Revisiting A Case For National Action: Institutionalized Racism, the Persistence of Black Poverty, and the Moynihan Report

photos by Louie Dean Valencia García

In his report on black poverty in the 1960s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan put the onus of black poverty primarily on the shoulders of so-called matriarchy.  By his view, the deviance of many black households’ family structures from the national norm was the root cause of numerous other problems faced by black men and women in society.  However, to place the blame on “disturbed family structures” overlooks a great number of much more severe and more deeply rooted problems in society.

The “tangle of pathologies” Moynihan describes is not caused by non-patriarchal family structures. Rather, the greater part of black poverty can be traced back to systematic inequality built into institutional structures.  Moynihan acknowledges some of the deep-set issues that have truly made black poverty an entrenched phenomenon, but is so fixated on “disturbed family structures” and the lack of patriarchal formats in many poor black communities and families that he does not give them the weight they are due.

protest pic 1

photo by Louie Dean Valencia García

This is not to say that family structure isn’t important in the question of why black poverty is so persistent; it certainly is. But Moynihan frames the problem as one of matriarchal structures and the “missing father figure” as though these things are the cause rather than what is being caused.  It’s certainly true that children of families headed by a single mother do worse in the long run by the usual indicators, but while Moynihan attributes it decisively to the lack of a father figure, it is just as likely that this is due to it being a single-parent household.  He gives no data to show that children of single-mother households do worse than those of single-father ones, and even if he did it could not be stated that the children with a mother did worse because they “lacked a father figure” in their lives – a disparity of that sort could be explained by any number of other things, particularly the wage gap between men and women.  If the average single father and the average single mother each put in the same amount of work at home and at their employment, the single father is still statistically going to be better off simply because he will have more money.  So while homes without men in them may do worse, there is no way to conclusively state that it is due to the lack of patriarchal structures rather than the lack of extra revenue.

In truth, the biggest thing contributing to the persistence of black poverty is not female-headed families; it is institutionalized racism.  Though many of the structures and patterns that are now impossibly entrenched had not yet become so or were just taking shape when Moynihan wrote his report, they are still extremely recognizable in the piece.  Today, our systems and institutions are already set up in such a way that no one individual’s prejudice is required for racism to persist and worsen indefinitely.  People of color in general and black communities in particular live disproportionately in poor urban communities, with limited to no access to good health care, higher education, and the kind of skilled employment that could help lift them out of poverty.

Poverty begets poverty and wealth begets wealth; people of color are disproportionately born into poor neighborhoods whose tax dollars can only cover limited educational resources.  Their schools are less equipped to provide quality educations and they do not have the resources that would allow their students to compete properly with students from whiter, more affluent communities.  Students at these often overfilled schools tend to do worse on standardized tests often simply due to lack of money for proper preparation resources. This lack of funding means that students are less likely to have access to higher education, and they are less able to pay for sky-high tuitions even when they do get in.

protest pic 3

photo by Louie Dean Valencia García

Moynihan is for once spot on when he writes that black children have the same capacity for success as any other group, but “American society impairs the Negro potential” (Moynihan 4.39).  Our institutions do not provide the same resources and opportunities to people of color, especially black individuals, as they do to white people.

Moynihan talks about how the children of middle-class black families have a much harder time than whites who are equally affluent because they must live in or near the slums of impoverished black families, and attributes this to being “constantly exposed to the pathology of the disturbed group” (Moynihan 4.30).  But while Moynihan pathologizes black poverty, it is equally easy and more logical to argue that children of stable, middle class black families do less well than their white counterparts because they are not getting access to the same education.  While residential areas are for the most part no longer explicitly or legally segregated as they were in Moynihan’s time, neighborhoods are still largely divided by race.  Redlining is a practice that continues to exist today and helps keep poor black neighborhoods poor and black while helping keep affluent white areas affluent and white.

Redlining isn’t necessarily directly about race; rather, it is motivated by economic factors.  But the structures that we exist in keep the systems racist even when the individual actors in a given situation have no prejudice.  There is no possible way to fix the existing structures simply by ignoring how whole groups of people are systematically disadvantaged, disenfranchised, and discriminated against.

So-called colorblindness or declarations that we live in a “post-racial society” not only ignore but actively erase the difficulties faced uniquely by people of color.  One of the biggest roadblocks to improving the system and dismantling racist institutions is how many people in power very simply do not understand that the systems are racist.  When white people are unaware of their own privilege, they consistently and unintentionally contribute hugely to systematic oppression.  As such, any solution being sought for the persistence of black poverty or any plan being made to dismantle oppressive and racist systems must necessarily involve making those who have privilege aware of it.

protest pic 5

photo by Louie Dean Valencia García

Privilege is not something Moynihan touches on; the invisibility of the privileges provided by the system to those with light skin may not have been so strong or so entrenched in the 60’s when he wrote it, or he himself might not have recognized it as an issue.  But in our world today, white people disproportionately hold power over the systems that keep people of color in poverty while not recognizing that those structures are racist. Changing those structures – getting those in power to help change those structures – must involve making the privileged recognize their privilege and showing them that actions can be racist even when the intention is not discriminatory or the person acting is not prejudiced.

And of course, while these structures are built in such a way that prejudice is not requisite for racism, neither does that mean that prejudice and discrimination no longer exist.  They are very much still powerful today, just as they were in Moynihan’s time.  One only has to look at crime and arrest statistics to see how the racist system is facilitated by prejudiced authorities. “Broken windows” policing has led to an extremely racially biased police force, where (for example) blacks are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites, despite the fact that they use it at about the same rate.

Moynihan himself notes a number of statistics showing how disproportionately strongly black men are represented in the prison system compared to their population, but displays his own internalized prejudice or simple lack of awareness by waving away the possibility that arrest rates might not accurately represent crime rates.  Black men are statistically far more likely to be processed through the criminal justice system and serve time as fodder for the prison-industrial complex whether or not they have committed a crime, and once someone has been processed through the system once they are far more likely to participate in criminal activity even if they were innocent when they were arrested.

Simply being black in the United States today can be a death sentence because of the power and privilege afforded to police officers. The death of the 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri at the hands of Police Officer Darren Wilson and Wilson’s subsequent non-indictment in the face of heavy evidence has sparked protests in Ferguson and across the country in solidarity.  Another black man, this time from New York City, named Eric Garner was also killed due to an illegal chokehold at the hands of Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo. This time, the murder was captured on video and put on youtube so everyone could hear Garner gasp “I can’t breathe!” eleven times before he died. Pantaleo’s non-indictment despite the indisputable evidence has given the protestors new urgency and outrage.

Protestors at Millions March NYC

Protestors at Millions March NYC. Photo by Louie Dean Valencia García

On Saturday, December 13th, between 50,000 and 60,000 people marched through the streets of New York to demand justice for Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, and many more, and for the system to recognize that black lives matter. To list all the black victims of police violence and brutality would take a very long time, and would still only grasp a small fraction of the most brutal actions taken by police against people of color, and especially black people.

After the Michael Brown decision was released, the hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite arose. In response, and in an effort to re-center the conversation about discrimination on the black experience, the counterpart hashtag #AliveWhileBlack came to the forefront. Both hashtags catalogued the experiences of thousands of people, black and white, and their interactions with police. Their testimonies carried out this truth of today’s policing: the privilege of being white is being let off the hook for committing a crime. The penalty for being black is being humiliated or arrested for something you didn’t do – and, in the worst case, being killed for it. This violence is all tied into the way people of color are systematically disadvantaged and are most often portrayed in the media as “thugs”

Moynihan addresses many of the problems that continue to keep black people in poverty in his report, but he never calls these structural problems the source.  He is so fixated on the “dissolving family structure” and the matriarchal format  he sees that he labels those things the root cause rather than symptoms.  However, if having a female at the head of a family is an indicator for continued poverty and future failure, it has nothing to do with some pathological need for a “father figure.”  Rather, it is the product of intersectional structures of oppression that systematically disadvantage women of color.  Ultimately, we live in a capitalist society, and capitalism is a system that only functions by systematically oppressing a variety of groups of people.

Institutionalized racism is a powerful, powerful structure that is both the primary reason for the persistence of black poverty and something that is very much integral to the way our culture and society function.  Because of this, it is almost impossible to find a solution that can “fix” the problem of black poverty without dismantling the entire structure.  In fact, the structures probably ought to be dismantled and rebuilt in a way that would cause less stratification.  Unfortunately, too many powerful people have too many powerful interests invested in keeping the system the way it is because they are benefiting from those same oppressive structures.  As such, the only way forward is to provide support for those disadvantaged by the system in as intentional and conscious a manner as possible while doing as much as can be done to reform the institutional structures that create the conditions of persistent black poverty – that is, the lack of opportunity, employment, education, health care, and other important resources for moving up in the world. In an immediate sense, we need to work to bring justice to victims of police violence by punishing their killers and working to reform the racism and violence of our police forces.

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