The Untold Story of the Moynihan Report

The 50th anniversary of the Moynihan report has unleashed another round of contentious debates between critics and defenders of the report. For all the sound and fury over half a century, as far as I know nobody has asked the obvious question: what prompted Daniel Patrick Moynihan to undertake a study of “the Negro family” in the first place? After all, Moynihan was a political scientist with a Ph.D. in International Economics, who at the time was a young and obscure assistant secretary in the Department of Labor. What did he know about “the Negro family” and what relevance did this have for his work at the Department of Labor? And where did Moynihan find the intellectual fodder for his report on “The Negro Family”?

“Deep Throat,” the pseudonym for the informant on the Watergate break-in, famously told Woodward and Bernstein, the reporters for the Washington Post, to “follow the money.” The academic equivalent of this dictum is to “follow the endnotes.” The name that keeps popping up in the 61 endnotes to the Moynihan Report is Nathan Glazer, Moynihan’s co-author of Beyond the Melting Pot, published two years earlier. Actually, Moynihan only wrote the chapter on “The Irish.” Glazer wrote the chapters on “The Negroes,” “The Jews,” “The Italians,” and “The Puerto Ricans.” The theoretical framework for the book, reflecting Glazer’s imprint, forebode an evolving discourse around a culture of poverty that putatively prevented poor blacks from lifting themselves out of poverty. Stripped away of its obfuscating language, Beyond the Melting Pot shifted the focus of analysis and public policy away from the societal institutions that produce and perpetuate racial inequalities, and instead located the causes of poverty on the poor themselves. As Moynihan wrote in the report:

At this point, the present tangle of pathology is capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world. The cycle can be broken only if these distortions are set right.

Let us review the Glazer endnotes in sequence:

Endnote #3. At the outset of the Report, Moynihan splices the difference between equality of opportunity and equality of results, attaching the following endnote: “For a view that present Negro demands go beyond this traditional position, see Nathan Glazer, “Negroes and Jews: The Challenge to Pluralism,” Commentary (December 1964), pp. 29-34.

Endnote #5. In the body of the report, Moynihan quotes Glazer as follows: “The demand for economic equality in now not the demand for equal opportunities for the equally qualified: it is now the demand for equality of economic results . . . The demand for equality in education . . . has also become a demand for equality of results, of outcomes.” Reference is again to Glazer’s 1964 article, “Negroes and Jews: The Challenge to Pluralism.” Elsewhere in that article Glazer, says flat-out that black demands for preferential hiring and the rhetoric of equal results constitute a threat “to the kind of society in which Jews succeeded and which Jewish liberalism considers desirable.” Hence, the subtitle: “The Challenge to Pluralism.”

Endnote #7. In the report, Moynihan writes that “important differences in family patterns surviving from the age of the great European immigration to the United States” account for “notable differences in the progress and assimilation of various ethnic and racial groups.” The source? Glazer’s analysis of Jews and Blacks in Glazer and Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot (Cambridge 1963), pp. 290-291.

Endnotes #12, 13 and14 refer to Glazer’s Introduction to a controversial book by Stanley Elkins, Slavery (1963), in which in which Elkins compares slavery to the concentration camps in terms of the psychic damage inflicted upon its victims. Glazer cites the prevalent depiction of the slave in the South as “childlike, irresponsible, incapable of thought or foresight, lazy, ignorant, totally dependent upon his master, happy.” However, the stereotype and the factual reality of this designation are fuzzy, and the reader is left to wonder if Glazer is implying, albeit with scholarly circumspection, that the cultural legacy of slavery and the damage it inflicted on “the black psyche” is part of the reason that black children do poorly in school today.

Endnotes 18, 19, and 20 refer to Glazer’s Foreword to a new edition of E. Franklin Frazier’s The Negro Family in the United States. Glazer contends that Frazier’s 1939 book “has lost nothing in immediacy and relevance.” However, he selects passages that serve his argument concerning the dysfunctional black family, and blurs the main contours of Frazier’s study. According to Anthony Platt, Frazier’s biographer, Frazier sought to correct the bias of existing studies that, in Frazier’s words, “have most often dealt with the pathological side of family life and have become the basis of unwarranted generalization, concerning the character of the whole group.” Indeed, Platt takes direct aim at Moynihan:

Although he [Frazier] regarded instabilities in family life as a tremendous impediment to social and racial equality, he found it almost impossible to separate family from other institutions, and certainly he did not subscribe to the view that disorganized family life was the chief handicap of the black community, no matter how much Burgess, Moynihan, and others attributed this view to him.

Endnote #60 references Moynihan’s claim in the text that “the present generation of Negro youth growing up in the urban ghettos has probably less personal contact with the white world than any generation in the history of the Negro American.” The source: Glazer and Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot.

These ten endnotes add up to something: Nathan Glazer was the proverbial invisible hand behind the Moynihan Report. Glazer provided much of the source material, if not the inspiration, for what came to be known as “The Moynihan Report.”

Let me be clear: my point is not that Moynihan was guilty of any malfeasance in heavily relying on his coauthor and friend, Nathan Glazer. On the contrary, Moynihan and his team of researchers deserve credit for scrupulously citing their sources. Nevertheless, it is striking how much of the Moynihan Report relies on a single source. Indeed, Glazer says as much in a recent interview for a special issue of Education Next, published by the Hoover Institution, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report. To quote Glazer:

Moynihan collaborated with me on the book Beyond the Melting Pot in the early 1960s, an experience that may have done a good deal to orient him to family problems and family structure, which I emphasized to him in explaining the idea of the book. I was at that time strongly influenced by the culture-personality school of anthropology, which placed great weight on early family influences.

The crucial issue is not establishing authorship of the Moynihan Report, but rather assessing its significance in the context in which it was published. With the passage of the landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, the movement had achieved its legislative objectives. In his famous speech at Howard University in June 1965, President Johnson gave his endorsement to a “next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights” and had planned a conference “To Fulfill These Rights.” Once the Moynihan Report was leaked to the press, presumably by Moynihan himself, it became the subject of a furious public controversy that postponed the conference and killed any chance of Johnson’s plan for “a next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights” of coming to fruition. Thus, the larger question is whether the Moynihan Report had derailed the civil rights revolution at this critical juncture in its history.

Note: This is based on a longer article in July-August issue of the Boston Review.


  1. Earl Smith

    There are a lot of commentaries out on the 50th anniversary of the “Moynihan Report.” Of those that I have read, Prof. Stephen Steinberg’s is the best. There are also numerous versions of the “Moynihan Report” itself some of these are now on-line, some as book chapters and of course the original pamphlet. I am not sure which version Prof. Steinberg is citing but would like to offer a comment here that my original reading of the “Moynihan Report” had just as many–if not more–references to the family research of Prof. E. Franklin Frazier as Prof. Steinberg points to Prof. Nathan Glazer. Hence, Frazier had as much input into the “Moynihan Report” as any other scholar. Thanks for this update; well done!

  2. Stephen Steinberg Author

    Thanks for your comment. The version of the Moynihan Report that I used is the original text, printed in its entirety in Lee Rainwater and William L. Yancey, THE MOYNIHAN REPORT AND THE POLITICS OF CONTROVERSY (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1967).

    Among the 61 citations, there are 10 to Glazer (including Glazer & Moynihan’s BEYOND THE MELTING POT) and 6 to Frazier. Among those seven, three are to THE NEGRO FAMILY IN THE UNITED STATES and two to BLACK BOURGEOISIE. Note that Glazer published a foreword to a revised and abridged edition of THE NEGRO FAMILY in 1966.

    The key issue, however, is whether Moynihan is accurately quoting his sources or only selecting passages that serve his argument. If you refer to the full version of my piece in the Boston Review, I quote Anthony Platt, Frazier’s biographer, as saying that Frazier sought to correct the bias of studies that “have most often dealt with the pathological side of family life and have become the basis of unwarranted generalization, concerning the character of the whole group.” Not only that, but Platt takes direct aim at Moynihan for misrepresenting Frazier’s viewpoint. According to Platt, Frazier “found it almost impossible to separate the family from other institutions, and certainly he did not subscribe to the view that disorganized family life was the chief handicap of the black community.”

    As for the two references to BLACK BOURGEOISIE, Moynihan was taking comfort that these middle-class families were, “if anything, more patriarchal and protective of its children than the general run of such families.” And therefore, “need no help from anyone, and ask none.” I rather think that Frazier would be turning in his grave at this gross misrepresentation of his scholarship to validate Moynihan’s screed.

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