Commentary Magazine

Race and Truth

Is a truthful discussion of racial matters impossible in the present generation in this country? Let us suppose for a moment (it is not a supposition I would defend) that the souls of whites and blacks are so corrupted by relations of inequality that no human being, white or black, is capable of perceiving the truth of these relations undistorted. We are each, in other words, irredeemably prejudiced and lost in darkness; truth is unable to abide among us. In that case (again, a situation I by no means concede), persons trying to be truthful would have to pay each other the compliment of a civil skepticism. They would systematically regard all utterances in racial matters with a grain, or more than a grain, of salt. They would assume that most of what passes as “enlightened opinion” on matters of race, emanating from blacks or from whites, is partly prejudice, partly euphemism, partly nonsense, and only partly true; perhaps, ultimately, true only in such a distorted context as to be even in that kernel of truth profoundly untrue.

Even in the worst case, then, one would still have a method, however negative, for getting closer to the truth. One would doubt every utterance, break it up into its components, and coldly evaluate the partial merits of each.

Contrast this worst of all possible cases with the best of all possible cases. Suppose one could count on good faith, clear and unflinching intelligence, total courage, and the highest possible esteem for truth-telling. Suppose euphemism and evasion were scorned. Even in that case—given the complexity, difficulty, and ineradicable subjectivity of the matter—one would still examine each claim skeptically. In worst and in best cases, in other words, one’s method would be the same.

Yet no such method is in evidence in these United States today, where racial matters continue to be discussed not with civil skepticism, but in outrageous innocence. Certain opinions pass without inspection; others—on plainly ideological grounds—are rejected without inspection. It is as though no one dares to think, no one dares to question. The overriding current requirement is that one march in rank. Intellectual muggers stand ready to discipline those who stray. New extortion rackets function: conform, or take your punishment. Government funding for research, university jobs, and public reputations hang in the balance. Any who venture onto the terrain of racial relations are subject to summary, harsh, and irretrievable smears, innuendo, and public denunciation.

Take what are, even on prima-facie inspection, four instances of intellectual double-think:

1. In 1954, the courts ruled that in educational placement there shall be no discrimination with respect to race. Within twenty years, this decree has been stood on its head to read: in educational placement, race is to be the guiding principle.

2. So long as the work of Professor James Coleman seemed to support the imposition of busing as an instrument of racial integration, Coleman was highly praised. Since his findings led him to doubt the long-range success of busing, attacks upon his work, his integrity, and his person have multiplied. Professor Coleman has expressed his own shock at suddenly finding himself the target of vilification, after having once experienced adulation for work in the same field. He doubts whether younger scholars, less established in their fields, could withstand such assaults.

3. Writing in the New York Review of Books (September 30, 1976), Professor George M. Frederickson summarizes recent waves of historical scholarship since the publication of Stanley Elkins’s Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959; 3rd edition, 1976). What is startling in this summary is its frank description of the role of ideology as the driving force in the search for evidence:

Elkins’s view of what slavery had done to its black victims became increasingly unacceptable in the 60′s not simply, or even mainly, because of its inherent flaws. Flaws there were, but much of the bitter antagonism generated by the book was due to its direct collision with emerging ideologies. Its argument, first of all, was anathema to proponents of black nationalism, whose search for historical sources of pride and community led them to reject the idea that their grandfathers were dehumanized “Sambos.” Furthermore Elkins’s thesis seemed to provide support for a new “racism” based on the concept of “cultural deprivation,” which was replacing crude notions of biological inferiority as a rationale for denying equal justice to Afro-Americans. Elkins’s premise of black docility and passivity was also incompatible with a New Left historiography that took it for granted that oppressed classes always resist their oppressors.

First, apparently, come the desires; then the reasons.

4. We have now a considerable literature (Eugene D. Genovese, Fogel and Engerman, Herbert G. Gutman) whose role is, in effect, to show how slavery was better for blacks than liberty now is. This literature celebrates the condition of blacks under slavery, compared to their conditions under liberty, and now describes the latter as the truly significant “oppressive white system.”

What is it about the black experience that induces in so many good minds, black and white, a positive lust for corruptions of elementary sense? Why do the normal circuits of the mind suddenly burn away? In explanation, feelings of guilt are often adduced. Next offered is everyone’s fear of being branded, if white, a racist, or, if black, an Uncle Tom. More profound explanations begin with Hegel’s discussion of the mutual corruption inherent in the master-slave relationship, persistent long after its termination. But I think it less fruitful, wading in such murky waters, to seek an exact explanation for dishonesty than to diagnose exactly the mechanisms of its employment—not to ask why but to point out how the process operates.



As it happens, there is a useful example to hand in a series of recent public comments about Daniel P. Moynihan’s controversial 1965 government planning paper, “The Negro Family.” The occasion for many of the comments was the publication of Herbert G. Gutman’s massive new book, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom 1790-1925,1 which was treated in Time, Newsweek, the New York Times Book Review, the daily Times, and other publications, and was characterized by the author himself as a major attack on Moynihan’s paper. Now this is an odd thing on the face of it. Moynihan is not a historian; his paper was exceedingly brief, and his historical references, far briefer still, were entirely drawn from the researches of scholars in the field, both black and white. How can a thick, expensive, scholarly book like Gutman’s properly be viewed as an assault on a short government pamphlet? Moreover, much of what Moynihan had to say in 1965 is now conventional wisdom, even among those who attacked him then and attack him now.

Nevertheless, eleven years after the Moynihan report was first made public, feelings still run high. He was branded a racist then, and the charge is still being made. Why? Is there any correlation between what Moynihan actually said and the criticisms that have been leveled against him? And if there is not—as I hope to show there is not—what accounts for the unrelenting animus which his report so clearly aroused then and still arouses now?

Moynihan’s paper, which cited the high and growing rate of family break-ups among blacks and called for “national action” to help remedy the situation, was issued in March 1965 for the Office of Policy Planning and Research (Department of Labor), and is reprinted in the landmark study by Lee Rainwater and William L. Yancey, The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy (1967). The pamhplet is only 78 pages long, more than half of which consist of official (and undisputed) government statistics.

The argument of the Moynihan reports is summarized by Rainwater and Yancey in four steps:

  1. The Negro family suffers the following deterioration: nearly one-quarter of urban Negro marriages are dissolved; nearly one-quarter of Negro births are illegitimate; almost one-fourth of Negro families are female-headed; the trend line of welfare dependency is strongly up.
  2. The roots of this problem lie in slavery, Reconstruction, and above all in urbanization, unemployment, and in an inadequate wage system.
  3. Since Negro fertility is much higher than white, especially among the poorest blacks, the number of black children who suffer family economic disadvantages is likely to increase steadily. Correlations with many other pathologies—delinquency, drug use, unemployability, weak self-image, etc.—are high.
  4. Government intervention is needed to “enhance the stability and resources of the Negro American family.”

“To sociologists and psychologists with a professional interest in the situation of the Negro American,” Rainwater and Yancey comment, “the report presented little that was new or startling.” The basic paradigm for Moynihan’s analysis was laid down by a black sociologist, E. Franklin Frazier, and its contemporary grounding lay mainly in the work and the vocabulary of a black psychologist, Kenneth B. Clark. Most of Moynihan’s figures and analyses were borrowed from the mammoth study of Harlem undertaken under Clark’s leadership. Clark’s own book, Dark Ghetto, appeared almost in the same month as Moynihan’s paper, and drew heavily on the same research. Much of the language of the Moynihan report appears also in Clark.

For example, Clark appears to have been the originator of the key concept of “pathology.” His text uses it frequently: “the pathology of the ghetto,” “the tangle of community and personal pathology,” etc.; an entire Chapter (5) is entitled “The Pathology of the Ghetto.” An important section of Chapter 3 is called “The Cycle of Family Instability,” and a section of Chapter 4, “The Psychology of the Ghetto,” is called “The Negro Matriarchy and the Distorted Masculine Image.” In the first of these sections, Clark reports:

Children and young people who grow up in a community in which a large proportion of families have no father in the home, a community in which 40 per cent of the men and 47 per cent of the women ages fourteen or over are unmarried, find it difficult, if not almost impossible, to know what an “adequate” family is like. The cycle of family instability continues uninterrupted.

In the second of these sections, Clark writes:

Sexual hierarchy has played a crucial role in the structure and pathology of the Negro family. Because of the system of slavery in which the Negro male was systematically used as a stud and the Negro female used primarily for purposes of breeding or for the gratification of the white male, the only source of family continuity was through the female, the dependence of the child on his mother. . . . The Negro male was, therefore, driven to seek status in ways which seemed either antisocial, escapist, socially irresponsible. The pressure to find relief from his intolerable psychological position seems directly related to the continued high incidence of desertions and broken homes in Negro ghettos.

No storm broke over Clark’s head for these assertions.



The more one studies the actual text of the Moynihan report, the more one marvels at the subsequent public discussion. If, as Rainwater and Yancey put it, there was “nothing really new” in the report, why did it stir such fury? How can such fury have lasted for ten long years? What taboo did Moynihan inadvertently violate? The mechanism he tripped is central, somehow, to our present way of life.

A closer look at this fall’s revival of the Moynihan controversy may help to illuminate the issue. Prior to actual publication of Herbert Gutman’s new book, whose theme is the stability and resiliency of black family life under slavery, the New York Times introduced the work to its readers with a long news story; then Roger Wilkins, a member of the Times editorial board, cited the book in an attack upon Moynihan the day after Moynihan defeated Bella Abzug in the New York senatorial primary; then Herbert Gutman was given space for a three-part essay on the argument of his book, to which Nathan Glazer was later asked to respond; and, finally, Herbert Hill, Labor Director of the NAACP, replied in a letter to Glazer. And there were many additional episodes—other biting letters like those of Hill, interviews with Percy Sutton and other black leaders, a long review of Gutman’s book by Richard Sennett in the Sunday Times Book Review; and a bitter denunciation of Moynihan by Kenneth Clark, who in 1965 had defended Moynihan against his detracters in these words: “It’s a kind of wolf pack operating in a very undignified way. If Pat is a racist, I am. He highlights the total pattern of segregation and discrimination. Is a doctor responsible for a disease simply because he diagnoses it?”

Herbert Hill’s letter to the Times (October 12) announces the basic theme: Gutman’s book “demolished the Moynihan thesis about the black family.” Is this true? Gutman’s book deals with the black family under slavery and until 1925. It does not deal with conditions in 1965, the date of Moynihan’s “call for national action.” The statistics Moynihan quoted for 1965 were correct then; similar indices today suggest, as Moynihan feared they might, a worsened condition. Concerning the black family under slavery—Gutman’s chief subject—Moynihan had no original “thesis” of his own. Concerning the black family in urban environments today, he took the charitable explanation; viz., that slavery and urban unemployment were to blame for the high rates of illegitimacy, female-headed households, and fatherless children.

Moynihan quoted government figures showing that about 23 per cent of non-white families in 1962 were headed by a woman. (The number of such white families in 1962 was about 7 per cent.) Gutman himself notes that at least one out of six black families, or about 17 per cent, were broken up by the sale of one partner or another by slaveholders. Thus, almost the same percentage of female-headed households which Moynihan found to constitute a crisis in the 1962 figures is held by Gutman to be proof of the stability of black families under slavery. It is clear both to Moynihan and to Gutman that not all black families, whether under slavery or under freedom, suffer the loss of the father from the home. But Gutman’s concept of normality and social health for blacks—about 17 per cent forcibly separated families—is not at all normal or healthy for whites. A far lower rate of family abandonment by white fathers (below 10 per cent) is widely considered a catastrophic sign of family breakdown.

There are signs here of a double standard. Among whites, Herbert Hill gleefully wrote to the Times, recent rates of increase in female-headed families, in female family heads who are divorced or separated, and in the number of children in one-parent families, are higher than among blacks. He failed to state that the actual proportion of persons to whom all these disadvantages accrue is far higher among blacks than among whites. (He also failed to note that the proportion is far higher today than when Moynihan first spotted the trend in 1965.) Most scholars, policy planners, and ordinary citizens—black and white—see such developments among whites as a national disaster. Are they not also so for blacks?

Other points emerge from Gutman’s researches: they do show a different attitude toward illegitimacy among unmarried black women than among whites, both during and after slavery. Secondly, they show that many of the stable marriages of blacks under slavery and from 1865-1925 were second marriages. This suggests that rates of separation and divorce among blacks down the generations constitute a tradition divergent from white rates.

Both of these findings of Gutman tend to confirm the general earlier views of Frazier, Elkins, and others, even though they replace earlier surmises and impressions with much firmer statistical data, and even though they limit severely the extent of instability that earlier writers had suggested. Yet the generalization holds: blacks were victimized by slavery in such ways as to be forced to carry higher rates of female-headed families, illegitimacy, and divorce and separation than white families. It does seem that later, it was poverty and unemployment rather than, or more than, cultural tradition which caused urban victimization among blacks. It also seems that whites of equal poverty and equal unemployment show analogous (but not identical) rates of family instability.

This is a point which Moynihan himself made in comparing the urbanization of the early Irish immigrants to that of the blacks. “It was this abrupt transition that produced the wild Irish slums of the 19th-century Northeast. Drunkenness, crime, corruption, discrimination, family disorganization, juvenile delinquency were the routines of that era. In our own time, the same sudden transition has produced the Negro slum—different from, but hardly better than, its predecessors, and fundamentally the result of the same process.” Moynihan cited Margaret Mead and Edward Wight Bakke to make plain that he was describing a universal, not just a particular, procession of causes. Still, that there is a strong case for “national action” to end such causes among blacks—that is, Moynihan’s case—has not been disproved but only underlined by Gutman’s book.

Throughout, Moynihan’s emphasis was on empowering the needy family through economic underpinnings, on “enhancing the stability and resources of the Negro American family.” He argued that a major governmental intervention was needed, and that intervention must have as its two indispensable foci both employment and a more equitable wage structure. On this ground nothing discovered by Gutman or by anybody else contradicts Moynihan’s analysis. “One of the things we know,” Gutman said in an interview on the publication of his book, “is that a powerful clue to the stability of a poor family is the regularity of employment.” The Moynihan report recorded far more than a clue: “The conclusion from these and similar data is difficult to avoid: During times when jobs were reasonably plentiful, the Negro family became stronger and more stable. As jobs became more and more difficult to find, the stability of the family became more and more difficult to maintain.” The connection between the curve of unemployment and that of family dissolution was perhaps the strongest and most original contribution of Moynihan’s research.



His second strongest point was the new correlation between family instability and welfare dependency. And it is here, around the issue of dependency, that the hidden animus against Moynihan begins to become manifest. Gutman, who barely touches on the pages Moynihan wrote on urbanization, the wage system, and unemployment—no doubt because the emphasis Moynihan placed on these matters is similar to Gutman’s own—quotes virtually every sentence in Moynihan (there are not very many) that describes deterioration, distortion, or damage in the black family. The idea apparently is that merely by describing the negative effects which, so he believed, slavery had induced in its victims, Moynihan somehow was blaming them for their present condition of dependency and instability.

Gutman’s framing of the issue in this way is not new. During the controversy of 1965, Professor William Ryan had canonized the same idea in a bitter polemic against Moynihan, Blaming the Victim. And in this year’s replay of the controversy in the Times, Herbert Hill’s letter recapitulated the idea: In Moynihan (and in Glazer, too), Hill wrote, “. . . the black victim is made responsible for his condition, thereby exonerating racist practices and institutions.”

No doubt, this is where Moynihan crossed the line of symbolic violation. He did not sufficiently “exonerate” blacks for their condition. For by focusing on the question of family structure, Moynihan implicitly allowed attention to fall on the behavior of blacks toward each other, not only on injustices in the system.

This is perhaps inevitable in any discussion of the family as a social unit: both the “system” and the individual come under question. It was perhaps equally inevitable that just this focusing on the family would make some blacks who read Moynihan feel uncomfortably threatened, not least when their own family experience had been a strong one. Roger Wilkins, in his article in the Times, wrote angrily that “black critics of the [Moynihan] report rejected it initially because it contradicted information gained from their own, their families’, and their friends’ experiences. . . .” Yet Wilkins’s example of an admirable family experience—a mother having died, collateral relatives having stepped in “to raise the children on a railway porter’s pay”—dramatizes precisely the point that a child growing up in a household with a mother and a father, whether or not they are his natural parents, is better off than a child growing up in a fatherless home (the kind Moynihan was talking about, and the kind which has been statistically salient within the black community). Moreover, the example also illustrates the additional economic burden placed upon collateral relatives of already stretched resources (“a railway porter’s pay”). Where Moynihan saw the burden, Wilkins saw the glory; but the evidence Wilkins cites confirms Moynihan’s analysis.

Now, it is among the manifold ironies of this entire story that Moynihan himself, whatever the implications of his report, refrained from urging any program of self-help on blacks, asking instead for the federal government to do something about the problem. Some black leaders in recent months have not been so shy. Jesse Jackson, calling not long ago for a program to strengthen black families, also said that black Americans “must begin to accept a larger share of responsibility for their lives. For too many years we have been crying that racism and oppression have kept us down. That is true, and racism and oppression have to be fought on every front. But to fight any battle takes soldiers who are strong, healthy, spirited, committed, well-trained, and confident.” Jackson has especially attacked the welfare dependency that “derives perhaps from slavery but that must now be overcome.”

Another prominent black, the economist Thomas Sowell, argues forcefully in Race and Economics (1975) that “those methods that have historically proved successful—self-reliance, work skills, education, business experience—are all slow-developing, while those methods which are more direct and immediate—job quotas, charity subsidies, preferential treatment—tend to undermine self-reliance and pride of achievement in the long run. If the history of American ethnic groups shows anything, it is how large a role has been played by attitudes—and particularly attitudes of self-reliance.”



The actual situation of black families in 1975 followed the worst prognostications from trends Moynihan discerned in 1965. Some black leaders are willing to face these facts and to break old habits of thought. Just last year, Eleanor Holmes Norton told the Urban League in Atlanta that the percentage of black households headed by women had reached 35. (Government figures show that by the age of sixteen, two-thirds of all black children now spend some years without a father. In 1973, 46 per cent of all black children were born out of wedlock.) “The repair of the black condition in America disproportionately depends upon the succor of strong families,” Mrs. Norton said.

Other black leaders, however, still feel comfortable with the language and symbols of dependency; and many white “friends” of blacks feel threatened when this dependency is even qualified. Blacks were once slaves, and in the unconscious thoughts of many they seem to be slaves still. By no means, therefore, must they be held responsible. One must always emphasize that they are victims and nothing but victims.

A striking similarity between the mentality of slaveholders of the past and some modes of thinking today lies precisely in this emphasis on total dependency. Gutman quotes a Louisiana cotton planter on how to train a slave: “What is essentially necessary for his happiness, you must provide for him Yourself and by that means create in him a habit of perfect dependence on you—Allow it once to be understood by a negro that he is able to provide for himself, and you that moment give him an undeniable claim on you for a portion of his time to make for this provision.”

This mentality rests on a paradox. If you grant no responsibility or hope for their own advancement to blacks, but treat their needs as in every respect due to a form of victimization, then no one calls you a racist; you are regarded, instead, as a friend to blacks. “Don’t blame the victim” is the slogan of such friendship. But if, on the other hand, you assert that blacks are equal to whites in potency, moral spirit, dignity, responsibility, and power over their own future, and deny that they are mere pawns and victims, then you set off a chorus of alarums and find yourself on treacherous emotional territory.

The corruptions to which this gives rise are evidenced in virtually every public statement about blacks and whites in our society. Untruth reigns. And the worst of this untruth is not located where some would look, in the ample folds and disguises of white racism. There is absolutely no hesitation among blacks or whites nowadays to diagnose and denounce the sins of white racism—conscious, unconscious, and as yet unperceived. But whereas to whites enormous moral responsibility is conceded, to blacks none is conceded. In a world in which to be treated as a sinner is to be treated as a free and responsible adult, whites are treated as sinners, blacks never.

Insofar as honest and direct truth is not the rule in racial discussions, insofar as an explicit mutual skepticism cannot be methodically employed, insofar as fact must always yield to euphemism, there is no equality in our social discourse. To speak the blunt truth is to enter into the only brotherhood that matters.


1 Pantheon, 704 pp., $15.95.

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