U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“A Series of Glorious Defeats”: Kenneth Clark & the White Liberal Audience

This is a slightly longer version of the paper I gave last weekend at the S-USIH conference. Much thanks to my co-panelists, Fatma Dogus Ozdemir & Charles Richter, who both presented compelling papers, and Thomas Sugrue for chairing the panel and offering such thoughtful & thorough commentary. clark smiling

In 1965, as white America groped for explanations and scapegoats in the wake of the Watts Riots, Kenneth Clark, the black sociologist whose research had played a central role in the unanimous decision in Brown v. Board, stuck up for his friend Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Moynihan, then the Assistant Secretary of Labor for President Johnson, had recently been enveloped by the controversy that swirled around the public release of a report he authored on the black family. The report, entitled “The Negro Family: A Case for National Action,” but known ever after as the Moynihan Report, had argued that the ailing black family, beset by unemployment and a pathological cycle of matriarchy, presented the most pressing civil rights challenge that the Johnson administration must tackle. As many civil rights leaders and leftist activists criticized the Moynihan Report for blaming the victim, Clark, along with many others, defended Moynihan as simply aiming to highlight the social consequences of racial discrimination. “If Pat is a racist,” Clark succinctly stated, “I am.”[1]

Nearly a decade later, however, Clark’s feelings about Moynihan had shifted considerably. In his 1974 book, Pathos of Power, Clark used Moynihan as a symbol for the degradation of sociological practice in the wake of white reaction against the civil rights movement. “At the risk of seeming to be personal and resorting to ad hominem argument,” wrote Clark, “I would like to describe the dominant and publicized social science pattern of this period as the Moynihan Era. The Moynihan Era might be characterized as an era in which certain social scientists, those who are most widely publicized, offer themselves as agents of those who are in political power. Some accept positions in government with the understanding that they will be resident liberals, social scientists whose main responsibility will be to explain or apologize for the actions of those who wield political and economic power.”[2] In this critique, Clark eluded to Moynihan’s acceptance of a position in the Nixon Administration as an advisor of domestic policy, where he infamously suggested to Nixon that due to its politically explosive nature, the question of ghetto poverty could benefit from a period of what he called “benign neglect.” Such privileged social scientists, Clark argued, were tasked with, as he put it, “rationalizing political decisions which seek to maintain inequities, inequality, and cruelty under such catch-phrases as ‘benign neglect’ or with the assertion that we do not know enough to change clearly unjust practices; they seek to make intolerable and clearly destructive inequities palatable. Under the cover of prestigious academic institutions they have ample, if not monopolistic, access to government consultantships, foundation grants, and widespread media coverage. Some individuals, such as Daniel P. Moynihan himself, will be flagrant and direct in their for-hire role in exchange for rewards of prestige, publicity, and power.”[3]

In rebuking Moynihan, Clark publically severed a friendship once built on mutual admiration. In fact, Moynihan had been greatly influenced by a report from Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, or HARYOU, a community action program Clark had been deeply involved in developing and leading. It was from this document, in fact, that Moynihan took the phrase “a tangle of pathology.” A year later, Clark published a book largely based on the research and conclusions of HARYOU called Dark Ghetto, an effort which Clark, in his introduction, called “the anguished cry of its author.”[4] For years afterward, Moynihan recommended Clark’s book to anyone interested in further reading on black poverty, and at least as late as 1970, was still listing it as a handful of studies in a field which, according to Moynihan, was suffering from a severe lack of quality work. Clark’s overt scolding of Moynihan in the pages of Pathos of Power, then, represented not merely the breaking of a personal friendship but a refusal to accept praise from a prestigious source who had, in the past, been a major champion of Clark’s work.

However, most of the scholarship on Clark and Moynihan has tended to focus on the period of their friendship and collaboration rather than the later rift that divided them. In large part, this is due to Clark’s contribution to what is alternatively called damage imagery, pathology discourse, or the culture of poverty. And indeed, particularly within the pages of Dark Ghetto, Clark did not shy away from detailing what he did refer to as the “pathologies” of the ghetto, even reinforcing Moynihan’s claim that the emasculation of black men played a major role in contributing to illegitimacy and broken families. According to Clark, for example, the poor black man was “compelled to base his self-esteem…on a kind of behavior that tend[s] to support a stereotyped picture of the Negro male – sexual impulsiveness, irresponsibility, verbal bombast, posturing, and compensatory achievement in entertainment and athletics.”[5] Clark also suggested that the ghetto had turned into a self-sustaining dysfunction machine, noting at one point the “the self-perpetuating pathology of the ghetto itself.”[6] Consequently, Dark Ghetto usually makes an appearance in studies on the origins of the idea of a culture of poverty which conservatives eventually used to undermine the moral validity of a racially conscious welfare state.

Yet such a selective depiction of Clark’s work not only does a disservice to his arguments in Dark Ghetto, but also neglects to account for the later break between himself and the white liberal establishment that Moynihan so personally represented. For although Clark openly discussed what he termed the pathologies of the ghetto, he never failed to shine his brightest spotlight on the underlying causes of that “pathology” – racial and economic injustice. Clark agreed that there was a cycle of pathology, but wrote that “Few look at the causes of the vicious cycle, which lie in the white community.”[7] Even more emphatically, Clark used the language of colonialism – a language which Moynihan would later condemn as malicious demagoguery – to capture the dynamics of the ghetto. “The dark ghettos,” insisted Clark, “are social, political, educational, and – above all – economic colonies. Their inhabitants are subject peoples, victims of the greed, cruelty, insensitivity, guilt, and fear of their masters.”[8] Thus throughout Dark Ghetto, Clark persistently connected the conditions of the ghetto to broader patterns of social and political power.

Clark also intended HARYOU, the community action program he helped construct, to be guided by a structural analysis that placed the ultimate causes of ghetto poverty in the lopsided power relations between white and black, rich and poor. Clark hoped for HARYOU to be based on fundamentally different principles than other community action programs, including Mobilization for Youth, or MFY, the program operating in the Lower East Side of New York that had first received considerable funding from the federal government. Based on the opportunity theory of Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, MFY’s initial goal was to increase local opportunities by mobilizing poor people to work with, rather than challenge, the political structures of the city. When asked decades later to elaborate on these differences between MFY and HARYOU, Clark responded, “There is not much to elaborate on. Actually opportunity theory is in effect saying that those with power should provide greater opportunities for those without power. Which is a distillation of sharing. Well, those with power didn’t share much, and certainly lacked empathy.”[9] Therefore, even in the midst of collaborating with a liberal administration that had openly declared war on poverty, Clark spoke a fundamentally different language and offered a drastically different explanation for the persistence of black poverty than white liberals like Moynihan usually offered.

All of this brings me to the questions of first, why Clark nonetheless embraced the discourse of pathology and, second, why his attempt to connect that discourse to a structural critique ultimately failed. First, to understand Clark’s contributions to 1960s poverty discourse, it is important to remember that Clark had played a central role in providing the sociological studies that backed up the plaintiff’s arguments, in Brown v. Board, that segregation harmed the self-confidence of young black children. Considering this past success, it is easier to see why Clark thought that extending the logic of this appeal, and illustrating the psychological damage racial and economic discrimination caused black adults would also prove effective in stirring white liberal elites to action. As historian Daryl Michael Scott has argued, Clark and other intellectuals took damage imagery and “fashioned it into a psychiatric appeal for white consumption. Put another way, they took images generated to underscore the inhumanity of the oppressor and manipulated them to gain his sympathy.”[10] So, Clark wrote Dark Ghetto with a white liberal audience in mind, and he had reasons to be hopeful that these liberals would prove responsive to the plight of those enduring racialized poverty.

More fundamental, however, to Clark’s appeal to white liberals was his belief that he had no choice – for without their support, the fight for racial equality was doomed. A biographer of Clark has described him as “both an idealist and a pragmatist,” and when it came to making a case for intervention in black poverty, Clark’s pragmatic streak was indeed quite evident.[11] As he wrote in Dark Ghetto, “If the civil rights struggle is going to be successful, it will require white participation and commitment, even though a number of Negroes believe the white is no longer relevant. The simple fact of arithmetic decrees otherwise. Negroes are one-tenth of the American population. Without white support and without the white power structure the civil rights struggle is doomed to failure.”[12] Consequently, while Clark used damage imagery to try and appeal to a white audience, he did so specifically because he believed that the failure or success of the struggle against injustice rested in their hands.

However, this did not mean that Clark let white liberals off the hook for the role they played in constructing and perpetuating that very injustice in the first place. For although Clark believed, as he put it, that “The key to meaningful resolution is in the hands of that large majority of whites who conceive of themselves as liberal, moderate, and decent human beings,” he did not believe that this resolution would come voluntarily. As he wrote, “It is a cold, hard fact that the many flagrant forms of racial injustice North and South could not exist without their [white moderate liberals] acquiescence.”[13] Moreover, Clark admitted that liberals did not have a particularly strong track record on the question of racial justice. Indeed, as he wrote, “In those areas of life where liberals are powerful – labor unions, schools, and politics – one is forced to say that the plight of the Negroes is not significantly better than it is in areas where liberals are not dominant.”[14] Thus simply because Clark saw no other audience to appeal to in the pages of Dark Ghetto that did not mean that he abandoned his structural critique of racial injustice – a perspective that placed power, and those who possessed it, at the forefront of his criticism.

Clark reconciled these two tendencies – the belief on the one hand that nothing could be accomplished without white liberals and, on the other hand, considering them dubious allies – with a faith that the continued oppression of black Americans was no longer in the long-term interest of American elites. Typical of post-war liberals, Clark considered the affluent society to be dependent on the continuing spread of such prosperity to all segments of the American population, and believed that social justice and economic growth had developed into mutually reinforcing processes. “The time has come,” he declared, “when the economic princes of power can no longer take their cues from those marginal middle class whites whose immediate anxieties do not necessarily coincide with their own long-term interests or with the good of society as a whole.”[15] Moreover, he elaborated, “where moral force and practical advantage are united, their momentum is hard to deny.”[16] And explaining or even emphasizing how the conditions of poverty and discrimination produced “pathology,” Clark believed, could be a vital part of making that argument of moral force.

However, by the turn of the 1970s it had become evident that participating in the discourse of the pathology of poverty had backfired. As urban riots became a regular feature of national news headlines, a cohort of former liberals, known today as neoconservatives, became influential interpreters of persistent black poverty. Much to the chagrin of Clark and other liberals who had emphasized the pathology of the ghetto in order to inspire federal intervention, neoconservatives emphasized that same pathology to imply that the primary responsibility for “fixing” the ghettos lay with ghetto residents themselves. And as is well known, Clark’s former friend and ally, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, played a key role in contributing to this political shift. Writing in 1967, Moynihan scolded the civil rights community when he complained that African Americans “cannot afford the luxury of having a large lower class that is at once deviant and dependent. If they do not wish to bring it into line with the…world around them, they must devise ways to support it from within.”[17]

(As a side note, interestingly, Clark also had a personal history with another leading neoconservative, Nathan Glazer, who had taken courses under him at the City College of New York. Unlike with Moynihan, however, the two never clicked, and Clark would later say that he had always felt a certain amount of racial anxiety coming from Glazer. As Clark explained in an interview in 1989, “I was not surprised that Glazer later expressed a conservative position on matters of race. And by the way, he has always said that I influenced him, which I thought was fascinating. I don’t know what he meant by my influencing him.”[18])

Considering these disappointments, the anguish with which Clark later condemned his former friend becomes very comprehensible. “It is economically and socially profitable now for a small group of social scientists,” wrote Clark, “with their bases at prestigious universities, to offer social science as a tool for moral and ethical indifference toward the plight of the poor and to use their prestige to justify continued inequities. … Social scientists,” he continued, “who…provide public officials with rationalizations for regressive policies of malignant neglect, are not only accessories to the perpetuation of injustices, they become indistinguishable from the active agents of injustice.”[19] Finally, Clark recognized how a key strategy of neoconservative rhetoric involved taking arguments originally intended to highlight the injustice of oppression and using them to imply that this oppression was self-inflicted. As he explained, “These social scientists write learned treatises demonstrating that the problems of the urban disadvantaged and other oppressed groups in our society reflect essentially the deficiencies of those who are victimized.”[20]

Thus, by the mid-1970s it had become abundantly clear to Clark that his attempt to stir the conscious of the white liberal establishment through the use of damage imagery had failed. What had gone wrong? Well according to the version of the story offered by neoconservatives, a hysterical leftwing attack on Moynihan (and other liberals and conservatives who talked the tough truth about ghetto pathology), shut down the productive discussion that had to be had about black poverty. This narrative would prove to have remarkable staying power, repeated not merely by opponents of the welfare state but many liberals as well. For example, writing in the introduction of the 1989 edition of Dark Ghetto, black sociologist William Julius Wilson argued that “The vitriolic attacks and acrimonious debate that characterized this controversy proved to be too intimidating to scholars, particularly to liberal scholars.”[21] Not surprisingly, Wilson’s own scholarship aimed to correct for this lacuna, and his published works dealing with ghetto poverty had received widespread acclaim through the 1980s.

However, I would argue that by blaming timid liberals rather than cynical neoconservatives, such commentators fundamentally misunderstood the meaning of Clark’s failure to influence mainstream political debate. The miscalculation that both Clark, then Wilson, and many liberals today continue to make is the assumption that American political culture provides most citizens with the capacity – or even the desire – to understand how individual behavior and socioeconomic fate are inextricable from larger structural forces. Indeed, the fact that the majority of Clark’s work overwhelmingly focused on the institutional barriers of racism and exploitation and yet, Dark Ghetto remains most cited for its contribution to pathology discourse, is merely one stark illustration of this dynamic. Moreover, the myth that black poverty persisted in part because liberals failed to be sufficiently critical of a culture of poverty continues to be repeated and even cited as justification for scores of New York Times columns and sociological studies which are structured not around the question of “how does this society keep reproducing poverty?” but rather, in a nut shell, around the question of: “poor people: what’s with them?” As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote recently, liberals have long “aspired to combine government social programs with cultural critiques of ghetto pathology (the “both/and” notion, as Obama has termed it), and they believed that Americans were capable of taking in critiques of black culture and white racism at once. But this underestimated the weight of the country’s history.”[22]

Now, in making this argument I make no claims to its originality, as both scores of currently active black intellectuals have made it abundantly and the countless number of Black Lives Matter activists are, thankfully, making it every day. However, I do think that as intellectuals and academics – take your pick of either descriptor or both! – we tend to shy away from the implications of this phenomenon. For understandably, involved in the quest for truth as I think most of us fancy ourselves to be, it is with great reluctance that we let go of the idea that any problem, or even any fight for social justice, can only benefit from the shedding of more truth, of more light, on the many sided questions of politics and public policy. After all, as some have argued, our primary public duty, supposedly, is to contribute to an understanding of complexity.[23] And indeed, we should be able to talk about, say, the rates of teenage pregnancy in black neighborhoods without playing into stereotypes about the black poor.

However, it seems clear to me that in this case, the overwhelming amount of historical evidence suggests otherwise – and if we, as responsible public intellectuals or even private scholars, care about our work helping, rather than hindering social justice, the probability of its impact must be considered and taken very seriously. Perhaps not surprisingly, the only instance I have really come across of a scholar – rather than a journalist or an activist – recognizing this problem and applying it to their own work came from Daryl Michael Scott, who as author of an entire book on the history of damage imagery is as familiar as anyone can be with the actual results yielded from discussions about the psychological toll of poverty and racism. And Scott has concluded, as he writes, that “Given the history of the political use of social science, I believe experts who study social groups, particularly those who engage in policy debates, should place the inner lives of people off limits.”[24] Thus, there are certain things we cannot talk about without contributing to a damaging and discriminatory discourse; and regardless of our intents, the impact of our work, once it enters the public sphere, is out of our control.

This was a lesson that Kenneth Clark, sadly, had to learn the hard way. Indeed he is remembered as once remarking that his life consisted of “a series of glorious defeats,” from the failure of Brown v. Board to achieve true and meaningful integration to the unjust and inaccurate use of his own scholarship to further the logic of those who helped hinder his hopes.[25] To me, the fate of Clark’s message stands as one of the countless casualties of American racism and its ever-persistent partner, dogmatic individualism. For if even the work of Clark – with his vibrant call for an academy with a moral conscious, and his clear-eyed and unapologetic analysis of power in American politics – can be manipulated by reactionaries and remembered largely for its strategic mistakes, then there seems little that the lesser angels of our nature cannot co-opt.

[1] Quoted in David W. Southern, Gunnar Myrdal and Black-White Relations: The Use and Abuse of An American Dilemma, 1944-1969 (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 267-268.

[2] Kenneth Clark, Pathos of Power (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1974), 129.

[3] Clark, Pathos of Power, 130.

[4] Kenneth Clark, Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power, Second Edition (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1965/1989), xxxiv.

[5] Clark, Dark Ghetto, 70.

[6] Clark, Dark Ghetto, 194.

[7] Clark, Dark Ghetto, 48, emphasis added.

[8] Clark, Dark Ghetto, 11.

[9] July 17, 1989, Oral History Interview with Kenneth Clark. Conducted by Noel A. Cazenave, 30. Oral History Research Archives, Columbia (New York).

[10] Daryl Michael Scott, Contempt and Pity: Social Policy and the Image of the Damaged Black Psyche, 1880 – 1996 (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 97.

[11] Phone interview with Damon Freeman, conducted by Robin Marie Averbeck, June 26, 2015.

[12] Clark, Dark Ghetto, 237-238.

[13] Clark, Dark Ghetto, 229.

[14] Clark, Dark Ghetto, 230.

[15] Clark, Dark Ghetto, 152.

[16] Clark, Dark Ghetto, 204.

[17] Quoted in Daniel Geary, Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and its Legacy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 177, emphasis in original.

[18] July 17, 1989, Oral History Interview with Kenneth Clark. Conducted by Noel A. Cazenave, 42. Oral History Research Archives, Columbia (New York).

[19] Clark, Pathos of Power, 128.

[20] Clark, Pathos of Power, 128.

[21] William Julius Wilson, Introduction to Dark Ghetto, xvi.

[22] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” The Atlantic, October 2015. Accessed at: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/10/the-black-family-in-the-age-of-mass-incarceration/403246/

[23] I’m thinking in particular of this paper, delivered by Ellen F. Fitzpatrick, at the AHA Conference this year: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=A7LZI3RoPoA

[24] Scott, Contempt & Pity, xix.

[25] Phone interview with Damon Freeman, conducted by Robin Marie Averbeck, June 26, 2015.

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  1. I just wanted to say this was a wonderful piece, and I wish I’d been at the conference to hear it in person.

    This is really part of a larger critique of late 20th century liberalism in the United States that has taken off among American historians. It helps to understand the “backlash” of the late 1960s and beyond; but it also explains, in my view, the perilous ground on which civil rights activists and their erstwhile allies in the American political system stood upon during the Civil Rights Era.

    • Thanks Robert, and I think you are exactly right: rather than viewing the backlash as something that overcame and was the opposite of post-war liberalism, more historians are coming to see that backlash as also rooted in post-war liberalism itself. Which is sort of my gig so, encouraging! 🙂

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