U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Book Review: Dan Geary’s

Beyond Civil Rights

geary coverThe Moynihan Report enjoys the rare distinction of being an internal government document  that pundits and the public seem to never tire of discussing. Then again, rarely are such discussions so predictable and routine and yet always presented as new and revelatory. But in Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy, Daniel Geary tells the tale of the origins, controversy, and continuing relevance of the Moynihan Report without recycling stale storylines or decrepit assumptions. On the contrary, the story of the Senator that conservatives and liberals alike love to sentimentalize is full of the drama of humanity – and although Geary might not have intended to frame his sound historical monograph in this manner, by the end of the book we realize we’ve been witnessing a tragedy worthy of literature.

Geary appropriately begins his book with a short biography of the main protagonist, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Raised by a single mother from the age of 10 on, Moynihan’s early life typified the path so many working-class and middle-class men took during the adolescence of the American welfare state; one could even say the two grew up together. As a child he distributed flyers for Roosevelt, and when the war broke out he entered the Navy after a year at City College of New York. The Navy provided Moynihan with an education and increased status (he eventually became a lieutenant), and the GI Bill and a Fulbright grant covered the expenses of a PhD at Tufts University and studying abroad in England. Eventually Moynihan returned home to enter New York politics and begin a writing career as a public commentator before joining the Kennedy Administration in 1960.[1]

The relatively youthful Moynihan seemed aware of the role the growing national government played in his ascent, and he repaid the New Deal state by advocating for bigger and better federal programs. He admired Northern European welfare states and considered the United States’ lack of a universal income to be embarrassingly primitive. Even as the Assistant Secretary of Labor under Lyndon Johnson, Moynihan remained an old school New Dealer by arguing for interventionist employment policy, departing from the more common focus on macroeconomic techniques that had typified the Kennedy and Eisenhower administrations. As Geary explains, Moynihan believed that “government had a direct social responsibility for providing men with jobs.”[2] In many regards, then, Moynihan represented the boldest legacy of New Deal liberalism.

But then Moynihan decided to take on black poverty. Cobbling together often-conflicting ideas from E. Franklin Frazier, Kenneth Clark, and his collaborator and friend Nathan Glazer, he intended “The Negro Family,” to be a call for federal intervention in black male unemployment. Geary covers the origins and content of the report well, detailing how while Moynihan hoped to create programs to increase the number of employed black men, his focus on family structure “undercut the rationale for such programs.”[3] In particular, Geary aptly points out how despite Moynihan’s New Deal convictions his thinking on the black poor was shaped by his previous collaboration with Nathan Glazer on Beyond the Melting Pot, a book that presented ethnicity, not class, as the primary shaper of immigrant experience. As Geary writes, “In adopting Glazer’s understanding of American society as a competition between ethnic groups rather than between social classes, Moynihan undercut his sense of economic security as a basic right.”[4] Clearly, then, a crucial part of the Moynihan Report controversy grew from its lack of internal coherence.

Geary navigates the resulting debate skillfully, dispelling a number of irritatingly persistent myths along the way. Contrary to conservative and often liberal claims that Moynihan was viciously attacked by critics of the report, Geary notes that “In fact, nearly all Moynihan’s early critics refrained from questioning his motives or character.”[5] Rather, they focused on how Moynihan’s focus on the black family elided the structures of institutional racism that oppressed black people and provided a convenient excuse for whites reacting to growing demands for racial equality to essentially respond, “get your own house in order.” And the line was a popular one, boosting Moynihan’s reputation and accelerating his career. Far from “suppressing” a “national conversation” about race – as the mainstream narrative of the controversy claims – the Moynihan Report actually created a small cottage industry of research on the black family. One cannot help but suspect that those sympathetic to Moynihan overlook this due to too much of the research finding theoretical and empirical flaws in Moynihan’s report.

Moynihan responded to such criticism poorly. Instead of considering the arguments of his critics, he took their analysis personally and reacted defensively. “Rather than responding to their criticisms’ content,” Geary writes, “he treated them as irrational personal attacks.”[6] Moynihan described his critics as “psychopathological” and “hysterical,” and those so not easily written off as deranged ideologues were assumed to be mislead. Most importantly, Moynihan found a sympathetic ear from the then-budding community of neoconservatives. “As Moynihan recalled,” Geary notes, ‘Glazer and I began to notice that we were getting treated in National Review with a much higher level of intellectual honesty [than in liberal publications].’ ‘I was not a bigot,’ he remembered, ‘but all the good guys were calling me a racist, [while] here was this fellow Buckley saying these thoughtful things.’ ”[7] With the encouragement of his new circle, Moynihan moved increasingly rightwards in the last half of the 1960s, writing multiple essays reiterating the importance of family structure to reproducing poverty and growing increasingly skeptical of the ability of the federal government to tackle such problems in the first place.

Geary gives plenty of attention to this reactionary turn, providing us with details usually overlooked by more sympathetic authors. Shifting away from his emphasis on the necessity of government action, Moynihan promoted viewpoints that, shorn of their sophisticated veneer, expressed the sentiments of a white electorate unsympathetic to calls for social equality and eager to blame poor blacks for their own plight. “African Americans,” Moynihan wrote, “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.”[8] By the time he accepted a position as a domestic adviser to Nixon, Moynihan warned the President that “Increasingly the Negro population threatens the stability of the society,” and in an unpublished book intended to bring together his case for the pathological culture of the ghetto, Moynihan bluntly dismissed criticism of police brutality by explaining that “American intellectuals are cop haters.”[9] This is ugly stuff. From a left-liberal perspective, then, Moynihan had fallen into disgrace.

What accounts for such a turnaround? How could Moynihan begin by calling for greater investment in black communities, and end by scolding them for perceived misbehavior? At several points, Geary points to the broader context of the turbulent 1960s as key to understanding Moynihan’s moves. Neoconservatives, he writes, “rushed to protect the social order against the growth of left-wing social movements such as Black Power and feminism,” and Geary notes how the radical visions of economic equality of civil rights leaders represented an alternative to, and criticism of, liberal and neoconservative perspectives.[10]

Yet Geary mostly describes this dynamic rather than explains it, and readers might still be left wondering why, if Moynihan intended his original report to make a “case for national action,” did his ideas ended up serving almost solely the interests of neoconservatives, conservatives, and centrist liberals for the next five decades? Even left-liberals who tried to resurrect the progressive potential of the Moynihan Report (as William Julius Wilson did in the 1980s) couldn’t pull it off, as “media discussion of the ‘black family’” nonetheless “benefited conservatives.”[11] Here and there, Geary does emphasize the importance of the larger context in understanding this repeated result. “Letting the Johnson administration off the hook,” he explains, “Moynihan indirectly absolved white Americans who were willing to grant African Americans civil rights but unwilling to support measures needed to ensure full equality.”[12] Yet such moments of “zooming out” seem disconnected from Moynihan’s own life and behavior, co-existing uneasily in a book which, overall, emphasizes ambiguity over clear plot lines. Some, of course, consider this the job of every historian; yet this particular story does not seem to illustrate the point well.

It is here that the strength of the book is also, as is so often the case, its weakness. Geary does such a good job at navigating the back-and-forth dialogue (or bickering) between leftists, liberals, and conservatives that the overall trajectory of American poverty politics gets lost in the fray. It might be helpful, then, to intervene with some critical theory to place a portrait of Moynihan into conversation with the arrangements of power being contested and consolidated during his political career. Take, for example, the myth of Moynihan’s victimhood at the hands of critics. While Geary notes how Moynihan dodged addressing their points by claiming his character had been questioned, there is no mention of the concept of “white fragility” many scholars have developed to explain the function of such a strategy. As Sara Ahmed explains, “These views then get expressed again as if they are being stifled.  They get repeated by being presented as prohibited…Whenever people keep being given a platform to say they have no platform, or whenever people speak endlessly about being silenced, you not only have a performative contradiction; you are witnessing a mechanism of power.” It is difficult to think of a clearer example of this dynamic than the lie, repeated now for half a century, that leftists wielded the accusation of racism to suppress research into the “real” causes of poverty. In this sense, the legacy of the Moynihan Report far surpasses even the obvious impact it has on how Americans understand poverty that Geary deals with – indeed, I would go as far to say that the controversy the report generated is one of the very first examples of how colorblind ideology and progressive multiculturalism would function to actually perpetuate racial inequalities in the post-civil rights era.

Perhaps, Geary hoped to avoid reading the report backward – and yet, as I have argued elsewhere, it seems essential to grapple with the actual consequences of historical events if we ever hope to explain them. And, as Geary notes, the consequence of the Moynihan Report is that Moynihan’s version of the story – from his supposedly farsighted prediction of (and explanation for) the social plight of the ghettos to his unfair treatment at the hands of leftist critics – has been “accepted for decades by neoconservatives, conservatives, and even many liberals.”[13] Yet by the end of the book, Geary strikes an oddly contradictory note by arguing that “On its fiftieth anniversary, the Moynihan Report should be neither celebrated nor condemned. Rather, we should see it as a complex historical artifact with a mixed legacy for our own time,” and yet simultaneously concluding, “Despite Moynihan’s liberal intentions, it fed the delusion that racial self-help alone could effect racial equality. Advocates of economic and social justice have little to gain by appealing to a document that embodies not only the ambitions of 1960s liberalism but also all of its shortcomings.”[14] Geary’s rich account of the tensions, contradictions, and changes from within liberalism tries to hold these two statements together. Ultimately, however, as we reflect on the historic incarceration rates, growing inequality, and rise of fascistic politics of today, Geary’s book provides more reason to regard the Moynihan Report as our collective national tragedy – one where if ambiguity always persists in principle, in reality, the narrative has become harrowingly simple and predictable.

[1] Daniel Geary, Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 14-18.

[2] Geary, Beyond Civil Rights, 24.

[3] Geary, Beyond Civil Rights, 43.

[4] Geary, Beyond Civil Rights, 64.

[5] Geary, Beyond Civil Rights, 103.

[6] Geary, Beyond Civil Rights, 175.

[7] Geary, Beyond Civil Rights, 194.

[8] Geary, Beyond Civil Rights, 177.

[9] Geary, Beyond Civil Rights, 184.

[10] Geary, Beyond Civil Rights, 171.

[11] Geary, Beyond Civil Rights, 214.

[12] Geary, Beyond Civil Rights, 176.

[13] Geary, Beyond Civil Rights, 177.

[14] Geary, Beyond Civil Rights, 223.

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