The Good Old Liberals

Fifty years after its release, the Moynihan Report is still being used to attack the black poor.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan testifies before a Senate subcommittee in December 1966. Bettmann / CORBIS

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Moynihan Report, the infamous memo that then–Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote for federal policymakers on the apparently dire state of the black family.

Conservatives are taking advantage of the anniversary to publish their usual columns celebrating the report and recalling how Moynihan, maligned and ignored, correctly identified the “real” problem in the black community all those years ago. To them Moynihan is a martyr, and they use his report to bolster their claim that black communities suffer not from institutionalized racism, but rather from a “culture of poverty” that devalues hard work and destabilizes the family.

Liberals also have a long tradition of defending Moynihan. Nearly every year, it seems, someone discovers that Moynihan was indeed a somewhat old-fashioned New Deal liberal, interested in securing full employment and fighting the collateral damage of automation.

It logically follows — according to this view — that the critics who accuse Moynihan of infusing his report with racist assumptions misunderstand him, for Moynihan spoke not as a neoconservative but as a proponent of mitigating, through federal action, the unacceptable conditions in poor black communities.

These rehabilitative efforts harken back to a postwar liberalism that was worthy of the name — when liberals thought seriously about the problems of unemployment, poverty, and racial injustice. If only we could return to this liberalism, America might finally get back on the right track.

Unfortunately, such rescue missions suffer from an acute case of nostalgia. For what defenders of Moynihan neglect to unpack is why civil-rights leaders and leftists responded so poorly to the future senator’s report.

Liberal defenders of the memo usually contend that while some used Moynihan’s depiction of black culture as dysfunctional and pathological to legitimize prejudice, this was based on a fundamental misreading: Moynihan wasn’t asserting that single-mother homes cause poverty, they insist — he was arguing the reverse.

However, this defense usually comes with no extended discussion of what Moynihan’s critics — activists and leftists — were trying to say. That, I would argue, has been misunderstood for the past five decades.

Liberal accounts of Moynihan’s critics have been flawed in several ways. First, Moynihan’s detractors are often accused of imputing racism to the man himself. While some did so, it was far more common for civil rights leaders and public intellectuals — such as Benjamin F. Payton, James Farmer, Baynard Rustin, and Frank Riessman — to assume Moynihan’s good intentions.

Yet their criticism was of the manner in which Moynihan made his case. When he wrote, for example, that “at this point, the present tangle of pathology is capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world,” he played directly into the hands of a reactionary white electorate increasingly nervous about the escalating demands of the Civil Rights Movement.

As Farmer noted, “By laying the primary blame for present-day inequalities on the pathological condition of the Negro family and community, Moynihan has provided a massive academic cop-out for the white conscience and clearly implied that Negroes in this nation will never secure a substantial measure of freedom until we learn to behave ourselves and stop buying Cadillacs instead of bread.”

Defenders of Moynihan, of course, will insist that he implied nothing of the sort. They claim that because Moynihan didn’t express explicitly bigoted sentiments, he can’t be accused of drawing from, or contributing to, the well of American racism. But to dismiss Moynihan’s argumentative and rhetorical strategies as simply unfortunate mistakes is to divorce them from the historical context in which he used them.

Moynihan authored “The Negro Family” at a moment when the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to run up against the limits of liberal reform and white tolerance. In this context, his focus on “family values” is deeply related to those souring relations. Moynihan partisans, however, want us to focus only on the good intentions of his words while ignoring their content.

A similar dynamic is at work in Moynihan’s approach to gender. Moynihan’s defenders mostly omit his alarm about matriarchy, noting, if they do so at all, that such views were hardly exceptional at the time and therefore should not be cast as conservative.

Yet when Moynihan wrote his report, the rising social movements of the 1960s had already begun to challenge patriarchy. That Moynihan chose to emphasize the dangers of homes run by mothers and the tragedy of young boys — who, as he later said, “[have] never had anyone but women telling them what to do” — is not something to be explained away by saying he was no more sexist than the next middle-aged man.

For at the heart of this defense is the mistaken belief that because Moynihan was a liberal, he could not also be a reactionary. But by clinging to the patriarchy built into the postwar welfare state, Moynihan was resisting feminism at the same moment he was arguing for further action against poverty.

Indeed, Moynihan being a typical liberal for his time is precisely why he is so significant. Reading through the report, the legacy of liberalism’s complicity with racism can be seen throughout Moynihan’s prose.

As Ira Katznelson exhaustively documents in his book When Affirmative Action Was White, the very existence of the New Deal required that the Democratic Party assure its Southern members that the new legislation would not interfere with white supremacy.

Current narratives of the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement imply that with the demise of Jim Crow, liberalism renounced this deal with the devil. But this is a myth we like to tell ourselves. Not only have contemporary liberals deployed rhetoric about pathology and the culture of poverty in a manner nearly indistinguishable from conservatives, but they also invented the particular talking points on which this discourse depends.

Those who want to rescue Moynihan from opprobrium still insist that he had nothing to do with this development precisely because he was a liberal. He represents the good liberalism, the liberalism America had before the New Right corrupted it. Indeed, as the Democratic Party drifts ever rightward, many on the center-left are calling quite explicitly for a reinvigorated return to this lost liberalism — a New Deal cure for neoliberalism.

No wonder, then, that defenses of Moynihan appear in liberal publications with such predictable regularity: to save Moynihan from “misunderstanding” is, in effect, to rescue postwar liberalism itself. Unfortunately, the historical record shows that postwar liberalism constructed an exclusionary, stigmatizing welfare state.

Moreover, Moynihan’s defenders mistakenly assume that his intent is the most important thing to grasp. In an Atlantic piece last year, for example, Peter-Christian Aigner suggests that both conservatives and leftists are ignorant of Moynihan’s true objectives and mentions archives that will give us “a much fuller, clearer, and bolder illustration of his thinking and hopes.”

But as social-justice activists have long pointed out, motive is neither the most important factor to consider when evaluating a piece of work nor a magical potion that instantly neutralizes all harmful content. Of far more historical significance is what Moynihan’s report actually ended up doing.

And on this point, the richest irony of the annual defenses of Moynihan becomes clear. When the Johnson administration leaked it — just weeks before the Watts Rebellion — critics of “The Negro Family” predicted the effect it would have on public discourse. They correctly read the political shift that signaled the beginning of a white backlash; criticizing the report, therefore, was not a misreading of pure intentions, but rather an attempt to stem the tide of a clearly developing threat.

As William Ryan, one of Moynihan’s harshest critics, wrote, “the popularization of the Moynihan Report — if not the document itself — will provide fat fodder for [a] new racist ideology, tempting Americans to construct one more version of the Puritan myth that riches and poverty are both deserved.”

This, it turns out, is exactly what happened. Yet what we usually hear was not that Moynihan’s critics were eerily prescient, but that Moynihan was.

In essays and entire books dedicated to the Moynihan report, the problems of poor African Americans are discussed while grossly underemphasizing poverty, gentrification, and the devastation of entire communities by a monstrous war on drugs that sweeps extraordinary numbers of black men into the carceral system. Instead, the one obvious thing that Moynihan got right is emphasized — families without a reliable income tend to have a hard time.

Instead of lauding Moynihan’s good intentions while excusing his tactics, liberals should think about why his report has been crucial to legitimizing a political discourse that routinely attacks the black poor — and what it says about American liberalism. For the problem lies not in a conversation we refuse to have, but in the racist assumptions that structure the ones we keep having — over, and over, and over again.