The President & The Negro: The Moment Lost
For anyone with even a moderate concern for the sources of stability in American government, the results of the 1966 elections will appear on balance a good thing. The Republican party reemerged as a strong and competent force in national life. Republicans now govern half the states of the union, are clearly seen as eligible to assume control of the national government, and increasingly are likely to do so before too many elections have passed.
The liberal Republicans whose successes were most prominent on November 8th do not normally take positions as “advanced” as have recent Democratic Presidents; but then over the years neither have Democratic Congresses, or the nation at large. We have just gone through one of those special periods in the American political cycle of high receptivity to new ideas and new social policies. This period, roughly from November 1963 to November 1966, was a consequence, as James L. Sundquist argues, of two tremendous accidents: the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the nomination of Barry Goldwater. Much as we will remember the thousand days of Kennedy as a moment of brilliance in American life, it was nonetheless a time of modest legislative achievement. New ideas were conceived, new programs put forth, but the congressional response was cautious and toward the end hostile. At the time of the President’s death, his legislative program was in trouble. It was only in the period that followed, in a spasm of remorse, guilt, fear, and something like exultation when what looked like disastrous fate was overcome and transformed indeed into triumph, that attention was turned to the unfinished business of the nation. Not long thereafter, the immense Democratic pluralities in Congress brought about by Goldwater’s defeat provided a margin of votes for measures that had been stalemated for years. In three tremendous sessions, Congress cleaned up the agenda of the Roosevelt and Truman eras, while adding a number of important programs conceived in the present era, out of its special problems. The Republican resurgence in part almost certainly reflects a feeling that enough new things are underway for the time being; and there is truth in this. The demand for innovation and experiment has been more than met: a pause is hardly out of order, and with a major war being fought, such a pause was scarcely to be avoided regardless of party balance. In general, the newly elected Republicans are men who have no intention of reversing what progress has been made, nor even of standing still. It is just that the recent period of accelerated, intensive innovation is over.
Few groups in the nation have much to complain about in terms of how they fared during those thirty-six months; few can point to large and clearly formulated expectations that have been left unsatisfied. With one exception. For Negro Americans the election may turn out to have been a calamity. For the second time in their history, the great task of liberation has been left only half-accomplished. It appears that the nation may be in the process of reproducing the tragic events of the Reconstruction: giving to Negroes the forms of legal equality, but withholding the economic and political resources which are the bases of social equality.
The election was not a vote to undo any of the civil-rights advances of the past several years. Indeed, some of the most dramatic outcomes involved the choice of a Republican moderate over a segregationist or even racist Democrat. (Republicans nominated twice as many Negro candidates for the House as did Democrats, who put up only their six incumbents, and of course Republicans nominated and elected a Negro senator.) But the vote was a clear instruction to elected officials everywhere that the country has gone about as far as it wishes in providing social welfare and economic assistance to the Negro masses. The vote, moreover, was a bruising declaration that the electorate is fed up to the teeth with demonstrations and riots and perhaps more particularly with the assertion of the right to riot and open threats of violence that have increasingly accompanied even the most routine requests of Negro leaders. The voters think Negroes have received enough for the time being. This was manifest in countless election details, from the popularity of Ronald Reagan’s disquisitions on welfare mothers and color television sets, to the startling turnout for the Conservative party in New York and the staggering, near two-to-one defeat of the civilian-dominated police review board by the citizens of New York City.
Even before the elections this mood had been telegraphed to the Congress, which refused to enact a civil-rights measure in its second session and which in many other ways indicated a withdrawal of sentiment from the Negro cause.
It was unavoidable that some such shift in attitude should have occurred eventually; the tragedy is that it came before the true destiny (if such terms are permitted) of this moment in history was fulfilled. Negroes did get a good deal out of this period. But not enough. They now have enforced legal rights as never in their history, but they remain terribly weak in economic and social terms—a situation that is, if anything, more conspicuous in the face of a booming, full-employment economy now entering its seventh year of unbroken expansion. The basic social legislation and, more importantly, adequate income levels for the Negro poor and the Negro working classes—legislation that would have meant for them what the New Deal measures meant for the population at large—were not enacted. They were, indeed, not even introduced. So long as war persists, economic conditions for Negroes are likely to be tolerable, but peace is more than likely to bring a return to the conditions of, say, the 1950’s, conditions which they are no longer willing to accept, but no more than ever, as a group, able to avoid.
The misery is that it did not have to happen. The moment came when, as it were, the nation had the resources, and the leadership, and the will to make a total as against a partial commitment to the cause of Negro equality. It did not do so. But it was not Northern conservatives or Southern segregationists who stood in the way. For that one brief moment their opposition would not have prevailed. This time the opposition emanated from the supposed proponents of such a commitment: from Negro leaders unable to comprehend their opportunity; from civil-rights militants, Negro and white, caught up in a frenzy of arrogance and nihilism; and from white liberals unwilling to expend a jot of prestige to do a difficult but dangerous job that had to be done, and could have been done. But was not.
One may be confident that Lyndon Johnson will be blamed for this, and with perhaps especial vehemence inasmuch as more than any man in American public life, and any President in American history, he tried to see that the job did get done. Hence the events that led to his effort, and to its subsequent failure, are worth noting: very likely to no greater purpose than the satisfaction of curiosity, but possibly in some small way as a lesson.
In a pattern that has become familiar for major Presidential initiatives, the effort began with an address to a university audience, in this instance the graduating class of Howard University on June 4, 1965. The timing here was perfect. The President had been overwhelmingly elected the preceding fall, and given the largest majorities in the House and Senate since those of the early Congresses that enacted the New Deal. Johnson had sent up a substantial, if not particularly radical, legislative program which was going along nicely. The one measure that promised to reapportion power in a part of American society, the Voting Rights Bill, was also well on its way to enactment. This latter was but one indication of the extraordinarily favored political position which Negro Americans enjoyed at that moment. The nation was proud, in a way, of having so resoundingly turned back the challenge of the Republican right wing, with its penumbra of reaction and racism. The Negro leaders had acted with great wisdom throughout that episode (and by successfully calling off demonstrations had seemed to evince genuine control of the Negro masses). The events in Selma had been almost a caricature of all that is stupid and intolerable in the South, and again the Negro performance was flawless. These events having in effect taken place on television, there was no longer any doubt that the country understood what things could be like in the South, and was determined to place the power of the federal government behind the protection of Negro civil rights in the region.
For just the reason that things were going so well, this was also the moment of maximum danger. To anyone who troubled to look closely at the situation it was clear that the disabilities of Negroes in the North were far wider and of a different order than those involving the deprivation of civil rights in the rural South. Assuring the franchise to Negroes in the South would help them; abolishing the public forms of segregation would also help them. But none of these measures would make any significant difference in the North, and not even that much in the South where Negroes were hopelessly outnumbered and, given the disparities of wealth and position, in important ways outclassed in the competitive struggle for position and wealth. In the meantime, a Negro proletariat was swelling to the bursting point in the cities of the North, its reach so far exceeding its grasp as to force any but the most indomitably complacent to see that trouble was in the offing.
The demands of Negroes in the South had been traditional, orderly, and unassailable in their justice: American citizens were asking that their constitutional rights be observed. Once the facts became clear, middle-class America agreed—instinctively, automatically. This was about the point—granting the looseness of any historical analogy—where things were left after the Civil War: the slaves were emancipated, and that was that. That they might remain penniless and dependent was not an issue touched upon either by John Locke or the American Constitution, and therefore of no concern to government. Just as almost everyone was free in 1863, almost everyone was able to vote a century later. On the other hand, no one had a “right” to own a farm in 1865, and no one had the “right” to hold a job in 1965. Then, as now, going beyond legal entitlements to rights of this kind meant getting involved in large social change—something far more radical than merely eliminating the major inconsistency of the existing system by bringing Negroes into it. Many of the groups now so insistent that the poll tax be abolished and school segregation ended (in the South) would not normally be prepared to support such a change. Moreover, compassion for the suffering, Christlike, non-violent Negro demonstrators of the South was a different thing from loving and understanding the frequently debased and disorderly slum-dwellers of the North. This was a point that anyone who had watched the emergence of “crime-in-the-streets” as a major political issue in New York City would have grasped.
Thus the danger signs were there. Nevertheless, the plain and ascertainable fact was that the nation was going through a moment that had never occurred before—and could not persist indefinitely—in which a willingness to accept a considerable degree of social innovation was combined with genuine feeling for the problems of Negroes. The world was at peace. The President had enormous majorities in Congress. The success of the New Economics was by then manifest: the Bureau of the Budget was already forecasting a |45 billion increase in the level of federal revenues by 1970—an increase, further, which doctrine ordained had to be spent in order to accrue. It was, in addition, a moment of racial calm. No demonstrators were abroad, no confrontation between white power and black protest was building up anywhere. In this atmosphere of maximum reasonableness and calm, an atmosphere in which the President could without great risk do nothing, and which for that very reason provided an opportunity for history to be made, the President, seizing the opportunity, set in motion a major initiative.
He went before an audience of fourteen-thousand persons on hand for the graduating ceremonies at Howard University and made the most advanced commitment to the cause of Negro equality of any President in history. Citing Churchill, he declared that the soon-to-be-enacted Voting Rights Bill, generally deemed at the time the ultimate in civil-rights achievement, was “not the end . . . not even the beginning of the end . . . perhaps the end of the beginning.” Once again Negroes were being given their freedom, but, said the President:
. . . freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, do as you desire; choose the leaders you please.
You do not take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “You are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.
Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.
For many Negroes there had been great progress, the President continued (speaking in a setting that made that clear enough). “But for the great majority of Negro Americans—the poor, the unemployed, the uprooted and the dispossessed—there is a much grimmer story. They still are another nation. Despite the court order and the laws, despite the legislative victories and the speeches, for them the walls are rising and the gulf is widening.” He went on to recount the facts of this widening gulf, and to insist that “Negro poverty is not white poverty”—the past had been too brutal, the present too distorted, racial prejudice too real for any useful analogy. The disadvantages of the Negro had become “a seamless web. They cause each other, they result from each other. They reinforce each other.”
To argue this point, the President then turned to a subject never before mentioned by an American President, never before an acknowledged issue of public concern: the condition of the Negro family, the central fact and symbol of the “one huge wrong of the American nation,” a condition that had vastly improved for some, but which 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.
This, too, is not pleasant to look upon. But it must be faced by those whose serious intent is to improve the life of all Americans.
Only a minority—less than half—of all Negro children reach the age of eighteen having lived all their lives with both of their parents. At this moment a little less than two-thirds are living with both of their parents. Probably a majority of all Negro children receive federally aided public assistance sometime during their childhood.
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.
So, unless we work to strengthen the family, to create conditions under which most parents will stay together—all the rest: schools and playgrounds, public assistance and private concern, will never be enough to cut completely the circle of despair and deprivation.
The President proposed “no single easy answer.” Some measures were obvious enough: jobs that enable a man to support his family, decent housing, welfare programs better designed to hold families together, health care, compassion. “But there are other answers still to be found.” To seek them out, he announced, he would convene in the fall a White House Conference of scholars and experts, outstanding Negro leaders and government officials. Its theme would be “To Fulfill These Rights,” a phrase echoing the great assertion of the Declaration of Independence. And he dedicated his administration to this epic undertaking:
To move beyond opportunity to achievement. To shatter forever not only the barriers of law and public practice, but the walls which bound the condition of man to the color of his skin.
This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity—not just legal equity but human ability—not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.
His audience was not in the least prepared for such a speech, nor was the press. The first accounts were routine enough: the President had promised equality, the ovation was “stunning,” he had received an honorary degree. A Gemini flight was the big news of the moment. But over the weekend the reporters thought again and began to assess what they had heard. Douglas Kiker described it in terms of the reaction of an audience “accustomed to hearing national political leaders speak in traditional ways about civil rights”:
At first they applauded the traditional lines. Then they sat in stunned silence. And finally they applauded out of shock and self-identification.
Mr. Johnson . . . [spoke] as no President ever has spoken before, but as a result it is doubtful that any future, serious discussion of the problem can be attempted without consideration of what he said.
Tom Wicker described the speech in terms of the Supreme Court decision on school segregation:
At Howard University . . . Mr. Johnson laid down much the same principle on a much broader scale.
Providing for the Negro an equal “right” to vote, to get a job, to go to unsegregated schools, to due process of law, Mr. Johnson was really saying, is providing him with no more than “separate but equal” citizenship. And just as had been true in education, so it is true in the broader view that “separate” is inherently “unequal.”
Thus did President Johnson face squarely what must be ranked as the most difficult problem in American life. That problem is not the enforcing of legal equity for the Negro. It is rather the acceptance of the Negro as an equal human being rather than a “separate but equal” human being—a man with a darker skin rather than a “black man.”
It was a bold beginning. The speech seemed to attract more attention as time passed, and indeed is almost certain to find a place in the history of Presidential papers. Yet before half-a-year had passed the initiative was in ruins, and after a year-and-a-half it is settled that nothing whatever came of it.
Why? The reasons vary. Within weeks of the speech the President was caught up in the series of decisions that led to the large-scale introduction of ground forces into Vietnam later that summer. The address at Howard was in a sense his last peacetime speech. Thereafter, one would assume, his mind was increasingly preoccupied with war in Asia. This did not entail any backtracking on the commitment “To Fulfill These Rights,” but it did mean that the White House was not going to think up a program to do so. The energies of that tiny group at the apex of government were now directed elsewhere. If a program was to be forthcoming, it would have to be the work of the civil-rights movement, with whatever assistance it could muster in government departments and universities. There was no reason to assume that the movement would fail in this, but in fact it did so: totally. The civil-rights movement had no program for going beyond the traditional and relatively easy issues of segregation and discrimination, and could not organize itself to produce one within the life of the 89th Congress. And in any event it did not do so because it allowed the question of developing a program to be superseded by a preposterous and fruitless controversy over a Department of Labor report which had been the original precipitant of the Howard speech.
The report was entitled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. It was written by me (I was then Assistant Secretary of Labor for Policy Planning and Research), with the assistance of Paul Barton and Ellen Broderick of the Policy Planning Staff. It was an internal document entirely: intended for the Secretary of Labor, the President, and the members of their staffs who would accept or reject its proposals and implications. A hundred copies were produced, but with no expectation of using even that few. The objectives of the report were twofold. First: to argue the need for seizing the opportunity of the moment to make the kind of commitment the President did in fact subsequently make. Second: to urge consideration of a new and different kind of policy, in addition to the more familiar ones—namely, a national family policy.
A word about these objectives: traditionally, the American legal and constitutional system has been based on a deliberate blindness to any social reality other than the reality of individuals. Deriving partly from the metaphysics of classical liberalism, and partly from the relative ethnic homogeneity of American society before the Civil War, this emphasis has been a source of much vitality and initiative, but also an obstacle to the entry of a number of groups into a full sharing of the rewards of American life. It was simply not enough, as Anatole France observed, that the law in its majestic equality should forbid the rich equally with the poor to sleep under bridges and to beg bread in the streets. The reality of class had to be acknowledged, for example, in order for the labor movement to make the gains it did under the New Deal. But if this understanding of the Negro in group terms has been widespread enough among scholars, it has not been a consideration in the framing of programs. The report on the Negro family was intended to demonstrate its relevance and thereby to persuade the government that public policy must now concern itself with issues beyond the frame of individualistic political thinking.
The second objective was connected with and flowed from the first. Family is not a subject Americans tend to consider appropriate as an area of public policy. Family affairs are private. For that very reason, to raise the subject in terms of public policy is to arouse immediate interest: edged with apprehension, but interest nonetheless. That was the simple purpose of the report: to win the attention of those in power. The government no less—in fact, more—than the nation at large was caught up in the euphoria and sense of achievement of the moment. This was, after all, an administration of Texans who could hardly help exaggerating the importance of the dismantling of the segregationist social structure that had been the shame and the burden of the South for so long. It was necessary to depict, and in terms that would be felt as well as understood, the internal weakness of the Negro community and the need for immense federal efforts if that community was to go beyond opportunity “to equality as a fact and as a result.” Another discourse on unemployment, on housing, on health would not have accomplished this. It would have added little to what persons thought they generally knew. In any event, unemployment was going down, housing was by any criteria improving, health standards were higher than ever. Yet social indicators such as these are relative, while family in a sense remains an absolute: a broken family is broken; a deserted wife is alone; an abandoned child needs help. Describing the plight of so many Negro families appeared the surest way to bring home the reality of their need. And, should the argument carry within the administration and be extended beyond, it seemed that programs aimed at the family might hope to enlist the support of the more conservative and tradition-oriented centers of power in American life whose enthusiasm for class legislation is limited indeed. To do anything for Negro families would entail assisting the entire population. Certain groups might be hesitant at first, but if the European or Canadian experience was any guide, such programs could quickly become a matter of solid consensus.
However little explored as a subject of public policy, the question of the Negro family has been perhaps the central subject of Negro scholarship in America. The first and in ways the best book, now forgotten, was written by W. E. B. DuBois in 1908, under the title, The Negro American Family. A generation later, E. Franklin Frazier published his classic work, The Negro Family in the United States. A number of others have contributed important studies since. The destruction of the family under the form of capitalist slavery practiced in the American South was, after all, the unique experience of the Negro American. It was the supreme fact of bondage and, if one likes, the unredeemable sin of the slaveholders. The gradual formation of families by freedmen before emancipation and others thereafter was a central element in the great transformation of the Negro people, but while eminently successful for some, it was slow and painful for many, and from the beginning, Negro families have been exposed to every variety of internal travail and external pounding. Frazier ended his work, which appeared in 1939, on an ominous note. The uprooted, marginal, Southern peasants were then moving To the City of Destruction. “The travail of civilization,” he wrote, “is not yet ended.”
First, it appears that the family which evolved within the isolated world of the Negro folk will become increasingly disorganized. Modern means of communication will break down the isolation of the world of black folk, and, as long as the bankrupt system of Southern agriculture exists, Negro families will continue to seek a living in the towns and cities of the country. They will crowd the slum areas of Southern cities or make their way to Northern cities where their family life will become disrupted and their poverty will force them to depend upon charity.
The plan of the Labor Department report was to pick up from Frazier and record what had happened. As the data were assembled—data which had not previously been brought together—a compelling hypothesis began to emerge: Frazier had been right. It could not be described as a conclusion, since the information was not that solid, but the impression arose that the Negro community might be dividing. A middle class was clearly consolidating and growing, and yet the overall indicators continued to worsen, not precipitously but steadily. These two things could not be true unless a third fact—that things were falling apart at the bottom—was also true. And that meant trouble in the Northern slums.
The last point is essential to understanding the initial impact of the report and later the reaction to it. The kind of female-headed, female-based family now so common in Negro slums is nothing new. It has been and in places remains a commonplace feature of lower-class life in industrial societies. The Negro experience may be a particularly intensive one, but San Juan and Copenhagen, Glasgow and Dublin have or have had their counterparts. Further, it has its equivalents in primitive societies. In the view of a wide range of anthropologists and sociologists and, of course, of psychiatrists, these families and the communities they make up tend to transmit from one generation to the next, traits and circumstances which help perpetuate their condition. There is nothing absolute about this: as many individuals, no doubt, leave the culture as remain in it, and on one level the proposition amounts to little more than the assertion that the poor rarely inherit large estates. But anyone who has lived in or near the condition knows it to be real. The dissolution, the carelessness, the matriarchy, the violence, the “protest masculinity” are all there. The “massive deterioration of the fabric of society and its institutions,” in Kenneth Clark’s phrase, sets in and children get caught up in the “tangle of pathology” early. In any event, if, as Kennedy used to say, to govern is to choose, to advise those who govern is to choose positions and press them, and I pressed this one.
The report began: “The United States is approaching a new crisis in race relations.” An opening section, “The End of the Beginning,” proposed that the Negro demands for liberty in the South would now be met regardless of sporadic opposition, and that the nation must now turn to the issue of equality. On that issue no similar consensus existed. Yet mere equality of opportunity would not be sufficient, for in present terms Negroes were simply not competitive. “The principal challenge of the next phase of the Negro revolution is to make certain that equality of results will now follow. If we do not, there will be no social peace in the United States for generations.”
With the warning: “Data are few and uncertain, and conclusions drawn from them, including the conclusions that follow, are subject to the grossest error,” the report went on to declare that “At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family.” A combination of charts and text illustrated the way in which unemployment, in particular, had controlled family stability and welfare dependency, with the latter rising and falling in response to the non-white male unemployment rate, and the prevalence of broken families rising with the long-term rise in unemployment. But then in the 60’s employment began to improve, but family conditions did not. The possibility was real that the situation had begun feeding on itself. The large number of children born to lower-and working-class Negro parents, combined with the low skills of Negro workers and the sluggishness of the wage structure, argued most powerfully that even full employment would not provide the economic stability that was clearly the basis of family stability for this group. (There are other groups with different traditions—Appalachian miners, for instance—who can take a lot of punishment without much impact on family structure. But urban Negroes cannot, and that is really all there is to it.) The report concluded that a new and vast national effort was required to enhance “the stability and resources of the Negro American family.”
A series of recommendations was at first included, then left out. It would have got in the way of the attention-arousing argument that a crisis was coming and that family stability was the best measure of success or failure in dealing with it. The program response was anyhow obvious enough: guaranteed full employment, birth control, adoption services, etc. But first of all a family allowance. The United States is the only industrial democracy in the world without a system of automatic income supplements for people living with their children. It is the simplest and possibly the most effective of all social-welfare arrangements, not least because its administration involves no judgments as to whether or not the recipients are worthy and entitled to assistance. If the children are alive, the allowance is paid. The United States has, of course, a family allowance for broken families, the AFDC program. It was past time we came to our senses on the subject, and stopped penalizing families with a father in the home. In that far-off spring of 1965 it appeared we might. It was absurd to think that such a precious moment of legislative opportunity would pass without some measure of income redistribution. A family allowance was surely the most promising candidate. It would have cost $5 to $10 billion per year according to the scheme adopted but we had the money. To have enacted it would have been a first step in the necessary movement from the “civil-rights” phase—the phase involving legal equality for Negroes—into the phase of “equality as a fact and as a result.”
The report was sent to the President by Secretary of Labor Wirtz on May 4th, along with a nine-point program. On May 30th, the White House asked for a draft of a speech at Howard to put forward its thesis. On the night of June 3rd, the draft was rewritten and after being read in the morning to Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and Martin Luther King, was delivered without further ado that afternoon.
Lee Rainwater and William L. Yancey have written a book about the controversy that ensued1 and much that here follows draws on them. Predictably, albeit unbeknown to the White House, trouble began within the permanent government, as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. calls the civil-service bureaucracies. The report and the speech were wholly the product of the Presidential government. The welfare bureaucracy knew nothing of either, but as closer inquiry put the two together it was instantly perceived that the adequacy of the welfare bureaucracy’s efforts and even the integrity of its view of events had been roundly condemned. The civil service is in an untenable position in this area: they know well enough the inadequacy of the programs they administer, and the ways in which Negroes are discriminated against even within the context of inadequate programs. Rainwater and Yancey write:
Over many years one of the most important ways of coping with this difficult situation has been to try to fuzz it over. Under the guise of civil libertarian reasoning, welfare organizations, both national and local, have tried to “wish away” race as a category, and this has had the latent function of concealing the extent to which discrimination continues. One of the early civil-rights activities of the Kennedy administration was to try to reverse this trend so that at least the government could be informed about the extent to which Negroes were disadvantaged. Having this “color blind” point of view built into their ideology, it was relatively easy for welfare personnel to find Moynihan’s intransigent emphasis on color reactionary rather than radical.
Word began to flow forth from the recesses of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare that I was a “subtle racist,” that the Negro people had been insulted, and further that the facts were wrong. The Children’s Bureau awoke from its torpor to join this effort with singularly feline earnestness.
For the record let it be said that such new information as has come to light since the report was written has substantially confirmed the thesis that the prevalence of family disruption among lower-class Negroes has been on the increase. The weakest statistic in the report had to do with the actual proportion of female-headed non-white families, which had increased only from 18 per cent in 1950 to 21 per cent in 1960. It happens that in March 1965, the month the report was finished, another census was being taken which showed the proportion of female-headed Negro families to have increased to 25 per cent—a sharp acceleration. This is the prevalence at the moment; the incidence over time is, of course, much higher. Probably not much more than a quarter of lower-class Negro children live with both parents during their entire youths. There are more broken families and they are breaking up earlier. Analyzing the non-white data in a paper delivered last summer, Daniel O. Price reported that 1970 will see “significant increases in the percent married with spouse absent. These increases are doubtless related to many factors such as increased urbanization, lack of economic opportunities for non-white males, welfare programs that reduce the financial strains on many female-headed households, differential cultural values, etc.”
The white/non-white differential in marriage stability seems to hold at all economic and social levels, but the recent deterioration is clearly concentrated at the lowest ones. In Watts, for example, the proportion of children under 18 living with both parents dropped from 56 per cent in 1960, which was nothing to brag about, to 44 per cent in 1965. Most strikingly, family income levels have also been dropping in these areas. Between 1960 and 1965, family income in America rose 14 per cent. Non-white family income rose 24 per cent. But in South Los Angeles, it declined 8 per cent, from $5,122 to $4,736 in constant dollars. The Negro community in that area was going through a serious increase in disorganization; this was not, however, happening to the Mexican American community alongside them in East Los Angeles. In the Hough section of Cleveland, a similar process was underway. In 1959, family income there was $4,732; by 1964, this had dropped to $3,966, a decline almost entirely accounted for by the increase in female-headed households, which rose from 22.5 per cent in 1960 to 32.1 per cent in 1966.
It is plain enough that anyone seeking to discredit a political initiative based on as sensitive a subject as family structure, particularly that of Negroes, will have no difficulty devising arguments. For generations, Negroes have labored under the attribution of genetic inferiority; to raise the question of a “deviant subculture” is to invite the charge of raising the same old canard of innate differences in a more respectable guise. The subject of family introduces the subject of sex, in this instance Negro sex, an issue of intense and not always acknowledged sensitivity for all parties. The subject of broken families raises the specter of welfare cheating charges, an issue to which Newburgh, New York, gave its name, but which Governor Reagan has brought to a point of high political style. Further, Negro leaders and activists are apt themselves to come from the most solid, even rigid family backgrounds and probably have real difficulty perceiving or acknowledging the realities of lower-class life. And so on, down a long list of reasons, any one of which is sufficient to explain why, even when the subject is broached, as in the Howard speech, it barely makes its way into the press accounts, being an issue, as the Economist noted at the time, that liberals prefer to “skirt.”
The attack, as is usual in such cases, came from the outside, in the form of a paper prepared early in the fall by a member of CORE, William Ryan (not the Manhattan congressman) and published in the Nation. Ryan, a psychologist, was a consultant to the Massachusetts Committee on Children and Youth, whose head is a former director of the Children’s Bureau. He charged the report with providing grounds for a massive white “cop out” by means of “a new form of subtle racism that might be termed ‘Savage Discovery,’ and seduces the reader into believing that it is not racism and discrimination but the weaknesses and defects of the Negro himself that account for the present status of inequality. . . .” One recalls the character in a Disraeli novel said to have been “distinguished for ignorance, in that he had but one idea and that was wrong.” Ryan’s one idea was that I was obsessed with illegitimacy; I should never have raised the subject, he said, and moreover was inaccurate in my facts. He may have been right about the first allegation, but he was wrong about the statistics. For illegitimacy—which Myrdal judged the best measure of family stability—is a serious problem for Negroes (and increasingly for whites as well). A quarter of all non-white births and almost half of first births (and in one large city for which data are available, near to two-thirds of first births) are out of wedlock. The illegitimate first child (the non-white rate rose from 39.5 per cent in 1955 to 47.4 per cent in 1964)) seems a particularly poignant problem, as it almost certainly decimates the bargaining power of a young Negro girl with the world around her. Illegitimacy is a painful subject, but one is surprised in this age of the Foul Speech Movement to find that it is also thought to be a dirty word.
Thomas Pettigrew, of Harvard University, author of Profile of the Negro American, wrote the editor of the Nation describing the Ryan article as “trash . . . replete with errors and written by a man with no past experience in race relations. . . .” But it was widely distributed within the civil-rights movement and seemingly accepted as truth. At the year’s end it was reprinted in Crisis, the official organ of the NAACP, under the title, “The New Genteel Racism.”
The article was a blow to the Howard initiative, but not yet a deadly one. Roy Wilkins wrote to say he had not known the NAACP was reprinting it: “My opinion of the Ryan piece and of similar reasoning is well known to my immediate associate here. . . . It is a silly and sinister distortion to classify as racist this inevitable discussion of a recognized phase of our so-called race problem.” Wilkins’s attitude was shared by other Negro leaders. During the summer, Whitney Young, Jr. several times noted, properly, that he had for years been writing about just such questions. In October in a speech in Westchester, Martin Luther King, Jr. summed up a general position:
As public awareness [of the breakdown of the Negro family] increases there will be dangers and opportunities. The opportunity will be to deal fully rather than haphazardly with the problem as a whole—to see it as a social catastrophe and meet it as other disasters are met, with an adequacy of resources. The danger will be that problems will be attributed to innate Negro weaknesses and used to justify neglect and rationalize oppression.
Just so. The Howard speech was playing for high stakes.
The fact was that the civil-rights movement was beginning to think in these terms. The President of a new Asian nation once remarked to an American Assistant Secretary of State that his predecessor, the first President, had had a glorious job. “He had only to go about the country shouting, ‘Freedom!’ For me it’s different. For me it’s all arithmetic.” Just such a day was approaching for the Negro leaders. On April 3, 1965, in a staff memorandum entitled “Suggested Guidelines for Future Organizational Expansion,” James Farmer, then the national head of CORE, had opened the subject: “In the past,” he wrote, “any talk of upgrading and improving the Negro community would immediately have been labeled anti-integrationist, separationist, reactionary, and lending grist to the mill of those who cry, ‘Not Ready Yet.’ But even if such accusations come from thoughtless quarters, we must not delay motion in this direction.”
In other circumstances, the Howard speech and even the report might have served to give direction to this developing attitude. Yet just the opposite occurred. The reasons are no doubt many, but an important one seems to have been the war in Vietnam. The political Left that had been associated with and indeed was part of the movement now began turning on the President and all his works. Thus, Ramparts published an editorial written by Marcus Raskin, evincing great concern that I seemed to think more Negroes should be in the armed forces (I do); and indicting me further as a lackey of the “social welfare monopoly—with its cop and spying attributes” that now proposed to force decent proletarian Negroes to live like the white bourgeoisie and to “torture” them with birth control. I had become a most suspect person indeed in the ranks of SNCC and CORE, and the Presidential initiative suffered accordingly.
The real blow was Watts. It threw the civil-rights movement entirely off balance. Until then, theirs had been the aggrieved, the just, the righteous cause. In the South an old game had been going on with a new rule, imperfectly understood by whites, that the first side to resort to violence—lost. Now in the North the Negroes had resorted to violence, in a wild destructive explosion that shattered, probably forever, the image of nonviolent suffering. And within hours of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. The same new rule applied. The civil-rights movement could not explain Watts, and could not justify it. Then, of a sudden, the report on the Negro family was being used to do so. Watts made the report a public issue, and gave it a name. Or rather the columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak did in their column of August 18, which began:
Weeks before the Negro ghetto of Los Angeles erupted in violence, intense debate over how to handle such racial powder kegs was under way deep inside the Johnson administration.
The pivot of this debate: the Moynihan report, a much suppressed, much leaked Labor Department document that strips away usual equivocations and exposes the ugly truth about the big-city Negro’s plight.
The report, said they, had raised, as indeed it had, the explosive question of preferential treatment, “a solution far afield from the American dream.”
I had by this time left Washington for New York politics and was not at all involved with what was then going on in the capital, but it does appear that after Watts the report gained notoriety as an explanation of the internal problems revealed by the riots, and in that measure angered and repelled just those Negro leaders who had been on the point of turning to just such problems. Before long I was being denounced, for example, by James Farmer, in terms not at all consistent with his staff memorandum of April 8: “We are sick unto death,” he wrote in a syndicated column, “of being analyzed, mesmerized, bought, sold, and slobbered over. . . . Moynihan has provided a massive academic copout for the white conscience and clearly implied that Negroes in this nation will never secure a substantial measure of freedom until we stop sleeping with our wife’s sister and buying Cadillacs instead of bread. . . . Nowhere does Moynihan suggest that the proper answer to a shattered family is an open job market where the ‘frustrated’ Negro male can get an honest day’s work.” (The gist of the report was, if I may, that full employment, while indispensable, was no longer enough.)
Watts also threw off the White House, which found the moment for the conference “To Fulfill These Rights” almost upon it, but with no adequate preparations for a full-scale meeting. It was decided to hold first a small planning session. This met in November in an atmosphere of near frenzy over the report, which was all the militants seemed able to think of: indeed, at one of the plenary sessions the secretary to the conference felt called on to announce, “There is no such person as Daniel P. Moynihan.” The conference was in truth a shambles; in the aftermath, one Chicago militant declared it had been entirely too much dominated by “whites and Jews,” and from within the administration came the verdict: “A disaster.” Rainwater and Yancey found one “close observer of Washington civil-rights events” who saw behind it all the “benign Machiavellianism” of Lyndon Johnson. They themselves suggest that “failure to treat the conference as the important event it had first seemed served several functions. First of all, it strongly disorganized the civil-rights forces who in the end managed to bring about a show of unity only in opposition to the Moynihan report, not in effective demands on the administration.” But this kind of calculation is rarer in government than those outside tend to suppose. The essential fact is that neither the government nor the civil-rights movement had the resources to prepare a program in response to the Howard speech. This was the point of unparalleled opportunity for the liberal community and it was exactly the point where that community collapsed.
The collapse had been presaged just before the planning session met in November. A “Pre-White House Conference on Civil Rights” was convened in New York by the Office of Church and Race of the Protestant Council in cooperation with the Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches. A distinguished group of religious leaders, including Catholics and Jews and a scattering of liberal professors, was in attendance. The key figures were Dr. Robert Spike, Executive Director of the Commission on Religion and Race which had been established in 1968 in the midst of the Birmingham crisis, and Dr. Benjamin F. Payton, a young Negro sociologist and minister, then with the New York Protestant Council, and who a month later succeeded Spike in the national post. The larger purpose of the meeting was to propose that an “Economic Development Budget for Equal Rights in America,” to cost $82 billion per year, be placed on the agenda of the White House Conference. But the real heat of the gathering was in the demand “that the question of ‘family stability’ be stricken entirely from that agenda. . . .”
This demand was supported by a paper written by Dr. Payton analyzing the report. It had already, he said, “had an impact upon the civil-rights movement and upon more general American politics that is quite deadening and utterly misleading.” At the outset of a confused and confusing document, he seemed to suggest that the report had been written to explain Watts:
Based largely upon Bureau of Census statistics, it summarizes very incomplete data in the form of some highly questionable conclusions, the most important of which are: (1) Since unemployment in general is decreasing in America, the riots breaking out in cities across the land cannot be positively associated with lack of jobs on the part of Negroes; (2) The major causal factor behind the riots, therefore, cannot be associated with present and continuing discrimination, or with an inadequate supply of job-training. . . .
Dr. Payton’s main assertion was that the report had declared that the employment and income gap between Negroes and whites was closing (where, in fact, the report had said exactly the opposite). Also bewildering was the end of the paper where, describing the President in Neustadtian terms as “the Great Initiator” who may not wait for information to make its way through the labyrinthine corridors of Washington offices, but rather must reach out for it “at the level of detail,” Dr. Payton concluded:
That President Johnson reached to significant social experts for the [Howard speech] . . . is evident from the quality of the speech. . . .The President sketched, in broad outline, an approach to the question of civil rights that promised to lift the whole issue to a new level of discussion, and provide a more meaningful framework within which action might be planned for its resolution. Pointing to the complex interrelationship among social and economic factors to the achievement of meaningful constitutional rights, Johnson became the first Chief Executive to maintain intact the issues pertaining purely to racial justice, and at the same time, to connect those issues with a category broader than the somewhat misleading genus of “race-relations”; hence giving them an adequate context.
With an impressive array of technical data, shaped by imaginative ethical insight into an instrument of incisive social analysis, the speech provided a devastatingly clear rationale of why, at precisely the moment when unprecedented rights for the Negro are being secured by law, the nation needs to make a new departure if those rights are to become something more than mere ideal possibilities.
That the speech had had a direct relation to the report he seemed not to know, and the whole matter became even more curious two weeks later when I met Dr. Payton and he informed me that his paper was really an attack on President Johnson but that he had named me for “strategical purposes.”
In truth, the Payton paper bordered on the psychopathological. (Although perhaps not: it was broadcast by the hundreds at the time, and achieved its objective brilliantly. But when Rainwater and Yancey recently asked to reproduce it in their book, Payton declined.) Charles M. Silberman, author of Crisis in Black and White, called it “the most blatant distortion that I can remember seeing in a long time.” In a letter to a Presbyterian minister he wrote:
Moynihan’s whole emphasis is on the crucial role of unemployment in understanding all of the problems of Negro pathology; he presents one statistical correlation after another, showing that illegitimacy, desertion, and all the other symptoms show an unbelievably high correlation with changes in Negro unemployment; he marshals an enormous amount of evidence demonstrating—completely contrary to Payton’s allegations throughout his essay—that Negro unemployment is very much more serious than the unemployment statistics indicate.
And so on. The Presidential assistant most directly responsible for civil-rights matters, a devout Protestant layman, described Payton’s paper as “the apotheosis of the big lie.” But somehow a nerve had been touched in Liberal Protestantism and there was no undoing the effects. Given the national prominence and the position of the persons who convened the Payton-Spike meeting, and given the absence of any protest or correction from within the church community, it had to be taken as the voice of American Protestantism. The issue of the Negro family was dead.
The plans for the November session were already fixed when the New York meeting took place, so that in fact one of the eight panels which met in Washington was on “The Family: Resources for Change.” Chaired by Constance Baker Motley, it was a lively and useful session, on a subject that had not been talked to death. The panel report calling for the establishment of a national family policy might have been an important document, had it not been for the Payton-Spike intervention. But in February, the President appointed a thirty-member group to organize the White House Conference “To Fulfill These Rights.” Reverend Spike was put on this Council and the subject of family—raised by an accused and thereby half-convicted “crypto-racist”—was taken off the agenda. The Department of Labor, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and the Office of Economic Opportunity set to work destroying all traces of the original policy, while producing tract on tract to demonstrate that what the President had said at Howard University was not so. The White House dissociated itself from the report and the subject. Order was restored, and soon the old orthodoxies were securely back in place: the problems of Negroes derived from the behavior of whites, and laws would change that behavior. A civil-rights message was sent to Congress proposing a ban on discrimination in housing in about the terms Governor Dewey used to address the New York State legislature in the 1940’s.
The Conference, when it met, was a lifeless affair. The Council submitted a long report of unflinching orthodoxy, that missed entirely the import of the Howard speech. It reflected throughout what Rainwater has called “the services strategy,” as against an income strategy in dealing with problems of poverty. Thus, the section on public welfare proposed, “There should be a sharp reduction of the number of clients served by each case worker.” This is a common enough American approach to social problems, but there is perhaps a special significance in this particular area: a quite disproportionate number of middle-class Negroes, and of whites involved in civil-rights activities, are themselves members of the service professions. It is too much to expect that such persons will be oblivious to the advantages that might accrue to them from bidding up the demand for their services. A more cynical person might describe the strategy as one of feeding the sparrows by feeding the horses. The Education section proposed that public expenditure per pupil be increased from $532 to $1000. This would reflect an increase of tax outlay per Negro family of $1404, or 37.5 per cent of average Negro family income. But almost every last penny of this increase would go to middle-class persons whose salaries are already well above the poverty level. The thought of giving the money directly to the Negro family in the form of a family allowance is not even suggested in the report, a document in any event destined for instant obscurity. The delegates were bored from the outset, and contented themselves with passing resolutions of no greater political realism than the report itself: “That J. Edgar Hoover be fired,” “That the President ask for $2 billion to enforce Civil Rights laws.” The President spoke briefly and warned his hearers not to expect miracles.
The question will be asked whether the subject of family was that essential. The answer will depend on a judgment as to the nature of the Negro problem. If one sees it as wholly a white problem, a matter of racial discrimination and oppression which can and should be stamped out, then it will be held that any internal troubles Negroes may have will thereafter take care of themselves. If, on the other hand, one sees it as a systemic problem which, whatever its origins, is now producing results that no significant portion of the population intends, then family becomes a relevant and politically useful issue. I believe it fair to say that family disruption is both a valid measure of the overall impact of external forces on a group such as urban Negroes, and it is also a measure whereby outside groups—white Americans—can be brought to see the realities of life in terms that command attention and demand response. In these terms, the subject of family does not, as has been charged, distract from issues like employment, but rather gives them a reality and urgency which normally they do not command among certain segments of the population. Writing in Christianity and Crisis in February 1965, Reverend Spike took particular exception to the fact that Life magazine seemed to approve the report. But that was just the point: family is an issue that comes home to responsible and influential, but conservative, persons such as the editors of Life. (Reverend Spike was murdered in tragic circumstances last summer, and cannot rebut anything I might say; so no more of him, although his influence in this matter was considerable and in ways decisive.)
But the essential fact about the subject of family in this connection was that upon it turned the issue of whether the conference and the administration would be kept to the President’s proposition that a crisis was in the making within the Negro community. Rainwater and Yancey put it as follows:
For a government that wanted to move vigorously on social and economic reform to benefit Negroes, the Moynihan report provided a strong justification. For a government that wanted to “cool it,” to avoid action that could no longer be afforded without having to take the blame for inaction, the Moynihan controversy provided an ideal distraction. The President and his aides could relax. A civil-rights strategy of “getting Moynihan” would obviously distract from “getting” the White House in the sense of either pressing for expanded federal commitments or protesting the lack of action.
I happen not to accept this interpretation. The administration was, and is, as much committed to the goals of the Howard speech as when it was delivered. But it lacked the resources of time and political capital to force the issue. (Remember that at this point, the civil-rights militants, Negro and white, were also bitterly attacking the war in Vietnam. The White House had to placate them, and in this instance all that was asked, ironically, was that it not move forward on the vast and expensive program of social reform to which in the wake of the report it had committed itself.) The most that could be hoped for was that the businessmen and liberal leaders on the President’s new Council should stick by the Howard thesis and press the matter. They did nothing of the sort. In retrospect it is clear that civil rights had become for them a cause that could no longer stimulate or inspire them to take any grave risks. Their strategy now consisted of appearing to take an “advanced” social position, while remaining entrenched behind the most solid of orthodoxies. But faced with the prospect that this time there might be some real danger, that a genuinely—horrid word—controversial issue was being raised, the President’s Council—persons solidly representative of the civil-rights establishment of that time—did not consider the matter even long enough for it to be said that it collapsed. It did not consider the matter at all. The subject was not dropped, it was never even raised.
The President’s Council failed because in the end it had no views: all it sought was agreement. A quest for peace of this kind gives maximum leverage to the group with the most intransigent and assertive opinions, and the greatest ideological discipline. At the moment in question, in matters concerning civil rights, this was a position conspicuously enjoyed by the liberal Left. If that term is vague, anyone with experience in politics will nonetheless recognize the reality behind it. For the first half of the 1960’s, the liberal Left, for the most part white, very nearly dominated the civil-rights movement, most conspicuously of course in SNCC and CORE, but also in the older-line organizations. The relation was not unlike that of the Marxist Left to the trade unions of the 1930’s. The mass of the movement in each instance was made up of rank-and-file persons, with, on the whole, quite conventional views and expectations. But surrounding the leaders was an echelon of intense, purposeful, powerful, and dedicated persons of a quite different character. And behind them was a community of sorts, in universities, in churches, in large cities, small businesses, and assorted journalistic enterprises that provided funds, ideas, support, followings: all those things that make for effective political action. There is no need to exaggerate its coherence in order to perceive that something like a community of opinion has existed here. More than most tendencies, this one is ridden with argument and controversy, but not uncommonly such strife ends up with substantial accord that can shift quite dramatically. Thus, one moment the war in Vietnam is a monstrously immoral adventure forced on the nation by a half demented President in the hands of a paranoid military, and the next instant the war is become a routine, ongoing affair that provides no excuse whatever for not allocating the billions necessary to implement the Freedom Budget at home.
The nation needs the liberal Left. It has provided a secular conscience in a civilization where the immorality of large organizations has become, as Niebuhr warned us it would, almost the central danger of the age, and where the older voices of conscience have grown confused or silent or worse. Moreover, it has begun to affect and even to “infiltrate” religious institutions in many areas so that, of a sudden, churches stand for something in American public life other than that which is trivial, vulgar, or both. Had it not been for the liberal Left, it is unlikely that the civil-rights movement would have had the extraordinary impact and success of the past decade. But if one accepts the thesis that that was a first phase which now must be followed by a second, then the matter becomes more difficult. In the first phase, where issues of principle, of justice, of witness were involved, the liberal Left was an indispensable ally. In the second phase, however, where it becomes necessary to confront the realities of lower-class life, the liberal Left can be a disaster. Consider its reaction to the Watts riot. Anyone with a minimal sense of American social history would have instantly seen this as a calamity. Yet in no time, the liberal Left was depicting the participants not as a mob (and rather a merchandise-minded mob at that) but as an avenging, exultant proletariat. In the March 1966 COMMENTARY, Bayard Rustin explained that it had not been a riot at all, but rather a “Manifesto,” a nicely articulated and discriminating statement of a political viewpoint. For a period after Watts it was not unusual to encounter middle-class civil-rights militants not only repeating the threats and predictions of further violence which had become commonplace on the part of Negroes, but actually enjoying the prospect. (How much of the backlash may be explained by Kipling’s dictum: “If once you have paid . . . the Danegeld, you never get rid of the Dane”?)
The liberal Left wishes, on paper at least, to transform American society. It is largely made up of individuals who have passed through most of the stages of routine affluence, and in certain ways, again on paper, now want out. Negroes want in. Read Ebony. Read Myrdal. Read the election returns from Lowndes County. The great, guilty, hateful secret is that Negroes are not swingers. They are Southern Protestants. They like jobs in the civil service. They support the war in Vietnam, approve the draft, back the President. And all this in greater proportion than any other group in the nation. Negroes are other things, too—but at this point in their history, only in quite limited numbers. (Note that when in October 1966 the old-line civil-rights leadership in effect dissociated itself from CORE and SNCC and Black Power, the statement was signed by the heads of the Negro Elks and the Negro Masons—two gentlemen who had not heretofore appeared as civil-rights leaders, but who represent a very considerable number of Negroes.)
The reaction of the liberal Left to the issue of the Negro family was decisive (the Protestant reaction was clearly triggered by it). They would have none of it. No one was going to talk about their poor people that way. Next ensued a discouragingly familiar form of whipsawing. On the one hand, the problems did not exist, the whole affair was a calculated slander; on the other hand, these were not problems at all, but healthful adaptations to intolerable social conditions imposed by an unfeeling racist society. College professors waxed absolutely lyric on the subject of the female-headed household. One of the persisting themes was first sounded by William Ryan who, in his Nation article, introduced a novel social indicator, the illegitimacy conception rate. This rate reveals that white bourgeois females fornicate as much as, or even more than (although not of course so well as), Negro girls, and conceive almost as often. But thereafter they resort to (Park Avenue) abortionists. Thus the point becomes to establish guilt instead of to deal with a problem.
This is terrifyingly reminiscent of Stanley Elkins’s abolitionists who seem never to have seen slavery as a social problem for slaves, but only as an ethical problem for slaveholders. Once legal bondage was at an end, the subject was closed so far as the Northerners were concerned. The fact that the slaves lived on, and the child is born—and needs help—is a matter somehow to be passed over. This is the crux of it. Typically, the refusal of the liberal Left to accept the unpleasant facts of life for the poor—there is delinquency in the slums, but those kids in the suburbs are just as bad and don’t get arrested, etc. etc.—leads to the same position as does the insistence of the extreme conservatives on just such facts: namely, to do nothing. The liberal Left will acknowledge the relevance of these facts only to the extent that they serve as an indictment of American society; after that it loses interest. The extreme conservatives harp on these facts in order to indict the poor; after that, they lose interest. It does not occur to the liberal Left, for example, that the issue of illegitimacy has nothing to do with whether black women are more or less promiscuous than white women; it has to do with the number of children on the welfare rolls. This is a legitimate concern of public policy. At Howard, however, the President in a radical initiative made the damage to the life-chances of those children a further concern of public policy for the first time in American history. And the liberal Left responded by denying the facts of the damage (“the statistics are wrong”) and/or denying that the damage was real (“it is a cultural pattern superior in its vitality to middle-class mores”) and/or by arguing about the comparative sexual morals of white and black women.
The insistence, in short, of the liberal Left that the issue of disorganization in Negro lower-class life not be made a matter of public concern resulted directly in its not being made a matter of public action.
This is nowhere near as infrequent an outcome as might be thought. Thus, in recent months it has become clear that a combination of quite conservative and super-liberal forces is attempting to oppose efforts that might raise the number of Negroes in the armed forces to something like their proportion of the population. (They are overrepresented in infantry platoons, but seriously underrepresented in the good jobs elsewhere.) It doesn’t matter that Negroes may like the army as a career. No one is allowed to like the army.
With all its virtues as a secular conscience, the liberal Left can be as rigid and destructive as any force in American life. One is reminded, in reading some of their remarks about the report on the Negro family, of Hannah Arendt’s description of the totalitarian elites of Europe between the wars: “Their superiority consists in the ability to dissolve every statement of fact into a declaration of purpose.” The report was neither a long nor a complicated document. It consisted for the greater part of social statistics combined with excerpts from social-science research papers. There was little interpretation, the object being to let the correlations speak for themselves, and the reputations of the authors cited carry the rest. The intention was to arouse a will to action, rather than to propose specific actions. Yet for a year I found myself the object of incredible accusations, some of them, from academia, going quite beyond the border of fair comment. Just before the White House Conference met in June, for example, a publication of the Ferkauf Graduate School of Education at Yeshiva University devoted itself to the subject: “The Moynihan Report and Its Critics: Which Side Are You On?” The publication was not on my side, heaven knows, but, more importantly, it depicted “my” side in terms near to absolute distortion: as against those who say lower-class youths lack employment opportunities, I was one of those who say they lack employability, etc. Now, even supposing that the report was not sufficiently clear on this point and others, it happens that in the two years or so preceding, I had contributed papers to three different books on the subject, and had preached on the problem of increasing job opportunities in at least a dozen articles in periodicals ranging from Daedalus (“Employment, Income, and the Ordeal of the Negro Family”) and the American Scholar to Commonweal, Look, the Washington Post, even Vocational Guidance Quarterly. Yet in a three-page bibliography at the end of the Yeshiva bulletin, among 117 citations, there is not one item under my name, nor any reference to articles by Negro scholars such as C. Eric Lincoln’s “The Absent Father Haunts the Negro Family,” which appeared in the Sunday Times Magazine. This is the scholarship of Che Guevara. But it must be understood that the persons who put the bulletin out (it was signed by a Mr. R. G. Goldberg) unquestionably thought they were protecting the good name and furthering the best interests of a poor and victimized class. This was a time of great expectations, and, if one may be permitted, a certain arrogance on the Left. In the face of all reason, fact, and history, the more fashionable theoreticians were reviving the old dream of a vast coalition of Negroes, intellectuals, peace workers, migrant laborers, and the CIO that would take over and purify the nation. It was a time when, for example, Professor Richard A. Cloward of the Columbia School of Social Work propounded a “strategy of crisis” whereby civil-rights activists would enroll so many eligible Negroes on welfare rolls that city finances would collapse and the federal government would be forced to institute a guaranteed annual income. (Such a movement actually began. Had it made its way across the country quickly enough, Mr. Reagan might have won by two million votes.)
It would be entirely wrong to suggest that resentment over the report was confined to white intellectuals in New York. A great many Negro activists became quite incensed over it, and remained so. A clear concern on the part of many was that the issue would be picked up and used by racists. But there is almost no indication that this occurred, and on the other hand much evidence that Negroes in more ordinary walks of life both recognized what the report was about, and hoped something would come of it. In January, as an instance, the Jewish Labor Committee in Detroit sponsored a meeting at which a Wayne State University sociologist, Arthur Lipow, denounced the report as a “distorted . . . disgraceful . . . ideological rationalization to avoid the basic problem of Negro Americans.” But the Free Press reporter who covered the occasion wrote that “most of those in the audience, which included top civil-rights leaders in Detroit, were openly hostile to Lipow’s analysis. One Negro woman charged him with being blind to the harsh realities of the situation of many Negro Americans.” And this is the point: the situation is real. To deny that it exists, or that anything can be done about it, is not very far from denying that anything should be done about it. (Harold Shephard has pointed out that liberals who today insist that government policies can have no effect on family stability are curiously reminiscent of conservatives of the 1930’s who held that government could do nothing about unemployment.)
The urgency of a serious national commitment in the area of income support and guaranteed employment (which would be the central goals of a national family policy) increases as other options close. At the moment, Negroes are placing enormous confidence in the idea that quality education can transform their situation. But it is not at all clear that education has this potential. Last summer, the U.S. Office of Education issued its report on “Equality of Educational Opportunity” based on the study—the second largest in the history of social science—ordered by the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 of the educational facilities available to Negroes and other minority groups as compared with the white majority. The report, of which James S. Coleman of Johns Hopkins was the principal author, radically confounded expectation. Negroes, it turned out, tested badly at the outset of their schooling, and worse at the end of it. But the quality of the schools they attend—shockingly segregated schools—was not in fact significantly different from that of schools attended by whites and others. More important, the regression analyses carried out for the study produced the astounding proposition that the quality of the schools has only a trifling relation to achievement:
Differences in school facilities and curriculum, which are the major variables by which attempts are made to improve schools, are so little related to differences in achievement levels of students that, with few exceptions, their effects fail to appear even in a survey of this magnitude.
These findings may be modified by further analysis, and it should be noted that for the worst-off groups, better schools do show a distinct if small relation to achievement, and in the right direction. Nonetheless, the two great determinants of outcome turned out to be family background and social peer group. In a later article in The Public Interest, Coleman wrote:
Two points, then, are clear: (1) These minority children have a serious educational deficiency at the start of school, which is obviously not a result of school; and (2) they have an even more serious deficiency at the end of school, which is obviously in part a result of school.
Altogether, the sources of inequality of educational opportunity appear to lie first in the home itself and the cultural influences immediately surrounding the home; then they lie in the schools’ ineffectiveness to free achievement from the impact of the home, and in the schools’ cultural homogeneity, which perpetuates the social influences of the home and its environs.
Coleman’s study is probably the best statistical case for integration ever made: pouring conscience money into slum schools is simply not likely to do the job. He provides strong support for the thesis of Otis Dudley Duncan (as expressed in a forthcoming article) that despite the many paper gains that Negroes have been making (and some of course more real than that), “There are two areas of bedrock resistance to ‘the progress of the Negro race’: residential segregation and the weakness of the Negro family structure.” Coleman’s data argue that both must be overcome, while the data relating to Duncan’s thesis declare that this is not happening. It now appears it could be a generation before any extensive neighborhood integration is achieved. For the moment, the trend is in the opposite direction, owing to changes in the South. Unfortunately, housing integration presents itself as a deceptively simple matter: pass a law. It is likely therefore to preoccuppy civil-rights forces, even though it is the area of the most adamant and resourceful opposition. In the meantime, measures to enhance the stability and resources of the family, which might in fact be easier to achieve, will probably continue to be neglected: those who want housing integration most are likely to support these measures least, and very possibly nothing will be achieved on either count.
Given this stalemate, it is altogether possible that the nation will spiral downward into a state of protracted violence and unrest. One infant in six in this country is Negro: the problem will not go away. Yet it may also be that recent events foretell a different outcome. The nation is turning conservative at a time when its serious internal problems may well be more amenable to conservative solutions than to liberal ones—or to solutions carried out by conservatives. It may be that conservatives have more stomach for dealing with the problems of poverty and disorganization in the necessary terms. Republican ranting about welfare contains much meanness and demagoguery, but it is also true that the number of families on welfare in this country is a scandal. They ought to be off the dole—not for the sake of the taxpayers, but for their sakes. The challenge is to find viable ways of doing this, but that will be impossible unless we first allow that the problem does exist.
The New York experience may be relevent here. Two of the more spectacular political victories of recent times were the election of the Republican John V. Lindsay as Mayor of New York City in 1965 and a year later, the re-election for a third term of Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller. It was not commented upon, but the issue of race was as much present in their campaigns as it was in the more obvious “backlash” affairs elsewhere. In just about every subway car in the New York transit system in 1965 there was a large advertisement that said simply “Breathe easier, Sleep better, Feel safer, with the Lindsay Team.” Anyone who does not know what that poster was about is really not eligible to vote. Similarly in 1966 Governor Rockefeller, as the New York Times reported, switched his campaign in the last weeks to concentrate almost entirely on crime in the streets.
Lindsay and Rockefeller are humane, progressive men with impeccable records of leadership in civil rights. But they perceive the reality of the internal problems of the slums, and are willing to get elected on that basis. It remains to be seen whether they and others like them will come forward with programs that will command conservative support for doing something about those problems: not necessarily out of compassion for the oppressed, but out of concern for the stability of society.
But to repeat, this is not a likely outcome. There are never enough Disraelis to go round. The more likely future is one dominated by hyper-conservatives unwilling to solve problems of the kind Negroes face, hyper-liberals reluctant to acknowledge the existence of such problems, and persons of the center increasingly aware that they are probably not competent and certainly not eligible to propose solutions of their own devising. The era of white initiatives on behalf of Negroes is over. The controversy over the report on the Negro family had at least this useful outcome: it raised for Negroes the question of what terms they are willing to accept as grounds for social action. The continuing controversy among Negroes themselves over the issue, which for a year now has been dead and forgotten in Washington, suggests that some at least are finding this a timely and useful development.
Two fairly clear points of view have emerged. On the one hand, there is that of Martin Luther King Jr., who is willing to describe the present conditions of life in the lower classes as a “social catastrophe” and to say in effect to the white world, “Put up or shut up.” The basic idea is that there can and ought to be change. This is a view widely held by scholars and activists alike. Thus, Parren Mitchell, head of the Baltimore poverty program, declared at the height of the controversy: “Slavery depended upon preventing the Negro family from forming, and over the centuries since, that tradition hung on. Now what we need is a bétter tradition. We need to hold our families together in a stronger kind of responsibility.” But just as many—more—have taken quite a different view, namely that the family structure of the lower classes is a natural and essentially healthful adaptation to special conditions of life. In an interview in November 1966 the novelist Ralph Ellison, expressing his annoyance with the report, said:
Moynihan looked at a fatherless family and interpreted it not in the context of Negro cultural patterns, but in a white cultural pattern. He wasn’t looking at the accommodations Negroes have worked out in dealing with fatherless families. Grandmothers very often look after the kids. The mother works or goes on relief. The kids identify with stepfathers, uncles, even the mother’s boyfriends. How children grow up is a cultural, not a statistical pattern.
I would argue that this is a perfectly tenable position. There is no reason Negroes need conform to anyone’s standards but their own, and like no one else, Ellison has evoked the qualities of endurance and holding-on which are as much the fact of Negro character in white America as are the extremes of respectability or disorganization. On the other hand, in order for this to be a viable position as well as a tenable one, it must reject not only conformity but dependency. It is all very well to point out with whom it is that impoverished Negro youth identifies: the public issue is who supports them. So long as exceptional numbers of Negro children are dependent on Welfare (recently the U.S. Commissioner of Welfare reported that the majority of families receiving AFDC payments now are non-whites) and so long as vast numbers of Negro youths have to be helped along with Head Start, Upward Bound, Job Corps, and so on, Negroes will be at the mercy of whites demanding an end to “welfare chiseling” and “immorality,” and also, no doubt, of the unwelcome ministrations of meliorists in the subcabinet. These things ought not to be so, but they are so. As the report said on its first page: “The racist virus in the American blood stream still afflicts us: Negroes will encounter serious personal prejudice for at least another generation.” If at the moment educated, middle-class Negroes are much in demand and doing nicely, this is not so for the lower class and is likely never to be. This country is not fair to Negroes and will exploit any weaknesses they display. Hence they simply cannot afford the luxury of having a large lower class that is at once deviant and dependent. If they do not wish to bring it into line with the working class (not middle-class) world around them, they must devise ways to support it from within. It is entirely possible that this could happen, and it might be an eye-opener for all concerned. In all events, one of the most galling forms of dependency is surely behind us. The time when white men, whatever their motives, could tell Negroes what was or was not good for them, is now definitely and decidedly over. An era of bad manners is almost certainly begun. For a moment it had seemed this could be avoided, that the next two decades could be bypassed in a sweep of insight and daring. But the destiny reasserted itself. The Physiocrats never did have much luck.