Legitimacy, At Last


Although this is not his intention, James Patterson shows that it was in the wake of Daniel Moynihan’s signature report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action that the race debate got “deep.” Here began the unspoken acquiescence, now automatic in the thinking American’s consciousness, to certain buzzwords and deft elisions, upheld on the pain of being tarred as a moral degenerate.

Patterson’s book chronicles Moynihan’s composition of the report, its reception, and its cultural legacies. It’s an odd work, one part biographical sketch, one part historical chronicle of a crucial moment in America’s race debate, and finally, one part reportage on assorted race-related Issues of the Day since the 1970s. The book is most valuable for the second part, the historical chronicle. The controversy that The Negro Family stirred up was, in many ways, a national tragedy. I have always cringed at the thought of this controversy, and been thankful that I was too young to understand it or participate in it.

The spark for the furore was Moynihan’s claim—from what he thought of as the side of the angels—that black problems in 1965 were not due only to racism. Alarmed by the fact that nearly a quarter of black births were to single parents, and given that studies (bolstered by a great many since) were demonstrating fewer opportunities for such children, he argued that:

At the center of the tangle of pathology is the weakness of the family structure. Once or twice removed, it will be found to be the principal source of most of the aberrant, inadequate, or antisocial behavior that did not establish, but now serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and deprivation.

Specifically, Moynihan noted that the social problem, albeit rooted in a legacy of brutal discrimination, was now “feeding on itself” and demanded immediate address.         

That this argument was too subtle for many is a stain on an era that was otherwise so unprecedently enlightened. What threw the left were the eternal temptations of ahistoricity: taking the observation of a negative trait as a slur even when clearly linked to past injustice. Even today this fallacy remains so influential that, for example, Richard Thompson Ford required an entire book, called The Race Card, to cut persuasively through its error—and yet we saw, from the grouchy response of the usual suspects to Barack Obama’s NAACP speech last year, that the battle has still to be won. Obama's address urged that blacks embrace personal responsibility, despite the bad hand that history dealt black America.

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