Long after the Alarm Went off; the Statistics, So Worrisome about Blacks Then, Would Eventually Describe Reality for Whites. A Third of American Births Are to Single Women

Article excerpt

Byline: Ellis Cose

Late in life, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan complained that big ideas were no longer the special province of the Democratic Party. But in the '60s, the party had big ideas aplenty. And none were bigger than those championed by Moynihan, then an assistant Labor secretary under Lyndon Johnson. After reviewing reams of statistics, Moynihan came to a startling conclusion: the Negro family was collapsing. But with a faith characteristic of the time, he conjectured that government might be able to set things right.

The so-called Moynihan Report, written 40 years ago this month, was never meant for general distribution. Its language was notably impolitic--describing, among other things, families trapped in a "tangle of pathology." When the report came out, in the aftermath of a riot in Watts that left hundreds injured and 34 dead, it set off shock waves of its own. Moynihan was denounced as insensitive, perhaps even racist. Though the "pathology" concept had originated with Kenneth Clark, a distinguished black psychologist, that did not soften the critical blows. Moynihan's daughter, Maura, 6 at the time, recalls "seeing my poor father in utter despair." She thinks she remembers him crying.

Moynihan's report died a public death--a victim of ideological politics, misleading press coverage and the report's own loaded language. Yet the truth is that Moynihan was on to something--just not precisely what he thought he was. Indeed, some of Moynihan's concerns were not so different from those that recently launched comedian Bill Cosby on a family-values crusade.

Moynihan was actually telling two stories--one about the crushing, intergenerational impact of slavery and racism, which he got pretty much right, and the other about the transformation of the family, the scope of which he got wrong. His mistake was in assuming trends that he saw in black families were somehow peculiar to the black community and that the white family was a model of stability. What he was actually seeing, as historian Stephanie Coontz puts it, was "a rehearsal for something that was going to happen in the white community."

He was alarmed that nearly a fourth of black families were headed by females and that the illegitimacy rate was climbing. In his view, this "matriarchal structure" was a major problem because it put the "Negro community... out of line with the rest of American society." Moynihan could not foresee that the statistics, so alarming about blacks, would eventually describe reality for many whites. …