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.

The “Moynihan Report”: 50 years of Racist Poverty-Shaming

Debates about poverty play out over a heavy sub-text of race. Competing theories assign blame either to moral and cognitive deficiencies of poor people themselves, or to greedy over-lords who unjustly exploit and suppress workers and their families. The class politics are obvious, but arguing the essential unfitness of poor people is aided immeasurably by the rhetoric and logic of racism. If made of somewhat different stuff and recognized as lesser peoples, then both exploitation and the misery they experience seem defensible, or at least unavoidable. Science defeated the hard racial argument in the middle of last century when geneticists determined that race is a biological fiction. But the concept of culture offered a workaround that retained the utility of race by substituting ethnicity. The shift to culture, instead of hard-wired traits, has appealed to liberal “third way” reform thinkers as well as those on the right, forging an odd alliance who find common ground in the hagiography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

The “culture of poverty,” a concept ironically made popular by a trio of liberal leftists in the 1960s, asserts that children raised in poverty learn failure from their upbringing and pass it on to their own children, much like inherited physical traits. Shared cultures in “ghetto” communities produce dysfunctional patterns of thought and behavior that perpetuate poverty. Oscar Lewis, anthropologist; Michael Harrington, muckraking journalist; and Daniel P. Moynihan, federal policy analyst and future politician, were the three figures who helped ignite a contentious debate early in the War on Poverty, which not coincidentally over-lapped with the Civil Rights movement.

Moynihan’s influence has been most enduring. His 1965 report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (PDF), brought this idea to the mass media in the midst of an extended urban uprising in the Watts section of LA. As an assistant secretary in Lyndon Johnson’s Department of Labor, he issued an official verdict that African American poverty was mired in a “tangle of pathology” resulting from excessive numbers of female headed households. Moynihan conceded that male unemployment unsettles marital stability, but believed that racial disparities in joblessness reflected a family structure that produced uncompetitive workers, implicitly justifying employer discrimination. Growing public unease over urban violence magnified the report’s message that African American culture was pathological.

The leaked report was followed by weeks of coverage and many extreme reactions. The government was launching a campaign to end poverty; an official report defined the problem in terms of gender, race, and culture, deflecting attention from substantive obstacles and economic problems then (and still) confronting African Americans. The report was dissected by critics and supporters alike. Moynihan’s naïve statistical inferences and reliance on limited secondary sources weakened his position and tended to discredit his thesis. Anthropologists and historians published research that contradicted his assertions. Through the 70s and early 80s, the report lost its luster. Moynihan complained periodically about the criticism he had endured over his report, claiming he had been the victim of ideological enemies on the left. It could have ended there.

The 1980s was a period of revanchism against the Great Society, backlash against what were deemed excessively liberal conditions in the preceding two decades. Under Reagan, Sen. Moynihan opposed the new harsh policies, but his earlier ideas about black poverty gained renewed support, especially from right wing commentators like Charles Murray. Also included, however, was liberal sociologist William Julius Wilson who praised Moynihan’s foresight, excoriated his critics, and instated culture into his quest to understand poverty. Wilson framed inner city poverty as the home of the “underclass” where black middle class flight had left a zone bereft of upstanding two parent families, a cultural sink lacking effective norms. Faced with wrenching industrial changes, their defective culture worsened the problems — a combination of cultural and structural causes, suggesting possible partial solutions addressing bad culture rather than unfair economics. This approach resonated with many in the Republican administration, but it also drew interest from a widening circle of academics and liberal policy analysts.

In 2007, the American Academy of Social and Political Science established an annual award in Moynihan’s name for public intellectuals of note. Their journal published a special issue titled “The Moynihan Report Revisited,” with largely praiseful articles and missing some noted critics. The Urban Institute borrowed the title for their own conference and publication [[]] that was also mainly an homage to Moynihan’s allegedly prescient contributions. In 2010 Herbert Gans, a sociologist who had written an early response to the report, revisited it in light of all the new praise for its importance. He came to the same conclusion he had 45 years earlier; it was not good research or a credible argument. He praised Moynihan’s work as a senator, but not as a scholar or early policy analyst.

Nevertheless, Moynihan’s fame as a social prophet has continued to grow and his ideas arguably have helped steer scarce poverty funding into neoliberal programs aimed at teaching poor people about the virtues of middle class culture, or forcibly displacing them for their own good. And we have spent billions more incarcerating and punishing non-violent poor people of color based on faulty perceptions of crime and risk. Both critics and supporters credit the Moynihan Report for helping shape the policy environment that ended welfare and anointed the view that poverty, race, and crime are all tied together. Alice O’Connor’s book, Poverty Knowledge, offers an incisive analysis, as described in my recent book, Blaming the Poor.

In the United States poverty and race are frequently connected in the mind’s eye, in what Joe Feagin has called the white racial frame, where facts disappear in the mist of centuries long racial conditioning, like the fact that “welfare queens” in the days before welfare was ended were overwhelmingly white. Current revivals of Moynihan’s haplessly racist caricature of immoral black single mothers and their dangerous teenaged sons disregard the fact that single motherhood has soared among all ethnic groups, especially among people with low incomes, a predictable response to dire economic conditions. It is not cultural, but structural; not racial but a reflection of class inequality and material scarcity. Moynihan was fond of saying that people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Moynihan’s sloppy research and undeservedly popular conclusion illustrates that caution very well.

Susan Greenbaum is Professor Emerita of Anthropology, University of South Florida

Mickey the Dog and Kevin the Child

In Phoenix on February, 2014 a pit bull named Mickey attacked a 5-year-old named Kevin Vicente. According to the Arizona Republic, Kevin arrived at Maricopa Medical Center “with skin and tissue ripped off his face, a broken eye socket, detached tear ducts and a fractured jaw.” Kevin “eats and breathes through tubes while awaiting a series of reconstructive surgeries. “ He is expected to have permanent and painful scarring.

It seems that Mickey has a history of violence. A few months before his attack on Kevin, Mickey killed a neighbor’s dog. According to a County Report, Kevin was playing with other children in the presence of a baby sitter. Kevin ran past Mickey, within the range of Mickey’s chain, who “caught the boy from behind, took him to the ground and attacked his face . . . Adults were present and pulled the dog off.” Accounts of the incident are mixed. A neighbor who witnessed the event said that what provoked the attack was that Kevin took one of the dog’s bones.

Dogs may bite someone who takes their bones, but what Mickey did went far beyond that. John Schill, Mickey ‘s attorney , did not seem to agree. He blames the child: “Everybody supports Mickey. . . . Everybody is taught, from the moment they walk, you do not take a bone from a dog.”

Let me get this straight, Mr. Schill: a 5 year old in the middle of play has the nerve to take a vicious dog’s bone and the dog almost kills him. Man, “that’ll teach the little brat.”

Support for Mickey has been so extraordinary that it boggles the mind. An ABC news report outlines steps taken by Mickey’s friends to save his life.

Action was brought against Mickey, asking for him to be euthanized. A Phoenix attorney stepped in on behalf of Mickey and after several months of legal battles and an outcry from tens of thousands of people on social media asking Mickey’s life be spared, a judge ruled that Mickey is indeed vicious but his life could be saved if an appropriate sanctuary could be found.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio got in the act. The details of his intervention may be found at Mickey’s cam website:

He [Arpaio] went to court on behalf of the dog and offered the judge a way to save Mickey ….the Sheriff’s Office would give Mickey a ‘life sentence’ inside Arpaio’s MASH jail (Maricopa County Sheriff’s Animal Safe House). The pit bull would be offered no parole, and no probation in exchange for taking the death sentence off the table.

Incidentally, “Cam” refers to the fact that Mickey‘s website includes live footage of the pit bull in his living area.

Although the boy’s needs are serious, the concern for him doesn’t come close to that of Mickey’s:

[A] fundraising website for Kevin and his mother [has] raised $1,179 as of Tuesday [March 11]. . .Flora Medrano [a neighbor]said Kevin’s mother, a single parent, had to quit her job to take care of her son full time. With no other family in the U.S., Medrano said, the mother needs family and emotional support — yet neither is pouring in.

The 5-year-old Latino is in pain and suffers from nightmares. “He asks me [his mother] when his scars will go away. I say I don’t know.”

Has this (white) country lost its mind? A vicious dog that mauls a 5-year-old child has a big following, a lawyer, and its own website? A sheriff gets involved in the fate of the dog, but does nothing to help a gravely injured and poor child. The little boy is blamed for being nearly killed by a vicious dog and damaged for life. But it is the dog that captures the white public’s imagination. This seems the epitome of human degeneracy.

The obvious issue of race was addressed in only one of the articles I found. Its author puts it succinctly:

I may be wrong, but I seriously doubt that the pit bull would be alive if Kevin was a little white child, whose mother spoke English fluently.

The Comeback of the Culture of Poverty (Part 2)

Note: This is the second part of a two-part series. See the first part here.

The Annals issue mentioned in previous post caps off with an article by William Julius Wilson on “Why Both Social Structure and Culture Matter in a Holistic Analysis of Inner-City Poverty.” Wilson wants to show “not only the independent contributions of social structure and culture, but also how they interact to shape different group outcomes that embody racial inequality.” At first blush this appears to be a sensible, even unassailable stance. But what is Wilson getting at with his prosaic language about the interaction of structure and culture? The answer is found several pages later:

One of the effects of living in a racially segregated, poor neighborhood is the exposure to cultural traits that may not be conducive to facilitating social mobility.

This is tantamount to blaming blacks for the racism of employers and other gatekeepers. Like Moynihan before him, Wilson has committed the sin of inverting cause and effect. He thinks that black youth are not socially mobile because of their cultural proclivities—“sexual conquests, hanging out on the street after school, party drugs, and hip-hop music.” But a far more convincing explanation is that these youth are encircled by structural barriers and consequently resort to these cultural defenses, as Douglas Glasgow argued in his neglected 1981 book, The Black Underclass. Liebow had it right when he stripped away surface appearances and put culture in its proper social and existential context:

If, in the course of concealing his failure, or of concealing his fear of even trying, [the street-corner man] pretends—through the device of public fictions—that he does not want these things in the first place and claims he has all along been responding to a different set of rules and prizes, we do not do him or ourselves any good by accepting this claim at face value.

It makes little sense to compare—as Wilson does—the culture of a pariah class with that of mainstream youth, putting aside the fact that white suburban youth also strut around in saggy pants, listen to hip-hop music, and are far more prone to drug use than are their ghetto counterparts. Wilson’s theoretical postulates about “deconcentrating poverty” have also led him to support the demolition of public housing across the nation. Is this how cultural change takes place, with dynamite, the destruction of poor communities, and the dispersal of its residents? Or do we have to transform the ghetto itself, not by reconstructing the identities of its people, but through a wholesale commitment to eliminating poverty and joblessness?

While he routinely violates his own axiom about the integral relationship between culture and social structure, Wilson injects what might be called the “culturalist caveat.” In a section on “the relative importance of structure and culture,” he concedes,

Structural factors are likely to play a far greater role than cultural factors in bringing about rapid neighborhood change.

But what structural changes does he have in mind? Despite the fact that Wilson’s signature issue for many years was jobs, jobs, jobs, since his cultural turn there has been nigh any mention of jobs. Affirmative action is apparently off the table, and there is no policy redress for the nation’s four million “disconnected youth” who are out of school and out of work.

Instead, Wilson places all his bets on education—specifically, the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a schooling and social services organization predicated on the idea that the challenge is to “take the ghetto out of the child,” much as earlier missionaries and educators sought to “take the Indian out of the child.” Wilson trumpets HCZ’s “spectacular” results, citing a study by Harvard economists Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer that purports to show that HCZ students are closing the achievement gap with students in public schools. However, these findings are based on a single class on a single test in a single year. Also, the measure of progress was scoring at “grade level” in math and reading, and as critics have pointed out, grade-level work is a weak predictor of future academic success. Furthermore, thanks to score inflation—not only prepping students for the test but also lowering the score required for achieving grade level—marks were up throughout New York on the 2007 exam, the one that Dobbie and Fryer analyzed

Never mind; the die is cast. With Wilson’s backing, the Obama administration has made HCZ the model for twenty “Promise Neighborhoods” across the nation. At best, however, HCZ is a showcase project that, even multiplied twenty times, is no remedy for the deep and widening income gap between blacks and others. At worst, the Obama administration is using it to camouflage its utter failure to address issues of racism and poverty.

The new culturalists can bemoan the supposed erasure of culture from poverty research in the wake of the Moynihan Report, but far more troubling is that these four decades have witnessed the erasure of racism and poverty from political discourse, both inside and outside the academy. The Annals issue makes virtually no mention of institutionalized racism. To be sure, there is much discussion of poverty, but not as a historical or structural phenomenon. Instead we are presented with reductionist manifestations of poverty that obscure its larger configuration.

Thus there is no thought of restoring the safety net. Or resurrecting affirmative action. Or once again constructing public housing as the housing of last resort. Or decriminalizing drugs and rescinding mandatory sentencing. Or enforcing anti-discrimination laws with the same vigor that police exercise in targeting black and Latino youth for marijuana possession. Or creating jobs programs for disconnected youth and for the chronically unemployed. Against this background, the ballyhooed “restoration” of culture to poverty discourse can only be one thing: an evasion of the persistent racial and economic inequalities that are a blot on American democracy.

The methodological reductionism that is the hallmark of the new culturalists is a betrayal of the sociological imagination: what C. Wright Mills described as exploring the intersection between history and biography. Instead, the new culturalists give us biography shorn of history, and culture ripped from its moorings in social structure. Against their intentions, they end up providing erudite justification for retrograde public policy, less through acts of commission than through their silences and opacities.

Note: Portions of this post appeared in a 2011 The Boston Review article.

Poor Reason: Culture Still Doesn’t Explain Poverty (Part 1)

Editors’ Note: Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson recently published an article in “The Chronicle Review” (Chronicle of Higher Education) in which he bemoans the fact that sociologists have not been drawn into President Obama’s special race initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper.” On this flimsy basis he trots out the claim that ever since Daniel Patrick Moynihan got pilloried for his 1963 Report on the Black Family, sociologists have shied away from cultural work dealing with black Americans out of fear that they will be accused of “blaming the victim.” This myth, originally advanced by William Julius Wilson, was thoroughly demolished by Stephen Steinberg in a 2011 piece in The Boston Review. Two excerpts from his article, which went viral after it was listed on the “Arts & Letters Daily” of the Chronicle of Higher Education, are republished here.

Part I, “Old Wine in New Bottles” shows how sociologists have repackaged discredited cultural explanations of poverty in recent decades. Steinberg’s claim is not that culture does not matter, but rather that culture is not an independent and self-sustaining cause of poverty. Poverty must be seen within the matrix of structural and institutional factors in which that culture is embedded. Part II, “The Comeback of the Culture of Poverty,” focuses on William Julius Wilson’s descent into cultural explanations of poverty, contradicting his earlier work on structural matters. In terms of social policy, Wilson has been a champion of the Harlem Children’s Zone and Obama’s Race to the Top, which provide erudite justifications for the defunding of public education and have led to the closing of important public schools in black neighborhoods across the nation.

The claim that the furor over the Moynihan report stymied research on lower-class culture for four decades is patently false. What was the massive underclass discourse of the 1980s if not old wine in new bottles—Moynihan’s culture arguments repackaged for a new generation of scholars and pundits?

As with the culture of poverty, the conception of the underclass had liberal origins. In his 1962 book Challenge to Affluence, Gunnar Myrdal borrowed a Swedish term for the lower class, underklassen, to refer to people who languished in poverty even during periods of economic growth and prosperity. This term entered popular discourse with the 1982 publication of Ken Auletta’s The Underclass, based on a series in The New Yorker.

Then, between 1986 and 1988, there was an outpouring of articles in U.S. News and World Report, The Atlantic Monthly, Fortune, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, and Time, all providing graphic and frightening portrayals of pathology and disorder in the nation’s ghettos. The image was of poverty feeding on itself, with the implication that cultural pathology was not just a byproduct of poverty but was itself a cause of pathological behavior. This was the explicit claim of a 1987 Fortune article by Myron Magnet:

What primarily defines [the underclass] is not so much their poverty or race as their behavior—their chronic lawlessness, drug use, out-of-wedlock births, nonwork, welfare dependency and school failure. ‘Underclass’ describes a state of mind and a way of life. It is at least as much cultural as an economic condition.

Social science lagged behind journalism, but by the late ’80s, with the backing of charitable foundations, a cottage industry of technocratic studies appeared charting the size and social constitution of the underclass. In his 1991 article “The Underclass Myth,” Adolph Reed noted the reinstatement of the culture-of-poverty theory during the Reagan-Bush era. The pendulum had swung so far to culture that Reed was pleading for a restoration of structure:

We should insist on returning the focus of the discussion of the production and reproduction of poverty to examination of its sources in the operations of the American political and economic system. Specifically, the discussion should focus on such phenomena as the logic of deindustrialization, models of urban redevelopment driven by real-estate speculation, the general intensification of polarization of wealth, income, and opportunity in American society, the ways in which race and gender figure into those dynamics, and, not least, the role of public policy in reproducing and legitimating them.

Reed ended on a note of personal exasperation:

I want the record to show that I do not want to hear another word about drugs or crime without hearing in the same breath about decent jobs, adequate housing, and egalitarian education.

Culturalists confuse cause and effect, arguing that lack of social mobility among black youth is a product of their culture rather than the other way around. Yet here we are, two decades later, with a special issue of a prestigious journal, the Annals, launched with fanfare and a congressional briefing, bombastically claiming that “culture is back on the policy agenda,” as though it had not been there all along. Even as the editors take up this “long-abandoned topic,” however, they are careful to distance themselves from culture-of-poverty theorists who were accused of “blaming the victim,” and they scoff at the idea that the poor “might cease to be poor if they changed their culture.” Indeed, readers are assured that “none of the three editors of this volume happens to fall on the right of the political spectrum.” Alas, the culture of poverty has not made a comeback after all. The new culturalists have learned from the mistakes of the past, and only want to study culture in the context of poverty—that is, in the selective and limited ways that culture matters in the lives of the poor.

True to form, the rest of the Annals issue is a compendium of studies informed by this “more sophisticated” conception of culture. One study examines “How Black and Latino Service Workers Make Decisions about Making Referrals.” Another explores how poor men define a “good job.” Still another ventures into the perilous waters of the black family, examining the “repertoire of infidelity” among low-income men.

The problem is less with the questions asked than with the ones left unexamined. The editors and authors are careful to bracket their inquiries with appropriate obeisance to the ultimate grounding of culture in social structure. But their research objectives, methodology, data collection, and analysis are all riveted on the role of culture. Is obeisance enough? If the cultural practices under examination are merely links in a chain of causation, and are ultimately rooted in poverty and joblessness, why are these not the object of inquiry? Why aren’t we talking about the calamity of another generation of black youth who, excluded from job markets, are left to languish on the margins, until they cross the line of legality and are swept up by the criminal justice system and consigned to unconscionable years in prison where, at last, they find work, for less than a dollar an hour, if paid at all? Upon release they are “marked men,” frequently unable to find employment or to assume such quotidian roles as those of husband or father.

Enter the sociologist, to record the agony of the dispossessed. Does it really matter how they define a “good job” when they have virtually no prospect of finding one? Does it matter how they approach procreation, how they juggle “doubt, duty, and destiny” when they are denied the jobs that are the sine qua non of parenthood? Aren’t we asking the wrong questions? Do the answers bring us any closer to understanding why this nation has millions of racial outcasts who are consigned to a social death?

Note: Portions of the post appeared in The Boston Review in 2011.

Patterns and Politics of Large-Scale Poverty

Over the last half-century, since the passage of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty, there has been a major retrenchment of efforts to help the poor. Over the last five decades, the poverty rate of the elderly dropped significantly from 37 percent in 1960 to 9 percent in 2012. Poverty dropped much more modestly for children and the workforce.

In that era, jobs were at the center of efforts to alleviate poverty. Dr. King’s monumental march on Washington on August 28, 1963, was actually called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Economic Opportunity Act, the centerpiece of the war against poverty, sought to provide work and education for the needy to improve their lives.

Fifty years later, major educational gaps continue to distinguish the poor and non-poor members of the labor force. For example, one-fourth of the poor did not have a high school diploma in 2012 compared to nearly one-tenth of the non-poor. Further, the non-poor are three times more likely to be college graduates than the poor.

According to census public-use data for 1960 and 2012, the poverty rate of the U.S. workforce fell only slightly, from 14 percent in 1960 to 10 percent in 2012 — a mere 4 percentage points over 52 years. While the poverty gap between the minority and white workforce narrowed over the last five decades, black and Latino workers are still about 2.5 times more likely than whites to be impoverished today.

In fact, the poverty rate of the black labor force (17.2 percent) and the Latino labor force (16 percent) in 2012 was higher than that of whites (10.6 percent) in 1960.

Even more disturbing is the ballooning of the unemployment gap between the U.S. poor and non-poor workforce. While the poor were about 2.5 times more likely than the non-poor to be without a job in 1960, the unemployment gap increased to more than 4.5 times today. In 2012, 32 percent of the nation’s poor labor force was unemployed compared to 7 percent of the non-poor workforce. It is likely that the unemployment rate is actually higher, especially among the destitute, due to people leaving the labor force after lengthy periods of unsuccessful job searches.

The unemployment gap between the poor and non-poor was particularly wide among whites, where the white poor (30 percent) were five times as likely to be without a job compared to the white non-poor (6 percent) in 2012. Nonetheless, many impoverished people in the country are searching for employment. Indeed, the unemployment rate of the poor varied widely in 2012 from 43 percent among blacks to 30 percent among whites to 26 percent among Latinos.

However, among the poor, it is Latino immigrants who have the lowest unemployment rate (20 percent). This challenges notions that Latino immigrants come to the United States to live off the largesse of social services. In fact, Latino immigrants are more likely to be employed than other workers. In addition, Latino immigrants among the working poor are more likely than other impoverished employees to work longer hours and to hold jobs that are the least rewarded and desired.

Of course, a job does not ensure that the poor get out of poverty. Indeed, nearly 70 percent of the poor who are in the labor force are working. While the portion of U.S. workers who are poor declined from 1960 to 2000, there has been a reversal since. In 2012, about one of every 14 U.S. workers was in poverty. But being among the working poor is especially likely among workers of color. About one of nine black workers is poor, one in 10 native-born Latinos, and one in six Latino immigrants.

A lot has changed since the eve of the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act in 1964. The economy then was one in which manufacturing provided a good living for many Americans who had a high school diploma or less. Over the next few decades, such jobs shifted to the hands of workers abroad who toiled for a mere pittance of the pay of American workers. U.S. labor unions saw a major drop in membership and in bargaining power. The American economy increasingly took the shape of an hourglass where job growth expanded at the highest and lowest levels of the job hierarchy. The middle class progressively shrank.

The latest economic crisis has taken a toll on so many people, many of whom had never been poor before. Many people who are working today are still destitute and still others among the poor are desperately looking for employment. Increasingly, our society consists of a small elite body that controls an expanding share of wealth and income and a growing population of disadvantaged people whose sliver of resources is being whittled down.

In the mid-1960s, President Johnson passionately etched the face of the poor on the American consciousness and forcefully pushed for the establishment of policies to improve the lives of people on the margins. A half-century later, there is a stark absence of political leaders who see the poor as a priority.

Today, Republican-led policies, with relatively little resistance from Democrats, are escalating the war against the poor. Instead of creating opportunities to better the lives of the needy, legislators blame the poor for their dire straits. Congress has slashed food stamp allocations, terminated unemployment payments and thwarted the increase of the minimum wage for people viewed as too powerless to matter.

Over the last half-century, there has not been a more desperate time than today for visionary leaders who boldly push for the establishment of opportunities to improve the lot of our nation’s poor.

This commentary was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News.

Sacrificing Their Own: Republican Abandonment of the White Poor in the Obama Era

Congressional Republicans, through their mean-spirited political agenda, are increasingly abandoning many of their loyal supporters at the time of their greatest need.

In the prolonged economic crisis that has devastated so many lives in its path, victims of policies to cut food stamps and unemployment benefits, nullify Obamacare, and shut down the federal government go beyond those who have been traditionally relegated and abandoned on the margins of society, namely folks of color.

Increasingly rank-and-file whites are being crushed by Republican miserliness. These are individuals who have long identified with the Republican party — people who have always seen themselves as the salt of the earth, people who made America what it is, people who played by the rules.

The white poor and near-poor represent collateral damage in Republican efforts to satisfy its voracious appetite to sink the Obama presidency.

Whites represent the majority of U.S. adults who stand to lose through Republican-led policies designed to gash the safety net in opposition to Obamacare in these trying times. For example, according to the 2011 American Community Survey, whites represented 53 percent of households receiving food stamps, 57 percent of adults without health insurance, 59 percent of the unemployed, and 57 percent of the adult poor. Whites also accounted for nearly two-thirds of federal workers, a group comprising a large chunk of the 800,000 workers laid off and the more than a million who will be asked to work without compensation as the federal government is now shut down.

To make matters worse, whites in red states are more likely than those in blue states to draw food stamps, to lack health insurance, to hold a federal job, and to be poor. Put simply, the white poor in red states are being hurt by the folks that they helped put in office.

It is obvious many Republicans, especially those in the House, are more interested in sabotaging the Obama presidency, making sure that Obamacare is halted, and in supporting the interests of the rich and powerful than they are in assisting needy whites — not to mention poor people in general — during a period that has put many in deep financial straits.

Just as Democrats have long ignored the interests and needs of their African-American, Latino and poor constituents, it is clear that Republicans are taking their strapped white supporters for granted.

This commentary was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News.

Reading for National Dialogue on Race Day

The  National Dialogue on Race Day happening later today at Tufts University Center for the Study of Race and Democracy hosted by Prof. Peniel Joseph will focus on three broad themes and questions. In anticipation of the event, we’ve selected a few previous posts from the six years of blogging here that touch on these topics.

50 Years after the March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom: How Far Have we Progressed as a Nation in Achieving Dr. King’s Dream of Multicultural and Multiracial Democracy?

 Trayvon Martin, Mass Incarceration, and the public school to prison crisis

Race and Democracy in the 21st Century: What does racial integration, justice, and equality mean in contemporary America and how can we shape and impact this dialogue in our respective communities, nationally and globally?

Read up and join the conversation! You can participate lots of ways, by commenting here, by watching the livestream from Tufts (beginning at 7pm ET) or through Twitter at the hashtag #NDRD.

Sweden: No Longer the Exception to Western Racist Rule

Authored by Tobias Hübinette and L. Janelle Dance

Since May 20, 2013, mass vandalism, material damage and outbursts of rioting in the poor and non-white suburbs of Greater Stockholm have dominated Swedish and international news media. This civil unrest was sparked when, on May 12, the police shot and killed a 69-year-old man from Husby, one of the marginalized suburban communities of metropolitan Stockholm. The shooting is still under investigation. The burning of cars, other types of arsons, and attacks on the police erupted in Husby on the evening of May 19th and quickly spread to many other similar suburbs of Greater Stockholm such as Fittja, Tensta, Flemingsberg, Hjulsta, Jakobsberg, Hagsätra, Rågsved, Skärholmen and Skogås. As we write this post, after six nights of uninterrupted suburban unrest, the vandalism and the violence have also spread to other Swedish cities like Gothenburg, Örebro and Linköping. Although the US and UK embassy warnings to keep out from such districts are clearly exaggerated—the scale of the unrest cannot be compared to similar previous waves of riots in for example the US, the UK or France—a feeling of a serious social crisis is gaining ground in the political debate as leading government officials and the Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt urge a stop to the material damage.

This is not the first time that Sweden is experiencing a series of riots; the last time was between 2008-09. However, it is arguably the first time when voices from the suburbs are entering the public debate as a new nascent social movement. At the helm of this movement, which has gained the spotlight in recent years, are teens and young adults who are also usually born and raised in Sweden (the so-called second generation). More than ever before, these youth are denouncing police harassment, the declining social welfare services in the suburbs and the dramatically increasing disparities between rich and poor—a development which is heavily racialized as the proportion of poor white Swedes is below 5% while the proportion of poor Swedes of color hovers around 35-45%. Representatives from this movement have, for example, alerted the media to the use of racial slurs among the police who patrol the suburbs, and above all they have been able to express an unprecedented analysis of a New Sweden, which is becoming heavily polarized along racial lines.

For decades Sweden has proudly viewed itself as the most progressive country in the world, as “the conscience of the world”. Furthermore, Sweden’s antiracist image and radical anti-discrimination, migration and integration legislation are well known all over the world. However, recently Sweden has also become the OECD country showing the highest difference in unemployment between foreign-born and native-born Swedes, while its big- and mid-size cities are characterized by one of the most extreme ethno-racial residential segregation patterns in the Western world. Thus, it is not in the context of the old Sweden of exceptionalism but in the wake of the New Sweden of exclusion that we must understand the frustration, the desperation and the rage that can be found particularly among young people in the suburbs. This second generation has grown up in Sweden but due to stigmatized postal addresses and “non-Swedish” appearances they are not accepted within the majority society at large, without taking into account these worrying statistical correlations.

There are also other political groups that are exploiting the current suburban unrest. A fact overlooked by the media is that these other groups do not live in the suburbs yet exacerbate the unrest. While ignoring these instigators, the media focuses on spectacular videos and photos of burning buildings and cars and policemen fighting with youngsters. Firstly, there are indications that white Swedish leftist activists have encouraged and participated in the riots, something that also happened in 2008-09. Their sole political agenda is to sustain and encourage even more social antagonism at the expense of an even stronger stigmatization of the poor and non-white suburbs among the white majority population. Furthermore, Swedish extreme right-wing activists are also active in the events by portraying themselves as “ordinary Swedes” who want to help the police as “citizen guards”, a popular yet loaded discourse that the media all too often buy into. Saturday night for example, around 200 Nazi activists more or less invaded Tumba in Southern Botkyrka in the southern part of Greater Stockholm, and started to hunt down and beat up any youngster who was deemed to be a “rioter”.

However for ordinary white Swedes reading and watching the news it is highly probable that all the inhabitants in the suburbs are associated with violence and rioting. In the end, the Sweden Democrats (a former Nazi party which has transformed itself into a populist anti-immigration party and which, according to opinion polls, is the fourth or the third largest party in Sweden) will maybe become the biggest political winner due to the suburban unrest. Now, the Sweden Democrats will most probably gain even more support among the voters. Of course, representatives from the party have already made use of the events by calling for stronger police interventions and the introduction of temporary state of emergency measures in certain urban districts.

Once “exceptional” Sweden is no longer the exception to the general Western rule of blaming the racialized victim. On the contrary, white Swedes are remarkably unexceptional as they behave like racist and conservative white Americans. Ordinary white Swedes, who claim to embrace antiracism, equality and social democracy, look at the riots in Stockholm and blame marginalized youths for the institutional discrimination, political marginalization, and structural racism that have become common place in the former “conscience of the world”.

Tobias Hübinette is an Associate Professor and researcher at the Multicultural Centre in Botkyrka, Sweden. L. Janelle Dance is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska and a visiting scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. Dance is currently living in Sweden.

Critiques of Richwine: Not Attacks on Academic Freedom

Jason Richwine’s dissertation
has provoked a firestorm in the media. Many people find it shocking that Harvard professors would approve a dissertation that argues that Hispanics have lower innate intelligence than native-born whites.

More than 1200 Harvard students demanded an investigation into the “racist claims” made in Richwine’s dissertation and have called for a public response from Harvard’s Kennedy School. Additionally, over 1200 scholars have signed a statement in opposition to scientific racism – the use of science to argue that a racialized group is inferior.

Richwine denies the charges of racism and claims he never argued that any group is inferior to another. In his dissertation, Richwine contended that Hispanics have lower innate IQs than native-born whites, and that this disparity is likely to persist across generations. This claim fits a widely-accepted definition of racism – understood as an ideology that certain racialized groups are inherently inferior to others, and that they will pass down these traits to their children.

The question for academics, however, is whether or not the public outcry with regard to the Richwine dissertation is an assault on academic freedom, as Jeff Jacoby claimed at the Boston Globe on Wednesday. I believe the critiques of Richwine do not constitute an attack on academic freedom and I will explain why I think that Harvard professors should not have guided and approved Richwine’s dissertation.

Before I begin, I will clarify that it is within my right to critique a dissertation and to critique my colleagues at Harvard. How could it not be? I critique and evaluate scholarship every day as part of my job as an academic. Now, let’s look at the dissertation.

Richwine provides data that shows that Hispanic immigrants have lower IQ scores than native-born whites. This data is fairly uncontroversial and not novel. If a student came to me and asked me to work with them on a dissertation that examines why Hispanic immigrants have lower IQ scores than native-born whites, I would likely agree to work with them. The question of why Hispanics’ IQ scores are lower than white Americans is a valid academic question and worthy of academic debate.

There are many reasons for these disparities, and there are many statistical manipulations you could do to figure out why Hispanic immigrants have low IQ scores. Richwine, however, was not interested in why they have low IQs. This is a central problem with his work – he does not conduct empirical analyses on why the disparities exist. IQ scores are designed to have an average score of 100. By definition, some people have to do better than others. The finding that some people do better than others is not at all interesting in an academic debate. What is interesting is why people or certain groups of people do better or worse. The reasons for the disparities are extremely varied and have to do with how the tests are designed, what the tests measure, and a host of environmental and educational factors.

Instead of looking into why some people do better than others on IQ tests, Richwine uses other studies to argue that there is most likely a genetic component to their low IQ scores. Richwine reviews some of the literature surrounding intelligence testing, and concludes that substantial indirect evidence exists that IQ differentials are genetic. Thus, although his argument does not hinge on IQ differences being genetic, it does hinge on the disparities being persistent. Attributing these differences to genetics helps his arguments.

In his dissertation, Richwine also fails to contend to any extent with what it means to be Hispanic. He simply takes it at face value that Hispanics are those people who claim to be Hispanic. This way of defining Hispanic would be acceptable. However, when you make the claim that the IQ disparities between whites and Hispanics are due to genetics, then, you have to define what Hispanic means. Otherwise, you leave wide open the question of how one could make the claim that Hispanics have anything in common genetically with one another. For me, this continues to be an enormous unanswered question. How could anyone possibly think that Hispanics share a genetic makeup?

Richwine then provides data that shows that Latin American countries are “low IQ countries” – so it is not the case that only low IQ people emigrate, but that Latin America is filled with low IQ people (68). Richwine claims that it may be the case that Latin Americans have low IQ scores because of material deprivation, but that could not be the only answer, as their IQ scores do not improve once they come to the United States, which is a richer country. This section is problematic because the relative material deprivation of Hispanics compared to non-Hispanic whites is not something we can ignore. To cite one piece of evidence for this, 35% of Hispanic children live in poverty, as compared to 12% of white children. There is no doubt that these disparities contribute to IQ score differentials.

Richwine provides data that shows that European immigrants’ scores have improved over time, but that those of Hispanic immigrants have not. Because Hispanics’ IQs have not improved over time in the past, he contends they will not improve in the future. Of course, if the material environment does not improve for Hispanics (which, by many measures, it has not), we would not expect for IQ scores to improve.

He concludes by arguing that IQ scores should be a factor in immigration policy. He makes this argument without recognizing the racialized history of both US immigration policy and intelligence testing. US immigration policy has a long history of being overtly racist – one of the first immigration laws ever passed was the Chinese Exclusion Act. The 1924 Immigration Act was designed specifically to reduce immigration from Eastern Europe and to all but eliminate immigration from Africa and Asia. Ignoring this history in a policy dissertation is problematic. The suggestion that we incorporate IQ scores into immigration policy is not innocuous because it reeks of eugenics – of the United States attempting to build a county with the most intellectually fit people from around the world.

When Richwine first approached professors at Harvard about his topic, he would have had to discuss what he was measuring, what literature he planned to use, and how he would formulate his policy-based arguments. I continue to find it hard to believe that his dissertation chair would have approved a study that simply shows IQ disparities without doing any data analysis into why those disparities exist. I also believe that his chair should have told him that he needed to contend with the racist history of US immigration policy. Finally, his advisors should have told him a dissertation could not rely on discredited publications by Charles Murray and J. Philippe Rushton – both of whom have spent much of their careers trying to prove the intellectual inferiority of blacks and Latinos.

In sum, I continue to find it appalling that three Harvard professors guided and approved a dissertation that attributed IQ to genetic differences without seriously engaging the accompanying issues and that made policy recommendations that sound similar to eugenics policies without any acknowledgement of the similarities. Pointing this out is not an attack on academic freedom. It is an exercise of academic freedom.