This month is the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report. Stephen Steinberg:
A few weeks after Moynihan’s report was leaked to the press, the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles exploded in violence, triggered by an incident with police that rapidly escalated into five days of disorder and left thirty-four people dead. Pundits and politicians seized upon the report to cast blame for the “riot” on the deterioration of “the Negro family.” The report warned, “The family structure of lower class Negroes is highly unstable, and in many urban centers is approaching complete breakdown.”
Critics condemned the report for pathologizing female-headed households and black families in particular. The most trenchant criticism, however, was that the preoccupation with black families shifted blame away from institutionalized inequalities and heaped it on the very groups that were victims of those inequalities. As James Farmer, cofounder and national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, wrote with blunt eloquence, “We are sick unto death of being analyzed, mesmerized, bought, sold, and slobbered over while the same evils that are the ingredients of our oppression go unattended.”
Today, in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore, family dysfunction is again cited by politicians, pundits, and scholars as the root of the problem. Rand Paul publicly twaddles about “the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society.” David Brooks opines in the New York Times, “The real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.” And sociologist Orlando Patterson asserts that “fundamental change” can come only from “within the black community: a reduction in the number of kids born to single, usually poor, women.”
Steinberg goes on to break down the intellectual sources for the Moynihan Report, particularly Nathan Glazer. Intellectual racism that blames people of color for their own poverty has not diminished in the last half-century. Any number of racist sites refer back to Moynihan today; meanwhile this paragon of institutionalized racism became a respected Democratic senator without ever questioning his blaming of black people for their own poverty and ending his career as a big supporter of slashing welfare. Among other great things in this man’s life was ensuring the UN did nothing to stop the Indonesian slaughter in East Timor when he was UN Ambassador during the Ford administration and opposed the Clinton health care plan.