Saving the Negro Family

Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, March 2011

James T. Patterson, Freedom is Not Enough: the Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life — from LBJ to Obama, Basic Books, 264 pp., $26.95.

In 1965, Patrick Moynihan, then an obscure Labor Department bureaucrat, wrote a report for President Lyndon Johnson called The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. It drew attention to the then-shocking rate of black illegitimacy — 25 percent — and described the “tangle of pathology” in which lower-class blacks seemed to be trapped.

Freedom in Not Enough the Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life from LBJ to Obama by James T. Patterson

What came to be known as the Moynihan Report caused a huge stir. It was the first and most famous of a series of investigations into the deterioration of the black family that has continued with varying degrees of urgency to the present day. In Freedom is Not Enough, historian James T. Patterson, emeritus of Brown University, describes the effects of the report, recounts the life of its author, summarizes various academic attempts to explain black illegitimacy, and describes the policies that were meant to reduce it. His book is also an unwitting account of the floundering that comes from an unwillingness to face the facts about race.

Moynihan and his report

Daniel Patrick Moynihan was born in 1927 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but grew up in New York City. His father abandoned the family and he grew up poor. This gave him an abiding and undoubtedly genuine concern for children who grow up without fathers. He served in the Navy and eventually got bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Tufts. He was ambitious, a skilled flatterer, and had a knack for cultivating useful connections. He had a brief stint in the Nixon administration but was otherwise a life-long Democrat with a typically Democrat faith in the power and inclination of government to do good. Negro uplift was one of his pet projects.

Moynihan was not yet 40 when he became an assistant secretary of labor in the Johnson administration. He caught the president’s eye, and helped write the speech from which Prof. Patterson has taken the title of this book. It was the famous Howard University commencement speech of 1965, in which Johnson explained the need for racial preferences. For blacks, he explained, “freedom is not enough.” It was not fair to cut the chains that had bound the Negro for centuries, put him at the starting line of a race, and expect him to compete. Johnson called for “a more profound stage of the battle for civil rights” that would achieve “not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and as a result.”

Moynihan genuinely believed that government could bring about equal results, and Johnson at least pretended to. Later that year when he lit the White House Christmas tree, Johnson announced that “these are the most hopeful times since Christ was born.” This was the era of “Great Society” legislation, some of which survives to this day: Medicare, Medicaid, and federal spending on education.

The Howard commencement speech drew much of its inspiration from what followed the colon in Moynihan’s The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Although the report is now best known for the light it cast on black reproductive habits, the Howard speech reflected the spirit of its policy recommendations. Moynihan thought that the 25 percent black illegitimacy rate — the white rate was then 3 percent — was due mainly to the fact that many black men did not have jobs and were thus not marriageable. If nothing were done, illegitimacy and poverty would continue to spread, generation after generation, but if the government would just ensure that black men got good jobs, black women would want to marry them and the black family would be saved.

Underlying this optimism was a crucial, unsupported assertion: “There is absolutely no question of any genetic differential: intelligence potential is distributed among Negro infants in the same proportion and pattern as among Icelanders or Chinese or any other group.” Moynihan also insisted that the Negro’s problems stemmed from “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment” and that “the principal challenge of the next phase of the Negro revolution is to make certain that equality of results will now follow.”

In other words, while the report hinted obliquely that blacks might have some responsibility for their plight, it served up the usual eyewash: Blacks were fully equal, wicked whites had held them back, and it was now up to whites to ensure “equality of results.” And yet, Moynihan — and by extension the Johnson administration — were met with waves of hate. Merely to notice reckless procreation was to “blame the victim.” To use the phrase “tangle of pathology” was to call prurient attention to degeneracy. The real pathology, claimed just about every black who could get on television or into print, was white racism. Feminists blasted Moynihan for assuming that single women were not as good at rearing children as married couples. All this put the administration on the defensive, and shifted the focus from the programs Moynihan was recommending.

Prof. Patterson actually seems to believe that as a consequence, “A historic moment for reforms to improve race relations may indeed have been lost,” and that if Johnson had not been distracted by the Vietnam War, laws to achieve “equality of results” could have been passed. He concedes that the Watts riots of August 1965, which killed 34 people, might have slightly dimmed the country’s enthusiasm for splashing out billions for blacks, but he clearly believes that government was then and may well still be capable of mighty works of uplift.

Moynihan was hurt by the criticism, but continued to make a combination of arguments that were, for the time, fairly bold. Slavery and racism had been, of course, terrible scourges, and meant that there must be explicitly “unequal treatment for the Negro” to make up for them. This was to take the form of racial preferences in education and hiring. Just giving blacks money would “pension the Negroes off” into idleness, so if the private sector would not hire blacks the government must concoct jobs for them. All his life, Moynihan believed that unemployment and poverty were the greatest enemies of the black family.

At the same time, blacks had to take responsibility for something. “Liberals,” he wrote in 1967, “must somehow overcome the curious condescension that takes the form of defending or explaining away anything, however outrageous, which Negroes, individually or collectively, might do.” He added that liberals were “preoccupied with white racism” and wallowing in “white guilt.” In 1968 he even went so far as to say that there should be “sharp curtailment of the freedom now enjoyed by low-income groups to produce children they cannot support.” Blacks therefore continued to hate him even while he continued to push for massive economic intervention on their behalf.

Unlike the present age, it was then possible for a white man who had earned the near universal ire of blacks to be held in high esteem by whites. In 1967, Life magazine published a six-page puff spread about Moynihan titled “Idea Broker in the Race Crisis.” By 1969, many people considered him the nation’s most prominent intellectual.

That same year, Moynihan went to work for Richard Nixon — this was his brief flirtation with Republicanism — as head of the newly-created Urban Affairs Committee. Nixon, who was far more concerned about the plight of blacks than liberals have ever acknowledged, wanted the Urban Affairs Committee to be the domestic equivalent of the National Security Council — and just as important.

In this position, Moynihan pushed for a committee that would review every relevant government program to see if it was helping or hurting the black family. Even more important, he persuaded Nixon to promote the Family Assistance Plan (FAP), which would have reformed welfare. Moynihan had always disliked AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) because he thought means-tested programs stigmatize recipients. FAP was essentially a guaranteed income for all working people with children that would remove the stigma of the dole. Above a certain level of income, FAP benefits would drop by 50 cents for every dollar earned, thus leaving an incentive for work. Two- as well as single-parent homes would get a government check, and this would do away with the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor.

In 1970, the House actually voted for this hugely expensive program 235 to 155, but FAP never made it through the Senate. The country was simply not ready for the massive transfers from whites it would have taken to achieve “equality of results.” Moynihan was bitterly disappointed, and Prof. Patterson laments the loss of yet another vital “moment” of opportunity.

But would large-scale handouts have converted blacks to marriage and monogamy? As Prof. Patterson himself notes, local tests of guaranteed income schemes found that they “moderately reduced work effort among recipients” and led to “higher rates among black families of marital breakup and divorce.” He writes that Moynihan was shocked by such findings. “We were wrong about guaranteed income!” he reportedly concluded. “It increases family dissolution by 70 percent, decreases work, etc.”

In 1970, the year he left the Nixon Administration, Moynihan got in trouble again for something he said about blacks. He noted that things were improving for blacks as racism faded, and the country might “need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades.” There was too much agitation about the plight of the Negro, and race relations could benefit from a period of “benign neglect.”

Needless to say, blacks were incensed at the suggestion of “neglect” of any kind, and Moynihan went through another phase of vilification. His son was turned away at the door of a friend’s house when the mother learned who his father was. A daughter’s schoolmate showed her a book that said Moynihan was someone who would have to be killed if blacks were to make progress.

As it is today, during the 1960s and ’70s, it was safest for whites to say nothing at all about the reproductive habits of blacks, but if they hazarded an opinion as to why marriage was disappearing among blacks there were only three options: slavery, 20th-century racism, or a combination of the two. It was typical to argue in the 1960s that slavery did not permit proper marriage, that few slaves knew their fathers, and that masters had so stripped black men of dignity that their conception of fatherhood never recovered. Charles Silberman, writing in 1966 in Crisis in Black and White, claimed that slavery “had emasculated Negro males, had made them shiftless and irresponsible and promiscuous.”

By the 1970s, scholars had begun to point out that all available records suggested that family life was quite stable under slavery, and that most slave children appear to have grown up with both parents. Besides, if marriage had been obliterated by slavery, what had brought it back at all? Black illegitimacy rates rose from 17 percent in 1940 to 18 percent in 1950 to 22 percent in 1960, to 25 percent in 1965. By the 1970s, they were creeping into the 30 and 40 percent range. It was absurd to claim that slavery made the black illegitimacy rate double from 1940 to 1970.

Social scientists then had to scramble for uniquely 20th century evils committed by whites on which to pin the blame. Whites miseducated black children, they herded blacks into ghettos far from jobs, they deprived them of role models, they jailed them for spurious reasons, they refused to hire them, they depicted them insultingly on television, they circulated “negative stereotypes” about them, etc., etc. None of this straining made much sense, given that legal and social barriers were falling at a great rate. During the 1970s, Moynihan began to think it had become impossible to speak or write rationally about black family life.

Inconvenient facts

That was true and continues to be true, because racial orthodoxy has no room for inconvenient facts. Prof. Patterson actually concedes that family patterns in West Africa, from which most slaves were brought, are “more fluid than European models.” However, he refrains from pointing out that some traditional African societies are matrilineal because so few people know who their fathers are; the only family trees anyone can draw with certainty show descent only from the mother.

Nor does Prof. Patterson point out that marriage has essentially disappeared among blacks in Canada, Britain, and Jamaica, which have very different histories of race relations from that of the United States. Any suggestion that American blacks were simply reverting to ancestral patterns would have been met with as much outrage in the 1960s or ’70s as it would today. Could this perhaps have been the sort of thing Moynihan was hinting at when he wrote in 1972 that “I accept that in the social sciences some things are better left unsaid”?

In any case, in 1975, Moynihan got himself appointed ambassador to India, and in 1977 he started a 24-year career in the Senate. He was no longer in a position in which he could afford to say anything original or provocative on the subject of race.

In 1984, it was Charles Murray who said something genuinely useful about social policy in his book, Losing Ground. Dr. Murray made a strong case for the view that welfare promotes dependence and irresponsibility. If the state rewards every teenage mother with a free apartment and a monthly check, there will be a lot more teenage mothers, especially black ones. Prof. Patterson mentions Losing Ground but only to dismiss its arguments. What prompted the illegitimacy boom? “Poverty, poor education, and (among blacks) the miseries of inner-city existence.”

Prof. Patterson rather prefers the black scholar William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged, which appeared in 1987. Prof. Wilson conceded that racism was less a problem for blacks than it had been in the past, and even praised Moynihan for having realized so early that black illegitimacy was a serious problem. Prof. Wilson argued that blacks were the victims of “macroeconomic forces” that were reducing the number of unskilled and factory jobs, thus putting blacks out of work. Prof. Williams summarizes Prof. Wilson’s solutions: “long-term programs to attack large structural weaknesses in the economy.” Whatever a foggy phrase like that actually means, it is still within the bounds of acceptable discourse because it means that America, not blacks, must change.

Meanwhile, Moynihan was still in the Senate still lobbying for more money to pay for more Negro uplift. In 1983 he actually accused President Ronald Reagan of deliberately running up deficits so as to have an excuse to cut welfare spending. A few black conservatives, however, were daring to propose that blacks themselves should take responsibility for their lives. Glenn Loury, now at Brown University, wrote about “a profound need for moral leadership among blacks.”

During the period Prof. Patterson covers in this book, the only really significant government action was President Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform. What was known officially as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act abolished AFDC, which began in 1935 as a program to help widows with children, and replaced it with TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). AFDC had an increasingly bad name because women could stay on it for years, and the check increased with every new illegitimate baby. Over 70 percent of the long-term recipients were black.

TANF set a lifetime limit of five years of benefits (though with exceptions for “worthy cases”) and required that dole payments be tied to job training. Moynihan, like most liberals, shrieked that Americans would be driven into the streets and children would be sleeping on subway grates. In fact, the new system was a huge success, with the welfare rolls dropping from 12.1 million to 4.1 million, the first real decline ever. No one starved to death. “Moynihan had underestimated the adaptability of the poor,” notes Prof. Patterson. He was hardly the first.

Illegitimacy took a dip but then kept on climbing, and scholars kept recycling the same foolish theories. Black men had “the vicious desire to impregnate and abandon black women,” wrote Orlando Patterson in 1998, “as if Afro-American men were unable to shake off the one gender role of value (to the master) thrust upon them during slavery, that of progenitor.”

Prof. Patterson begins to glimpse the truth of the matter when he wonders whether people may be influenced by “powerful cultural changes that neither government nor private efforts could overcome.” The latest figures now put US illegitimacy rates at a staggering 72 percent for blacks, 66 percent for American Indians, 53 percent for Hispanics, 29 percent for whites, and 17 percent for Asians. Whites are now well past the figure Moynihan found disturbing in blacks 45 years ago.

As Prof. Patterson points out, most of the developed world has shrugged off the stigma of bastardy. Throughout the 1990s, the illegitimacy rate in Denmark was at 45 to 46 percent, and at 66 percent in Greenland and Iceland. Sweden went from 47 to 54 percent, and Norway from 38 to 48 percent. There were exceptions. Greece kept illegitimacy rates at 2 to 3 percent and Switzerland at six to seven. Japan famously kept its rate at 1 to 2 percent. Outside the West, illegitimacy ranges from 70 to 80 percent in El Salvador and Panama to low single digits in most Muslim countries.

However, as Prof. Patterson notes, for whites, illegitimacy need not mean fatherlessness, as it almost always does for blacks. He points out that cohabiting Swedes are more likely to stay together than married Americans. Whether they marry or not, whites are more likely than blacks to do their duty to their children.

Many things no doubt contributed to increased illegitimacy: the decline of religions that condemned it; greater urbanization and the resulting loss of communities that censured it; the selfishness and independence that come with greater wealth; and an increasing preoccupation with personal indulgence rather than social obligation. Effective contraception and liberalized abortion could have reduced the illegitimacy rate by making it easier to prevent or end childbirth out of wedlock, but they had the opposite effect. They made it much safer to have sex without marriage, and a steady diet of promiscuous sex without marriage led to childbirth without marriage.

What Moynihan and Prof. Patterson and the rest of the liberal herd failed to understand was that “racism” had essentially nothing to do with it. How could even the most malevolent white people make blacks have irresponsible sex? How — even if they wanted to — could they prevent black men from sticking around to support their children?

Poverty and lack of jobs had very little to do with it either. Traditionally, Americans did not marry until they could afford it, and did not have children until they married. A woman who became a mother without a man’s support faced both contempt and poverty, so almost all women avoided it. Blacks broke the rules more often than whites because they always do, but many still shunned illegitimacy. When the sanctions against it began to fade, and welfare took the place of a man’s wages, there was little reason to marry.

Blacks living in every white-majority country quickly went back to African habits of procreation. Indeed, it may be that the proper question is not what destroyed black marriages but what caused them temporarily to appear in the first place. There is evidence for the view that blacks are simply doing what blacks have always done, and that it was only strong pressure from the surrounding white society that caused them to deviate temporarily from ancient patterns.

It is the disappearance of marriage among whites and even some Asians that is a departure from traditional norms, and to the extent that it means fatherlessness for their children it is an alarming departure. It is among these groups that modernity is causing real changes in behavior. What would bring down the white illegitimacy rate? The abolition of all public support for indigent mothers. If single mothers had only disapproving relatives to look to for support, out-of-wedlock childrearing would once again become a grim experience, especially for the poor. The stigma of illegitimacy would return, and there would be less of it.

Prof. Paterson understands none of this. He still thinks that with the right will and enough money, government can give fathers to lonely children. Just what the government is supposed to do that it has not yet tried — a guaranteed middle-class income for every layabout and teenage mother? — he doesn’t say. But he ends his book with yet another repetition of Johnson’s foolish jabbering about how federal bureaucrats must see to it that blacks enjoy “equality as a fact and a result.” Forty-five years since the Howard commencement talk some people have learned nothing.

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