The Negro Family: The Case for National Action

Image: [Daniel Patrick Moynihan, three-quarter-length portrait, seated in plastic chair, facing front, at a two-way television conference between business leaders and the Nixon administration sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce]. O'Halloran, Thomas J. (1969) Library of Congress, Miscellaneous Items in High Demand.
Race and Civil Rights
In Moynihan’s view of the black freedom revolution, what was the relation between equality of rights and equality of results? Why did he believe the decline of marriage among blacks would render impossible the achievement of equality of results? What was the “tangle of pathology” he saw as a result of the rise of single-parent (mostly father-absent) households? Why did the percentages of births to unmarried women begin to rise so rapidly in the post–World War II era? What kind of “national action” (if any) might provide a remedy for this problem?
How does Moynihan’s analysis of the primary problem compare or contrast with those of President Johnson and the Kerner Commission? Why did this problem go unmentioned in the statements of later black revolutionary groups, in particular the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter? How does Barack Obama’s assessment compare or contrast with Moynihan’s?

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Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927–2003) was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and raised in New York City. After earning a PhD from Syracuse University, he held various political and diplomatic appointments, including U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1975–76, and taught at Harvard University for brief periods in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He had a distinguished career as U.S. senator from New York, serving from 1977 to 2001.

In 1965, Moynihan was assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Labor in the Lyndon Johnson administration. In that position he authored the “Moynihan report,” as it became known, whereby he meant to make the case for extensive federal action to improve the social and economic conditions of impoverished black Americans in particular. The report’s focus on family dissolution among blacks and its characterization of conditions in urban black areas as pathological brought instant attack from left-leaning commentators, who charged Moynihan (a self-described liberal) with blaming the victims of poverty for their plight.

In assessing the report’s argument, the reader should consider that Moynihan saw cause for alarm when the incidence of black children born to unmarried mothers approached 25 percent. In recent years, however, the number of all children born in the United States to unmarried mothers has hovered around 40 percent.

—Peter C. Myers

Source: The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (Washington, DC: Office of Policy Planning and Research, U.S. Department of Labor, March 1965); available at

The United States is approaching a new crisis in race relations. . . .

In this new period the expectations of the Negro Americans will go beyond civil rights. Being Americans, they will now expect that in the near future equal opportunities for them as a group will produce roughly equal results, as compared with other groups. This is not going to happen. Nor will it happen for generations to come unless a new and special effort is made. . . .

The fundamental problem. . . is that of family structure. The evidence— not final, but powerfully persuasive—is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling. A middle-class group has managed to save itself, but for vast numbers of the unskilled, poorly educated city working class the fabric of conventional social relationships has all but disintegrated. There are indications that the situation may have been arrested in the past few years, but the general postwar trend is unmistakable. So long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself.

The thesis of this paper is that these events, in combination, confront the nation with a new kind of problem. Measures that have worked in the past, or would work for most groups in the present, will not work here. A national effort is required that will give a unity of purpose to the many activities of the federal government in this area, directed to a new kind of national goal: the establishment of a stable Negro family structure. . . .

Chapter I. The Negro American Revolution

. . .The principal challenge of the next phase of the Negro revolution is to make certain that equality of results will now follow. If we do not, there will be no social peace in the United States for generations.

The time, therefore, is at hand for an unflinching look at the present potential of Negro Americans to move from where they now are to where they want, and ought to be. . . .

. . .[T]here is a considerable body of evidence to support the conclusion that Negro social structure, in particular the Negro family, battered and harassed by discrimination, injustice, and uprooting, is in the deepest trouble. . . .
If this is so, it is the single most important social fact of the United States today. . . .

Chapter II. The Negro American Family

. . .[H]ere is where the true injury has occurred: unless this damage is repaired, all the effort to end discrimination and poverty and injustice will come to little. . . .

Nearly a quarter of Negro women living in cities who have ever married are divorced, separated, or are living apart from their husbands.

The rates are highest in the urban Northeast where 26 percent of Negro women ever married are either divorced, separated, or have their husbands absent.

On the urban frontier, the proportion of husbands absent is even higher. In New York City in 1960, it was 30.2 percent, not including divorces.

Among ever-married nonwhite women in the nation, the proportion with husbands present declined in every age group over the decade 1950–60. . . .

Although similar declines occurred among white females, the proportion of white husbands present never dropped below 90 percent except for the first and last age group.

Both white and Negro illegitimacy rates have been increasing, although from dramatically different bases. The white rate was 2 percent in 1940; it was 3.07 percent in 1963. In that period, the Negro rate went from 16.8 percent to 23.6 percent.

The number of illegitimate children per 1,000 live births increased by 11 among whites in the period 1940–63, but by 68 among nonwhites. There are, of course, limits to the dependability of these statistics. There are almost certainly a considerable number of Negro children who, although technically illegitimate, are in fact the offspring of stable unions. On the other hand, it may be assumed that many births that are in fact illegitimate are recorded otherwise. Probably the two opposite effects cancel each other out.

On the urban frontier, the nonwhite illegitimacy rates are usually higher than the national average, and the increase of late has been drastic.

In the District of Columbia, the illegitimacy rate for nonwhites grew from 21.8 percent in 1950, to 29.5 percent in 1964.

A similar picture of disintegrating Negro marriages emerges from the divorce statistics. Divorces have increased of late for both whites and nonwhites, but at a much greater rate for the latter. In 1940 both groups had a divorce rate of 2.2 percent. By 1964 the white rate had risen to 3.6 percent, but the nonwhite rate had reached 5.1 percent—40 percent greater than the formerly equal white rate.

As a direct result of this high rate of divorce, separation, and desertion, a very large percent of Negro families are headed by females. While the percentage of such families among whites has been dropping since 1940, it has been rising among Negroes.

The percent of nonwhite families headed by a female is more than double the percent for whites. Fatherless nonwhite families increased by a sixth between 1950 and 1960, but held constant for white families.

It has been estimated that only a minority of Negro children reach the age of eighteen having lived all their lives with both of their parents. Once again, this measure of family disorganization is found to be diminishing among white families and increasing among Negro families. . . .

Chapter IV. The Tangle of Pathology

. . .In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well. . . .

. . .Children today still learn the patterns of work from their fathers even though they may no longer go into the same jobs.

White children without fathers at least perceive all about them the pattern of men working. Negro children without fathers flounder—and fail. . . .

This difference in ability to perform has its counterpart in statistics on actual school performance. Nonwhite boys from families with both parents present are more likely to be going to school than boys with only one parent present, and enrollment rates are even lower when neither parent is present.

When the boys from broken homes are in school, they do not do as well as the boys from whole families. Grade retardation is higher when only one parent is present, and highest when neither parent is present. . . .

The combined impact of poverty, failure, and isolation among Negro youth has had the predictable outcome in a disastrous delinquency and crime rate. . . .

In 1960, 37 percent of all persons in federal and state prisons were Negro. In that year, 56 percent of the homicide and 57 percent of the assault offenders committed to state institutions were Negro.

The overwhelming number of offenses committed by Negroes are directed toward other Negroes: the cost of crime to the Negro community is a combination of that to the criminal and to the victim. . . .

The term alienation may by now have been used in too many ways to retain a clear meaning, but it will serve to sum up the equally numerous ways in which large numbers of Negro youth appear to be withdrawing from American society. . . .

There is a larger fact about the alienation of Negro youth than the tangle of pathology described by these statistics. It is a fact particularly difficult to grasp by white persons who have in recent years shown increasing awareness of Negro problems.

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.

Until World War II it could be said that in general the Negro and white worlds live, if not together, at least side by side. Certainly they did, and do, in the South.

Since World War II, however, the two worlds have drawn physically apart. The symbol of this development was the construction in the 1940s and 1950s of the vast white, middle- and lower-middle-class suburbs around all the nation’s cities. Increasingly the inner cities have been left to Negroes—who now share almost no community life with whites.

In turn, because of this new housing pattern—most of which has been financially assisted by the federal government—it is probable that the American school system has become more, rather than less segregated in the past two decades.

School integration has not occurred in the South, where a decade after Brown v. Board of Education only one Negro in nine is attending school with white children.

And in the North, despite strenuous official efforts, neighborhoods and therefore schools are becoming more and more of one class and one color. . . .

Along with the diminution of white middle-class contacts for a large percentage of Negroes, observers report that the Negro churches have all but lost contact with men in the northern cities as well. This may be a normal condition of urban life, but it is probably a changed condition for the Negro American and cannot be a socially desirable development.

The only religious movement that appears to have enlisted a considerable number of lower-class Negro males in northern cities of late is that of the Black Muslims:1 a movement based on total rejection of white society, even though it emulates whites more.

In a word: the tangle of pathology is tightening.

Chapter V. The Case for National Action

. . .[T]he argument of this paper does lead to one central conclusion: Whatever the specific elements of a national effort designed to resolve this problem, those elements must be coordinated in terms of one general strategy. . . .

. . .[A] national effort toward the problems of Negro Americans must be directed toward the question of family structure. The object should be to strengthen the Negro family so as to enable it to raise and support its members as do other families. After that, how this group of Americans chooses to run its affairs, take advantage of its opportunities, or fail to do so, is none of the nation’s business. . . .

  1. 1. The Nation of Islam ("The Ballot or the Bullet").
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