Monday, July 19, 2010

Blaming the victim

Glenn C. Loury, in "Why We Didn’t Overcome" (available to subscribers), reviews Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America's Struggle over Black Family Life—from LBJ to Obama by James T. Patterson. Among other things, Loury describes how honest debate about the best means to achieve racial equality was stifled and the dire consequences that resulted — and continue.
The memo declares, “The United States is approaching a new crisis in race relations.” “A national effort is required,” it explains, “directed to a new kind of national goal: the establishment of a stable Negro family structure.” One sees the problem immediately: A government official in 1965 baldly states that expectations for equality are bound to be disappointed, not merely because of racism but also because the fabric of social life in the black ghettos is in tatters.

For many at the time, this kind of talk was simply unacceptable. How dare a white man say these things? What will happen to reform if studies like this are allowed to issue from the government? The author—an assistant secretary at the Labor Department named Daniel Patrick Moynihan—had to be made an example of.

And so he was. ....

There was only one problem with all this. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was mostly right in 1965: right about the Negro family, both in his diagnosis of its condition and in his forecast of the likely implications. Looking across the social landscape today, nearly a half-century after his dire warning, we can see the plain fact that conventional family relationships in the black ghettos have collapsed. What is more, nothing approaching equality of results for the bulk of the black American population has been, or soon will be, achieved. More speculative, but still entirely plausible, is the conclusion that these two undeniable facts are closely connected, with the former a primary reason for the later. ....

Although Patterson avoids saying so directly, the fiercely negative reactions to Moynihan’s report were a brand of intellectual thuggery that became all too familiar afterward. Smug in their certitude, the thought police in the universities, the government, the editorial pages, and the foundation boardrooms managed, in effect, to censor public discourse on crime, affirmative action, school desegregation, voting rights, antidiscrimination enforcement, urban renewal, welfare policy, and much more.

It even became dangerous to celebrate the success of the civil-rights revolution by noticing the emergence of a new black middle class. The signature tactic was to accuse the politically incorrect of being racists. A willingness to entertain certain hypotheses—that forced busing could cause white flight, that proliferating criminal violence among blacks might retard urban development, that affirmative-action programs could stigmatize their beneficiaries—came to be seen as evidence of a lack of fidelity to progressive values.

Reliance on ad hominem argument grew more commonplace: What kind of person would say such a thing? ....

With a third of black children now living in poverty, with more than one million black men in jail, with an average deficit of three years in acquired reading skills for black youngsters relative to whites by the end of adolescence, with more than two out of every three black babies born to unwed mothers, with hard-core ghettos in Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland, St. Louis, Houston, New Orleans, Baltimore, and dozens of other American cities continuing to fester in their marginality and hopelessness—with all of this wreckage so readily at hand, it is clear that we Americans have not yet overcome.

Freedom is definitely not enough. Good sense, even temper, openness to criticism, intellectual honesty, and faith in the good intentions of those with whom one disagrees—these things are also necessary if the legacy of America’s shameful racial past is ever to be superseded. Now, thanks in part to a bygone generation of self-righteous and feckless liberals, we face the prospect that it never will be. [review at First Things - subscription required]
Why We Didn’t Overcome

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