Academic journal article Boston University Law Review

Historicizing the "End of Men": The Politics of Reaction(s)

Academic journal article Boston University Law Review

Historicizing the "End of Men": The Politics of Reaction(s)

Article excerpt

In fact, the most distinctive change is probably the emergence of an American matriarchy, where the younger men especially are unmoored, and closer than at any other time in history to being obsolete ....

- Hanna Rosin1

In 1965 a Labor Department official named Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a report entitled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (the Moynihan Report), intended only for internal Johnson Administration use but quickly leaked to the press.2 Designed to motivate the President and his deputies to launch massive federal employment and anti-poverty initiatives directed at impoverished African Americans, Moynihan's report inadvertently sparked a sometimes vitriolic debate that reverberated through the next half century of social policy.3 Characterized as everything from a "subtle racist"4 to a "prescient"5 prophet, Moynihan and his assessment of black urban family life have been endlessly analyzed, vilified, and rehabilitated by commentators in the years since his report identified a "tangle of pathology" that threatened the welfare and stability of poor African American communities.6 At the center of the "pathology" Moynihan lamented was a "matriarchal" family structure characterized by "illegitimate" births, welfare dependency, and juvenile delinquency.7 Until "Negro males" reclaimed their proper place as breadwinning heads of households, Moynihan's report suggested, poverty, violence, and dysfunction would mar the hard-won progress of the civil rights movement and deepen the chasm between black and white Americans.8 Using overheated rhetoric designed to capture the attention of policymakers, the Moynihan Report essentially forecast the "end of men" in inner-city Black America.

Many liberal commentators and civil rights leaders excoriated the Moynihan Report for its unflattering picture of black family life, and interpreted Moynihan's focus on family structure, somewhat unfairly, as a rejection of structural, institutional, and economic explanations for poverty and racial inequality.9 But Moynihan's concerns about the growing number of "female- headed households" and the concomitant "emasculation" of African American men reflected a long-lived consensus within the liberal and civil rights establishments that a male-breadwinner/female-homemaker model of household political economy was integral to racial progress.10 Moynihan's diagnosis of the "pathology" inherent in female household leadership was not new; indeed, prominent black scholars, such as sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, and civil rights leaders, such as Whitney Young, had long made similar observations about the deleterious effects of family breakdown and female dominance on racial uplift.11 For these commentators, the rise of women within black families - Negro women's allegedly superior educational attainments and job prospects - necessarily entailed the end of men. Moynihan and his liberal critics also agreed on the appropriate remedy: that government policy and resources be focused on improving the employment prospects of Negro men with an eye toward reinstating them as primary breadwinners in marital households.12 Implicitly or explicitly, this vision entailed African American women marrying, withdrawing from the labor market, and staying home to care for children without relying on public assistance. With urban unrest seizing American cities in the months and years after the Moynihan Report's release, restoring black male breadwinners seemed imperative not only for the fight against poverty but for social stability and peace.13

Many civil rights leaders and social critics to the left of Moynihan assailed his report for depicting black families as pathological rather than resilient, for feeding stereotypes about black inferiority, and for distorting the magnitude of racial differences in family structure.14 But few commentators questioned his underlying premise: the "end of men" and the "rise of women" went hand in hand, and both developments were problematic. …

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