Legitimacy, At Last1


Along those lines, the furious opposition to the Moynihan report was heavier on editorializing than scholarship: from 1965 to 1980, amidst the more than fifty books and five hundred journal articles in response, only a few were based on primary research. A prime locus of agreement was that Moynihan, the grandiloquent Irishman deigning to pronounce on black “pathology,” was a benighted racist. (In Cambridge one of his children was even snubbed for a playdate.)

Yet black writers had been writing reports that could have gone out under the same title as Moynihan’s since W.E.B. Du Bois, who noted as far back as 1908 that one in four black births were illegitimate in Washington, D.C. He even described this as evidence of “lax moral habits.” E. Franklin Frazier and Kenneth Clark made similar points in later decades. Moreover, Moynihan was explicit in acknowledging that there were legions of middle-class blacks. What moved him was the “scissors” pattern on a graph comparing illegitimacy rates with employment: fewer black children were being raised in two-parent homes even as black employment was rising.

Most importantly, Moynihan intended the report to be what he subtitled it: a case for action. Yet the response among good-thinking people was so bitter that it scrambled constructive debate over the black family thereafter. Enter now-familiar rituals such as identifying—aptly—the difficulty that single, never-married black mothers with little education face when trying to support three children, while treating—genuflectively—the fact that she has three children at all as her reproductive “choice,” and chiding ourselves for “racializing” the problem despite that in 2006, only a third of black children were born to two parents as compared to two-thirds of Hispanic children.

The conservative response to the report was not pretty, either. We all applaud that blacks attained liberté from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and in its wake, égalité—the means to opportunity—by means of affirmative action and changes in racial attitudes. The knottiest problem now is fraternité: whether we can completely abolish private racist sentiment. But in 1965, conservatives had yet to get up to speed even on the égalité part, taking Moynihan’s report as a statement rather than as a “case for action.” The legacy today is the unspoken implication of many conservatives’ critiques of black family life—that if blacks will not effect a massive cultural transformation on their own steam, the rest of America can sleep peacefully while letting them stew in isolation and stagnation. 

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