Poverty, Sociology & Finks
To the Editor:
Since Daniel P. Moynihan mentioned my name in “The Professors and the Poor” [August], I feel both a desire and a responsibility to make a few comments. In deploring what he feels to be a scarcity of insightful research on Negroes by Negroes, he lists four individuals whose work, he says, would, a generation ago, have been “turned to” both by “necessity and choice”—E. Franklin Frazier, Charles S. Johnson, Horace Cayton, and St. Clair Drake—plus “. . . others almost as distinguished.” Frazier and Johnson are dead as are most of the “others” such as Ira De A. Reid, Abram Harris, and Lionel Florant. One living scholar has been omitted who is more “distinguished” than any of those named in the field of study under discussion, the black and white poor. I refer to Allison Davis, whose books were co-authored with John Dollard, Robert Havighurst, and Burleigh Gardner. I am led to wonder if co-authorship with white scholars may not work to the disadvantage of their Negro colleagues for either of two reasons: (a) a quite unconscious tendency for the white scholar’s name to come readily to mind even when the Negro’s name is in the position of senior author; and (b) lack of knowledge that a Negro is involved at all if he is not continuously “over-extended,” to use Professor Moynihan’s term. It would be ironic if Allison Davis’s single-minded devotion to scholarship instead of “community action” is responsible for his absence from Professor Moynihan’s “honor roll.”
I am not prepared to agree that Negro social scientists are so “few and far between” as the author feels they are. In the first place, by omitting economists and political scientists some very productive and competent individuals are left out, such as Moynihan’s former colleague in government service, cabinet member Robert Weaver, and the very perceptive young scholar, Charles Hamilton. He names six Negro social scientists whom he says are “those held in the greatest respect”—a social psychologist, a historian, a social anthropologist, and three sociologists, all “so over-extended and in demand” that “they produce less than would otherwise be the case.” On this appraisal of their productivity and the factors influencing it each will have to speak for himself; if one is going to talk about Negro scholars who are “held in the greatest respect,” however, we are justified in asking, “Respect by whom?” The academic and political establishment only? What of Nathan Hare’s Black Anglo-Saxons, William Grier and Price Cobbs’s Black Rage, C. Eric Lincoln’s The Black Muslims, or the work of Alvin Poussaint on black youth? And the fact that Stokeley Carmichael’s name appears on Black Power along with Charles Hamilton’s should not “put us off.” In fact, Washington policy-makers might find the work of all of these much more significant for their purposes than that of some of us on the “honor roll.”
However, what planners need today is not new “insightful” participant-observation studies of Negro communities which, Professor Moynihan suggests, only Negroes can do. (But what of Liebow’s Tally’s Corner?) They need careful quantitative studies of trends and regular, periodic, statistical studies of the attitudes and opinions in black communities that we all by now ought to know are there. No major research outfit has ever seen fit to invest money and time in such studies until they are commissioned to do so on a “one-shot” basis after a riot. And for this, Negro interviewers—not sociologists—are required, although justice and prudence would dictate some black representation in its design and execution.
I have the distinct impression, too, that Professor Moynihan feels that none of the previous research matters very much if it doesn’t relate to his constantly reiterated hypothesis that so much “structural damage” has been done to Negro personalities and institutions that concentration on expanded job opportunities and improved neighborhood conditions may not be enough. I suspect that most Negro sociologists would feel that the test of this hypothesis is possible only by securing a more substantial measure of economic equality. If anybody wants to try to design research to test it, however, they are likely to say, “O.K. Go ahead, but we have more significant problems, as we see them, to engage our attention. And research on the most significant problem in American race relations—the analysis of white racism—we can’t do. As Gunnar Myrdal pointed out a quarter of a centry ago, that, not the Negro is the problem.”
The whole subject of the comparative productivity of Negro and white scholars writing about the Negro in the United States merits a full-scale, tell-it-as-it-is, COMMENTARY article. When Professor Moynihan writes that in the field of race relations over the past decade, “It may be that whites took over the subject,” he is rushing in where both black and white scholars have preferred to walk warily. There may be other factors, too, including a shift in interest. Some black social scientists have, undoubtedly, wanted to get out of of the “race relations” bag, feeling no more obligation to study American Negroes than Jewish scholars do to study Jews. Some brilliant young Negroes have used the free-flowing foundation money to become experts on Africa during the past ten years, and have made major contributions. There may be more subtle influences operating, too, that take us beyond the area defined by “over-extension” and “community action.”
The basic problem the article raises, of course, is that of what kind of information about the poor the policy-makers have needed and wanted, and whether it does or does not exist, and is or is not being provided, and not by whom. Professor Moynihan’s own previous article in COMMENTARY [“The President and the Negro: The Moment Lost,” February 1967], and the book he and Lee Rainwater wrote, suggest that the problem is not one of what professors say about the poor but why politicians and administrators “buy” one professor’s views instead of another’s. As to the present article, the crucial point may be that it is not what black social scientists have to say about “their” people (and middle-class ones may not have any more to offer than white scholars) but whether white people are willing to adjust their behavior creatively to what angry black agitators have done and will do.
St. Clair Drake
Palo Alto, California
To the Editor:
. . . I found Daniel P. Moynihan’s article most interesting. It was a much more balanced, understanding, and less defensive analysis of the issue of poverty in the United States than is to be found in his earlier writings. His focus on jobs for adults is a welcome relief.
I remain a bit unhappy, however, that Moynihan still holds to his hypothesis that structural changes may have occurred among the Negro poor which render the usual opportunities (which really have never been made available to black people in the United States) powerless to assist them in overcoming poverty. But I am encouraged by the fact that this assertion is now more clearly stated as a hypothesis, rather than as a fact.
It may be true, as Moynihan has stated, that “we possess hardly two bits worth of . . . reliable information as to how changes in income affect individual styles of life.” Emphasis should however be placed on reliable, because from our own everyday experience we do have information about what happens to affluent people who used to be poor. Pat Moynihan can reflect upon his own experience, as I can reflect upon mine, and many COMMENTARY readers upon theirs. We know that changes in our life style have occurred as our income has increased, and we know that changes in the life style of whites have occurred as the proportion of poor whites has been reduced to less than 15 per cent. I would expect similar changes in the life style of non-whites to occur if the proportion of poor people in that population were reduced to less than 15 per cent.
The burden of proof as to whether irreversible structural changes have occurred is not on black people or poor people, but on white people and affluent people. To test this hypothesis, affluent and white people must repent of past deeds of oppression and racism now so that black people may have the opportunity to become affluent. The fine studies by economist Herman Miller of the U.S. Census Bureau demonstrate that black people always have been discriminated against economically in this country. Until the nation changes its racially discriminatory way of life, which has had disastrous economic consequences for Negro Americans, it is futile to hypothesize that Negroes will not change their way of life if provided with more economic resources. My point is simple. If we don’t end racism in America, Pat Moynihan’s hypothesis cannot be tested! The assertion therefore may become its own self-fulfilling prophecy. That is why I am concerned when a significant and well-respected American like Pat Moynihan keeps repeating it.
Finally . . . I am encouraged by Moynihan’s observation that one problem with the War on Poverty and its predecessor, the programs of the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime, is that they were formulated and designed largely by whites. The Japanese play, Rashomon, teaches us that few people intentionally cater to falsehood but rather that each person’s version of truth is conditioned by his own station in life, his image of himself, his past experiences, and his aspirations for the future. Yet Pat Moynihan perpetuates the very error which he so astutely observed. Most, if not all, of his references in the article are from the writings of white social scientists.
It is true, as Moynihan has stated, that several of our Negro social scientists have overextended themselves due to the current revolutions through which the nation is passing, but it is a misstatement to imply that they are not writing. I am sending Moynihan a copy of my own bibliography and I am sure several other Negro social scientists would offer to do the same. However, it could be that Negro authors are not being published in monthly magazines like COMMENTARY which means that their ideas, though written, are not read. . . .
Charles V. Willie
Department of Sociology
Syracuse, New York
To the Editor:
As an intellectual and itinerant professor, let me remind Pat Moynihan of my own experience with OEO. 1 went to them half a dozen times, sometimes as a friendly volunteer, sometimes invited, and was uniformly treated like something the cat dragged in. Of course, my suggestions tend to be simple-minded and painfully relevant; but I recall once when the whole Institute for Policy Studies went over one of the OEO bills (the Job Camps) and showed that not a comma was correct. It was adopted with not a comma changed. 1 doubt that real intellectuals had anything to do with the Poverty Program, nor with much else during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Lot of finks.
The intellectual issue is not where Moynihan puts it, whether the poor do not have money or cannot adjust for other reasons; it is whether the dominant system of society is good enough, whether politically and morally it can and should be adjusted to. Jobs don’t help if the GNP is useless or worse. This is the classical question of the intelligentsia in any pre-revolutionary period. We social critics, latter-day philosophes, have been asking it for twenty years. The black philosophers keep asking it. The dissident young ask it. It’s certainly not newsy to Pat Moynihan, but he does not ask it. The social engineers of OEO have not wanted to ask it.
North Stratford, New Hampshire
Mr. Moynihan writes:
I fully accept Professor Drake’s gentle rebuke for having omitted the name of Allison Davis. It happens I am just finishing a book that draws as much on him as on any one American sociologist: it may be he seemed too much a contemporary to locate in the misty past of the 1930′s. As I am sure Professor Drake knows, my short list was meant only to be illustrative.
I will however stick to my judgment that Negro social scientists are in short supply, and relatively more so than a generation back. (Or were the 1930′s two generations ago: I fear we must begin to think in those terms.) I would ask him, for example, whether the proposals of the Black Caucus presented to the recent meeting of the American Sociological Association were a manifestation of strength or of weakness? Imagine E. Franklin Frazier, who was president of the Association in 1948, asking in effect for special consideration for publication of papers in the ASA journal.
I am of course fully aware of the sometimes torrential outpouring of the pen of my friend Charles V. Willie. We expect a big book from him one day.
But what I want to know from Paul Goodman is this. Where did the term “fink” come from? It is not to be found in Webster’s Second New International Dictionary. The Third records it, but with the unusual notation “origin unknown.” The Dictionary of American Slang suggests it may have derived from “Pinkerton.” Fink is German for finch, is it not? Now I have had frequent occasion from a window in an upstate New York farmhouse to observe finches on the elderberry bushes. I can report there is nothing finkish in their conduct. Has Mike Fink of frontier days something to do with all this? Yet I have associated the term with New York Jewish trade unionism. Jason Epstein has suggested the possibility of some hapless blackleg named Moe Fink having given rise to it all. If not, what? Or whom?
Against the unlikely eventuality that Goodman will fink out, may I appeal to the readers of COMMENTARY. For near on to a decade now I have sought to enlighten them in these pages. I have received (present correspondents excepted) little but abuse in return. May I not on this occasion ask for enlightenment as well? Are there, for example, descendants of M. Fink who would like to clear the family name?