You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Legitimacy, At Last

Although this is not his intention, James Patterson shows that it was in the wake of Daniel Moynihan’s signature report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action that the race debate got “deep.” Here began the unspoken acquiescence, now automatic in the thinking American’s consciousness, to certain buzzwords and deft elisions, upheld on the pain of being tarred as a moral degenerate.

Patterson’s book chronicles Moynihan’s composition of the report, its reception, and its cultural legacies. It’s an odd work, one part biographical sketch, one part historical chronicle of a crucial moment in America’s race debate, and finally, one part reportage on assorted race-related Issues of the Day since the 1970s. The book is most valuable for the second part, the historical chronicle. The controversy that The Negro Family stirred up was, in many ways, a national tragedy. I have always cringed at the thought of this controversy, and been thankful that I was too young to understand it or participate in it.

The spark for the furore was Moynihan’s claim—from what he thought of as the side of the angels—that black problems in 1965 were not due only to racism. Alarmed by the fact that nearly a quarter of black births were to single parents, and given that studies (bolstered by a great many since) were demonstrating fewer opportunities for such children, he argued that: 

At the center of the tangle of pathology is the weakness of the family structure. Once or twice removed, it will be found to be the principal source of most of the aberrant, inadequate, or antisocial behavior that did not establish, but now serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and deprivation.

Specifically, Moynihan noted that the social problem, albeit rooted in a legacy of brutal discrimination, was now “feeding on itself” and demanded immediate address.          

That this argument was too subtle for many is a stain on an era that was otherwise so unprecedently enlightened. What threw the left were the eternal temptations of ahistoricity: taking the observation of a negative trait as a slur even when clearly linked to past injustice. Even today this fallacy remains so influential that, for example, Richard Thompson Ford required an entire book, called The Race Card, to cut persuasively through its error—and yet we saw, from the grouchy response of the usual suspects to Barack Obama’s NAACP speech last year, that the battle has still to be won. Obama's address urged that blacks embrace personal responsibility, despite the bad hand that history dealt black America.

Along those lines, the furious opposition to the Moynihan report was heavier on editorializing than scholarship: from 1965 to 1980, amidst the more than fifty books and five hundred journal articles in response, only a few were based on primary research. A prime locus of agreement was that Moynihan, the grandiloquent Irishman deigning to pronounce on black “pathology,” was a benighted racist. (In Cambridge one of his children was even snubbed for a playdate.)

Yet black writers had been writing reports that could have gone out under the same title as Moynihan’s since W.E.B. Du Bois, who noted as far back as 1908 that one in four black births were illegitimate in Washington, D.C. He even described this as evidence of “lax moral habits.” E. Franklin Frazier and Kenneth Clark made similar points in later decades. Moreover, Moynihan was explicit in acknowledging that there were legions of middle-class blacks. What moved him was the “scissors” pattern on a graph comparing illegitimacy rates with employment: fewer black children were being raised in two-parent homes even as black employment was rising.

Most importantly, Moynihan intended the report to be what he subtitled it: a case for action. Yet the response among good-thinking people was so bitter that it scrambled constructive debate over the black family thereafter. Enter now-familiar rituals such as identifying—aptly—the difficulty that single, never-married black mothers with little education face when trying to support three children, while treating—genuflectively—the fact that she has three children at all as her reproductive “choice,” and chiding ourselves for “racializing” the problem despite that in 2006, only a third of black children were born to two parents as compared to two-thirds of Hispanic children.

The conservative response to the report was not pretty, either. We all applaud that blacks attained liberté from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and in its wake, égalité—the means to opportunity—by means of affirmative action and changes in racial attitudes. The knottiest problem now is fraternité: whether we can completely abolish private racist sentiment. But in 1965, conservatives had yet to get up to speed even on the égalité part, taking Moynihan’s report as a statement rather than as a “case for action.” The legacy today is the unspoken implication of many conservatives’ critiques of black family life—that if blacks will not effect a massive cultural transformation on their own steam, the rest of America can sleep peacefully while letting them stew in isolation and stagnation.          

Patterson’s theme is that the solution to the black family problem has remained an eternal headscratcher, with ideological posturing preventing effective solutions. This is a symptom of his faultlessly non-partisan approach, allowing all sides their say. (I cannot help wondering, though, why, while nominally extending this courtesy to my work, he repeatedly limns me as a kind of unreflective trash-talking grandpa, attributing to me, even in quotation marks, things I have never written, such as that young black men only care about “basketball, rap music and sex.” Not only would I never write such a thing, but I’m not sure I’ve even ever written the word basketball until right now). Although well-taken, his grim theme distracts him from a factor that deserves more attention than he lends it, a factor that has played a crucial part in the legacy of Moynihan’s report.          

That momentous factor is this: After the 1960s, the percentage of black children with one parent exploded from a quarter to—by the 1990s—nearly three-fourths, vastly out of step with the availability of work, the prevalence of racism, or equivalent single-parentage figures for any other race. Multigenerational welfare dependency and all-but-fatherless neighborhoods became a norm in poor black communities. Surely the burden of proof is upon those who would argue that this was unconnected with the relaxation of eligibility rules for AFDC benefits in the 1960s.

There is no evidence that couples deliberately opted—for economic reasons—not to marry, as Charles Murray famously argued in Losing Ground. Yet a program that after 1966 gave women stipends for any number of children regardless of the availability of their father(s), and never required them to work again, certainly affected their choices. Indeed, it created a new norm, in a gradual social and cultural transformation larger than any single person. A classic riposte is that welfare could not have been the culprit since it became slightly less generous over the 1970s—but this is a debate-team feint, implying that people were sitting at their kitchen tables tabulating how many tens of dollars more they would have received in 1969 versus 1973.

The existential issue for those people was how to get by from one day to the next, and to the extent that one could do so, post '60s welfare was crucial in making the two-parent family an oddity in black inner cities. This is clear in observations that Patterson presents in passing, such as that state-level experiments in the late '60s with income guarantees for single mothers discouraged them from seeking work; or that in the “Vanishing Family” television documentary in 1986, America watched a sensible black mother on welfare casually say that welfare made it easy to have kids.   

As such, the refashioning of AFDC in 1996 into a five-year program with required job training was the most important event in black American history between the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the election of Barack Obama. In that light, Patterson is too saturnine about the Moynihan’s report’s legacy. By 2004 the welfare rolls had gone down by two-thirds, and contrary to fears that people off the rolls would starve or languish in squalor (Moynihan was among those who thought they would), black childhood poverty went down to 30 percent from 41 percent, and ex-recipients have regularly reported greater self-esteem and are thankful for the new regime. 

Welfare reform has made little impact on single motherhood so far, and most ex-recipients are still poor–but their children watch them go to work every day. That matters; and Moynihan’s report had much to do with making it happen, despite its author’s opposition to the eventual policy change. Bill Cosby’s testy speeches notwithstanding, no one of influence today is any longer purporting that ghetto teen pregnancy is a manifestation of communal strength traceable to the era of slavery. Nor, despite Patterson’s dim view of the current debate over the black family, does the typical modern Republican call for discontinuing welfare entirely.         

That is, the Moynihan report’s call for establishing black equality in addition to liberty became, after the dust settled, part of America’s DNA. America in the age of Obama, with the Second Chance Act assisting ex-cons and No Child Left Behind refashioned rather than abolished, shows no signs of giving up on what Patterson’s subtitle terms the “struggle over black family life.” Patterson’s impression that Moynihan’s legacy has been a mere argumentational holding-pattern, a token in a stalled debate, is not historically accurate. Since the time when a report like Moynihan’s was big news, we may have a long way to go—but we’ve come a long way too.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The New Republic.