Book Review: Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life—from LBJ to Obama by James T. Patterson
BY EMMA ROSENBERG
Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life—from LBJ to Obama is a verbose title with a revealing indication of what is to come. James T. Patterson, a Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University, offers a rigorous 288 page account of the Moynihan Report and its aftermath. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a politician-academic and an Assistant Secretary of Labor, wrote a report in March 1965 summarizing the poor conditions of the black community in America. The Moynihan Report, officially titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” highlights the destructive forces of unemployment and poverty for black Americans. Moynihan emphasizes the deterioration of black family life and the retarding nature of the matriarchal structure. Moynihan criticizes the structure of the welfare system, which preferentially assists families with absentee fathers and therefore encourages broken homes. Moynihan’s groundbreaking discovery, which Patterson fondly refers to as ‘Moynihan’s Scissors’, details the puzzling correlation between the fall of unemployment rate and the rise in the number of new welfare cases. In other words, a growth in the economy does not necessarily decrease poverty. At the center of Moynihan’s findings is the detrimental rise of non-martial births, a trend that he claims will push the black community further into poverty and create a “tangle of pathologies.” Patterson emphasizes that the report “was diagnostic, not prescriptive,” merely outlining the societal issues in the hopes of turning the heads of government officials and directing the political agenda. In June, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson relied on the report for his commencement address at Howard University, in which he spoke the famous line “freedom is not enough.” While the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act granted equality as a right, Johnson called for equality as a result.
Unfortunately, the United States did not reach Johnson’s goals for racial equality. Patterson largely connects this failure to the accidental leak of the report to the press and the “tortuous trail of misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and destructive controversies” that followed. With utmost craft, Patterson interweaves the racial, political, cultural, and social issues and events that contributed to the creation of the report, its unfavorable reception, and the present-day repercussions. His sweeping collection of academic and media sources, from W.E.B. Du Bois and Malcolm X, to Bill Cosby, provides a much-needed chronicle of a crucial document in civil rights history and a scrupulous survey of black family life in America from the 1960’s to the present. His depiction of black family life, while wide in scope, feels light in weight, merely serving as a backdrop for his defense of the Moynihan Report. Patterson’s ultimate (and limited) goal is to lament the misinterpretation of the report and prove its prophetic nature, especially in regards to the dangerous rise in out-of-wedlock births and overall deterioration of traditional black family life. At the time of the report, 23.6 percent of black births were out of wedlock; by 1984, 60 percent. In 2008, the rate reached 72.3%, with the white out-of-wedlock birthrate at 28.6%. Any innovative findings, however, are watered down by a profusion of tedious statistics strung together by poorly constructed sentences. Patterson is ambitious in tackling such a large time span, but does so at the expense of the reader’s interest, making the book a mind-numbing read.
Surprisingly, Patterson does not dedicate much space to the report itself, leaving the reader in suspense for nearly 50 pages, but does provide ample and unnecessary ink on the life of Patrick Moynihan. The structure of the book may feel perplexing, but Patterson’s point is clear; the Moynihan Report deserves more attention than it was previously given and is still relevant today given the U.S. government’s continual failure in dealing with the growing ills of the black lower class. However, Patterson’s full-fledged endorsement of the 1965 report feels uncomfortably outdated for the present times, given the evolving notion of family structure in American society. His brief smattering of modern-day references–the cultural influence of the Cosby Show, the threat of hip-hop culture, and the presence of sexually-transmitted diseases—are intriguing at best, yet together build a sparse representation of the current times. Freedom Is Not Enough is a substantial and benign read in understanding “the story of a great missed opportunity in American history”, but the reader is left to wonder, what now?
Emma Rosenberg is a senior at Barnard College-Columbia University studying English Literature and Religious Studies.