ly silent when it comes to its obvi­ous­ly patri­ar­chal assump­tions. Moyni­han believed the only way African Amer­i­cans could obtain equal­i­ty was by form­ing male-head­ed fam­i­lies. He wrote that African Amer­i­can men suf­fered from a matri­ar­chal” cul­ture and would ben­e­fit from a stint in the army, which would offer them an utter­ly mas­cu­line world … a world away from women, a world run by strong men of unques­tioned author­i­ty.” Moyni­han also sup­port­ed tak­ing job oppor­tu­ni­ties away from black women so that black men could have them and black fam­i­lies wouldn’t suf­fer from reversed” gen­der roles. Moyni­han was not espe­cial­ly sex­ist for his time, but the report’s cen­tral com­mit­ment to patri­archy sure­ly makes its analy­sis inad­e­quate for our own time.

Let’s pre­tend for a moment that Moyni­han unam­bigu­ous­ly intend­ed as lib­er­als say he did: to use the issue of fam­i­ly struc­ture to high­light broad­er inequal­i­ties. It didn’t work. Moyni­han failed to con­vince the John­son admin­is­tra­tion to adopt jobs pro­grams or a guar­an­teed annu­al income. Instead, his report pro­vid­ed grist for con­ser­v­a­tives who blamed the Watts Upris­ing on fam­i­ly break­down” while ignor­ing under­ly­ing racial and class injus­tice. Con­ser­v­a­tives today are still using the report to shift focus away from the bla­tant injus­tice under­lined in Fer­gu­son, Bal­ti­more and elsewhere.

As Bayard Rustin rec­og­nized at the time, the Moyni­han Report was ambiva­lent about the basic reforms that are need­ed” — like the $100 bil­lion Free­dom Bud­get Rustin cham­pi­oned to erad­i­cate pover­ty among all Amer­i­cans that Moyni­han point­ed­ly refused to endorse. Rustin knew that regard­less of Moynihan’s inten­tions, shift­ing a nation­al dis­cus­sion about racial inequal­i­ty toward the issue of fam­i­ly struc­ture was dan­ger­ous: many whites were bound to inter­pret it as say­ing that African Amer­i­cans should put their own house in order.”

Rustin under­stood that the report was a Frankenstein’s mon­ster that lib­er­als could not con­trol. And, after 50 years, they real­ly should know better.

Daniel Geary is the Mark Pig­ott Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of U.S. His­to­ry at Trin­i­ty Col­lege Dublin and the author of Beyond Civ­il Rights: The Moyni­han Report and Its Lega­cy (Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia Press, June 2015).
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