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Misrepresenting the Moynihan Report—Will It Ever Stop?

When Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” reached the White House in March 1965, it sparked great enthusiasm among high officials of the Johnson administration. Moynihan, a fervent liberal, was then serving as an assistant secretary of labor. “Pat,” some of them said, “you’ve got it.” The president soon asked him to draft a major address that he was scheduled to deliver at Howard University on June 4. The speech foretold a bold new course of governmental action that would seek “equality as a fact and as a result” for American Negroes. Johnson later said, and with justice, that it was the greatest civil rights speech he had ever made.

No one outside top administration circles then knew of the seventy-eight-page report, which Moynihan had written as an in-house document. It highlighted what he called the “steady deterioration of the Negro family over the past generation” that had led to a “tangle of pathology.” Backed by sixty-one footnotes, the report was cool and clinical, documenting “matriarchy,” rising “illegitimacy,” and increasing welfare take-up among lower-class black families.

As administration officials were pondering how to proceed that summer, snippets from the report began leaking into newspaper stories and columns, whereupon it became known as the “Moynihan Report.” Criticisms of it—most based on sketchy or inaccurate news accounts—aroused increasingly angry controversy. By the end of the year, militant civil rights activists—misunderstanding and in some cases deliberately misrepresenting it—were accusing Moynihan of being a racist and of having “blamed the victim.”

Calmer heads attempted to save the day for the report. Kenneth Clark, the black psychologist whose writings had featured the phrase “tangle of pathology,” fired back, “If Pat is a racist, I am. He highlights the total pattern of segregation and discrimination. Is a doctor responsible for a disease simply because he diagnoses it?”

The critics, however, triumphed. President Johnson, after calling in July for major escalation of the war in Vietnam, focused increasingly on foreign policy issues. In early August, the Watts riots infuriated him, causing him to step back from civil rights concerns. Reluctant to confront militant foes of the report, he consigned it to oblivion.

Moynihan was deeply hurt by the attacks. Later he wrote that L.B.J.’s Howard address was his “last peacetime speech,” and that abandonment of its ideals represented a tragic “Moment Lost” in the history of American race relations.

His lament was probably overstated: subsequent events make it clear that the majority of Americans have never possessed the will—or policymakers the know-how—to remedy the deep-set social ills of the ghettos. Still, chances for serious policymaking seemed uniquely promising in mid-1965, when liberals commanded greater political power than at any point in modern American history. If government ever had a chance to deal with the miseries of inner-city blacks, it was at that time.

Thereafter, of course, the plight of lower-class African Americans has become far more serious. In 1965, 25 percent of black babies were born out of wedlock. Today, roughly 72 percent are—including more than 80 percent in many inner cities. Their chances in life, dimmed by family disruptions and poverty, are grim.


It is evident now that Moynihan failed in 1965 to foresee how deeply his grim observations would offend black people (and some white liberals) who heard or read about them in the papers. Other critics complained that the report, calling for careful study of the situation, avoided specific policy recommendations. Feminists later objected to his focus on the plight of men—and to the patriarchal assumptions (widespread in 1965) that seemed to them to underlie it.

Since the late 1980s, a few black scholars have dared to praise the report, notably William Julius Wilson, whose The Truly Disadvantaged in 1987 described “social pathologies of the ghetto.” In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama also wrote favorably of the report. But many black militants have persisted in misunderstanding or misrepresenting it. Blaming white racism for black problems, they have failed to see—some apparently do not wish to see—that Moynihan was a clear-headed advocate of social justice. And many white liberals, fearful as L.B.J. had been of alienating black leaders (or of being called racists themselves), have also shied away from frank discussion of one of America’s most pressing social issues.

This is a very great shame, for far from blaming the victim, Moynihan identified what he memorably called a “racist virus in the American bloodstream” as the source of “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment” of black Americans. Though he dwelt on the disastrous legacies of slavery, his report focused on contemporary economic problems, notably black male unemployment. It was a structural, not cultural, explanation for the subordination of black people—one that made a “Case for National Action.”


Long interested in the Moynihan Report and its tortured history, I finally wrote a book about it. Published earlier this year by Basic Books, it is titled Freedom Is Not Enough, the theme of the speech that LBJ gave at Howard in 1965. My book’s subtitle, The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life from LBJ to Obama, explores the sad fate that met Moynihan’s efforts in 1965 and thereafter.

In writing the book, I had reason to believe that most people today who know of the report realize that it was a prophetic call to arms. A Harvard-sponsored conference of leading scholars agreed in 2007 with this assessment—see Douglas Massey and Robert Sampson, eds., The Moynihan Report Revisited: Lessons and Reflections After Four Decades (Sage Publications, 2009). I echoed this view in a New York Times op-ed this past May.

Imagine, then, my dismay when I came across a front-page article in the New York Times on October 18. A sweeping headline reads, “‘Culture of Poverty,’ Long an Academic Slur, Makes a Comeback.” The article’s author, Patricia Cohen, starts by noting that though Moynihan did not coin the phrase, he “introduced the idea of a ‘culture of poverty’ to the public” in his report of 1965. She goes on to write that the report described an “inescapable ‘tangle of pathology.’”

Cohen then proceeds at considerable length to argue that the phrase, long avoided by scholars as politically incorrect, is now becoming more widely accepted. This is not so—careful scholars still do not use it. What she should have made more clear is that many scholars—she mentions Wilson among them—now believe that studies of lower-class black life should cite cultural as well as structural forces (such as white racism and economic exploitation) in studies of lower-class black life. This sensible approach is indeed widespread today, though it is hardly a new (or newsworthy) development.

Cohen is also wrong to throw Moynihan into this story. If any single writer can be said to have introduced to the public the idea of “culture of poverty,” it was Michael Harrington, who highlighted it in his widely discussed book, The Other America (1962). Moynihan, by contrast, did not use the phrase “culture of poverty”—or even the word “culture” —in his report. Cohen thus joins the crowd of critics who have missed his message—that white racism and economic injustice are the sources of black family disintegration, and that the “tangle of pathology,” though savage, is not “inescapable.” On the contrary, Moynihan believed that “National Action” had a chance to unravel it. Thus the title of my plaint today: will misrepresentations of the much-maligned Moynihan Report ever stop? It seems not. And the miseries of the ghetto live on.

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