The Moynihan Report 50 Years Later

February 9, 2015 —

Professor Paul Butler Professor Paul Butler
Professor Anthony Cook Professor Anthony Cook
Professor Gary Peller Professor Gary Peller

In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor, wrote a report entitled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Fifty years later, that report is still influencing policies and shaping approaches to problems that exist in the African American community, said speakers at a Georgetown Journal of Law and Modern Critical Race Perspectives symposium.

The report said that the matriarchal structure of many black American families retards the progress of the group as a whole — and it and the thinking it engendered have been “the core feature of our racial justice policy from 1965 to the present,” said Georgetown Law Professor Paul Butler in his introductory remarks.

But this belief “roots the problem of black inequality in a misguided understanding that the legacy of slavery and segregation was a black culture of poverty and dependency,” said Georgetown Law Professor Anthony Cook. It’s an interpretation that fueled a backlash to the civil rights movement by blaming black culture for present-day racial inequalities and social ills. “The better approach would have been for Moynihan to explain the legacy of slavery and segregation as the creation of a structure and culture of racialized social inequality and stratification,” Cook explained. “This would have rightly focused public discourse and policy on rectifying this inequality and stratification, not on paternalistically correcting, or demanding that blacks self-correct, a ‘culture’ of poverty and dependency.”

Even President Barack Obama’s program “My Brother’s Keeper” — with its emphasis on improving the lives of boys and young men of color — proves the pervasiveness of the belief that the problem originates in black families and gender roles rather than within national policies. “At the end of the day it’s not the brothers who need the fixing, it’s the keepers, the structure,” Butler said.

Georgetown Law Professor Gary Peller offered what he called a “provocative  approach,” noting that Moynihan was at that time “a white progressive guy who as far as I can tell was truly committed to improving the health of the African American community by focusing on a real problem. … Today our situation is in many ways more desperate because the conversation can’t even happen.” Peller called upon white progressives to “get out of the stance of deference” and offer “an honest appraisal of the things the African American community might do to help the members of that community.”

The symposium, with panels on the Moynihan Report, the criminal justice system and the black family, also featured Howard Professors Lisa Crooms and Reginald Robinson; George Washington School of Law Professor Spencer Overton; Donald Tibbs, associate professor at Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law; Justin Hansford (L’07), assistant professor at Saint Louis University School of Law; Verna Williams, the Judge Joseph P. Kinneary Professor of Law at the University of Cincinnati School of Law; and University of Miami School of Law Professor Osamudia James (L’04). Student editors of the Georgetown Journal of Law and Modern Critical Race Perspectives organized the program.

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