The Moynihan Report and the Question of Black Masculinity
By the 1960s, concepts of self-image, self-esteem, and self-identity were commonplace in discussions of race. Pushed along by Brown, these themes were also advanced through the popularization of psychotherapy and the publication of a virtual flood of behavioral and clinical studies. Best-sellers like Robert Lindner's The Fifty-Minute
Hour (1955), a collection of psychoanalytic case studies, presented prejudice as, above all, an irrational psychological condition. Explorations of racial psychology also found institutional support in new federal bureaucracies—especially the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)—established after World War II to support civilian behavioral research and promote mental health in the U.S. citizenry. Self-esteem was a concern that migrated from the theoretical terrain of personality development to take up residence in policy debates about black unemployment, poverty, and education in the New Frontier and the Great Society. And self-esteem typically encompassed the emphasis on gender and family issues that was so central to the work of postwar experts.
The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, popularly known as the Moynihan Report, was probably the most controversial example of postwar behavioral research transformed into public policy, and its ideas have proven remarkably tenacious, outlasting the debate over social policy in the 1960s by several decades. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a young political scientist who went to Washington after Kennedy's election and upon receipt of his Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Moynihan was representative of the new breed of "social scientist-politico" who populated military and civilian bureaucracies in the 1950s and 1960s, promoting the idea that social and behavioral science should play a much larger role in government: diagnosing problems, suggesting solutions, evaluating programs.
In March 1963 Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz asked Moynihan to head the new Labor Department Office of Policy Planning and Research, and Moynihan became the youngest assistant secretary in the federal government. A year earlier, Moynihan had been involved in important policy debates among psychological experts as a member of the Kennedy administration's Interagency Task Force on Mental Health. That experience exposed him to the single most important innovation in the mental health field at the time—the replacement of institutionalized treatment of mentally ill individuals with community programs to prevent and contain emotional maladjustments, a radical shift in policy that served to implicate all individuals (not just crazy ones) in the quest for psychological health. In his new job at the Department of Labor, Moynihan read Selective Service Director General Lewis Hershey's 1963 report on the dismal mental and physical state of the U.S. military, a report so shockingly reminiscent of World War II military statistics (a 50 percent rejection rate, for example) that Moynihan decided
to do something about it. The something was a novel mixture of welfare and warfare. "The thought of using the Selective Service System as a national screening device came instantly to mind. To link social issues to military preparedness was, well, an idea I called Theodore C. Sorensen at the White House [about]. He liked it."
Moynihan went on to contribute to a task force report, One-Third of a Nation: A Report on Young Men Found Unqualified for Military, Service, which emphasized how effective the military might be as a social welfare program—preparing young men for jobs and offering them opportunities for education and training. Several years later, telltale traces of these recommendations showed up in Project 100,000, a Defense Department program that lowered military admissions standards with the goal of uplifting the "subterranean poor" and curing them, in the words of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, of the "idleness, ignorance, and apathy" that marked their lives. It was not coincidental that Moynihan found inspiration and reason for hope in exactly such products of military psychology. They linked warfare to welfare, neatly illustrating an important, recurring theme in the history of psychology: the reverberation of wartime developments in distinctly nonmilitary policy spheres. In the short run, One-Third of a Nation functioned as a blueprint for the War on Poverty and as a model for Moynihan's next project: a report on the black family.
In writing the report, Moynihan undoubtedly drew on his own recent experience analyzing the problems of a gender-specific subject— young men unfit to serve in the military. He also drew, freely and consciously, on the insights that E. Franklin Frazier, Kenneth Clark, and others had offered into the gender dynamics of the black family. The Moynihan Report thus reproduced many of the features of the postwar literature reviewed in this chapter. It blamed slavery for lowering self-esteem and increasing dependence, accepted patriarchy as normal and natural, identified black families as matriarchal and deviant, and called for the employment of responsible male breadwinners as the solution to a host of social problems in the black community. It is worth quoting the Moynihan Report at some length in order to illustrate the centrality of gender in the link Moynihan forged between welfare and warfare.
At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family. . . . In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great
many Negro women as well. . . . Given the strains of the disorganized and ma-trifocal 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 predictable, and where rewards, if limited, are granted on the basis of performance. The theme of a current Army recruiting message states it as clearly as can be: "In the U.S. Army you get to know what it means to feel like a man."
Very little, if anything, that Moynihan wrote about the black family was new, although he did pepper the report with more copious charts, graphs, and statistical correlations than had previous writers. Moynihan did call the black family damaged and disorganized, but hadn't Frazier pointed out the terribly destructive consequences of slavery and urbanization twenty-five years earlier? Moynihan used the term "tangle of pathology," but hadn't Kenneth Clark articulated a comprehensive approach to the "social pathology" of the black ghetto which had been hinted at in An American Dilemma? Moynihan pointed out that the family was a useful target of government intervention, but hadn't one of the most appealing things about the family always been that it seemed particularly susceptible to conscious change by outside agents?
The charges of racism that swirled around the public debate over the Moynihan Report were especially ironic because Moynihan allowed race far less autonomy as a factor in historical development than had the other experts—Myrdal, Frazier, and colleagues—on whose work the report depended. Based on his own recent study of the history of various immigrant groups, Moynihan believed that nothing about the black family's problems was specifically "racial." One journalist even summarized Moynihan's view as follows: "Paddy and Sambo are the same people." Like other desperately poor individuals, blacks living in poverty needed decent jobs, educational opportunities, and the hope of attaining some measure of security in life. What Moynihan wanted to do was turn a ghettoized black underclass into an urban industrial working class, hence providing the basis for an interracial economic alliance, much as Frazier had suggested. His vision of a stable black working class did not imply that voting rights or desegregation, the core demands of the civil rights movement, should be rejected. Indeed, Moynihan supported these aims. But he insisted that guaranteeing the symbols of legal equality, while doing little to promote concrete opportunities for economic participation, was merely a way of repeating the
tragic errors of Reconstruction. Black people's basic problems, according to Moynihan, were about class, not color.
Gender was implicated in either case, however. The destruction undisciplined men would wreak on a community—any community—was as evident in the histories of Irish and Italian immigrants as it was in black urban ghettos during the 1960s. Moynihan warned,
There is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future—that community asks for and gets chaos. Crime, violence, unrest, disorder—most particularly the furious, unrestrained lashing out at the whole social structure—that is only to be expected; it is very near to inevitable. And it is richly deserved.
He had personal reasons to know. Moynihan had grown up in the poor, heavily Irish Hell's Kitchen neighborhood in Manhattan, the product of a female-headed family. During his teenage years, he worked in his mother's bar, where he and his brother frequently intervened in rough disputes between customers and got a firsthand look at the anarchy of unchecked masculinity.
The assumptions that Moynihan and his contemporaries made about gender were deep and consequential, but they went largely unquestioned at the time. There were, however, a few exceptions: women who insisted, in 1965, that female "domination" was a perverse male fantasy and that reinforcing male supremacy in the domestic sphere simply scapegoated women (like Moynihan's own mother) who were forced to earn an independent living in order to support their children. One such critic was Mary Keyserling, director of the Women's Bureau in the Department of Labor. She tried to expose and counter Moynihan's gendered assumptions about economic roles in the family by arguing that wage-earning black women were not a problem, that "our under-utilization as a Nation of the great national resource which is our womanpower" is an "item of unfinished business." Only men like Moynihan, Keyserling tersely pointed out, were saying that black women were "over-employed." Abandoning the workforce to become dependent wives and mothers was no solution, in Keyserling's view, because the obstacles facing black women were at least as great in the case of earning decent wages as they were in the case of finding reliable male breadwinners. She calmly noted that improving the employment
status of men was a noble goal, but it should not come at women's expense. Black women, after all, were concentrated in the lowest-paid, most dead-end jobs. They needed economic advocacy as much, if not more, than others.
These were exactly the criticisms that would become standard feminist arguments just a few years later. In 1965, however, Keyserling's was a rather solitary voice. Most women active in the civil rights movement, understandably enough, would not have welcomed a choice between endorsing black women's economic dependence or abandoning the code of racial solidarity, and until the appearance of an autonomous women's movement several years later, these appeared to be the only choices. Nevertheless, research on black women's organizations has shown that the controversy over the Moynihan Report served to push many black women toward feminist consciousness several years prior to women's liberation. It was only a matter of time, of course, before a chorus of feminist denunciations of Moynihan would appear.
In 1965 though, the deafening silence that greeted Moynihan's gendered ideology helps to explain why Moynihan did not seem to realize, either while writing his report or afterwards, that gender, sexuality, and the family would be such hot button issues and the unacknowledged source of a great deal of the controversy. Alarm over families, and over what occurred within them—between men and women, parents and children—doubtlessly reminded the report's critics of the self-improvement approaches of psychological experts because the explosion of postwar clinical work was tied so firmly to personal difficulties and domestic adjustments. Because the women's movement had not yet turned issues like sex-role socialization into questions with legitimate public standing, it was no wonder that so many of Moynihan's critics reacted to his emphasis on sex roles and family skeptically, as a dangerous detour into the private sphere. They worried that, whatever Moynihan's intentions, policy-makers would respond to the report by endorsing counseling or therapeutic treatment because they viewed black Americans' real problem as "ego inadequacy" or "deviance" rather than an absence of equal opportunities.
After decades of performing as walking, talking examples of racism's psychological destruction, black Americans had had enough. Part of the national spasm over the Moynihan Report was surely due to the fact that it appeared during a moment of critical transition in the civil rights movement. Black Americans were no longer willing to wait patiently as experts observed their behavior, peered into their psyches, and moni-
tored levels of social pathology in their communities. William Ryan, a psychologist and one of the most prominent of Moynihan's critics, articulated the anxiety that psychology would displace politics, and bluntly caricatured psychological experts as follows.
Writers about the Negro family dwell on the issue of sexual identification as if they had just stepped off the boat from Vienna forty years ago. They are more kosher than a rabbi, holier than a pope, more psychoanalytic than Freud himself. It sometimes appears that they worry more about the resolution of Negro Oedipus complexes than they do about black men getting decent jobs. . . . They see psychological functions, particularly sex-role induction, as far more prominent than other more important functions of the family.
For many civil rights advocates who criticized the Moynihan Report, "family disorganization," "social pathology," and "the culture of poverty" were code terms. They intimated that since black Americans' problems were primarily personal and psychological, institutional racism and discrimination could be deemphasized or even eliminated as a terrain of government action. Many mainstream civil rights activists shared Moynihan's belief in the naturalness and superiority of patriarchal gender and family arrangements; even black power advocates frequently recommended a heavy dose of patriarchy as the best antidote to the poison that whites had forced on the black community. Almost all, however, emphatically objected to the notion that matriarchal families were the source of black Americans' problems. The vast majority of black families were still headed by men and, in any case, the causal relationship went in the other direction. Racial oppression produced social pathology rather than vice versa. To put the family under a microscope threatened to undermine the very foundations of the Great Society by "blaming the victim."
Moynihan's goal all along had been to design a universal system of social provision to care for Americans at the bottom of the class ladder, regardless of race. His choice to promote family policy as a means to that end had more to do with practical, political considerations than anything else. Families, it has been pointed out, were relatively straightforward targets of intervention and measurement. Further, family policy had a chance of winning support in a Congress dominated by a conservative majority of Republicans and southern Democrats, whereas general social welfare measures, presented as such, did not. Moynihan understood this very clearly. In later years, the War on Poverty's abandonment of class issues (for Moynihan, these were repre-
sented by jobs programs and income guarantees) and its embrace of community action programs and ideas like "maximum feasible participation" (which Moynihan rejected as an example of importing useless social-scientific concepts into government programs) was, for Moynihan, proof positive that he, and the War on Poverty, had failed. Convinced that race had been overemphasized, Moynihan wrote a memo in 1970, as an advisor to the Nixon White House, urging the federal government to treat the circumstances of black Americans with "benign neglect."
In 1965, when Moynihan began work on the black family report, his purpose was, quite simply, "to win the attention of those in power." He wrote it "for an audience of a dozen, at most two dozen, men who in their brief authority had become accustomed to . . . making large decisions on the basis of manifestly inadequate information." It was never intended to go beyond a tiny circle of high-level policy-makers, although it eventually did. Between March 1965, when the report was initially approved and printed, and July 1965, no more than eighty numbered copies had been distributed in the Department of Labor and the White House. What opened the report to a firestorm of public criticism, and what made Moynihan a household name after July, was largely a fluke of timing. The Watts riot exploded on August 11, just two days after Newsweek had summarized the Moynihan Report. Watts was the most destructive riot in the United States since the 1943 riot in Detroit. Demand for copies of the report skyrocketed immediately; seventy. thousand copies of it were eventually printed.
This coincidence of timing generated a widespread perception that Moynihan's "tangle of pathology" was the Johnson administration's official explanation for the violence, arson, looting, and death that had appeared with such ferocity in Watts. The establishment news media certainly adopted this view. The Wall Street Journal announced that "Family Life Breakdown in Negro Slums Sows Seeds of Violence—Husbandless Homes Spawn Young Hoodlums, Impede Reforms, Sociologists Say"; the Washington Post reported that "the Los Angeles riots reinforce the President's feeling of the urgent need to help restore Negro families' stability." Moynihan encouraged such conclusions by pointing out the dramatic rates of female-headed families and illegitimacy in Watts, and by offering his customary warnings about the dangers of unchecked masculinity. In a 1967 article, Moynihan reflected that "Watts made the report a public issue, and gave it a name."
Watts also made him into an instant riot expert. Embittered by the avalanche of protest over the report, Moynihan left Washington to head the Massachusetts Institute of Technology/Harvard Joint Center for Urban Studies, where he spent the next several years designing a plan of expert first aid for the country's crisis-ridden cities. Central to his new public authority was the real desperation of federal, state, and local administrators to find anyone who might help. During the Detroit riots, in the summer of 1967, Moynihan was urgently called to that city by a mayor in need of advice. That fall, Life produced the following solemn headline: "A Troubled Nation Turns to Pat Moynihan."
Even more than timing, the fear and angry reaction that ghetto riots provoked in white Americans seemed to vindicate Moynihan's perspective as well as erase any remaining hopes that the conscience of white America could be moved in antiracist directions. Deep reserves of feeling that black men were especially disordered in attitude and uncontrollable in behavior had been fortified by experts' emphasis on irresponsible, nonmarital sexuality, illegitimacy, and the burgeoning literature on black "matriarchy." These reserves were obviously much easier to tap than the "American Creed," if the latter even existed at all. Hadn't Moynihan at least offered a plausible explanation for this moment of crisis? What was rioting, after all, if not convincing proof that black families had twisted the masculinity of their sons to the point of extreme irrationality and violence?
Moynihan's solution, too, rang true for many. The transformation from marginal, defiant loners to integrated and responsible breadwinners would be produced by upward mobility, a move which required money but whose essence lay in wholesale changes of attitude and loyalty. As one Moynihan observer put it, "In the lower class, they don't take care of property; in the working class they do. In the lower class, the men don't work; in the working class, they're trying to get overtime. It's the difference between the rioter and the cop." Just how large policy-makers thought this attitudinal gap was, and how profoundly implicated in it were postwar investigations of the sources of prejudice among whites and personality damage and gender nonconformity among blacks, can be seen in the work of the Kerner Commission, the federal government's major response to ghetto riots after 1965.