Bon Vovage
An African-American family, circa 1945, on the walk in front of their home. (Lambert, Getty photo / December 31, 1969)
History doesn't allow do-overs. But if it did, I wonder how many of the black critics who came down like a ton of bricks on Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965, when he published his policy paper on "the Negro family," would do the same today with the benefit of almost 50 years of hindsight.
If what has happened in recent days to Don Lemon is any indication, Moynihan would catch no less hell.
Lemon, the CNN weekend news anchor, had the audacity to agree with some criticism — I might even dignify it with the term "analysis" — by Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly to the effect that much of the "chaos" in the "black precincts" these days is the result of the disintegration of the black family and the unstructured upbringing that too many young black men experience as a result.
Lemon not only agreed with O'Reilly, but went him one better, offering five proposals that he said would improve black life and black communities. The five:
• To black youngsters, pull up your pants;
• Stop using the N-word;
• Respect where you live by, for example, not littering;
• Finish high school and thereby improve your earning power; and
• Put off having children until you're married, and don't add to the grim statistic that shows 73 percent of black children born in this country now are born to single women, vastly increasing the odds that they will fail in school and in life.
Now to black people of a certain age like me, these things seem entirely sensible and unexceptionable. It's what we grew up hearing from our elders, whether they had had the opportunity to be educated or not. To them, it was common sense and anyone who would say otherwise, even if he had a Ph.D., was nothing more than an "educated fool."
Attack mode
But to have read some of the responses to Lemon on Facebook and black-oriented websites, you'd have thought he had called for the resurrection of Uncle Tom and the rebuilding of his cabin too. Within the last few days, I've seen a new epithet applied to Lemon, a new put-down. Lemon, it is said, advocates a "politics of respectability." It seems that his advice — not littering, pulling up your pants, not using the N-word, finishing high school and getting married before you have kids — was Lemon's attempt to make himself feel good, not to really help the people he was addressing. How that merits the title "politics of respectability" I'm not sure, but what the heck.
One of Lemon's more sensible critics, the black hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, took him to task in an open letter, in the course of which he said: "If you want to tell the rest of America this weekend when you go back on CNN how we fix black America, tell them to restart the 'War on Poverty.' "
Funny Simmons should mention that, because that's where Moynihan comes in. Moynihan, who later became a United States senator from New York and famously went against his president by voting against the 1996 welfare reform law, was a young assistant secretary of labor in March 1965 when he wrote for President Lyndon B. Johnson a document titled "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action."
The burden of the document was that the legal structure for assuring black equality was being erected as a result of the Civil Rights movement. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been enacted and signed into law the year before and the Voting Rights Act would become law just a few months later.
The nation now needed to turn to assuring that blacks could enjoy the fruits of equal opportunity with something approaching equality of results. However, Moynihan said after reviewing a host of sociological and economic data, "in terms of ability to win out in the competitions of American life, (the Negro people) are not equal to most of those groups with which they will be competing."
The key competitive weakness of the black population, he said, lay in the "Negro social structure, in particular the Negro family," which he said had been "battered and harassed by discrimination, injustice and uprooting" and was "in the deepest trouble."
The family was key because "(t)he family is the basic social unit of American life; it is the basic socializing unit. By and large, adult conduct in society is learned as a child."
And the weakest link in the weak black family structure was the black male, whose role as husband, father, provider, head of household, disciplinarian had been systematically undermined over centuries of slavery and segregation, the quasi-slavery that followed Reconstruction.
Moynihan made clear that he was not talking about all "Negroes" when he described this weakness. "It might be estimated," he said, "that as much as half of the Negro community falls into the middle class. However, the remaining half is in desperate and deteriorating circumstances."
And he left no doubt as to where the blame for this weakness lay: in slavery and its segregated aftermath. "American slavery was profoundly different from, and in its lasting effects on individuals and their children, indescribably worse than, any recorded servitude, ancient or modern," Moynihan wrote.
A call to action
It was those lasting effects that produced the disadvantages under which Negroes labored in 1965, and which, Moynihan said, required "national action."
Significantly, Moynihan did not offer any concrete plan of national action. The purpose of his paper, he said, was diagnosis, not prescription.
And yet, given Moynihan's role in conceptualizing the War on Poverty and Johnson's masterful politicking to get it created, it is not unreasonable to suppose that a prescription — had the opportunity offered by that moment been seized — would have involved policies and programs aimed at strengthening the position of black men in the labor market, and therefore in their families.
But that opportunity was not seized. And while the reasons have been debated for decades and will be for decades more, it was at least in part because many black critics took exception to Moynihan's characterization of the black family structure as "matriarchal" and characterized by a "tangle of pathology." His paper, the critics said, amounted to "blaming the victim."
No amount of genuflecting to the horrors of slavery as the cause of black disadvantage could rescue Moynihan's call for "national action."
Neither could Moynihan's own track record in the War on Poverty and the fact that he had the ear of a president prepared to spend political capital in the cause of black advancement. (Barack Obama can only dream of having the kind of political capital — and the ability to wheel and deal with it — that Lyndon B. Johnson enjoyed.)
Neither could his prescient observation about matriarchy versus patriarchy. "There is, presumably, no special reason why a society in which males are dominant in family relationships is to be preferred to a matriarchal arrangement," he wrote. "However, it is clearly a disadvantage for a minority group to be operating on one principle, while the great majority of the population, and the one with the most advantages to begin with, is operating on another."
And lastly, neither could Moynihan's invocation of legendary black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier in support of his thesis save his call for "national action." Quoting from an article by Frazier in 1950:
"As the result of family disorganization a large proportion of Negro children and youth have not undergone the socialization which only the family can provide. The disorganized families have failed to provide for their emotional needs and have not provided the discipline and habits which are necessary for personality development. Because the disorganized family has failed in its function as a socializing agency, it has handicapped the children in their relations to the institutions in the community. Moreover, family disorganization has been partially responsible for a large amount of juvenile delinquency and adult crime among Negroes. Since the widespread family disorganization among Negroes has resulted from the failure of the father to play the role in family life required by American society, the mitigation of this problem must await those changes in the Negro and American society which will enable the Negro father to play the role required of him."
Bad news
In a scenario that Don Lemon would recognize, Moynihan and his "case for national action" were shouted down and sent packing. Then, as now, the attitude of the critics was like that of the witch Evilene in "The Wiz": "Don't nobody bring me no bad news!"
There is a haunting line on the last page of Moynihan's paper. Referring to Frazier's quote above, Moynihan writes: "Nothing was done in response to Frazier's argument. Matters were left to take care of themselves, and as matters will, grew worse not better."
Nothing was done in response to Moynihan's argument. As a result, we have gone from a situation in which one in every four black children was born out of wedlock to one in which three of every four are. As a result, instead of "national action" along the lines of the War on Poverty, we got national action in the form of a war on drugs. Instead of concerted action to improve black men's position in the labor market, we have a society in which even the armed forces no longer exist as an employer — and socializer — of last resort. And young boys who have never had the consistent, civilizing discipline of a loving father subject their communities to a reign of terror, firing guns wantonly and taking down 4-year-olds and 6-month-olds.
But, hey, don't nobody bring me no bad news. Sing me a lullaby instead, about a new War on Poverty. Take me to fantasyland.
Don Wycliff teaches journalism at Loyola University Chicago.