Politics & Policy

Most Americans Expect a Long, Hot Summer of Racial Unrest. Moynihan Would Not Be Surprised.

Protesters march in Baltimore in April. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

It’s hard to get 96 percent of people to agree on anything, but last month’s Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that 96 percent of those surveyed believe we are in for a summer of racial unrest. In the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore, it’s time for some reflection on how we got here.

This year marks two significant anniversaries. In August 1965, the Watts riots broke out in Los Angeles, leading to 34 deaths and $300 million in property damage. Coming after the passage of well-intentioned Great Society welfare programs, the riots made clear that government spending wasn’t going to solve all the problems of urban America.

Indeed, another 50th anniversary we mark this year is that of a seminal work that helped explain why government would be no panacea: Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “The Negro Family: A Call for National Action.” Published in 1965 and known as “the Moynihan Report,” it burst many bubbles of liberal thinking.

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After analyzing reams of relevant social-science research, Moynihan concluded that the decline of the two-parent family was fueling the growth of poverty and unemployment, and leading to rising crime rates in black neighborhoods and schools without discipline.

“At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community at the present time,” Moynihan argued. Families that consisted solely of single female parents weakened the role of black men as authority figures in the lives of children. Moynihan also warned: “The steady expansion of welfare programs, as of public assistance programs in general, can be taken as a measure of the steady disintegration of the Negro family structure over the past generation in the United States.”

Sadly, as soon as Moynihan’s report was leaked to the media, it came under withering assault from his fellow liberals. Civil-rights leader Floyd McKissick angrily attacked it: “My major criticism of the report is that it assumes that middle-class American values are the correct values for everyone in America. . . . Moynihan thinks that everyone should have a family structure like his own.” Facing such criticism, President Lyndon Johnson, in his famous June 1965 speech on poverty, ignored Moynihan’s call to support policies that promote family stability. What a lost opportunity.

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Monynihan issued his warning as the out-of-wedlock birth rate among blacks hit 25 percent. Today, the problem Moynihan identified has grown much larger and sprawls across many more demographic groups, as scholar Charles Murray showed in Coming Apart, his 2013 book on poor white neighborhoods. In 1965, the out-of-wedlock birth rate among whites was just 3 percent. Now it is 29 percent, well beyond the tipping point Moynihan was alarmed by in the black community 50 years ago. The number of out-of-wedlock births has hit 72 percent among blacks and 53 percent among Hispanics.  

Unfortunate choices often have puzzling and bad consequences. One of the legacies of the Moynihan Report is a graph called “Moynihan’s scissors.” One line sloping downward depicted the reduction in minority unemployment rates in the very prosperous 1960s. The other line — sloping upward — depicted the simultaneous increase of the number of new welfare recipients. As columnist George Will has written:

The broken correlation of improvements in employment and decreased welfare dependency was not just bewildering, it was frightening. Policymakers had long held a serene faith in social salvation through better economic incentives and fewer barriers to individual initiative. The possibility that the decisive factors are not economic but cultural — habits, mores, customs — was dismaying because it is easier for government to alter incentives and remove barriers than to alter culture.

We cannot ignore culture. “The poverty rate among black married couples has been in single digits every year since 1994,” the economist Thomas Sowell has noted. “Behavior matters and facts matter, more than the prevailing social visions or political empires built on those visions.”

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Some liberals have dared to point out the consequences of the decline of the two-parent family. Even President Obama has tiptoed into the subject:  ”We’ve got single moms out here, they’re heroic what they’re doing, and we’re so proud of them,” he said in a speech in 2013. “But at the same time, I wish I had had a father who was around and involved.”

Some liberals have dared to point out the consequences of the decline of the two-parent family. But woe unto conservatives who bring up the subject.

But woe unto conservatives who bring up the subject. When House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan brought up the relevance of Moynihan’s findings today, leftists slapped him down hard and demanded he apologize. “The real goal for Paul Ryan and his ilk is political self-aggrandizement by ginning up white racism against ‘those people’ in order to advance policies that hurt the majority of Americans,” blasted Chauncey DeVega at the liberal blog Alternet. Ryan and Will, he wrote, were nothing more than “poverty pimps.”

Other Democrats seem woefully ignorant about what Moynihan’s warnings mean for us today. At an April hearing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Manhattan Institute scholar Heather Mac Donald testified that while unjustified police shootings were an outrage, the problem of the black crime rate was an equal problem “at the very least.” “There are young black men who are being killed at ten times the rate of white and Hispanic young men combined,” she said. “Any discussion of policing crime and race cannot ignore the black crime rate, and if you want to look at causes, I think family breakdown is . . . the most salient.”

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Commissioner Karen Narasaki, an Obama appointee, promptly dismissed Mac Donald’s analysis. “Communities need to feel like they’ve been treated fairly, and at some point it doesn’t actually matter whether the reality is of what police are doing. The perception becomes reality, and that’s what we have to address. So I don’t want to engage on that. I have other questions that I want to ask, but I just wanted to lay that out. And I’m sorry that I’m not giving you a chance [to respond].” When another commissioner objected that Mac Donald wasn’t being given a chance to respond, the commission ignored her and went on to other matters.

We engage in such ostrich-like behavior at our peril. Gregory Acs, a scholar at the progressive Urban Institute recently released a new review of the findings of the Moynihan Report. In a podcast for NPR, he discussed some of the conclusions in his review, warning: “If we let kids grow up in poverty, in single families, going to bad schools, they’re going to grow up to become dependent adults. The cycle will just repeat.”

Let’s hope that, contrary to the fears of people have expressed in recent public-opinion polls, the cycle of social unrest we saw in Watts, Detroit, and Newark in the 1960s isn’t repeated this summer.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for National Review Online.

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