Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life from LBJ to Obama
By James T. Patterson
Basic Books, 228 pages, $26.95
The memo declares, “The United States is approaching a new crisis in race relations.” “A national effort is required,” it explains, “directed to a new kind of national goal: the establishment of a stable Negro family structure.” One sees the problem immediately: A government official in 1965 baldly states that expectations for equality are bound to be disappointed, not merely because of racism but also because the fabric of social life in the black ghettos is in tatters.
For many at the time, this kind of talk was simply unacceptable. How dare a white man say these things? What will happen to reform if studies like this are allowed to issue from the government? The author—an assistant secretary at the Labor Department named Daniel Patrick Moynihan—had to be made an example of.
And so he was. A firestorm of protest from journalists and civil-rights activists greeted the public release of his policy document. By calling attention to the instability of family life in poor black communities, Moynihan was said to downplay the importance of racial discrimination. By ascribing this trend in part to cultural factors, he was said to “blame the victim.” (Indeed, that now familiar phrase was coined in response to the Moynihan Report by the sociologist William Ryan.) By rehearsing the arguments of such distinguished black sociologists as W.E.B. Du Bois and E. Franklin Frazier—arguments that chattel slavery had ruined gender relations among the slaves, with profound consequences that reach into the twentieth century—Moynihan was said to be a flat-out racist.
In what might be understood today as political correctness run amok, productive discussion of “the Negro family” became impossible to sustain. This was the 1960s, after all. Civil-rights victories over implacable Southern opposition were fresh in everyone’s mind. Cities were burning during a series of long, hot summers. And, in tonier precincts, radical chic had become the fashion of the day, with the moral authority of racism’s victims unquestioned.
Nothing, it was said, is inherently good about two-parent families and nothing inherently bad about single motherhood. The weakness of black family life, it was alleged, is a distraction that shifts focus from what’s wrong with America to what’s wrong with black people. Moynihan—a dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrat whose principal policy recommendation in his report was to expand public employment for black men—became for many the personification of anti-black sentiments dressed up with a Harvard pedigree.
Those willing to defend him, even while disagreeing with his analysis, were hard to find in the media, the civil-rights establishment, or the Democratic party. So intense was the negative reaction that the White House quickly scuttled a conference on the topic.
There was only one problem with all this. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was mostly right in 1965: right about the Negro family, both in his diagnosis of its condition and in his forecast of the likely implications. Looking across the social landscape today, nearly a half-century after his dire warning, we can see the plain fact that conventional family relationships in the black ghettos have collapsed. What is more, nothing approaching equality of results for the bulk of the black American population has been, or soon will be, achieved. More speculative, but still entirely plausible, is the conclusion that these two undeniable facts are closely connected, with the former a primary reason for the later.
But in 1965, critics were much more interested in what they supposed to be Pat Moynihan’s motives than in the acuity of his analysis. Fast and furiously came the accusations of ill will. A period ensued, lasting nearly two decades, during which little critical assessment of black family life was undertaken, and no policy response was fashioned. The story is by now a familiar one, even to the casual student of American social policy: Discussion of the internal cultural dynamics that might underlie black poverty in America must be left to those with racial standing to talk about such matters. Failing that, such discussion must be avoided altogether.
James T. Patterson tells this story masterfully in Freedom Is Not Enough. Ford Foundation Professor of History emeritus at (my own) Brown University, he has written numerous distinguished works on American social and political history and has won nearly all the prizes the field of history has to offer. I can still recall how much I learned as a young scholar in the early 1980s from my encounter with his wide-ranging America’s Struggle Against Poverty in the Twentieth Century.
Now, in Freedom Is Not Enough, Patterson returns to this terrain of American social policy to study the legacy of Moynihan’s controversial 1965 policy memorandum. Along the way he also provides an engaging if cursory political and intellectual biography of that memorandum’s ambitious and resourceful author—for Moynihan, of course, did not disappear after the firestorm of his memo. He went on to be a Harvard University professor, United Nations ambassador, and four-term United States senator.
After a brief recounting of Moynihan’s early life and professional ascendancy, Freedom Is Not Enough provides a useful account of the genesis of the Moynihan Report, its unhappy reception, and the ensuing political fallout. Along the way Patterson pays close attention to the scholarly and the popular literatures on the subject, and he repeatedly emphasizes Moynihan’s prescience by documenting the ever rising rates of unwed childbearing and single parenthood among black Americans—and in the broader national population as well.
Although Patterson avoids saying so directly, the fiercely negative reactions to Moynihan’s report were a brand of intellectual thuggery that became all too familiar afterward. Smug in their certitude, the thought police in the universities, the government, the editorial pages, and the foundation boardrooms managed, in effect, to censor public discourse on crime, affirmative action, school desegregation, voting rights, antidiscrimination enforcement, urban renewal, welfare policy, and much more.
It even became dangerous to celebrate the success of the civil-rights revolution by noticing the emergence of a new black middle class. The signature tactic was to accuse the politically incorrect of being racists. A willingness to entertain certain hypotheses—that forced busing could cause white flight, that proliferating criminal violence among blacks might retard urban development, that affirmative-action programs could stigmatize their beneficiaries—came to be seen as evidence of a lack of fidelity to progressive values.
Reliance on ad hominem argument grew more commonplace: What kind of person would say such a thing? And the list of unsavory characters lengthened. To Moynihan’s name were added those of Edward Banfield (for his reflections on urban decline), James Q. Wilson (for worrying about rising crime rates), Nathan Glazer (for noticing affirmative action’s racial discrimination), James Coleman (for exposing the limits of school desegregation), Abigail Thernstrom (for questioning racial gerrymandering), and Charles Murray (for suggesting that welfare payments could create dependency among long-term recipients).
I am not saying that these writers were correct in every detail, or that the policies they championed are ones I endorse. Indeed, I have publicly disagreed with many of them over the years. What I am saying is that, like Moynihan, all these social critics made cogent and important arguments that were rooted in often quite astute social observations, and they deserved to be taken seriously. What is more, all these critics have, in one way or another and to varying degrees, been vindicated by the subsequent evolution of events.
The furiously negative reaction to Moynihan’s report—and the subsequent suppression of the issue of family structure and interpersonal behaviors among the poor—was a disaster, both politically and sociologically, for the newly liberated black masses. It reflects what must be seen in retrospect as one of the great failures of that period of American social history.
In Freedom Is Not Enough, Patterson recalls Lyndon Johnson’s bitterness and Richard Nixon’s cynicism over the intellectual inflexibility of the liberal critics. There can be no doubt that the black poor were hurt, not helped, by such bitter resignation and cynical manipulation in the White House. Worse yet, it now seems clear that these were the surface manifestations of a deeper, more debilitating political injury.
Just look at the history of social policy over the past quarter-century. The liberals won most of the battles in the decade or so after 1965, but they have surely lost the war. And it is, in my view, the black poor who have paid the terrible price for this folly. Not that Moynihan was right in every detail, or that he was above criticism and without foibles and vanities. But he was right about the big questions, and it needs to be acknowledged that his political values were progressive to the core.
It must be said that Banfield, Coleman, Wilson, Thernstrom, Murray, Glazer, and others (this list could be considerably lengthened) were equally often right about the larger themes of the late-twentieth-century American social-policy debate: negative unintended consequences from progressive social interventions, limits of liberal reforms to create genuine equality, the importance of social order and the irreplaceable role in maintaining it of the traditional institutions of civil society. Events have consistently borne them out. Gifted and instinctive politicians, from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton, have moved social policy consistently, and with considerable popular support, in the directions advocated by these critics of the liberal orthodoxy.
Unfortunately—from my perspective, anyway—these conservative critics who have trod the path of Pat Moynihan have not always shared the late senator’s progressive political commitments. Much to Moynihan’s chagrin, it was Charles Murray’s ideas more than his own that emerged victorious in the welfare-reform debate of the 1990s. Likewise, Jim Wilson has exerted more influence on anti-crime policy than any of his detractors, with staggering results in incarceration among the lower ranks of American society. Nat Glazer’s criticisms seem friendly to affirmative action when compared with recent federal court opinions, and Abigail Thernstrom’s critique of racial gerrymandering in the interest of guaranteeing the voting rights of black Americans may yet come to rule the day.
Generally speaking, the ostracized and demonized neoconservatives who gathered around Public Interest magazine in the late 1960s and through the 1970s have swept the table in the public debates. Meanwhile, Lyndon Johnson’s Second Reconstruction has proved an utter failure if understood in the terms Johnson himself invoked in his fabled speech at Howard University in 1965—a speech that Moynihan had a large hand in writing, and that found Johnson declaring as his administration’s goal that “We seek not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”
With a third of black children now living in poverty, with more than one million black men in jail, with an average deficit of three years in acquired reading skills for black youngsters relative to whites by the end of adolescence, with more than two out of every three black babies born to unwed mothers, with hard-core ghettos in Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland, St. Louis, Houston, New Orleans, Baltimore, and dozens of other American cities continuing to fester in their marginality and hopelessness—with all of this wreckage so readily at hand, it is clear that we Americans have not yet overcome.
Freedom is definitely not enough. Good sense, even temper, openness to criticism, intellectual honesty, and faith in the good intentions of those with whom one disagrees—these things are also necessary if the legacy of America’s shameful racial past is ever to be superseded. Now, thanks in part to a bygone generation of self-righteous and feckless liberals, we face the prospect that it never will be.
Glenn C. Loury, a member of First Things’ editorial and advisory board, is Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences at Brown University.