The Liberal Retreat From Race

Stephen Steinberg

[from New Politics, vol. 5, no. 1 (new series), whole no. 17, Summer 1994]

Stephen Steinberg teaches in the Department of Urban Studies at Queens College and the Ph.D. Program in Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. Heis the author of The Ethnic Myth: Race, Ethnicity and Class in America. This article will be part of a book,Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy, to be published by Beacon Press in 1996.

1965 WAS A CRITICAL JUNCTURE IN AMERICAN RACE HISTORY. The 1964 Civil Rights Act -- passed after a decade of black insurgency -- ended segregation in public accommodations and, at least in theory, proscribed discrimination in employment. The last remaining piece of civil rights legislation -- the 1965 Voting Rights Act -- was wending its way through Congress and, in the wake of Johnson's landslide victory, was assured of eventual passage. In his State of the Union message in January 1965, President Johnson electrified the nation by proclaiming, in his Southern drawl, "We Shall Overcome." As a senator from Texas, Johnson had voted against anti-lynching legislation; now, in the midst of a crisis engineered by a grass-roots protest movement, Johnson embraced the battle cry of that movement as he proposed legislation that would eliminate the last and most important vestige of official segregation.

In retrospect, Johnson's speech represented not the triumph of the civil rights movement, but its last hurrah. Now that its major legislative objectives had been achieved, not only the future of the movement, but also the constancy of liberal support, were thrown into question. By 1965, leaders and commentators, both inside and outside the movement, were asking, "What's next?" However, there was an ominous innuendo when this question came from white liberals. In Why We Can't Wait, published in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. provides this account of his appearance with Roy Wilkins on "Meet the Press":

There were the usual questions about how much more the Negro wants, but there seemed to be a new undercurrent of implications related to the sturdy new strength of our movement. Without the courtly complexities, we were in effect, being asked if we could be trusted to hold back the surging tides of discontent so that those on the shore would not be made too uncomfortable by the buffeting and onrushing waves. Some of the questions implied that our leadership would be judged in accordance with our capacity to "keep the Negro from going too far." The quotes are mine, but I think the phrase mirrors the thinking of the panelists as well as of many other white Americans ( 147).

By 1965 -- even before Watts exploded -- there was a growing awareness among black leaders that political rights did not go far enough to compensate for past wrongs. Whitney Young, Jr. epitomized this when he wrote that "there is little value in a Negro's obtaining the right to be admitted to hotels and restaurants if he has no cash in his pocket and no job." 1 As Rainwater and Yancey have suggested, "The year 1965 may be known in history as the time when the civil rights movement discovered, in the sense of becoming explicitly aware, that abolishing legal racism would not produce Negro equality."2

If laws alone would not produce equality, then the unavoidable conclusion was that some form of "special effort" -- to use Whitney Young's term -- was necessary to compensate for the accumulated disadvantages of the past. By 1965 the words "compensation," "reparations," and "preference" had already crept into the political discourse, and white liberals were beginning to display their disquiet with this troublesome turn of events. In Why We Can't Wait King observed: "Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more." 3

The demand for "something more" than legal equality precipitated a crisis among white liberals. This was abundantly evident in a 1964 round-table discussion sponsored by Commentary on "Liberalism and the Negro." The event took place at Town Hall in New York City before an invited audience, which included many of the leading liberal intellectuals of the period. Norman Podhoretz introduced the discussion:

I think it may be fair to say that American liberals are by now divided into two schools of thought on what is often called the Negro problem... On the one side, we have those liberals whose ultimate perspective on race relations... envisages the gradual absorption of deserving Negroes one by one into white society. ... Over the past two or three years, however, a new school of liberal (or perhaps it should be called radical) thought has been developing which is based on the premise. . . that "the rights and privileges of an individual rest upon the status attained by the group to which he belongs." From this premise certain points follow that are apparently proving repugnant to the traditional liberal mentality.4

Behind this elliptical language was the specter of "preference." Traditional liberalism, Podhoretz explained, sought to integrate "deserving Negroes one by one into white society." But a newer school of liberals had emerged that "maintains that the Negro community as a whole has been crippled by 300 years of slavery and persecution and that the simple removal of legal and other barriers to the advancement of individual Negroes can therefore only result in what is derisively called tokenism." Finally, Podhoretz laid his cards on the table:

This school of thought insists that radical measures are now needed to overcome the Negro's inherited disabilities. Whitney Young of the National Urban League, for example, has recently spoken of a domestic Marshall Plan, a crash program which he says need last only ten years, in order to bring the Negro community to a point where it can begin to compete on equal terms with the white world. Other Negro leaders have similarly talked about 10 percent quotas in hiring, housing, and so on. Negroes, they say, ought to be represented in all areas of American life according to their proportion in the population, and where they are not so represented, one is entitled to draw an inference of discrimination. The slogan "preferential treatment for Negroes" is the most controversial one that has come up in this discussion (p. 26).

The other white participants in the round-table -- Nathan Glazer, Sidney Hook and Gunnar Myrdal -- all declared their blanket opposition to any system of racial preference. Glazer touted the success of New York's Fair Employment Practices Law, implying that racial justice could be achieved within the same liberal framework that worked for other groups. Hook argued that, by lowering standards for Negroes, preference was patronizing to blacks and, in effect, treated them as second-class citizens. Myrdal cautioned that preference amounted to tokenism and that what was needed was a program to lift all poor people out of poverty.

James Baldwin stood alone, parrying the arguments thrust at him with his usual eloquence and resolve. To the optimistic view that the nation was making progress ("not enough progress, to be sure, but progress nevertheless"), Baldwin had this to say:

I'm delighted to know there've been many fewer lynchings in the year 1963 than there were in the year 1933, but I also have to bear in mind -- I have to bear it in mind because my life depends on it -- that there are a great many ways to lynch a man. The impulse in American society, as far as I can tell from my experience in it, has essentially been to ignore me when it could, and then when it couldn't, to intimidate me; and when that failed, to make concessions (p. 31, italics added).

As the discussion labored on, it became increasingly obvious that a vast difference in world view separated Baldwin and the others. When Hook gloated over the expansion of ethical principles in American society, Baldwin remarked:

What strikes me here is that you are an American talking about American society, and I am an American talking about American society -- both of us very concerned with it -- and yet your version of American society is really very difficult for me to recognize. My experience in it has simply not been yours (p. 31).

Speaking from the audience, Kenneth Clark was even more blunt in declaring his disaffection with liberalism:

How do I -- a Negro in America who throughout his undergraduate years and the early part of his professional life identified himself with liberalism -- how do I now see American liberalism? I must confess bluntly that I now see white American liberalism primarily in terms of the adjective, "white" (p. 39).

Indeed, the day's proceedings seemed only to corroborate Podhoretz's initial observation of "a widening split between the Negro movement and the white liberal community."

Here was an early sign -- in the spring of 1964 -- of the imminent break-up of the liberal coalition that had functioned as a bulwark of the civil rights movement. One faction would gravitate to the nascent neoconservative movement. Another faction would remain in the liberal camp, committed in principle to both liberal reform and racial justice. This, however, was to prove a difficult balancing act, especially when confronted with an intensifying racial backlash. Even in the best of times, racial issues tended to exacerbate divisions in the liberal coalition on which Democratic electoral victories depended. As the polity swung to the Right, liberals in the Democratic Party came under mounting pressure to downplay or sidestep racial issues.

Thus, the liberal retreat from race was rationalized in terms of realpolitik. The argument ran like this: "America is too racist to support programs targeted specifically for blacks, especially if these involve any form of preference which is anathema to most whites. Highlighting racial issues, therefore, only serves to drive a wedge in the liberal coalition, triggering white flight from the Democratic Party, and is ultimately self-defeating." That this reasoning amounted to a capitulation to the white backlash did not phase the political "realists" since their motives were pure. Indeed, unlike the racial backlash on the Right, the liberal backlash was not based on racial animus or retrograde politics. On the contrary, these dyed-in-the-wool liberals were convinced that the best or only way to help blacks was to help "everybody." Eliminate poverty, they said, and blacks, who count disproportionately among the poor, will be the winners. Achieve full employment, and black employment troubles will be resolved. The upshot, however, was that blacks were asked to subordinate their agenda to a larger movement for liberal reform. In practical terms, this meant foregoing the black protest movement and casting their lot with the Democratic Party.

Thus, after 1965 many white liberals who were erstwhile supporters of the civil rights movement placed a kiss of death on race-based politics and race-based public policy. They not only joined the general retreat from race in the society at large, but in fact cited the racial backlash as reason for their own abandonment of race-based politics. In this sense, the liberal retreat from race can be said to represent the left wing of the backlash.

The Howard Address: A Case of "Semantic Infiltration"

THE IDEOLOGICAL CLEAVAGE THAT WOULD SPLIT THE LIBERAL CAMP was foreshadowed in a commencement address that Johnson delivered at Howard University on June 4, 1965. The speech, written by Richard Goodwin and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was riddled with contradiction, and for this very reason epitomizes the political limbo that existed in 1965, as well as the emerging lines of ideological and political division within the liberal camp.

The speech, aptly entitled "To Fulfill These Rights," began with the most radical vision on race that has ever been enunciated by a President of the United States. After reviewing the series of civil rights acts that secured full civil rights for African-Americans, Johnson declared: "But freedom is not enough." He continued:

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 the 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.

Johnson's oratory went a critical step further:

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.

With these last words, Johnson adopted the logic and the language of those arguing for compensatory programs that would redress past wrongs. Equality, not liberty, would be the defining principle of "the next and more profound stage" in the liberation struggle.5

So far so good. Johnson's speech then took an abrupt detour away from politics to sociology, reflecting the unmistakable imprint of Daniel Patrick Moynihan who only a month earlier had completed an internal report focusing on problems of the black family. Johnson said:

... equal opportunity is essential, but not enough. Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family you live with, and the neighborhoods you live in, by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the infant, the child, and the man.

Compare the language and logic of the passage above with the passage below:

Overt job discrimination is only one of the important hurdles which must be overcome before color can disappear as a determining factor in the lives and fortunes of men... The prevailing view among social scientists holds that there are no significant differences among groups as to the distribution of innate aptitudes or at most very slight differences. On the other hand, differences among individuals are very substantial. The extent to which an individual is able to develop his aptitudes will largely depend upon the circumstances present in the family within which he grows up and the opportunities which he encounters at school and in the larger community.

This latter passage comes from a 1956 book, The Negro Potential, by Eli Ginzberg, who was a leading liberal economist of that period.6 My point is not that Johnson's speechwriters were guilty of plagiarism. Rather it is to take note of their Machiavellian genius. With a rhetorical sleight of hand, Goodwin and Moynihan shifted the discourse away from the radical vision of "equal results" that emanated from the black protest movement of the 1960s back to the standard liberal cant of the 1950s which held that the black child is stunted by "circumstances present in the family within which he grows up." The conceptual groundwork was being laid for a drastic policy reversal: the focus would no longer be on white racism, but rather on the deficiencies of blacks themselves.

Having thus planted the seeds of equivocation, the speech then shifted back to a fretful discussion of the "widening gulf" between poor blacks and the rest of the nation, including the black middle class. Johnson cited a litany of statistics on black employment and income. Logically, this might have led to a discussion of policies that would move the nation in the direction of "equal results" in employment and income. However, as the New York Times pointedly observed, "Mr. Johnson did not mention such specific remedies as job quotas or preferential hiring, which some civil rights leaders have advocated." 7 Instead, the speech shifted to more generalities on "the special nature of Negro poverty" and "the breakdown of the Negro family structure." Centuries of oppression, Johnson asserted, had eroded the ability of men to function as providers for their family, and as a result, fewer than half of Negro children currently live out their lives with both parents. Inasmuch as the family "is the cornerstone of our society," the collapse of the family has dire consequences for individuals and communities alike. "So," Johnson concluded, "unless we work to strengthen the family ... all the rest: schools and playgrounds, public assistance and private concern, will never be enough to cut completely the circle of despair and deprivation."

This last comment probably passed over Johnson's audience at Howard as mere political oratory. Only in retrospect can we fully appreciate the dire political implications of suggesting that government programs were futile, "unless we work to strengthen the family." With another rhetorical sleight of hand, Johnson (via Goodwin and Moynihan) shifted the focus from "equal rights" to the black family which, it was said, was perpetuating "the circle of despair and deprivation." The speech conspicuously avoided any policy prescriptions, deferring this to a planned White House Conference under the title, "To Fulfill These Rights." However, the conceptual groundwork was being laid for policies that would change "them," not "us."

Thus, a Presidential speech that began on a progressive note ended up in abysmal political regression. Was this self-contradiction merely the result of careless or muddled thought? Or did it reflect political calculation? There is reason to think that Johnson's advisors acted with deliberation and foresight. In a New York Times story on June 5, the day after the Howard speech, unnamed "White House sources" are quoted to the effect that the Howard address was the first major Presidential civil rights speech conceived independently of the direct pressure of racial crisis. Reading between these lines, it would appear that Johnson's political strategists were seeking to wrest control over the troublesome direction that racial politics were taking. Indeed, the Howard speech is a prime example of what Moynihan calls "semantic infiltration." 8 This refers to the appropriation of the language of one's political opponents, for the purpose of blurring distinctions and molding it to one's own political position. In this instance Moynihan invoked the language of "equal results," only to redefine and redirect it in a politically safe direction. When semantic infiltration is done "right," it elicits the approbation even of your political opponents who, as in the case of the audience at Howard, may not fully realize that a rhetorical shill game has been played on them.9

Moynihan was already on record as opposing public policies targeted specifically for blacks. In a conference sponsored by Daedalus and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences only a month earlier, "preference" emerged as a key issue of debate. Below is an excerpt in which Moynihan presents his case against race-specific policies, insisting that they must be embedded in a race neutral framework.10 The other speakers are Everett C. Hughes, the eminent sociologist from Brandeis, and Jay Saunders Redding, Professor of English at the Hampton Institute in Virginia:

HUGHES: May I ask all these gentlemen a question? Are they or are they not saying that any reduction in the number and proportion of the very poor among the Negro will be accomplished not by addressing ourselves so much to the Negro but by addressing ourselves to the whole state of the economy in our society, to the nature of poverty in general?

MOYNIHAN: I will answer the question by saying that in order to do anything about Negro Americans on the scale that our data would indicate, we have to declare that we are doing it for everybody. I think, however, that the problem of the Negro American is now a special one, and is not just an intense case of the problem of all poor people.

REDDING: Why do we have to announce that we are doing this for everyone?

MOYNIHAN: Congressmen vote for everyone more readily than they vote for any one. Because the poverty program is a color-blind program, we can do what we could not have done otherwise. We could not have done it for West Virginia or for Harlem -- either one of those opposite extremes -- but we can do it in generalized terms -- for people.

REDDING: Do you think, then, that the idea of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro specifically is a bad idea?

MOYNIHAN: I do not know about "good" or "bad." I would say that in terms of the working of the system we are trying to influence by our thinking here, it will be done for "everybody," whatever may be in the back of the minds of the people who do it.

Here Moynihan speaks with the dispassionate voice of the political pragmatist, brushing aside questions of "good" or "bad," "right" or "wrong," and guided solely by realpolitik -- one that accepts white racism as a given, or at best, a political impediment to be circumvented. This leads him to a blanket rejection of policies specifically targeted for blacks. Within this political framework, the politics of "equal results" has no place.

Aside from the question of intent, the significance of the Howard address was to draw a line in the political sands marking the limit on how far the Johnson administration would go in supporting the escalating demands of the protest movement. In throwing his support behind the Voting Rights Act, Johnson had gone further than any of his predecessors in jeoizing the Solid South (fears that were validated by subsequent events). The rhetoric of "equal results" threatened to antagonize blue-collar workers, Jews, and other elements of the Democratic coalition. The covert message in the Howard Speech was that, as far as the Democratic Party was concerned, the impending Voting Rights Act marked the end of the civil rights revolution ("the end of the beginning," Johnson said disingenuously, quoting Churchill). If blacks were "to fulfill these rights," they would have to get their own house in order. Literally!

Thus behind the equivocal language in Johnson's address was a key policy issue concerning the role of the state in the post-civil-rights era. Would future progress depend on an expansion of anti-racist policies -- aimed not only at forms of intentional discrimination but also at the insidious forces of institutionalized racism that have excluded blacks categorically from whole job sectors and other opportunity structures? Or would future progress depend on programs of social uplift that contemplate "the gradual absorption of deserving Negroes one by one into white society?"

These alternative policy options were predicated on vastly different assumptions about the nature and sources of racism. The one located the problem within "white" society and its major institutions, and called for policies to rapidly integrate blacks into jobs, schools, and other institutional sectors where they have historically been excluded. The other assumed that racism was waning, but that blacks generally lacked the requisite education and skills to avail themselves of expanding opportunities. This latter school included both traditional liberals who supported governmental programs which "help blacks to help themselves," and conservatives, including a new genre of black conservatives, who adamantly opposed governmental intervention, insisting that blacks had to summon the personal and group resources to overcome disabilities of race and class.

Thus, what was most flagrantly Machiavellian about Johnson's speech is that it camouflaged "self-help" behind a rhetorical facade of "equal results." For the most part the liberal press responded with predictable gullibility. For example, the New York Times editorialized:

President Johnson has addressed himself boldly to what is unquestionably the most basic and also the most complicated phase of the civil rights struggle -- the need for translating newly reinforced legal rights into genuine equality.11

On the other hand, based on unnamed White House aides, Mary McGrory of the Washington Star gave the speech a very different spin: "President Johnson suggested that the time had come for them [Negroes] to come to grips with their own worst problem, the breakdown of Negro family life.'"12

From Infiltration to Subversion: The Moynihan Report

THIS POLARITY BETWEEN ANTI-RACISM AND SOCIAL UPLIFT BECAME EVEN MORE sharply defined by the controversy surrounding the publication of the Moynihan report three months after Johnson's address at Howard University. Officially titled: "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," the report presented a mound of statistics showing high rates of divorce, illegitimacy, and female-headed households. Although Moynihan paid lip service to the argument that unemployment and low wages contributed to family breakdown, he was practically obsessed with a single statistic showing that Aid to Dependent Children (AFDC) continued to increase between 1962 and 1964, despite the fact that unemployment was decreasing.13 On this meager empirical basis, Moynihan concluded that poverty was "feeding upon itself," and that the "disintegration of the Negro family" had assumed a dynamic all its own, independently of joblessness and poverty. In yet another leap of faith, he asserted that family breakdown was the source of most of the problems that afflict black America. In Moynihan's own words:

... 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 anti-social behavior that did not establish, but now serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and deprivation.14

Moynihan's critics accused him of inverting cause and effect, and in doing so, shifting the focus of blame away from societal institutions onto blacks themselves. For example, Christopher Jencks wrote in 1965:

Moynihan's analysis is in the conservative tradition that guided the drafting of the poverty program (in whose formulation he participated during the winter of 1963-4). The guiding assumption is that social pathology is caused less by basic defects in the social system than by defects in particular individuals and groups which prevent their adjusting to the system. The prescription is therefore to change the deviants, not the system.15

The regressive implications of Moynihan's report for public policy were also noted by Herbert Gans:

... the findings on family instability and illegitimacy can be used by right-wing and racist groups to support their claim that Negroes are inherently immoral and therefore unworthy of equality. Politicians responding to more respectable white backlash can argue that Negroes must improve themselves before they are entitled to further government aid... . Worse still, the report could be used to justify a reduction of efforts in the elimination of racial discrimination and the War on Poverty... .

Thus, at this critical juncture in race history -- when there was political momentum for change and when even the President of the United States gave at least verbal support for "a new phase" that would go beyond political rights to assuring equal results -- Moynihan succeeded in deflecting policy debate to a useless dissection of the black family. With his considerable forensic skill as speechwriter for Johnson, Moynihan had brought the nation to the threshold of truth -- racial equality as a moral and political imperative -- and then, with rhetorical guile, deflected the focus onto the tribulations within black families. By the time that the promised White House Conference, "To Secure These Rights," actually took place, it degenerated into a debate over the Moynihan Report which by then had become public. Whether by design or not, Moynihan had acted as a political decoy, drawing all the fire to himself while the issue of "equal results" slipped into oblivion.16

Notwithstanding the efforts of a number of writers, including Moynihan himself, to portray the controversy over the Moynihan report as fruitless and even counterproductive, it proved to be one of the most seminal debates in modern social science. It was a debate that crystallized issues, that exposed the conservative assumptions and racial biases that lurked behind mainstream social science, and that prompted critics of the report to formulate alternative positions that challenged the prevailing wisdom about race in America. The principal counter-position -- encapsulated by William Ryan's ingenious term, "blaming the victim" -- blew the whistle on the tendency of social science to reduce social phenomena to an individual level of analysis, thereby shifting attention away from the structures of inequality and focusing on the behavioral responses of the individuals affected by these structures. The controversy also stimulated a large body of research -- the most notable example is Herbert Gutman's now classic study of The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom. This study demolished the myth that "slavery destroyed the black family" -- a liberal myth that allowed social scientists and policymakers to blame "history" for the problems in the black family, thus avoiding any examination of present-day inequities.17

Yet leading liberals today contend that Moynihan was the victim of unfair ideological attack. Moynihan set the tone for this construction of history in an article that he published in Commentary (February 1967) under the title: "The President & the Negro: The Moment Lost." Again, Moynihan begins on the threshold of truth:

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 (p. 31).

Moynihan goes on to argue, as I have here, that 1965 presented a moment of opportunity:

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 (p. 32).

Why was the opportunity missed? According to Moynihan, the blame lies not with the forces of racism and reaction, and certainly not with himself, but with "the liberal Left" who opposed his initiative to address problems in the black family). Specifically, opposition emanated:

. . . 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 (p. 32).

Thus, in Moynihan's recapitulation of events, it was his own political enemies who, in "a frenzy of arrogance and nihilism" had aborted the next stage in the Negro revolution that Moynihan had engineered as an influential advisor to the President.

Moynihan's account is predicated on the assumption that "the civil-rights movement had no program for going beyond the traditional and relatively easy issues of segregation and discrimination" (p. 34). But this is an inaccurate and patently self-serving construction of events. The civil rights movement was evolving precisely such a program, and it involved a sure-fire method for achieving equal results: instituting a system of preference that would rapidly integrate blacks into job markets and other institutions where they had been excluded historically. Moynihan, as we have seen, was adamantly opposed to such an approach, and he did what he could, as speechwriter for Johnson's duplicitous Howard address and as author of the report on the Negro family, to derail any movement in this direction. Yet he portrays himself sanctimoniously as the innocent victim of "the liberal Left," and shifts the blame for "the moment lost" to his critics. He seems to forget that these critics were only reacting to a political position that he had advanced -- one that, despite Moynihan's many disclaimers, did shift the focus of policy away from a concerted attack on racist structures to an inconsequential preoccupation with the black family.

In recent years there have been attempts to "rehabilitate" Moynihan, and to portray him as the hapless victim of the ideological excesses of the 60s. For example, in The Undeserving Poor -- a book that traces the poverty debates since the 1960s -- Michael Katz asserts that "because most critics distorted the report, the debate generated more passion than insight." One result of the attack on Moynihan, he adds mournfully, "was to accelerate the burial of the culture of poverty as an acceptable concept in liberal reform."18 William Julius Wilson goes even further in suggesting that, "the controversy surrounding the Moynihan report had the effect of curtailing serious research on minority problems in the inner city for over a decade." Wilson would have us believe that social scientists fell into a 15-year coma, and when they emerged from ideological torpor, "they were dumbfounded by the magnitude of the changes that had taken place."19

The Intellectual Reincarnation of Daniel Patrick Moynihan

IT WOULD BE CLOSER TO THE TRUTH TO SAY THAT, AFTER BEING SILENCED BY HIS critics, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was reincarnated 15 years later in the form of William Julius Wilson. In effect, Wilson resurrected theoretical and political positions that Moynihan advanced in the early 1960s.

To begin with, Wilson's 1978 book on The Declining Significance of Race struck a number of themes that were at the heart of Moynihan's political analysis in 1965: that blacks had their political rights, thanks to landmark civil rights legislation; that there was "a widening gulf" between the black middle class which was reaping the benefits of an improved climate of tolerance and the black lower class that was as destitute and marginalized as ever; that blacks were arriving in the nation's cities at a time when employment opportunities, especially in the manufacturing sector, were declining; and that future progress would depend less on tearing down racist barriers than on raising the level of education and skills among poor blacks.20 The underlying assumption in both cases was that the civil rights revolution was a watershed that more or less resolved the issue of "race," but that left unaddressed the vexing problems of "class." By "class," however, neither Moynihan or Wilson were advancing a radical theory that challenged structures of inequality, or that envisioned a radical restructuring of major political and economic institutions. All they meant was that lower class blacks needed to acquire the education and skills that are a prerequisite for mobility and that explain the success of the black middle class.

In The Truly Disadvantaged, published in 1987, Wilson spelled out the implications of his analysis for politics and public policy. Again, he arrived at a position that Moynihan had argued in 1965: that there was no political constituency for policies targeted specifically for blacks, and, therefore, the only viable political alternative, as Moynihan had asserted at the 1965 Daedalus Conference, was to "declare that we are doing it for everybody." In the very next sentence, Moynihan added an important caveat: "I think, however, that the problem of the Negro American is now a special one, and is not just an intense case of the problem of all poor people" (p. 288). But, he insisted, blacks could be helped only through color-blind programs that defined poverty -- not race -- as the basis for social action. Here, alas, was the "hidden agenda" that Wilson proposed 22 years later.

Originally Wilson planned to use "The Hidden Agenda" as the title of The Truly Disadvantaged.21 Perhaps it occurred to him that his agenda would not remain hidden if it were splashed on the cover of his book! Instead Wilson used this as the title for Chapter 7, in which he contended that, because there is no political constituency for policies targeted for blacks, it becomes necessary to "hide" such programs behind universal programs "to which the more advantaged groups of all races and class backgrounds can positively relate" (p. 155). Ironically, Wilson's language reveals that he is a poor Social Democrat. It suggests that his first priority is to help the ghetto underclass, and that he opts for "universal programs" only out of political expediency.

The notion of a "hidden agenda" also contradicts Wilson's claim that racism is of "declining significance." Indeed, it is because of racism that Wilson feels compelled to "hide" his agenda in the first place. The underlying premise is that America is so racist -- so utterly indifferent to the plight of black America, so incapable of even imagining that some kind of indemnification for three centuries of racial oppression would benefit "everybody" -- that it becomes necessary to camouflage policies intended for blacks behind policies that offer benefits to the white majority.

At first blush it might appear odd to portray Wilson as a political clone of Moynihan. Wilson, after all, is an ivory-tower scholar and a political outsider who describes himself as a Social Democrat. Moynihan gave up any pretense of political chastity to become a major figure within the Democratic Party. On closer scrutiny, however, Wilson is far from a detached intellectual. In two national elections he has gone on record, via op-ed pieces in the New York Times -- advocating race-neutral politics in order to enhance Democratic electoral prospects.22 And he has quietly served as President Clinton's exculpation for the administration's failure to develop policies to deal with the plight of the nation's ghettos. For years, now, whenever Clinton has been confronted with this issue, he has defended his do-nothing policy by invoking the name of "the famous African-American sociologist William Julius Wilson," explaining how profoundly influenced he was by his book, The Truly Disadvantaged, and ending with glowing projections about how blacks stand to benefit from his economic policies.23 It should come as no surprise that Wilson has been mentioned as a possible Cabinet appointee.24

Thus, whatever differences exist between Moynihan and Wilson, the factor of overriding importance is that both repudiated race-based politics and race-based public policy. Here we come to the delicate but unavoidable issue concerning the role that the race of a social theorist plays in determining what Alvin Gouldner refers to as "the social career of a theory." Not only was Moynihan white, but he wrote at a time of heightened racial consciousness and mobilization, both inside and outside the university. As a white, he was susceptible to charges of racism and of resorting to stereotypes in his depiction of black families. Even the voluble Moynihan was reduced almost to silence when it came to parrying the charges leveled against him by black scholars and activists.

Wilson, too, has had his critics, but at least he has been immune to accusations of being racist. Furthermore, Wilson appeared on the stage of history at a time when racial militancy was "of declining significance." The nation, including the academic establishment, had grown weary of racial conflict, and was eager, like the Democratic Party, to "get beyond race." Wilson was the right person in the right place and the right time, and as if this was not enough, his book, The Declining Significance of Race, had the right title -- one that satisfied the nation's yearning to put race behind, to pretend that racism was no longer the problem it had been in times past.

To be sure, Wilson did not cause the retreat from race that has occurred over the past two decades. He did, however, bestow it with an indispensable mark of legitimacy. This is the significance of Wilson's elevation to national prominence and even to celebrity status. It has meant that the retreat from race could no longer be equated with racism and reaction.

Cornel West: The Left Wing of the Backlash

IF BOOKS COULD BE JUDGED BY THEIR TITLES, ONE WOULD THINK THAT A BOOK entitled Race Matters would be the antithesis of a book entitled The Declining Significance of Race. But then again, one must be beware of semantic infiltration, and the possibility that titles are subversive of meaning. There is another reason for skepticism. Since this is incontestably a period of retreat from race, one has to wonder why a book that argues that "race matters" would enjoy such a favorable critical reception and appear on the list of best sellers for ten weeks.

Of course, the title has an intentional double meaning. In his preface West recounts his mortification as he tried to hail a taxi in New York City, only to have ten taxis refuse to pick him up. As he and his wife returned to Princeton, "we talked about what race matters have meant to the American past and of how much race matters in the American present."25 The first meaning serves as a catchall for the disparate essays that West has compiled in this volume. The second meaning -- race matters -- is more substantive, but still leaves the reader to wallow in ambiguity. In what sense does race "matter" in the Weltanschauung of Cornel West? Is this an ironic comment on whites' obsessive preoccupation with the happenstance of skin color? Or does it allude to the fateful influence that race has on the lives of African-Americans? Nor is the meaning of "race" clear. Is this an affirmation of race -- that is, of black culture and identity? Or does "race" refer to racism and the extent that it "matters" in the lives of African-Americans? Or is the ambiguity purposeful, to point up the paradoxical and sometimes contradictory nature of the phenomenon itself?

Suffice it to say that many or all of these elements appear in West's book: topics range from the crisis in black leadership, to black conservatism, to Black-Jewish relations, to black sexuality. These are all race matters, to be sure, but they are only marginally related to the question that preoccupies us here: the extent that race (read: racism) matters, and the consequences that ensue for politics and public policy. These issues are explored in two of West's essays which will serve as the basis of the discussion that follows: "Nihilism in Black America" (originally published in Dissent in Spring 1991), and "Beyond Affirmative Action: Equality and Identity" (originally published in The American Prospect in Spring 1992).

The term "nihilism" invites semantic confusion. Invoked by a professor of philosophy, the term conjures up hoary philosophical debates concerning the nature of existence and the possibility of objective knowledge. But West surely is not claiming that the ghetto is an enactment of some dubious philosophical doctrine. Invoked by a political activist, "nihilism" calls up associations with Russian revolutionaries who believed that the old order must be utterly eradicated to make way for the new. Again, it is doubtful that West, the political activist, is imputing these motives to ghetto youth. Nor does his use of "nihilism" suggest the angst and denial of meaning that are often viewed as endemic to modernity. No doubt West could expound on all of these themes, but in describing the urban ghetto, it would appear that he means only to refer to destructive and self-destructive behavior that is unconstrained by legal or moral norms. But this comes dangerously close to the prevailing view of ghetto youth as driven by aberrant and anti-social tendencies. Does "nihilism" merely provide an intellectual gloss for ordinary assumptions and claims? Is this why West and his book have been so warmly embraced by the political establishment and the nation's book buyers?

Any such doubts are seemingly dissipated by the book's opening sentence: "What happened in Los Angeles in April of 1992 was neither a race riot nor a class rebellion. Rather, this monumental upheaval was a multiracial, trans-class, and largely male display of justified social rage." With this manifesto, West establishes his credentials as a person of the Left. However, by the end of the same paragraph, we have West saying that "race was the visible catalyst, not the underlying cause" (p. 1). Already, the reader is left to wonder: Does race matter or doesn't it?

In the next paragraph West assumes the rhetorical stance that pervades his book: he is the voice of reason and moderation between liberals and conservatives, each of which is allegedly trapped in rigid orthodoxies that leave us "intellectually debilitated, morally disempowered, and personally depressed" (p. 2). Liberals, West avers, are burdened with a simplistic faith in the ability of government to solve our racial problems. Conservatives, on the other hand, blame the problems on blacks and ignore "public responsibility for the immoral circumstances that haunt our fellow citizens." Both treat blacks as "a problem people." West thus presents himself as mediator between ideological extremes. He is a Leftist who does not resort to a crude economic determinism that denies human freedom and that relieves the poor of moral responsibility for their actions. And he is the philosopher who does not use morality to evade public responsibility for social wrongs.

Thus for West racism and poverty are only part of the problem. Of equal concern is the "pervasive spiritual impoverishment" that afflicts ghetto dwellers. With these false dichotomies, West has set the stage for a morality play involving a contest between material and spiritual forces and between Left and Right. Enter the protagonist: a Man of Vision who sees through the mystifications of both sides, a Great Conciliator who transcends political schism and will point the way to an Eden of racial harmony and social justice.

A compelling tale, to be sure. But the critical issue is this: where does West's otherwise laudatory attempt to bridge the ideological chasm lead him? According to West, "the liberal/conservative discussion conceals the most basic issue now facing black America." The reader waits with bated breath: what is "the most basic issue now facing black America?" West has already conveyed his skepticism with the Left's monistic emphasis on issues of racism and political economy. And he says that he rejects the conservative emphasis on "behavioral impediments" whose message to black America can be boiled down to the maxim: "Straighten up and fly right." The most basic issue now facing black America, according to Cornel West, is "the nihilistic threat to its very existence" (p. 12, italics in original). West continues:

This threat is not simply a matter of relative economic deprivation and political powerlessness -- though economic well-being and political clout are requisites for meaningful black progress. It is primarily a question of speaking to the profound sense of psychological depression, personal worthlessness, and social despair so widespread in black America (pp. 12-13).

Now, there can be no doubt that "psychological depression, personal worthlessness, and social despair" abound in ghettos across America. So do "battered identities," "spiritual impoverishment," "social deracination," "cultural denudement," and a host of related afflictions that leave West groping for words that convey the gravity and horror of this situation. Certainly, West cannot be faulted for bringing such conditions to light. This point is worth underscoring because Wilson and others have claimed that discussion of ghetto "pathologies" has been taboo ever since Moynihan was clobbered, as they would have it, for reporting some unpleasant statistics on disorganization in black families. This is a totally unfounded allegation. The only issue, both then and now, concerns the theoretical claims that are advanced concerning the causes of these well-known afflictions, together with the related issue of what is to be done about them. This was the basis of the attack on Moynihan, and it is on these same issues that West must be judged.

According to West, despite the tribulations going back to slavery, blacks were always endowed with "cultural armor to beat back the demons of hopelessness, meaninglessness, lovelessness" (p. 15). He points out that until the 1970s the rate of suicide was comparatively low among blacks, but today young blacks have one of the highest rates of suicide. Thus for West the question becomes: what has happened to "the cultural structures that once sustained black life in America" and "are no longer able to fend off the nihilistic threat?" His answer focuses on two factors:

  1. The saturation of market forces and market moralities in black life. By this West means that blacks have succumbed to the materialism and hedonism that pervade American culture, and that "edge out nonmarket values -- love, care, service to others -- handed down by preceding generations." If blacks are more susceptible to these corrupting influences than others, it is because the poor have "a limited capacity to ward off self-contempt and self-hatred" (p. 17).
  2. The crisis in black leadership. Here West bemoans the failure of black leaders to carry on a tradition of leadership that was at once aggressive and inspirational. Part of the reason is that the new middle class has been corrupted by their immersion into mass culture. But another reason that "quality leadership is on the wane" has to do with "the gross deterioration of personal, familial, and communal relations among African-Americans" (p. 36). With families in decline and communities in shambles, the basis for effective leadership is lost.

Thus, West harkens back to the halcyon days when there was "a vital community bonded by its ethical ideals" (p. 37). Unfortunately, oppression does not always produce such felicitous outcomes, and the victims of oppression are not always ennobled by their experience and an inspiration to the rest of us.

West's error, to repeat, is not that he discusses crime, violence, drugs, and the other notorious ills of ghetto life. Rather the problem is that he presents social breakdown and cultural disintegration as a problem sui generis, with an existence and momentum independent of the forces that gave rise to it in the first place. Moynihan, too, had held that centuries of injustice had "brought about deep-seated structural distortions in the life of the Negro American." But he added a remarkable addendum: "At this point, the present pathology is capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world."26 Similarly, West traces nihilism to centuries of injustice, but goes on to claim that nihilism is so embedded in the life of the ghetto that it assumes a life all its own. At least this is what West implies when he writes that "culture is as much a structure as the economy or politics" (p. 12). Indeed, the whole point of West's critique of "liberal structuralism" is that nihilism is not reducible to these factors. It is precisely because nihilism is so deeply embedded that this "cultural structure" must be addressed as a force in its own right.

It takes hairsplitting distinctions, that do not bear close scrutiny, to maintain that West's view of nihilism is different from the conservative view of ghetto culture as deeply pathological, and as the chief source of the problems that beset African-Americans. Despite his frequent caveats, West has succeeded in shifting the focus of blame onto the black community. The affliction is theirs -- something we shall call "nihilism."

It is also theirs to resolve.As with the Moynihan report, the regressive implications of West's theory become clear when one examines his praxis. West asks the right question: "What is to be done about this nihilistic threat?" But his answer is sadly deficient. He calls for "a politics of conversion" -- a frail attempt to use radical vernacular as a cover for ideas that are anything but radical. "Like alcoholism and drug addiction," West explains, "nihilism is a disease of the soul" (p. 18). How does one cure a disease of the soul? West's prescription (to paraphrase Jencks) is to change the nihilist, not the system. To quote West again:

Nihilism is not overcome by arguments or analysis; it is tamed by love and care. Any disease of the soul must be conquered by a turning of one's soul. This turning is done through one's own affirmation of one's worth -- an affirmation fueled by the concern of others. A love ethic must be at the center of a politics of conversion (p. 19).

Here, alas, is the reason for the acclaim that has been heaped on West. The cure for the nihilism that so frightens white America is not a resumption of the war on poverty. Nor is it a resumption of the movement against racism. West, of course, would endorse both, but he has also been explicit in saying that "liberal structuralism" is not equipped to deal with "the self-destructive and inhumane actions of black people" (p.19). Because he conceives of nihilism as a disease of the soul, he proposes "a love ethic" as its remedy.

One can almost hear the national sign of relief from those who feared that expensive new programs of social reconstruction and a renewed commitment to affirmative action might become necessary to control the disorder emanating from the ghettos of America. Instead we have an inexpensive palliative: a crusade against nihilism to be waged from within the black community. So much the better that this proposal is advanced not by another black conservative whose politics might be suspect, but by a self-proclaimed socialist. Unfortunately, West the philosopher and activist, adopts the idiom of the preacher who mounts the pulpit, pounds the lectern, and enjoins his flock to "have the audacity to take the nihilistic threat by the neck and turn back its deadly assaults" (p. 20).

One cannot fault West for trying to bridge the chasm between religion and politics. However, he has not placed himself in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr., who invoked religious symbols and appealed to spiritual values in order to mobilize popular support behind a political movement. Nor did King -- notwithstanding his devotion to principles associated with Christ and Gandhi -- believe that a love ethic could ever serve as an antidote to spiritual breakdown. The only remedy was a political transformation that eliminated the conditions that eat away at the human spirit. West, on the other hand, offers no political framework for his so-called "politics of conversion." Indeed, he explicitly divorces nihilism from political economy, thus implying that moral redemption is to be achieved through some mysterious process involving "a turning of one's soul" (p. 19).

West cannot escape the retrograde implications of his position with disclaimers that "unlike conservative behaviorists, the politics of conversion situates these actions within inhuman circumstances" (p. 20). He ignores his own admonition that "to call on black people to be agents makes sense only if we also examine the dynamics of this victimization against which their agency will, in part, be exercised" (p. 14). And while he is guided by "a vision of moral regeneration and political insurgency for the purpose of fundamental social change for all who suffer from socially induced misery" (p. 46), this is a utopian fantasy, not a political reality. The practical implication of West's position is to substitute a vapid and utterly inconsequential notion of a "politics of conversion" for a genuine political solution -- one that would call upon the power and resources of the national government for what is at bottom a national problem and a national disgrace.

Not only does West shift the focus of analysis and of blame away from the structures of racial oppression, but in his chapter entitled "Beyond Affirmative Action" he undercuts the single policy that has gone a decisive step beyond equal rights in the direction of equal results. West is not opposed to affirmative action, but he engages in a tortuous reasoning that subverts the whole logic behind affirmative action. Thus, he begins by declaring that, in principle, he favors a class-based affirmative action (as does William Julius Wilson).27 On the other hand, he knows that such a policy is politically unrealistic. He also knows that if affirmative action in its present form were abolished, then "racial and sexual discrimination would return with a vengeance" (p. 64). But the whole purpose of affirmative action is to combat racial and sexual discrimination! Even if a class-based affirmative action could be enacted, few of the benefits would filter down to African-Americans who are not only most in need, but have a unique claim for compensatory treatment. Nor would lower class whites who become lawyers and doctors on the basis of affirmative action provide the black community with the professional talent that it sorely needs.

Stated simply, affirmative action is meant to counteract the evils of caste, not of class. It is predicated on a realization that blacks have been victims of a system of oppression that goes far beyond the disabilities associated with class disadvantage, and therefore warrant a special remedy. West's equivocation with respect to race-based affirmative action is the clearest indication of how little race matters in his theoretical framework and in his agenda for change.

Reminiscent of Moynihan and Wilson, West's approach for helping blacks is to help "everybody." Like them, he provides a respectable liberal cover for evading the issue of race, and still worse, backing off race-targeted policies like affirmative action, all in the name of getting "beyond race." West prides himself on steering "a course between the Scylla of environmental determinism and the Charybdis of a blaming-the-victims perspective" (p. 57). Unfortunately, he ends up in a political neverland where, as DuBois once said in his critique of historiography, "nobody seems to have done wrong and everybody was right."28 And nothing changes.

A COMMON REFRAIN FROM THE RIGHT IS THAT ADVOCATES OF AFFIRMATIVE ACTION are guilty of the very thing that they say they are against -- namely, treating blacks as a separate class. As with much of race-think, this is upside-down and inside-out. The truth is that it is the refusal to see race -- the willful color-blindness of the liberal camp -- that acquiesces to the racial status quo, and does so by consigning blacks to a twilight zone where they are politically invisible. In this way elements of the Left unwittingly join the Right in evading any reckoning with America's greatest crime -- slavery -- and its legacy in the present. Like racism itself, this is not a new problem. Writing in 1945, Richard Wright scored the Left as well as the Right for its denial of racism, and implicitly, of blacks themselves. It is worth quoting at length:

The political Left often gyrates and squirms to make the Negro problem fit rigidly into a class-war frame of reference, when the roots of that problem lie in American culture as a whole; it tries to anchor the Negro problem to a patriotism of global time and space, which robs the problem of its reality and urgency, of its concreteness and tragedy. The political Right, reacting traditionally, tries to smother the Negro problem as a whole and insists upon regarding Negroes as individuals and making individual deals with individual Negroes, ignoring the inevitable race consciousness which three hundred years of Jim Crow living has burned into the Negro's heart. Both the political Left and the political Right try to change the Negro problem into something that they can control, thereby denying the humanity of the Negro, excluding his unique and historic position in American life.29

The liberal retreat from race is full of political paradox. When forced to confront the issue, the liberal will argue that in a racist society, race-based politics are not viable precisely because blacks are an isolated and despised minority. Again, the reasoning is upside-down and inside-out. It is precisely because blacks were an isolated and despised minority that they were forced to seek redress outside of the framework of electoral politics. The civil rights movement was triumphant -- in part because it tapped the lode of revolutionary potential within the black community, and in part it galvanized the support of political allies outside the black community, including white liberals. Furthermore, this movement not only achieved its immediate objectives, but it was the major catalyst for progressive change in the 20th century. As Aldon Morris writes at the conclusion of The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement:

... the civil rights movement served as a training ground for many of the activists who later organized movements within their own communities. Indeed, the modern women's movement, student movement, farm workers' movement, and others of the period were triggered by the unprecedented scale of nontraditional politics in the civil rights movement.30

Liberals need not worry that support of the black liberation struggle is patronizing. For the irony of history may be that it is "they" who are liberating "us."


  1. Whitney M. Young, Jr., To Be Equal (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), p. 54. This was to become a common refrain among civil rights leaders. In 1964 Bayard Rustin wrote: "What is the value of winning access to public accommodations for those who lack money to use them?" "From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement," Commentary 39 (February 1964), p. 25. In 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. also wrote: "What good is it to be allowed to eat in a restaurant if you can't afford a hamburger?" "Showdown for Non-Violence," Look (April 16, 1968), p.24. return

  2. Lee Rainwater and William L. Yancey, The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1967), p.11. return

  3. Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can't Wait (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 147. Also see Whitney M. Young, Jr., and Kyle Haselden, "Should There Be Compensation' for Negroes?" New York Times Magazine (October 6, 1963), pp.43 ff. return

  4. "Liberalism and the Negro: A Round-Table Discussion," Commentary (March 1964), p. 25. return

  5. Johnson's Howard University address is reprinted in Lee Rainwater and William L. Yancey, The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy , op. cit., pp. 125-132. The speech was drafted by Richard N. Goodwin and Daniel P. Moynihan, though it would appear that Moynihan was the chief architect, judging from a paper that he delivered at a Daedalus conference only a month earlier. Entitled "Employment, Income, and the Negro Family," Moynihan began by noting that the civil rights revolution was entering "a new phase," representing a shift from issues of liberty to issues of equality. He also predicted that this shift would result in an attenuation of liberal support. Finally, after a series of theoretical gyrations, he focused on the problems in the black family which, he held, were preventing lower-class blacks from taking advantage of expanding opportunities. Daedalus, Vol. 94 (Fall 1965), pp. 745-770. return

  6. Eli Ginzberg, The Negro Potential (New York: Columbia University Press, 1956), p. 7. return

  7. New York Times, June 5, 1965, p. 1. return

  8. Moynihan ascribes the term to the world of diplomacy, and has used it in his political sparring over the years. See the Wall St. Journal's Notable and Quotable column (4/18/85); the Buffalo News (7/4/93); and Firing Line (1/15/94). return

  9. In a subsequent article Moynihan makes a point of "the stunning ovation" that Johnson received at the conclusion of his speech, as if this validated Johnson's intentions. "The President & the Negro: The Moment Lost," Commentary (February 1967), p. 34. return

  10. The conference transcript is published in a two-volume series of Daedalus in Fall 1965 and Winter 1966. The quoted excerpt is in Volume 2, pp. 288-89. return

  11. New York Times (June 6, 1965), Review of the Week, p. 10. return

  12. Quoted in Rainwater and Yancey, op. cit., p. 135. return

  13. Rainwater and Yancey, op. cit., p. 59. It should have been obvious that the burgeoning welfare roles was an artifact of the migration of young blacks to cities in the North and West, together with the liberalization of eligibility as a response to rising black protest. return

  14. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," in Lee Rainwater and William L. Yancey, The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy, op. cit., p. 76, return

  15. Rainwater and Yancey, op. cit., p. 443. Italics added. return

  16. As Rainwater and Yancey write: "The controversy was, then, a kind of lucky break for the administration since it served to distract from and conceal the fact that the Administration was not really ready to assume the independent role it had reached for at Howard University." The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy, op. cit., p. 294. return

  17. At the very outset of his study, Gutman writes: "This volume. . . was stimulated by the bitter public and academic controversy surrounding Daniel P. Moynihan's The Negro Family in America: The Case for National Action (1965)." Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (New York: Pantheon, 1976) p. xvii. Of course, the controversy also stimulated a plethora of studies in all of the social sciences on race, poverty and the family. return

  18. Michael B. Katz, The Undeserving Poor (New York: Pantheon, 1989), p. 24. return

  19. William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 4. return

  20. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "Employment, Income, and the Ordeal of the Negro Family," Daedalus (Fall 1965), especially pp. 753-54. return

  21. This statement is based on the fact that in a chapter on "The Urban Underclass," published three years before The Truly Disadvantaged, a footnote indicated that "this chapter is based on a larger study, The Hidden Agenda: Race, Social Dislocations, and Public Policy in America, to be published by the University of Chicago Press." See "The Urban Underclass" in Leslie Dunbar, ed., Minority Report: What Has Happened to Blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, & Other Minorities in the Eighties (New York: Pantheon, 1984), p. 75. return

  22. New York Times (March 24, 1990), p. I:31, and (March 17, 1992), p. A25. return

  23. This reference to Wilson was made in a speech to black ministers in Memphis on November 13, 1993, and cited in a profile on Wilson in People magazine (January 17, 1974), p. 81. return

  24. Gretchen Reynolds, "The Rising Significance of Race," Chicago (December 1992), p. 81. return

  25. Cornel West, Race Matters (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), p. xi. return

  26. "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," in Rainwater & Yancey, op.cit., p. 93. return

  27. Wilson's position is reported in Steven A. Holmes, "Mulling the Idea of Affirmative Action for Poor Whites," New York Times (August 18, 1991), Section 4, p. 3. return

  28. W.E.B. DuBois, "The Propaganda of History," Black Reconstruction (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1935), p. 714. return

  29. Introduction to Black Metropolis by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton (New York: Harper & Row, 1945), p. xxix. return

  30. Aldon Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: The Free Press, 1984), p. 288. return

[colored bar]

Contents of No. 17

New Politics home page