Chasing the Jones

This week, the NYTimes published an op-ed referencing a famous report: The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.In this 1965 report, Moynihan, the Asst. Sec’t of Labor, declares the deterioration of the black family as the main reason why blacks were and would perpetually be at the bottom of the indices for well-being in the country. What Moynihan most considered pathological is that

In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is to out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.

This report angered many, and continues to anger. Pathology is a deviation or difference from some “normal” condition, and this report made it quite clear that what is normal is what white folks do.

The report itself does contain some references saying that the differences in the black community are pathological because they differ from the white community, not because the practices themselves are inherently bad. Like in Chapter IV:

There is, presumably, no special reason why a society in which males are dominant in family relationships is to be preferred to a matriarchal arrangement. However, it is clearly a disadvantage for a minority group to be operating on one principle, while the great majority of the population, and the one with the most advantages to begin with, is operating on another. This is the present situation of the Negro. Ours is a society which presumes male leadership in private and public affairs. The arrangements of society facilitate such leadership and reward it. A subculture, such as that of the Negro American, in which this is not the pattern, is placed at a distinct disadvantage.

Of course, that is not the dominant narrative of the report, which then goes forth and gives all the testimonies of the black leaders of the time that spouts thinly veiled black female hating nonsense, such as:

Whitney Young:

“Historically, in the matriarchal Negro society, mothers made sure that if one of their children had a chance for higher education the daughter was the one to pursue it.”32

“The effect on family functioning and role performance of this historical experience [economic deprivation] is what you might predict. Both as a husband and as a father the Negro male is made to feel inadequate, not because he is unlovable or unaffectionate, lacks intelligence or even a gray flannel suit. But in a society that measures a man by the size of his pay check, he doesn’t stand very tall in a comparison with his white counterpart. To this situation he may react with withdrawal, bitterness toward society, aggression both within the family and racial group, self-hatred, or crime. Or he may escape through a number of avenues that help him to lose himself in fantasy or to compensate for his low status through a variety of exploits.”33

The report is pretty clear that it believes that these “pathologies” began due to the three centuries of injustice and oppression, but that going forward, the burden is on the nation to strengthen black families. After it does that, blacks are on their own:

In a word, a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure. The object should be to strengthen the Negro family so as to enable it to raise and support its members as do other families. After that, how this group of Americans chooses to run its affairs, take advantage of its opportunities, or fail to do so, is none of the nation’s business.

The report is fascinating in that it both “blames the victim” and properly roots the problem in history at the same time. In 20 pages, the report gives an overview of American slavery, the failure of Reconstruction and urbanization, and shows how it has contributed to the “pathologies” it identifies. It recognizes the horrors inflicted on Black people, but consistently downplays that racism still existed in 1965 or that racism or bias has any effect on family structure, test scores, education, or crime and delinquency.

In recalling the report in the op-ed, the author of the NYTimes op-ed interestingly ends with a call to provide for the safety and well-being of children, citing some of Moynihan’s predictions about out-of wedlock births and fatherless homes. While I obviously agree with the sentiment, these days family structure is not the primary reason for why children are unprotected. A single mother could do a damn good job raising her children if she had a job that could adequately provide for them. If the criminal justice system did not disenfranchise felons, making them ineligible to live in public housing or receive student loans, then perhaps more fathers could live with their children, or get educations.

If we continue to base what’s “normal” on what white folks do, we will continue to miss what the real problems are, and continue to believe the lie that there is something “wrong” with us. There is nothing wrong with us. There is something wrong with the world we live in.

One thought on “Chasing the Jones

  1. YES, most definitely yes, there is something fundamentally wrong with the world we live in. [ETA: I read your post yesterday and coincidentally today’s “Here and Now” had a segment with a scholar, I forgot her name, who wrote a book defending the idea that the current legal system is the new Jim Crow, you probably know about it).

    I had no idea that convicted felons couldn’t qualify for public housing and/or student loans. I did know that for them getting a job is very hard too. Wow. Talk about separating families and segregating these people.

    Last year when I was working at our tiny church school three of my students didn’t know/have contact with their dad because he’s been in prison for a while. They were raised by their Puerto Rican grandmother (they’re mixed, with a Hispanic mom and AA dad) and I felt very sad for them, especially the boy, who was very angry at times. I felt like writing a letter to this guy to tell him what beautiful and amazing children he has. sigh.


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