Panel discusses legacy of 1965 Moynihan Report

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Dr. Daniel Geary, an assistant professor at Trinity College, discusses the 1965 Moynihan Report and its legacy and relationship to current politics at Weill Hall Monday. Buy this photo

By Allana Akhtar, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 6, 2015

Members of the University community gathered in Weill Hall on Monday evening to discuss the political rhetoric and subsequent policy decisions of the widely controversial 1965 Moynihan Report.

The report, written by Daniel Moynihan, former assistant secretary of labor and U.S. senator, argues that the increasing proportion of single-mother households in the Black community stemmed from a culture with origins in slavery and Jim Crow discrimination, rather than a lack of jobs. The report argued that the absence of nuclear families hindered the ability for Black communities to achieve increased political and economic equality.

Both political liberals and conservatives have used the report to support their policy agendas.

The panel featured Daniel Geary, an assistant professor at Trinity College and author of upcoming book “Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and its Legacy.”

Sociologist Anthony Chen, a former University faculty member, and Sociology and Public Policy Ph.D. candidate Matthew Alemu also contributed to the discussion.

Geary said the report hurt efforts working toward racial equality, though it has received praise from both liberals and conservatives, citing conservative Washington Post columnist George Will and liberal New York Times columnistNicholas Kristof.

Geary said though both ideologies call for different programs to address inequity along the lines of race and class, they fail to address the underlying causes for Black family dynamics by misunderstanding the Moynihan report.

“Kristof and Will, following in a tradition nearly as old as the report itself, misrepresent the history of the report, misrepresent the controversy over the report and perpetuate a misguided approach to understanding racial and class inequality,” Geary said.

Geary said Moynihan pointed to the deteriorating structure of the Black family to explain high crime and unemployment rates, arguing for more advanced policy measures to address cultural challenges to inequality, such as full male employment. Geary said Moynihan framed policy issues of housing and employment discrimination as family issues to appeal to white audiences.

Geary said the report encouraged Americans to focus on Black cultural traits instead of problems within the political economy, such as unemployment, education, housing and taxes, to explain racial inequality.

“Racial and class inequality are again on the national agenda today just as they were years ago when Moynihan wrote, yet an ambiguous and flawed government report written a half century ago is hardly a good starting place for discussing these issues in our own time,” Geary said.

Geary said Black power advocates criticized the report, arguing it upholds white domination and creates a structure where white sociologists define Black culture.

He also said Black feminist critique of the report argues the report portrayed Black mothers as promiscuous and subservient to men. Geary said the report itself assumed the natural superiority of two-parent household where the father is the main breadwinner. He used this argument to claim matriarchal culture of Black families was at fault for the racial inequality and that jobs given to Black women took necessary jobs away from Black men.

“Critical commemoration of the report from conservatives and many liberals threatens, once again, to distract from real policy inequities and injustices in American society,” Geary said. “It is high-time we stop celebrating the Moynihan report.”

Alemu discussed his own work on understanding the effects of absent fathers in the Black community. He said since the Moynihan report was published in 1965, the number of families without a father has tripled.

Though in the report Moynihan suggests the solution to racial inequality is to put more Black men to work, Alemu found no links between employment and fatherhood.

“No man I’ve spoken to so far suggests that, ‘If only my father had been employed, he would have been present,’ or suggests that they can specifically cite his unemployment for absence as a father.”

Geary emphasized that while the report contains flaws, it should not be dismissed. The report prompted a conversation about how Black family life relates to social inequality, yet became derailed when political commentators focused on family while putting less emphasis on larger issues.

“Of course, people should research African American families,” Geary said. “Families are related in a complicated way to economic and social inequality, but if we are only talking about families and we aren’t talking about other important things like taxes, employment, those are the places to start.”