Owning the American Past

One of the advantages of looking at The Negro Family: The Case for National Action after 50 years is perspective. Perspective is a form of knowledge that allows us to see from a different vantage point and to bring new information to bear on a problem. In responding to Greg Weiner’s essay, I bring the perspective of time to bear on my own assessment of the Moynihan Report along with my perspective as a cultural anthropologist with a special interest in American and African American culture.

It is easy to read the Report as being more prescient than it actually was, for although many of its “predictions” about Black poverty and family seemed to come true in the 1970s and 1980s, it did not predict the changes in White families that were to follow. These changes were not the product of a Black cultural pathology or White family pathology but of causes mentioned in the Report itself, and a realignment of values corresponding to changes in American life starting to take hold in 1965 (which Weiner does acknowledge). If there was a “tangle of pathology” present, it was one deeply embedded in American culture itself.

The Moynihan Report identified some of these pathologies: a long history of slavery, the appearance of state-approved and operated segregation (the so-called Jim Crow laws), and lynching. But while it recognizes these things, it also overlooks the fact that lynchings were often the punishment for trying to compete in the marketplace with Whites in the South, short-circuiting entrepreneurial activity. It overlooks that whole black populations and towns were often destroyed or forced to leave an area, resulting in a loss of capital accumulation in the forms of businesses, homes, and savings.

While noting the problem when people migrate from rural areas to urban areas, such as occurred during the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the Northern cities during the early part of the 20th century, the Report does not adequately account for segregated labor unions, racial discrimination, and the associated job ceiling faced by African Americans in these cities. While many Blacks saw going North as an opportunity to improve their lives free from Southern restrictions, what greeted them were new restrictions—ones often not as visible as those in the South—and these had not been addressed by the civil rights movement, which was largely about desegregating the South.

The Moynihan Report focuses mostly on Harlem and is probably correct in assuming that conditions there reflected conditions in other major cities. However, a major study of African American life had been published in 1945—the landmark Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City by St. Claire Drake and Horace R. Cayton—detailing the life of African Americans in Chicago in a holistic fashion, using multiple sources of data, including ethnographic interviews.

This study was updated in 1962 and would have been available to Moynihan, but it is not even mentioned in the Report. Yet, Black Metropolis speaks very candidly to all of the issues it covers concerning poor black families: desertion by males, female dominance, illegitimacy, marriage, and crime. The difference is, some of the information is gathered from actual interviews of these people, so that their voices become part of the data. One sees them not as pathological but as trying to eke out an existence within this environment. Drake and Cayton are not sentimental in their study, but it does a good job of capturing the community as a whole.

In a chapter late in the book called “Bronzeville 1961,” Drake and Cayton report that the African American population in Chicago has doubled, the whole area has a “new look,” and prosperity is evident, but problems still persist for the lower classes. This chapter also forecasts the possibility of problems:

Negroes in Bronzeville are very much Americans. And this means, too, that if the masses are driven too far they are likely to fight back, despite their sometimes seemingly indifferent reactions to discrimination and segregation. A potential for future violence within Black Metropolis exists that should not and cannot be ignored.

Ironically, it would be the Watts riot in Los Angeles in 1965 that would derail some of the objectives of the Great Society and lead to the disparaging of the Report and the loss of the Johnson administration’s interest in remedies to the problems identified there.

Even so, the focus of the Moynihan Report was bound to offend, primarily because, although it centered on impoverished black families, it seemingly indicted the black community as a whole in its general statements, such as: “At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family.” Although the existence of a Black middle-class is noted, issues are framed in broad strokes, as in: “It is the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community at the present time.”

This unwittingly reinforced a view of the African American community that already existed as a stereotype—a view deeply embedded in America’s cultural fabric. It was a view that African Americans themselves were struggling to overcome as they sought empowerment. This would be codified in 1968, when James Brown came out with his song, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

Highlighting the family in particular is, in this instance, a case of missing the forest by focusing on the trees. No social scientist then or now would deny that families are the fundamental units of society, although not the only ones. No one can refute the fact that poor black families faced particular problems because of particular behaviors, and that these problems led to changes in the expected and accepted American family structure at the time. But it does not follow that these changes—many of which can be seen as adaptations to the difficult environment—are the causes of poverty or the obstacles in the way of future prosperity rather than an effect.

Nor are they necessarily “pathological.” Studies of culture change across cultures have demonstrated that people often adapt to changes in the environment, and these adaptations can be positive or negative depending on the circumstances, but the total breakdown of the family, as opposed to its transformation, is rare. Carol B. Stack, in her 1983 ethnography All Our Kin, documents the ways in which poor black families network with one another for survival, in spite of compelling forces around them.

The assumptions about what constituted a stable family situation at the time of the Moynihan Report embodied a whole range of other assumptions that were about to be questioned—not only the two-parent household, but the largely unmarked patriarchal attitudes embedded in that model.  Anthropologists know that many different forms of the family exist across cultures. Differences in family form do not indicate pathology. Female-headed households have produced outstanding children, and so-called stable families have produced problem children. That said, the correlations that the Moynihan Report identified were real, but they were correlations, not necessarily causes. Furthermore, they were about to become characteristic of the formerly stable White households that the Report implicitly held up as a model.

In 1965, the year the Moynihan Report was issued, the United States was in the midst of realigning its ideals with its realities. The affluence following World War II (the middle class went from being 13 percent of the population to 46 percent) made it possible for African Americans to begin the struggle to disassemble the state-sponsored segregation that had deprived them of their liberties and opportunities to advance economically.

Beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, African Americans put their lives on the line to achieve the individual liberties that should have been theirs from the beginning of the Republic. More than 200 years of slavery and even more years of state-sponsored segregation had instilled within American culture a belief in black inferiority, a process traced by Audrey Smedley in her book, Race in North America (2012). So, even though, as the Moynihan Report mentions, much had been accomplished by then, through protest and legislation like, the deeply embedded cultural understandings about race still prevailed, and they tainted much of the rhetoric of the day.

The Founders of the American Republic did not fully implement the principles upon which it was founded. Instead of fully incorporating women and African Americans into the nation, they permitted slavery to continue and women to remain disenfranchised, so the attitudes that sustained these injustices became part of the American cultural milieu, creating contradictions that would eventually have to be faced. In many ways, we are still dealing with the resolution of those contradictions, but in 1965 the process had barely begun. The remaining problem of institutional discrimination that resulted from the very history that the Report takes the trouble to outline had not yet been addressed.

The stability that the report notes for White families and middle-class Black families was itself illusory. In the late 1960s, the United States began going through a cultural revolution generated by the contradictions that began to fester and become more visible, especially as the babyboomer generation came of age. This idealistic generation saw the contradictions clearly—in television coverage of the civil rights movement, and the violence against African Americans throughout the South and against Whites who supported their cause; in the coverage of the Vietnam war and the threat of the military draft to male members of the babyboom generation; and in the multiple assassinations that punctuated their young consciousness—the killing of John F. Kennedy and Medgar Evers, and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young girls attending Sunday school.

Furthermore, the breakdown of the assimilationist model of the Americanization of immigrant groups gave way to a new appreciation and pride in one’s non-American ethnic heritage. What Peter Clecak in America’s Quest for the Ideal Self (1984) called the “democratization of personhood”—the struggle of African Americans, draftees, women, Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, old folks, and handicapped people to achieve their “ideals”—was upon us.

All those deeply ingrained American values seemed hypocritical to this new generation, contributing to a cultural revolution that disrupted society and ultimately led to the changes in the family that were interpreted as “disintegration.”

The Moynihan Report’s focus on the Black family was in many ways beside the point. While some of the problems associated with the disintegration of the family can really be attributed to behaviors developed in adaptation to the state of poverty, as the Report stated, the seeming breakdown of the family in the 1970s developed out of the shift in power relations between Blacks and Whites and between women and men, and the changes brought about by the “liberation” of all of the groups, not to mention a more highly mobile population in which families no longer necessarily lived near other family members. One of the greatest shifts was to the single-person household.

When suddenly Blacks and women were finally able to compete for positions in the market and in educational settings—when women were able to get credit in their own names, control their own reproduction, and secure divorces if they wished, and African Americans began to study their own histories and contributions to American culture (rather than assuming that all had been lost during the Middle Passage)—the transformations that began to occur seemed like the beginning of the end. However, time has shown us that it is difficult to understand the nature of a transition when you are going through it. All of this had yet to happen when the Moynihan Report (for all intents and purposes, at the time, an internal report for use by the Johnson administration) was issued 50 years ago.

Poverty is still with us. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, the overall poverty rate in the United States in 2013 was 14.5 percent. For African Americans, the poverty rate in 2013 was 27.2 percent. Families are still with us, though their composition has changed radically.  According to the U. S. Census Bureau, single-person households now constitute around 27 percent of all households in 2012, up from 17 percent in 1970. Married couples with children in 2012 constituted only 20 percent of all households, while they constituted 40 percent of all households in 1970. Almost half of all women (47 percent) are in the workforce, but there is a disparity of income between working mothers who are breadwinners in a married household and those who are single mothers. Around 8 percent of all American households are female-headed households, while 22 percent of all black households are single-mother households. And the beat goes on.

In addressing what government cannot provide, we might start with individual initiative. African Americans have never lacked for individual initiative, even as slaves. As Leonard Liggio once pointed out, slaves were often chosen for their particular skills developed in Africa and brought to the Americas. It is now well documented that slaves did not lose their African culture when they were forcefully brought here; rather, they incorporated it into the new environment, and that legacy is still with us all today (a fact well documented in collections such as the 1985 book  Africanism in American Culture, edited by Joseph E. Holloway). But it is necessary for government to get out of the way and to compensate people for the damage it has done in the past, in so far as that can be done.

We have to exorcise the ghosts of the past—all of those false assumptions and cultural understandings that have worked their way into the rules of the institutions that hold our society together, including many governmental structures: police departments, fire departments, and schools. The discriminatory patterns and practices of the past might seem benign, but they often continue to inflict harm because they are built into the system itself: job requirements unrelated to skills required to do the job; costly licensing and certification requirements that are designed to benefit schools and/or testing services, organizations, or governments but are not really a factor in the ability to do the job or carry on a business.

There are myriad problems associated with our criminal justice system to which whole generations of young Black men have been subjected, losing not only their freedom and their educations but their rights as citizens. We could start with the problem of differential sentencing for the same crimes, and the fact that the system favors those who are able to pay over those who are not. Perhaps no government measure has taken such a toll on the African American community as the so-called war on drugs, which has resulted in the incarceration of young Black men, sometimes for using the same drugs as White people exonerated for the same crime or who serve a lesser sentence. Sometimes the zeal with which some Americans seek to impose morality on others ends up creating more moral wrongs than the thing itself.

Fifty years after Moynihan attempted to address the plight of African Americans in his Report, they no longer are the largest minority in the United States. They constitute 13.6 percent of the U. S. population, while Hispanics have risen to 17 percent of the population. Among African Americans 25 years of age or older, 82 percent have a high school education, 18 percent have a bachelor’s degree, and 3.6 percent have advanced degrees. The median income of African Americans is around $32,000 compared to the national median income of $51,759.

While it may be that the larger society should help those who cannot, through no fault of their own, help themselves, it does not follow that the number of those needing help has to be large or the remedies uniform. Individual liberty, the role of just law through equality before the law, redress of grievances and a justice system fairly applied, and free trade allowed for all without intimidation or special assistance from the government—all of these  can go a long way toward boosting the economy and, therefore, creating economic opportunities that will eliminate some of the problems automatically.

But my caution would be to guard against political entrepreneurs—those seeking to use culture to their own advantage, regardless of the harm it might do to society as a whole. Political entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes and people almost all political parties. It is against political entrepreneurs that we have to maintain an eternal vigilance.