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Black Families, Structural Racism and a Decision to Raise Social Problems to a Public Issue – Part 1
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
I read a great article in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates entitled “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration“. (Oct. 2015). I highly recommend it to readers of my blog and I hope to write more about it from my own perspectives in the future. The lengthy nine chapter article begins with a discussion of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous report, now 50 years old, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”
For those of you currently blessed with youth, Moynihan was a scholar, US ambassador, a New York State Senator and a very influential intellectual in the waning decades of the 20th Century. (It still feels odd for me to say it.) At the time he wrote his report, he was ensconced as a young career civil servant in President Johnson’s administration on the eve of passage of the civil rights bill. He was one of many invisible administration officials who work behind the scenes in every public administration in government. He would have been a colleague of Bill Moyers and Chris Matthews, all of whom were among the anonymous legions that make governance possible in every administration.
The thrust of Moynihan’s report was the premise that structural white racism caused poverty in the black community and destroyed black families through a particularly devastating impact on black males. The intractable joblessness, poverty and social impotence of black males was forcing black families to become matriarchal: a status in conflict with the rest of American society. His critique of the public welfare system centered around the fact that it reinforced this matriarchal shift while marginalizing (some would say demonizing) black fathers. He argued that the federal government was underestimating the damage that this was causing. Moynihan wrote, as quoted in the article:
“The Negro family, battered and harassed by discrimination, injustice, and uprooting, is in deepest trouble… While many negroes are moving ahead to unprecedented levels of achievement, many more are falling further and further behind.”
In his view, the marginalization and emasculation of black males, even within the black community, is the root cause, and not the symptom, of the problems that we still read about today in local news accounts. Juvenile delinquency, higher high school dropout rates, gangs, higher black on black crime rates, etc., and all symptoms of structural racism, he would argue. Moynihan went on to write:
“In a word, most Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world, and probably a majority are so entrapped. Many of those who escape do so for one generation only: as things now are, their children have to run the gauntlet all over again.”
Moynihan’s report was a prescient analysis of critical social problems that foreshadowed the accumulating impacts of structural racism, including mass incarceration and the ongoing destruction of black families today. His report made enough of an impact on Lyndon Johnson’s thinking that it was the subject of a subsequent speech that Johnson gave on the breakdown of black families in June of 1965. The speech was written, in part, by Moynihan himself. Johnson understood Moynihan’s point that white structural racism was responsible for the ongoing destruction of black families.
Johnson’s message in that speech, however, was quickly turned upside down in a social atmosphere that was in no mood to accept any blame for the plight poor black communities. The unreceptive public, and the media interpretation assigned to the Johnson’s speech, was that the root of poverty and social ills in the black community was a result of a weak black family structure, and of black males in particular.
Moynihan’s report was only an internal administration document at that time. Coates writes that Moynihan printed one-hundred copies of the report, submitted just one copy and kept the other ninety-nine copies in a safe. Moynihan had also removed from the report a whole section he had written on government policy recommendations for solving these problems. His rationale for this omission was that squabbling over proposed solutions would distract from sounding the alarm bells and raising a discussion on the plight of black families.
While the Moynihan report was not a public document at the time, internal discussions of the report spilled into the public domain and became a matter for public speculation. The false narrative that black families are responsible for their own social ills was ascribed to him and Moynihan was ridiculed by social activists for the black community. A moment had passed, the damage was done and the inverted perversion of Moynihan’s report seeped into the public consciousness despite efforts to dispel it.
Much more can be said at this point about the subsequent history of government policies and the negative impacts it has had on black families. This is covered quite well in the subsequent eight chapters on Coates’ article, and again I recommend you read it. My own experience working with public welfare families over the past three decades affirms Moynihan’s views and his criticism of the matriarchal federal public welfare system.
I hope to say more about this in the future also, but in part II of this article I want to shift gears and focus attention on that tactical decision the young Daniel Patrick Moynihan faced when he pull his policy recommendations from the original report. In doing this an important lesson may be learned about elevating a social problem to the level of a public issue within the context of the times. Where there alternatives might have been more effective? Would having raised a social problem to a public issue failed to happen if he left his proposed solutions in the original report? And what is it about the compressed and rarified air where civil servants work behind the scenes of public administrations that would cause him to lock up ninety-nine copies of his original report?
By Brian Lynch, MSW
During most of human history divine creation was the only paradigm for understanding our place in the universe. It was the grand context, the social ocean in which we lived out our lives. Human beings were divinely created in a special way that set us apart from the rest of God’s creatures. We were born, we lived and died in God’s world. There were no alternative perspectives. Our frame of reference, world view and the society in which we lived were profoundly influence by this inescapable constant. There were always questions and great disputes about nature, especially with the rise of science, but nobody seriously doubted our divine creation. Religion, and therefore religious leaders, held sway over every aspect of our social and intellectual development… that is until one reluctant scientist came to see that human beings arrived here by natural evolution and not a single act of divine creation. Charles Darwin glimpsed the profound impact his discovery would have on the world. He knew there would be unintended consequences and a contemporary backlash that would make his life difficult. He waited as long as possible before publishing “On the Origin of Species.”
At that moment a new paradigm for human understanding became inevitable. It spawned a natural view of creation and the universe that would successfully compete with mystical beliefs in a god-centered universe. It eventually opened up a vast new social space that could be occupied by those seeking an alternative to a religious view. Today we call this vast social space a secular society, but nothing like it ever existed before. It was (and can still be) liberating and wide open with possibilities that were unimaginable under the divine paradigm. It was a space where science and technology thrived. A new sense of objectivity was a direct outcome. Ethics and morality could be studied from perspectives that were independent from specific religious texts. New philosophies sprung up and took root. It allowed us to create secular institutions of learning, medicine and other scholarly disciplines . We created secular governments, secular economies, secular business corporations and all manner of social organizations not immediately related to religion. It allowed for the creation of truly pluralistic societies and more religious tolerance than the world had ever known. But it also challenged and diminished the power of religions across the globe.
The secular paradigm that has emerged is not antithetical to God or a rejection of religion or spirituality. It is just a social framework. It is a religion neutral space where individuals are free to explore spirituality, question their beliefs or challenge tenants of their faith traditions without fear of social reprisals. It also allows citizens to accept or reject a creator god. In these ways it undermines priestly traditions and the central authority of many world religions. Religious fundamentalists who view the world as either good or evil are prone to see secularism as evil.
It is almost unimaginable today to conceive of a world without a secular alternative to a totally faith based society, especially when the fault lines separating the secular and religious worlds are still so active. In my view, the growing religious fundamentalist movements around the globe are just the most recent reactions to the declining power of organized religions to effect social change. Among Christian fundamentalists, at least, Darwin’s theory of evolution still remains at the epicenter of competing beliefs, especially with respect to the belief systems to which children are exposed. So much of the polarity and apparent disconnect found in our current politics derives from these underlying tensions between the religious and the secular. In fact, many of the global conflicts today share these same roots. The denial of climate change and the mistrust of science by conservative or fundamentalist constituents are a further manifestation of this divide.
The 19th Century saw the rise of civil secularism and the 20th Century was its flowering period. Secular societies refer to themselves as the “modern world.” They are associated with the rise of free markets, powerful business corporations and the technological revolution that has transformed every aspect of modern life. The global rise of religious fundamentalism is a rejection of modernity and secularism. It is easy to see this play out in the Middle-East where Muslim fundamentalist have resorted to violence in efforts to regain control over their people and establish Shari law. Islamist groups openly reject modernity and refer to the United State, that great exporter of secular culture, as “the Great Satin.”
Here at home these same underlying tensions are hidden in plain view because our fundamentists happen to share America’s dominant religion. The rise of politically active religious conservatism should also be seen as a rejection of modernity and secularism, just as it is in the Arib world. In many Christian communities there is strong peer pressure for Christians to conform to social norms that most resemble 18th Century America. There is also a strong distrust of secular media, secular science and especially secular government. Christian fundamentalist often view the government as corrupt because it is non-thestic and therefore evil. Secular society is evil because individuals are free to reject God’s authority. They seek to change that and establish the centrality of God in government and all aspect of American life. A theocracy would not be out of the question for them. Theirs is a direct assualt on our constitutional government as it was originally intended. Out of “Christian love” the majority of American’s continue to tolerate the increasingly intolarent Christian Right.
Ironically, most Christian fundamentalists have no problem embracing godless corporations and the free market economy. Secular society has allowed capitalism to slip the bonds of religious morality. This launched a corporate movement that is currently challenging and overpowering civil control of government. Part of the reason for its success is this alliance with the Christian right. The dynamics between secular society, fundamentalist religious society and the corporate, free market elite account for most of the forces driving today’s social changes. The current government shutdown might signal the first crack in the corporate/fundamentalist alliance.
This conceptual outline of underlying social forces has helped me make sense of current events and today’s social movements. I find myself returning to these themes whenever I need to place new developments into context. I hope that other readers might find this framework as useful.