A Tangle of Hypothesis: How the Moynihan Report Fell Short

In March 1965 the United States Department of Labor released a report entitled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Informally known as the Moynihan report, in reference to 37-year-old Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel P. Moynihan, the documents primary, although unattributed author. Much has been written of Moynihan’s background, politics and intentions since the release of the enduringly controversial report and great care has been taken to acknowledge it within the context of when it was written. In 2015 historian James T. Patterson wrote that “Moynihan cherished a “can-do” faith in the capacity of expert knowledge and governmental action to improve the quality of life. Having grown…up in a broken (Catholic) family…he believed (that) solid families were the basic institutions of social organization” (Patterson 7). Legal scholars June Carbone and Naomi Cahn cite his age and ambition for the controversial language and tone of the document, describing him as a “brash, young assistant secretary of labor who wanted to catch the president’s attention.” Even within those parameters of context and hypothetical intent, a close textual analysis reveals a document fraught with ambiguities, bias and damaging ethnocentric assumptions about an entire race of people who had been brutalized and marginalized by white society for centuries.

The controversies within the document lie in three main areas: First, it avoids attributing the plight of the African American family to deep-seeded structural and institutional bias. Second: white, middle class gender and familial norms–treated as fact and without structural context–are provided as a backdrop against which lower class “negro” families are measured throughout the report. A subset of this defect is the report’s erratic treatment of race vs. class. Third: in spite of its idealistic language the lack of policy solutions coupled with ambiguous arguments, language and data points leave the overall intent of the document vulnerable to political interpretation.

“The United States is approaching a new crisis in race relations.” With those alarming words Moynihan opens his report. He continues to say “that the demand of Negro Americans for the full recognition of their civil rights was finally met” thus bookending and fragmenting a struggle that should be viewed as a continuum. Offering the legislative accomplishments of the civil rights movement as a victory indicates an end being met. While the document goes on to acknowledge that virulent racism does still exist, he moves quickly to label the “fundamental problem…is that of family structure…in the urban ghettos” (USDOL p.0). By moving from lauding grand legislative victories of “the nation”, glossing over that same nation’s “savage and brutal” resistance to that legislation is an ambiguous opening at best. Shortly after the Moynihan report was released Psychologist William Ryan, wrote that it “…encourages a new form of subtle racism that…seduces the reader that it is not racism and discrimination but the weaknesses and defects of the Negro himself that account for the present status of inequality between Negro and white” (Ryan, 380). By declaring the fundamental problem facing African American families in 1965 to be internal forces (the “negro family structure) vs. external forces (three centuries of brutality, systemic racism and structural exclusion) Moynihan sets the stage for what Ryan later termed “blaming the victim.” Furthermore, by declaring the next phase in the battle for equality “a new kind of problem” and “a new departure for federal policy” the report provides — inadvertently or not — political cover for those who may see further action beyond the jurisdiction of the federal government (USDOL p.0). Especially conservatives, who tend to believe government policy ends at the front door of the private home.

Of all the effects and aftermaths of slavery the report focuses on what it deems the most damning: the emergence of a matrifocal family structure in African American society. “It was by destroying the Negro family under slavery that white America broke the will of the Negro People” (USDOL 30). When the report declares the African American family a “tangle of pathology” it implicates the matriarch as being at the heart of the problem. By implicating the African American female as being an impediment not just to progress, but stability, Moynihan ignores a whole host of obstacles put in place by white society. For example, in a subsection of the report titled “Matriarchy”, “the cumulative result of discrimination in jobs…segregated housing, and the poor schooling of Negro men…” are placed squarely on the laps of “dominant wives.” Where it might seem logical to pivot and delve into the seen and unseen forces that allow the exclusion of African American males from white society, it doubles down by using charts detailing college enrollment (USDOL 32) and anecdotal evidence pertaining to the racial makeup of his own office in order to bolster his argument about the dangers of matriarchal dominance in African American society. Charts and visuals are used to indicate a correlation between the dropout rates among non-white males and the prevalence of the female-headed households (USDOL 31). While the charts add a sense of gravitas to the story line, they make a weak connection by ignoring obvious factors such as school performance and the psychological affects on African American males who are given very little incentive to pursue an education, let alone connect the dots between that education and stable employment. Thus, the attempt to link the claim that “Negro females are better students than there male counterparts” due to “matriarchal pattern(s)…being reinforce(d) fails upon light scrutiny and only results in simultaneously victimizing and villainizing African American families.

The fact that African American women are statistically finding more success in white-collar careers perhaps indicates a willingness of white society to accept them in roles deemed appropriate for women. African American women are being both incentivized and rewarded by society, while African American men are not. In similar fashion Moynihan focuses on the gains made by African American women in white-collar employment and frames them not as advancement, but as being at the expense of the African American male. As evidence of he cites the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity:

In this work force, Negro males outnumber Negro females by a ratio of 4 to 1. Yet, Negro males represent only 1.2 percent of all males in white collar occupations, white Negro females represent 3.1 percent of the total female white-collar work force. Negro males represent 1.1 percent of all male processionals, whereas Negro females represent roughly 6 percent of all female professionals. It would appear therefore that there are proportionally 4 times as many Negro females in significant white-collar jobs than Negro males (USDOL 32).

Again, the author could make a logical pivot here to delve into the inherent bias in hiring practices and the racial make-up of hiring managers. Instead, he offers as evidence department of labor employment statistics that verify the hiring practices of primarily white employers but offers little to bolster his argument that the black matriarchy are the oppressors (USDOL 33).

The prevalence and preference for white gendered and familial norms echo throughout the report. Instead of acknowledging that the emergence of a black female working class was an indication of their “creative vitality” it was deemed a pathological condition (USDOL 29). The report states that the “white family has achieved a high degree of stability and is maintaining that stability. By contrast, the family structure of lower-class Negroes is highly unstable and in many urban centers is approaching complete breakdown” (USDOL 5). While the author offers an aside that there is evidence a “stable (African American) middle class group is steadily growing stronger and more successful…” Nevertheless, throughout the report “non-whites” in poor urban centers are held up against a backdrop of “whites”. There is no attempt to break “whites” down by class or examine the number of divorces amongst white families throughout the period. While the authors defend the need to isolate and examine inner-city poverty because “the lumping of all Negroes together in one statistical measurement very probably conceals the extent of the disorganization among the lower class group” (USDOL 6) it makes no attempt to do the same for lower class whites whose situation may similarly be concealed by a growing and prosperous white middle class.

Illegitimate births, a topic the report covers in detail, are measured in great detail to paint a picture of non-white familial decay when held up against white statistics.

The number of illegitimate children per 1,000 live births increased by 11 among whites in the period 1940–63, but by 68 among non-whites. There are of course, limits to the dependability of these statistics. There are almost certainly a considerable number of Negro children who, although technically illegitimate, are in fact the offspring of stable unions. On the other hand, it may be assumed that many births that are in fact illegitimate are recorded otherwise. Probably the two opposites effects cancel each other out. (USDOL 8).

While the author allowed for statistical variances on one side (the African American side), no such acknowledgments are made regarding the white population. Even though issues such as access to birth control, relative ease of adoption and private health care facilities that might have hidden or covered up illegitimate births for whites might have had an effect on the numbers regarding white illegitimate births (Ryan 381).

Framing the success or failure of African American society through the lens of white gender and familial norms ignores the effects of institutional racisms on the black family. It also assumes moral superiority: that the non-white community relies on the white society to set an example as to what is right and what is possible. It is natural then to assume, as the report points out, that the “combined impact of poverty, failure and isolation among Negro youth has had the predictable outcome in a disastrous delinquency and crime rate” (USDOL 38). The report goes onto suggest that it is “probable that a majority of the crimes against the person, such as rape murder and aggravated assault are committed by Negroes”(emphasis added). Referencing data and crime statistics for white vs. “negro” arrests, the report connects African American crime to absence of a father in the home. While it is briefly touched upon, the report dismisses bias thusly: “The data that follows unquestionably are biased against Negroes, who are arraigned much more casually than are whites, but it may be doubted that the bias is great enough to affect the general proportions (USDOL 38). By citing nothing more than arrest records the report fails to paint a complete picture of crime and delinquency in both black and white culture. For instance, if African Americans make up 11% of the population yet constitute “37% of all persons in a federal and State prison” this should lead the authors to question the possibility of a racial bias in the justice system (USDOL 38, 42). While there may be a correlation between crime and the broken home, causation is left unproven and other factors are left unexplored.

According to the report the inability of the African American male to achieve full breadwinner status has denied him the respect of society at large and exclusion from the Armed Forces is a huge missed opportunity. The report points out, “the Armed Forces Qualification Test is not quire a mental test, nor yet an education test. It is a test of ability to perform at an acceptable level of competence…A grown man who cannot pass this test is in trouble. Fifty-six percent of Negroes fail it” (USDOL 40). If entry into Armed Forces “is the only experience open to the Negro American in which he is truly treated as an equal: not as a Negro equal to a white but as one man equal to any other man” a more thorough exploration of the barriers to entry is warranted including recruiting practices and the entry test itself. Political Scientist Gwendolyn Mink points out that leading up World War I, “many whites objected to the idea that their sons might be drafted to fight and die while young African American men stayed at home… (ultimately resulted in)…a heterogeneous army” (Mink 14). Barrier to entry is a much more complex issue than the authors are willing to explore and any attempt to link it solely to short comings in the African American community fails to offer a full and honest portrayal. Nevertheless, Moynihan leaves no doubt as to whom the culprit is and what is at stake:

There is another special quality about military service for Negro men: it is an utterly masculine world. Given the strains of the disorganized and matrifocal family life in which so many Negro youth come of age, the Armed Forces are a dramatic and desperately needed change: a world away from women, a world run by strong men of unquestioned authority where discipline if harsh is nonetheless orderly and predicable and where reward if limited are granted on the basis of performance (USDOL 42)

If African American men were able to gain entry in greater numbers, the Armed Forces would allow them the opportunity “to know what it feels like to be a man” (USDOL 43).

Throughout the report, the statistics and language build a case for the normative, white middle class family as what’s right about America and that the African American family needs to be brought back into the fold. While Moynihan hints at policy he never offers a comprehensive plan to achieve his goals. This omission combined with his laser-beam focus on the African American family through a white, middle class lens distorts what seem to be his intentions: a legislative path that provides both “equality of opportunity” and “equality of results” (USDOL 3). His awkward and obvious avoidance of rampant systematic bias speaks to either his unlikely ignorance of it, or an attempt at political prowess–to keep the document politically palatable to as wide an audience of white, male, middle class politicians as possible. His focus on the pathology but not the cure is peculiar, especially given his awareness of the current political climate: “the overwhelming victory of President Johnson” (USDOL 2). He dances around revolutionary and controversial ideas such as affirmative action and a family wage. He decries the American wage system and hints at the need for a “worker’s income for the extra expenses of those with families,”–a basic minimum income (BMI). Moynihan had the opportunity to frame the report as a political call to action by offering a detailed roadmap forward. Instead he offered no specific solutions, creating a roadmap that left interpretation up to the driver.

Writer, mom, feminist. I write about life at the cross-section of art, politics, and power.

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