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The real reason research blaming black poverty on black culture has fallen out of favor

Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Douglas Graham/Getty Images

This year marks the 50th anniversary of sociologist-turned-US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 study, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Generally referred to as the Moynihan Report, it primarily blames black poverty on "ghetto culture," failure to marry, and absent black fathers, in an analysis that was instantly controversial and is still debated today.

But the report's focus on the weakening of the black nuclear family as the key explanation for racial inequality has largely fallen out of favor in academic circles. Why? Some believe liberal backlash against the report has had a chilling effect on research that focused on so-called "cultural pathologies" — versus structural issues — for problems faced by African Americans.

But University of Maryland sociologist Philip N. Cohen, author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change, says that's ridiculous. The shift in sociology to a "new, less victim-blamey perspective" about the black experience in America, Cohen wrote in a recent blog post, wasn't because liberal scholars were scared to look at black culture as a way to explain black poverty and inequality. Rather, he said, it was that they simply didn't agree those factors were the real problem.

I spoke to Cohen about why he says the narrative about liberals stifling studies like Moynihan's doesn't make sense, and how it connects to modern-day complaints about "political correctness."

Jenée Desmond-Harris: What's the origin of the idea that the backlash against the Moynihan Report scared people away from studying "cultural explanations" for black poverty and inequality, and why do you think it's wrong?

Philip N. Cohen: It's complicated, because Moynihan started his whole report saying we had hundreds of years of racial oppression that had brought us to the point he was writing at in 1965. But he went on to say that as of [that point], the main problem facing the black population was the problem of absent fathers, single mothers, and problems associated with nonstandard family structure.

To understand the reaction against it, you have to look back at what was happening in 1965: the Civil Rights Act, the transition to the black power era of the civil rights movement. ... There was a strong sense against victim-blaming attitudes already, and it crystallized among those criticizing Moynihan. It became a catalyst for people to latch onto.

So the idea that the liberal backlash squelched the report comes from the same sort of "politically correct" criticism of literature or of leftists that we have in academia today. The myth is the idea that the defenders of the black community were so vociferous and their criticism was so toxic that everyone steered away from asking hard questions like, "What if black fathers were more responsible?" and "What if black couples stayed together?"

[Sociologist] Williams Julius Wilson introduced [his 1987 book] The Truly Disadvantaged by saying no one has wanted to talk about this since [the backlash against the Moynihan report in] the 1960s and "liberal scholars shied away from researching behavior construed as unflattering or stigmatizing." That was a little bit of drama and hyperbole. It wasn't that people were afraid; it's that they didn't agree.

There was actually an explosion of research focused on black family resilience, extended families, and non-kin family networks that allowed people to survive in really harsh conditions, rather than beating up on people for not being married.

JDH: You've said that the reason for this explosion of research wasn't a backlash against the Moynihan report and harsh academic critiques, but because "history was actually happening then, too." What does this mean?

PNC: For example, the picture I put on the blog was the Breakfast for Children program that the Black Panther Party did locally. The scholars who were focused on black family resilience were not acting out of reaction to Moynihan. What was really happening was a broad movement to empower local communities and community uplift  ... that was very much an important part of the public and political discourse. The scholars who went out into communities and started writing books like All Our Kin [Carol B. Stack's 1983 book that ran counter to Moynihan's research], their work was informed by that, and they looked for ways that poor people — people in really highly poverty-concentrated ghetto cities, especially — were surviving and empowering themselves.

JDH: Who's complaining about the chilling effect of the backlash against the Moynihan Report today?

PNC: The occasion of my post was Nicholas Kristof's New York Times column. He rehashed history down to one sentence: "The taboo on careful research on family structure and poverty was broken by William Julius Wilson, an eminent black sociologist," and said since then we've really learned the importance of family structure.

The myth-making aspect of that is that of course we have always known family structure was important and that single-parent families have fewer resources, and there are obvious challenges associated with that — but as an explanation for why people are poor or why the black population is poorer than the white population, it's just not a good explanation.

JDH: You say the idea that some faction of the political left is silencing debate through "political correctness" has been revived, for example, by Jonathan Chait, who recently wrote "How the language police are perverting liberalism" for New York magazine. Do you see similar themes here as in the discussion around the Moynihan report?

PNC: "Political correctness" is an idea that what happens, especially on campuses and really anywhere college-educated people congregate, is that the rules for what people can discuss are sort of dominated by liberals and progressives, and people shut people down, use toxic accusations like "sexist" or "racist," and don't permit unorthodox attitudes. This has always been overblown, but the connection between Chait and those reviving the 1965 Moynihan Report is that in both cases [the complaints about political correctness are coming from] a conservative position that would like to describe itself as centrist and resents being pushed to the right.

JDH: What's the predominant view among social scientists now when it comes to how black communities are doing?

PNC: The predominant view now is that there is a specific condition of inner-city concentrated poverty especially in black communities, because of racial segregation and racism, and the structural conditions are very damaging to family life, family relationships. People lose jobs and housing because of incarceration, job discrimination, etc., which create real obstacles to family stability, which in turn is a challenging condition for children's development.

We have a pretty good consensus that family instability is a hurdle for children's development, but there is not a consensus that this stems from the bad decisions of people not to get married.

JDH: What are some of the best post-Moynihan studies that reflect this thinking?

PNC:  These are some favorite studies, aiming for a variety of research styles and perspectives:

Yo' Mama's Disfunktional! Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America, by Robin D.G. Kelley (1998)

Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, by Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson (2013)

No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City, by Katherine S. Newman (2000)

Unsung Heroines: Single Mothers and the American Dream, by Ruth Sidel (2006)

Slim's Table: Race, Respectability, and Masculinity, by Mitchell Duneier (1994)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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