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Incidences de l'événement

Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry
Claudine Raynaud

IV. Événement(s) entre continuité et rupture/event(s) between continuity and rupture

The Moynihan Report as an Event: From the Civil Rights Movement to the Writing of History

Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry


L’auteur analyse la controverse qui suivit la parution du Rapport Moynihan (1965) dans la presse, en politique et parmi les militants noirs. L article examine ce texte comme un événement singulier, mais relié à une réalité sociale et politique, qui influença grandement le discours sur les Noirs et créa un intérêt marqué pour la famille africaine-américaine, d’abord en sociologie et en psychologie, puis en histoire, avec la parution d’études « révisionnistes » qui remettaient en cause les conclusions de Moynihan sur une famille noire « patho-logique » et délétère, quitte à offrir parfois une vue trop optimiste de ses capacités de résilience. Le Rapport Moynihan a ainsi souvent dominé les études sur les Noirs depuis 1965 et a conduit de nombreux analystes à enfermer le débat historiographique dans une vision manichéenne de la culture noire qui perdure encore parfois aujourd’hui, même si, par exemple, l’analyse de l’esclavage semble désormais échapper à des conclusions à sens unique.

The author analyzes the controversy that ensued from the Moynihan Report (1965) in the press, in politics, and among black militants. This report is seen as a singular event—but one that is tied to a specific social and political reality—that greatly influenced the discourse on the black community and created much interest for the African-American family, first in sociology and in psychology, and then in history, with the publication of “revisionist” studies that put into question Moynihan’s conclusions about a “pathological” black family, to the point, sometimes, of providing an over optimistic view of its resilience. The Moynihan Report has often dominated the historiographical debate on Blacks since 1965 and has led many authors to offer a Manichean vision of black culture that still sometimes persists today even if for example, the analysis of slavery seems from now on to defy simplistic conclusions.

Texte intégral

1In 1965, African Americans had been fighting for years to see their rights recognized and to have access to an equal status with Whites. Several programs had been enacted and various laws passed to end segregation starting with the Truman administration. However, African Americans were still pressuring the government for additional measures to be passed and, among other things, for a Voting Rights Bill to be enacted. The Johnson administration was also waging a War on Poverty and was conscious that many of the problems faced by Blacks were due to the high level of poverty prevalent in the African-American community. It is in the context of these major developments that Daniel Patrick Moynihan was asked by President Kennedy to join his government and was retained in the Johnson administration, in which he served as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Policy Planning and Research. Moynihan, a Democrat, thus alternated between being active in academic research and in the government. Later, he became an adviser to President Nixon, a Republican, which suggests that his views on poverty may have gone beyond political distinctions.

  • 1 It is interesting to note the use by Moynihan of ‘social disorders’ to write about unemployment and (...)

2In 1963, Moynihan was “trying to develop correlations between unemployment data of various sorts and other indicators of social disorder” (Moynihan, 1995, 377).1 While examining further the correspondence between rates of joblessness and family indices, Moynihan noticed that the percentage of black female-headed households continued to rise even though the rate of unemployed African-American males dropped. From these statistics, Moynihan concluded that there was something problematic in black institutions, especially the family, and that race relations in the United States were reaching a new critical point. He later put his conclusions together in a report for President Johnson, in what was intended as an internal government document, entitled The Case For National Action: The Negro Family and issued in March 1965.

3In this report, Moynihan demonstrated that African Americans were not benefiting as much as expected from the anti-discriminatory laws and programs of the late fifties and early sixties and that, in fact, the gap was widening between the black and the white communities. The black family seemed especially under stress and, for Moynihan, “The evidence [was] that the Negro family in the urban ghettos [was] crumbling” and was “the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community at the present time” (Moynihan, 1965, Introduction & 5). These sweeping statements were justified by the growing number of women living alone with their children, a change which Moynihan saw as the explanation behind an increase in welfare dependency. Moynihan concluded that the black community was mired in a “tangle of pathology” enhanced by a matriarchal structure, which “because it [was] out of line with the rest of society, seriously retard [ed] the progress of the group as a whole” (Id, 29).

4This document, known since as “The Moynihan Report”, led to intense controversy as soon as its conclusions were known: in government, in the media, within the civil rights movement, and in academia. I will analyze the reasons why this short document, intended only for official use, was at the heart of a bitter polemic that lasted for years. I will first examine the context in which it was written and then I will look at its influence on African-American historiography. Was it a major event as the controversy around it seems to imply? Was it a case of “mistaken identity”? What is the place and construction of this report in historical discourse? Finally, why was this report the starting point for so much research on African Americans for so many years?

1. The Moynihan Report as a Product of its Time

  • 2 For the ways in which the Moynihan report was received, see the detailed analysis in Lee Rainwater (...)

5Moynihan was shocked at the negative responses to his report and, over the years, he made it a point to defend his opinions and his thesis, stressing often that his conclusions turned out to be correct: “Something did snap in the early sixties. The illegitimacy ratio among blacks rose from 24 percent to a current 63.5 percent,” he wrote in 1995 (Moynihan, 1995, 378; see also Moynihan, 1986). He saw the debate on the underclass that grew in the late 1970s and 1980s as proof that he was right. Proponents of the underclass theory showed that there was a growth in illegitimacy that led to the deterioration of the black community as was evident in the poor-stricken and violence-ridden inner-city ghettos of contemporary America. It also seemed to Moynihan that criticism of the welfare system at the time offered proof that there was indeed welfare dependency among blacks. The subsequent demands for changes in the welfare system as well as the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) under Clinton in 1996 suggest that Moynihan’s insights were prophetic. After all, did not civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin first approve of his conclusions in March 1965?2

6Still, it would be erroneous to portray Moynihan simply as an independent and visionary thinker. His report must be examined as a logical outcome of liberalism in the mid-sixties and in the context of the Great Society and of the civil rights movement. Indeed, Moynihan concluded his report by giving recommendations to the Johnson administration about what should be done to undo the “tangle of pathology”. He wanted to “make whole in reality the revolution occurring in law” (Purdum, 1994, 29). Thus, he suggested that the government apply itself to the question of the family and to the strengthening of the black kinship system. As he wrote then. “The policy of the United States is to bring the Negro American to full and equal sharing in the responsibilities and rewards of citizenship” (Moynihan, 1965,48).

7Moynihan went a bit further than many in the government at the time. Most people active in the War on Poverty and in the Great Society programs believed that the laws enacted in favor of desegregation and against discrimination would be sufficient to bring equality to African Americans, but Moynihan thought specific programs needed to be devised in order to foster access to economic opportunities. However, he was himself part of the American liberal tradition, he believed in the liberal consensus, and, of course, he did not advocate a total overthrow of American values and of the capitalist system. He recognized the responsibilities of the whites in the poverty and isolation of the blacks—more so actually than was acknowledged in the ensuing controversy around his report—and he described the negative consequences of years of slavery. Still, he also insisted on the “responsibilities” of citizenship, revealing his adherence to American values on individualism and personal responsibility. Moynihan also held the notion shared by many then, including, no doubt, President Johnson, that the poor were at least partially at fault.

8Moynihan was also certainly influenced by his Catholic background. He believed that “the family was the basic unit of society, an entity far more important than free enterprise, the power of the state, or the fortune of political parties” (Schoen, 1979, 104). He was also influenced by Pope John’s encyclical of 1963 that had reinforced the notion of the family as the central aspect of human life (Id.). It should also not be forgotten that there had been an enforced consensus throughout the fifties, and persisting somewhat into the early sixties, about the centrality of the nuclear family supposedly embodied by the white middle class in the expanding suburbs. The popular culture, including much of the media, but also mainstream political parties, stressed the economic and social importance of a nuclear family in which roles were clearly defined, with a provider husband and a stayat-home mother. The so-called consensual fifties championed an idealized family structure that was also supposed to represent the superiority of the American system in the context of the Cold War. Moynihan had fully integrated these values, and not just because of his Catholicism. He wrote his report at a time “of a generation’s seismic shift in marriage practices,” when the traditional family was being challenged from various directions through the sexual revolution, and rates of divorce and separation were increasing (Cott, 2000, 201-02). A strong focus on the values of the nuclear family was deemed essential by many in such a context.

  • 3 Much research has been done since that shows the pervading myth of a nuclear ideal in the 1950s and (...)

9It is important to note that Moynihan’s report was at fault, not so much for its alleged blatant racism, but for focusing on the supposed defects of the African-American family, when, in fact, the nuclear family to which he compared it had been attacked from various sides as early as 1965, and had actually never been totally representative of the American family.3 Thus, by stressing the non-conformity of black families to the nuclear model, Moynihan presupposed that this model was the preferred and the dominant one, whereas problems existed in nuclear families too and they were never the only form of kinship in American society, including in the middle class. Furthermore, illegitimacy occurred among whites as well and was not a prerogative of the African-American community, as the Moynihan Report may seem to have implied.

10In order to illustrate the correlation between unemployment among black males and the growing illegitimacy rate in the African-American community, Moynihan used statistics on joblessness and on female-headed households. Many have since shown the errors inherent to such census figures, which never give the full picture (see again the analysis in Rainwater & Yancey, 1967), and I would add that Moynihan’s emphasis on the nuclear family as the only efficient familial unit led him to a wrongful hypothesis to begin with. Noting the economic hardships met by many black families was both necessary and correct, but linking these almost entirely to the family status of African Americans was biased and inexact. The terms used by Moynihan such as ‘pathology’, ‘deterioration’, ‘weakness’, ‘disorganized’, ‘disadvantaged’, etc., show this bias.

11Moynihan based his report not only on statistics collected by the Labor Department, but also on the works of eminent black social scientists such as Franklin Frazier, a sociologist, and Kenneth Clark, a psychologist. Both had demonstrated the deterioration of the Black family and masculinity, and referred to the incidence of racism and discrimination over the African-American community. The term “tangle of pathology” actually came from Clark’s Dark Ghetto. Moynihan thus used well-known and well-recognized African-American sources, but I would argue here that the length of his report and its goal (to influence President Johnson toward implementing a specific family policy) restricted him into giving an over-simplistic view of the problems met by blacks and of their social and cultural characteristics. Indeed, he did not fully use Clark s and Frazier s conclusions; their studies had been much more thorough and subtle than Moynihan’s conclusions implied. Still, these two writers were part of a school of thought on the African-American community and history that was dominant at the time, one that emphasized the negative effects of slavery and racism on blacks.

2. A Polemical Report: Criticism and Controversy

12These reservations on the Moynihan report do not seem sufficient though, to explain the bitter controversy that emerged as soon as it became known to politicians, to civil rights leaders, and to the media.

13I will not attempt here to describe, step by step, the series of events and the controversy that followed the publication of Moynihams report. Rather, I propose to examine some of the reasons why this factual document could not have been received any way other than negatively at the time. It was not meant, in its original form, to mark a crucial point of the Great Society and was not directed toward a general audience or even specialists outside of the government. Nevertheless, its publication turned into an event that influenced the political and scientific debate about the African-American community in general, and about the black family and the role and position of black men in particular. By 1967, Rainwater and Yancey had already noted that “the Moynihan Report is not basically a research report or a technical document; it is a polemic which makes use of social science techniques and findings to convince others” (Rainwater & Yancey, 1967, 297).

14Moynihan had intended to write a version of his report for a scientific journal and this was eventually published in Daedalus in a slightly different version. It is interesting that the government report was much talked about even before people had seen the full version. Extracts were leaked to the press quite early on and reactions came from many directions, underscoring the highly charged connotation of a paper dealing with the black family.

15President Johnson received the report on May 4, 1965 and mostly approved of Moynihan’s conclusions. He used them for his Howard University commencement address on June 4, a speech, largely written by Moynihan himself, which was well received by the students there and by civil rights leaders such as M. L. King and B. Rustin. In it, Johnson admitted white responsibility for black oppression and economic inferiority and focused, on the condition of the black family:

[…] a condition that had vastly improved for some but that remained anguished for many […] For this, most of all, white America must accept responsibility. It flows from centuries of oppression and persecution of the Negro man. It flows from long years of degradation and discrimination, which have attacked his dignity and assaulted his ability to provide for his family. […]
The family is the cornerstone of our society. More than any other force it shapes the attitude, the hopes, the ambitions, and the values of the child. When the family collapses, it is the children that are usually damaged. When it happens on a massive scale the community itself is crippled.

  • 4 On King and other leaders of that period see Taylor Branch, 1998

16Again, Moynihan’s view of the family as the fundamental unit in society can be seen as shared, certainly, by leaders such as King, who was also influenced by his religious background and his work as a preacher. Many of the prominent civil rights leaders at that time came from a middle-class background and shared the prevalent American values on the middle-class family that were still often portrayed at the time: a focus on nuclearity, on the main role of the man as provider, and on the central ity of the home.4 Black leaders saw Johnson s speech as offering a commitment for new efforts by the government on housing, education, employment, and welfare. The family was one topic among several others covered by the president. The signing of the voting-rights bill into law on August 6, 1965, seemed to confirm Johnson’s good will toward African Americans.

  • 5 Federal help was announced in a New York Times editorial of June 5th, while selfimprovement was wha (...)

17Still, the press seemed to offer different interpretations to the speech at Howard University, with two main themes emerging: promises of increasing Federal help on the one hand, and a focus on self-help within the black community on the other.5

18Two approaches to the problems of the African-American community prevailed at the time and have constantly suffused the debate over blacks in the United States since. Federal help seemed to be on the way with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or, three years later, of the Housing Rights Act, and also with the development of Great Society programs such as model cities, Head Start, the reinforcement of the Job Corps, etc. Still, these efforts to help African Americans overcome some of their difficulties were soon diminished for two reasons: one, the Johnson administration deepened its involvement in Vietnam and fought an increasingly costly war that met with growing protest, and two, the rise of rioting and violence in urban ghettos led Johnson to withdraw his support for the recommendations set forth in the Moynihan Report.

  • 6 Read for instance Harvard Sitkoff, 1981; Sean Dennis Cashman, 1991; John Morton Blum, 1991; William (...)

19Indeed, the report was not only being discussed in the media and used by Johnson in his Howard speech, but also to prepare a civil rights conference entitled “Fulfill These Rights” scheduled to take place in the following months. On August 11, 1965, five days after Johnson signed the voting-rights act, riots erupted in Watts, the largest black ghetto of Los Angeles. It baffled many civil rights leaders who had advocated nonviolence and believed in the power of the judicial system to improve the situation of African Americans: now, the slogans heard on the streets of Watts were no longer about cooperation and integration but rather ‘Burn, Baby, Burn’ and ‘Black Power’6. Even though riots had occurred in the previous years in several cities, the violence and magnitude of those in Watts shocked the American nation. Politicians were faced with the failure of civil rights legislation to deal with the problems of urban blacks, and civil rights leaders like King had to recognize the rage and impatience of northern African Americans who, faced with poverty and unemployment as well as constant harassment by the authorities, were ready to burn it all.

  • 7 This approach was put forward by William Ryan, 1965 & 1971.

20In the middle of all this, the arguments of the Moynihan Report regarding the pathology of the Black institutions came across as ‘blaming the victim’7. The rallying cry of ‘Black Power’ heard more and more across inner-city ghettos did not fit with the disparagement of Black culture and institutions. Moreover, it increasingly appeared to many that Moynihan was precisely criticizing African-American culture. The Black family became a “hot topic” and many were ready to avoid tackling it.

21Thus, in the aftermath of the Watts riots, Johnson decided that the civil rights conference would not be organized mainly around the African-American family as had been planned; instead, it became one among eight other subjects being studied concurrently (employment, education, housing,…). The President’s attitude was not illogical: Johnson wanted consensus and avoided subjects that created dissentions and open criticism. The war against poverty “reflected the underlying view that the real problem was to give individuals access to opportunity” (Chafe, 1999, 240). In some ways, and even more so in the President’s mind following the Watts riots, black families had to find their own opportunities; massive programs aimed at all black families were not on the agenda. In any case as indicated earlier, the acceleration of the conflict in Vietnam and the ensuing rising costs turned Johnson away from his early commitment to the War on Poverty.

  • 8 This is. for example, the analysis of historians who have looked at the role of women in the civil (...)

22Politically, the Moynihan report served to coalesce the various ideologies prevalent in the United States at the time regarding the position of African Americans. It was transformed into an event that influenced the contemporary context. In his report, Moynihan had insisted on the “pathology” of the Black family, but also on “matriarchy”, writing: “A fundamental fact of the Negro American family life is the often reversed roles of husband and wife”, and he found that “In 44 percent of Negro families studied, the wife was dominant” (Moynihan, 1965, Chapter 2). These assertions in particular became the focus of criticism. This was an especially delicate issue, indeed the black movement at the time may also have been perceived as a way to assert manhood and a mostly male-defined identity. As blacks were moving toward self-confidence in their male identity8, Moynihan was telling them that the women of their community were dominant—even though this term was never defined in the report—and their social and cultural organization a matriarchy! This was simply unacceptable in the context of Black Power.

23Moynihan has since complained that many of the contemporary critics of his report had not read it and had only picked up on some of the extracts released to the press. He insisted that the responsibility of the whites had not been assessed correctly. This may be true: the report was often cited indirectly using quotes taken from newspaper editorials, but Moynihan s favorable views on the sole nuclear family led him to oversimplification and generalizations about African-American culture. This in turn elicited not only a polemic in the political arena and a change in Johnson’s priorities, it also fostered a debate among intellectuals as social scientists discussed Moynihan’s conclusions.

3. The Moynihan Report and the Historiography of the African-American Community

24Moynihan was not the first to invoke the notion of a pathological situation regarding African-American culture. He had taken some of his statements and concepts from Frazier or Clark, although he often simply summarized their conclusions to fit his own theory of a correlation between kinship patterns and economic inferiority. Until then, many of the studies on American history had simply ignored the black community or considered it peripheral to the destiny of the nation. In the context of the Cold War, the stress in the fifties on consensus and on the superiority of American institutions meant that black history could not be taken into account. Except for a few persons (e.g. Carter Woodson), Blacks themselves were still largely absent from university positions and from the publishing world, and they were often considered marginally. The civil rights movement changed this: progressively, researchers became interested in the history of blacks and publications had become more numerous by the early sixties. Black studies finally became legitimated as a scholarly pursuit by the end of the sixties, and university courses began to be offered, followed by the establishment of Black Studies departments. The impact of current events was certainly crucial, and “the relevance of ‘modem tensions’ to specific subjects chosen for historical research was evident” (Meier & Rudwick, 1986, 174).

25I argue that the Moynihan Report was just such a ‘current event’ and was, in some ways, inscribed in the discourse on African Americans then and in the following decades. I will not review all the studies that have referred to Moynihan; rather, I wish to examine some trends in research that followed the publication of the Moynihan Report.

26Responses to the report, most of them negative, came first from specialists in sociology and psychology. The Moynihan Report, in many ways, popularized not only the pathological approach to black culture but also a victimization model. Racism and the legacy of slavery had created ‘victims’ whose cultural patterns perpetuated their inferiority. Moynihan was seen as emblematic of a ‘Blame the Victim’ approach denounced by psychologist William Ryan. The Moynihan Report also became associated with criticisms of the concept of ‘Culture of Poverty’ set forward by Oscar Lewis in The Children of Sanchez (1961) and La Vida (1966), two studies about Mexican and Mexican-American families. Charles Valentine and others denounced the notion that a set of cultural values is created in the context of poverty, and then reproduced until a specific dysfunctional culture is established (Valentine, 1968; see also Leacock, 1971). By rooting family pathology in slavery and in fixed matriarchy, and by linking it to economic deprivation, Moynihan was defining such a culture. He was not the first to use such notions but his report, which was extensively covered in the press in 1965, led to the popularity of such concepts.

  • 9 See Carol B. Stack (1974) and works by Andrew Billingsley, Joyce Ladner, Robert Hill and Robert Sta (...)

27Family sociologists and anthropologists reacted promptly to the report and many studies published in the late sixties and especially in the seventies, refuted most of Moynihan s views on the black family and showed that African-American patterns were much more varied than was implied in his report. Instead of focusing on a nuclear model, they demonstrated the prevalence of extended kinship. They also showed that women’s work had always been part of African-American history and that female models were diverse and that this diversity was accepted and praised9. To a certain extent, these studies were responses to Moynihan. Their aim was to show that his view had been narrow and biased. Some authors specifically cited Moynihan in their introduction and claimed that their own study proved him wrong. In 1985, for example, Joanne M. Martin and Elmer P. Martin wrote a book entitled The Helping Tradition in the Black Family and Community. In their introduction they wrote.

Moynihan’s controversial study of the black family is a clear example of the patriarchal myth. Moynihan put together a statistical hodgepodge which allegedly provided empirical evidence that the black family is characterized by a ‘tangle of pathologies which is at the heart of the deterioration of Negro society’. […]
This book attempts to show that few of the many adverse forces facing black people have done more than patriarchy to destroy the black helping tradition. (Martin & Martin, 1985, 6)

28Thus, many of the studies published after the Moynihan Report clearly intended to show that Moynihan had an erroneous view of black family and culture.

  • 10 See Eric Foner. 1997. The works of Gutman and also Genovese. Blassingame, Fogel & Engerman could be (...)

29Historians also criticized Moynihan’s conclusions. In the sixties and seventies, much of the work published about African-American history examined the period of slavery. Of course, most of this was carried out independently of the Moynihan Report but, still, some studies, including several prominent ones, partially aimed at demonstrating that Moynihan’s view of the slave family destroyed by the peculiar institution did not totally correspond to reality. After a period of victimization in black history, historians were now offering ‘revisionist’ analyses. The historians of slavery were among the first to challenge the consensual history of the 1950s10.

30Herbert Gutman’s groundbreaking book entitled The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 which was published in 1976 is just such a ‘revisionist’ study and is clearly directed toward Moynihan. In the first two pages of his introduction, Gutman wrote:

This volume—a study of the Afro-American family between 1750 and 1925, as well of the origins and early development of Afro-American culture—was stimulated by the bitter public and academic controversy surrounding Daniel P. Moynihan’s The Negro Family in America: The Case For National Action (1965). […]
The controversy between Moynihan and his critics sparked a preliminary study in 1967-68, which led to this book. In its origins that early study, a joint effort with Laurence A. Glasco, […], tested the historical arguments on which the “Moynihan Report” rested.
(Gutman, 1976, xvii & xviii)

31Contrary to Moynihan, Gutman’s very detailed and comprehensive study of slave families showed no pathology, but, instead, the creation of a specific culture and the existence of incredibly resilient families in the midst of an oppressive system. Many studies of this kind were published around that time also showing the adaptation of Black families and their resistance to adverse conditions, and offering a ‘revision’ of past works that had described slaves as passive and destroyed by the harshness of the slave system. Now, the slaves were no longer described as the Sambos seen by Stanley Elkins and their kin patterns were not anymore the defeated families of the Moynihan Report. Instead, slave culture was rich and strong, and the slaves’ family patterns resilient and creative.

32The Moynihan Report was, of course, not the sole factor behind this ‘revisionist’ research. The more general context of the civil rights movement, the increasing number of graduate students and faculty—many of whom were black— and the recognition of African-American studies as a legitimate field of study all contributed to new approaches to black history. The protest movement of the sixties had done much to stimulate racial pride, a sense of self worth, an affirmation of the uniqueness of African-American culture (Meier & Rudwick, 1986, 251). Nevertheless, Moynihan’s report contributed to the debate regarding the culture of African Americans and influenced research in several ways: it sparked interest in black history, and especially on the family, and it intensified the controversy over the autonomy of slaves and also on the conditions in urban ghettos. It is notable that much of this new research came out as “the War on Poverty was being dismantled and black separatism and nationalism were on the decline” (Id., 253).

  • 11 The work done on women especially has allowed for a more complex and complete view of slavery. See (...)

33It could be argued that the debate over the Moynihan Report and the ensuing studies that adopted the ‘revisionist’ trend sometimes tended to offer a monolithic view of the African-American community. In an effort to counter traditional views on black culture and to disparage Moynihan’s simplistic and incorrect assertions, some researchers presented a view of black independence and agency that was exaggerated at times. However, these studies tend to have the same faults as earlier ones, as Wilma Dunaway noted in her recent work about slavery on small plantations of the Upper South: “Celebration of resistance and cultural persistence to the exclusion of those forces that broke families will not advance a new school of thought in directions that are any more accurate and reliable than previous generalizations” (Dunaway, 2003, 285). Fortunately, studies on slavery and the slave family that were published starting in the mideighties seem to provide a more complex picture of slavery than was offered even by Gutman, who ascribed too much importance to the autonomy of slaves in creating and preserving their families. More recent analyses may emphasize the ‘agency’ of African-Americans in creating a viable culture, but they also demonstrate the weight of the slave system and of white institutions on the enslaved11. Fortunately, it seems that, concerning slavery at least, the debate over the Moynihan Report does not any longer obscure historical analysis in a Manichean vision.

34While the new cohort of historians focused primarily on slavery, later studies examined the Civil War and the period of Reconstruction, and later again the migration to the North and life in the urban ghettos. With respect to this last topic, Moynihan again put himself at the forefront starting in the mid-1980s.

35Over the years, Moynihan had maintained his position on the black family, drawing parallels between his view of a destroyed kin system and the growth of what has come to be called ‘the underclass’. In a 1995 article, Moynihan wrote:

As it turns out, we were right enough in our forecasts. […] The illegitimacy ratio among Blacks rose from 24 percent to a current 63.5 percent. […] Census data show that in 1964 some 75 percent of black children under age six were living in a married-couple family. By 1990—in a steady descent—this ratio had dropped to 37.4 percent. (382)

36Moynihan uses such statistics to emphasize problems in the inner-city ghettos. However, his figures show, once again, an overgeneralized view of the situation. They do not tell us anything about ‘illegitimacy’ per se: does the 75% figure represent children of cohabitating couples who have chosen not to marry, of separated fathers and mothers, of teenage mothers living alone with their children, or perhaps those living in an extended family? In their analysis of cultural history, Roux and Sirenelli note that statistics of this kind are based on probability, allow for narrow results, and stress homogeneity rather than diversity. They do not explain anything about the ways in which each individual interprets and deals with a particular reality (304).

37Later, in the same article, Moynihan mentions the “readiness of welfare ‘advocates’ […] to acknowledge the “tangle of pathology” (383). He was writing in the midst of a heated debate on a program of welfare reform later to be implemented by the Clinton administration, which, among other things, reduces to five years the time allowed for a person to be on welfare. Politically, there has been a strong tendency since the beginning of the eighties to reject the tenets of the Great Society and to foster self-help along with individual and local solutions to societal problems. The massive budget cuts made by the Reagan administration demonstrate this fully. Moynihan’s position seems to suggest that there is wider acceptance for the thesis defended in his 1965 report, and he has been supported in this by conservative thinkers such as Glenn Loury, who has dismissed criticisms about Moynihan’s use of such terms as ‘social pathology’ (Loury, 1995, 258).

  • 12 A parallel analysis can be found in Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton (1993). Their conclusions (...)

38William W. Wilson’s study of the “underclass”, the poor Black population stuck in inner-city ghettos, correctly showed the influence of structural changes on urban areas starting in the 1970s (suburbanization of the middle-class, including the wealthier blacks, loss of jobs, exportation of businesses, failure of institutions such as schools and hospitals, etc.). However, he also used moral criteria to describe the growing poverty in the inner-city and, for example, deplored the high number of female-headed households and of teenage mothers. Like Moynihan before him, Wilson continued to use the patriarchal model of the nuclear family to analyze ghetto African Americans. His conclusions, defended by others as well, have led some to ask once again for the dismantling of the welfare system. Various ways have been used to defend the sole nuclear model at the expense of variety in kin patterns, and Charles Murray (1988) is emblematic of the most conservative approach in that he also deplored the problems of female-headed households and teenage parenthood in the African-American community, and strongly condemned black families that were dependent on public aid at the expense of self-reliance. Analysts of the underclass often provided a similar vision of ‘moral poverty’, of a ‘culture of dependence’12. While these authors do not systematically refer to Moynihan, underlying similar logic is nevertheless present when using the nuclear family as the norm in a society that in reality contains a great variety of kinship models, and also when equating poverty and isolation with family patterns.

39A recent article by Kay Himowitz on the Black family actually defends, yet again, the view of the family portrayed in the Moynihan Report. Himowitz strongly disapproves of those who blamed Moynihan for his negative vision of many black families. She sees the harmful influence of ‘white liberals and the black establishment,’ ‘black-pride inspired scholars’ and ‘feminists’ on the debate concerning female-headed families in particular. To her, an overpositive view of the black family in the ghetto has obscured the fact that children raised by single mothers not only suffer more from poverty, but also have a much higher chance of being poor later in life. She instead adopts Murray’s view on the demise of marriage and of the nuclear family in the United States. Himowitz’s article, while arguing correctly regarding the plight of children in the ghetto, nevertheless focuses on the sole nuclear family as the solution, and thus ignores the complexity of the many factors involved in ghetto poverty. Moynihan is still at the heart of some analyses of the African-American family today, even though his conclusions have been much criticized over the years. Obviously, they remain part of the current political and scientific debate in the United States.


40The Moynihan report was a short document (under 50 pages) intended for official use only. It was not meant to become a specific historical ‘event’ with consequences on the political or ideological context. Still, its inscription in the specific context of Johnson’s Great Society and of a changing black movement, turned it into a fact of black history and of black history writing. Moynihan’s report “did not succeed in reorienting federal policy towards blacks, but […], it contributed a sense of urgency to reorienting black history.” (Novick, 1998, 483). As an ‘event’ The Moynihan Report is singular, but it is related and interconnected to social reality and to the complexity of its time (see Farge, 1997, 82-87). It also participated to a degree to the writing of American history.


Works Cited

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Chafe, William H. 1999 [1986], The Unfinished Journey. America Since World War 11. New York: Oxford University Press.

Coontz, Stephanie. 1992. The Way We Never Were. American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. New York: Basic Books.

— 1997. The Way We Really Are (Coming to Terms with America’s Changing Families). New York: Basic Books.

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1 It is interesting to note the use by Moynihan of ‘social disorders’ to write about unemployment and, as it turned out, the black family. It connotes the persistence of a political and ideological bias on his part thirty years after his report came out.

2 For the ways in which the Moynihan report was received, see the detailed analysis in Lee Rainwater & William L. Yancey, 1967. Read also the story run in The New York Times Magazine of August 7, 1994: “The Newest Moynihan”, by Todd S. Purdum.

3 Much research has been done since that shows the pervading myth of a nuclear ideal in the 1950s and early 1960s. See, for example, the conclusions of Stephanie Coontz, 1992 & 1997. At the time already, Michael Harrington had brilliantly shown that not all American families were part of the ‘prosperous’ middle class in his The Other America (1962) while Betty Friedan had demonstrated the frustrations and problems of the suburban nuclear family, and of women more particularly in The Feminine Mystique (1963). The children of suburban nuclear families in universities at the time were also questioning the conformity and consumerism of their background and organized student protest.

4 On King and other leaders of that period see Taylor Branch, 1998

5 Federal help was announced in a New York Times editorial of June 5th, while selfimprovement was what Mary McGrory of The Washington Post understood from Johnson’s speech. See a more detailed analysis of these two articles in Rainwater & Yancey, 1967, 133-136.

6 Read for instance Harvard Sitkoff, 1981; Sean Dennis Cashman, 1991; John Morton Blum, 1991; William H. Chafe, 1999.

7 This approach was put forward by William Ryan, 1965 & 1971.

8 This is. for example, the analysis of historians who have looked at the role of women in the civil rights era. See. among others, Anne Standley, 1993.

9 See Carol B. Stack (1974) and works by Andrew Billingsley, Joyce Ladner, Robert Hill and Robert Staples, among others.

10 See Eric Foner. 1997. The works of Gutman and also Genovese. Blassingame, Fogel & Engerman could be cited here.

11 The work done on women especially has allowed for a more complex and complete view of slavery. See earlier works by Deborah Gray White (1985); Jacqueline Jones (1986); Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (1988) among others. In The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation (2003), Dunaway clearly stresses the complexity of slave families and their various experiences in an extremely harsh system.

12 A parallel analysis can be found in Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton (1993). Their conclusions were first refuted in The ‘Underclass’ Debate edited by Michael B. Katz (1993). Loïc Wacquant recently provided a convincing counterpoint to those analyses based on dependence and self-inflicted problems in Parias urbains. Ghetto-Banlieues-Etat (2005).


Maître de conférences à l'université Paris III - Sorbonne Nouvelle, elle enseigne la civilisation américaine. Elle a co-dirigé Formes et Ecritures du départ : Incursions dans les Amériques noires avec Andrée-Anne Kekeh-Dika (Paris : L'Harmattan, 2000) et Ecritures de l'histoire africaine-américaine / The Writing(s) of African-American History avec Arlette Frund (Paris : Annales du Monde Anglophone 18, 2003). Elle prépare un livre sur Le Discours sur la famille noire aux Etats-Unis à paraître en 2008.
An Associate Professor at the University of Paris III - Sorbonne Nouvelle, she teaches American history. She co-directed Incursions dans les Amériques noires with Andrée-Anne Kekeh-Dika (Paris: L'Harmattan, 2000) and Ecritures de l'histoire africaine-américaine / The Writing(s) of African-American History with Ariette Frund (Paris: Annales du Monde Anglophone 18, 2003). She is currently writing a book about the discourse on the black family in the United States.

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