Recently we have seen the revival of the idea that some faction of the political left (liberal, progressive, or radical) is silencing debate through “political correctness,” as retold, for example, by Jonathan Chait. Similarly, there is a push by those reviving the 1965 Moynihan Report (neo-Moynihanists?) to advance a narrative in which venomous race police attacked Moynihan with such force that liberal social scientists were scared off the topic of “cultural explanations” (especially about marriage) for Black poverty and inequality.
This Moynihan chilling effect narrative got a recent boost from Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. As Kristof tells it, “The taboo on careful research on family structure and poverty was broken by William Julius Wilson, an eminent black sociologist.” Kristof lifted that description from this recent article by McLanahan and Jencks (which he cites elsewhere in the column). They wrote:
For the next two decades [after 1965] few scholars chose to investigate the effects of father absence, lest they too be demonized if their findings supported Moynihan’s argument. Fortunately, America’s best-known black sociologist, William Julius Wilson, broke this taboo in 1987, providing a candid assessment of the black family and its problems in The Truly Disadvantaged.
This narrative, which seems to grow more simplistic and linear with each telling, is just not true. In fact, it’s pretty bizarre.
Herbert Gans in 2011 attributed the story to William Julius Wilson’s first chapter of The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), in which he said that, after the criticism of Moynihan, “liberal scholars shied away from researching behavior construed as unflattering or stigmatizing.” Wilson told a version of the story in 2009, in which the ideology expressed by “militant black spokespersons” spread to “black academics and intellectuals,” creating an atmosphere of “racial chauvinism,” in which “poor African Americans were described as resilient and were seen as imaginatively adapting to an oppressive society” when they engaged in “self destructive” aspects of “ghetto life.” (These aren’t scare quotes, I’m just being careful to use Wilson’s words.) In this vein of research,
…this approach sidesteps the issue altogether by denying that social dislocations in the inner city represent any special problem. Researchers who emphasized these dislocations were denounced, even those who rejected the assumption of individual responsibility for poverty and welfare, and focused instead on the structure or roots of these problems.
Accordingly, in the early 1970s, unlike in the middle 1960s, there was little motivation to develop a research agenda that pursued the structural and cultural roots of ghetto social dislocations. The vitriolic attacks and acrimonious debate that characterized this controversy proved to be too intimidating to scholars, particularly to liberal scholars. Indeed, in the aftermath of this controversy and in an effort to protect their work from the charge of racism, or of blaming the victim, many liberal social scientists tended to avoid describing any behavior that could be construed as unflattering or stigmatizing to people of color. Accordingly, until the mid-1980s and well after this controversy had subsided, social problems in the inner-city ghetto did not attract serious research attention.
Wilson includes this very strong causal statement: “the controversy over the Moynihan Report resulted in a persistent taboo on cultural explanations to help explain social problems in the poor black community.” I would love to see any direct evidence — eyewitness accounts or personal testimony — of this chilling effect on researchers.
If you read it generously, Wilson is mostly saying that there was a fall-off in the kind of argument that he preferred, one that “pursued the structural and cultural roots of ghetto social dislocations,” and showed how ghetto lifestyles were harming Black fortunes. It’s one thing to say a certain perspective fell out of favor, but that’s a far cry from claiming that “few scholars chose to investigate … the black family and its problems,” the McLanhan and Jencks assertion that Kristof repeats.
What is the evidence? To make that causal story stick, you’d have to rule out other explanations for a shift in the orientation of research (if there was one). If attitudes like Moynihan’s fell out of favor after 1965, can you think of anything else happening at that time besides vicious academic critiques of Moynihan that might have provoked a new, less victim-blamey perspective? Oh, right: history was actually happening then, too.
As for the idea people simply stopped researching Black poverty, “culture,” and family structure, that’s just wrong. Here, mostly drawn from Frank Furstenberg’s review, “The Making of the Black Family: Race and Class in Qualitative Studies in the Twentieth Century,” are some of the works published during this time when researchers were supposedly avoiding the topic:
- Billingsley A. 1968. Black Families in White America. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
- Williams T, Kornblum W. 1985. Growing up Poor. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books
- Chilman CS. 1966. Growing Up Poor. Washington, DC: USGPO
- Liebow E. 1968. Tally’s Corner. Boston: Little, Brown
- Hannerz U. 1969. Soulside: Inquiries into Ghetto Culture and Community. New York: Columbia Univ. Press
- Stack C. 1974. All Our Kin. Chicago: Aldine
- Schultz DA. 1969. Coming up Black: Patterns of Ghetto Socialization. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall
- Staples R. 1978. The Black Family: Essays and Studies. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 2nd ed.
- Ladner JA. 1971. Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman. Garden City, NY: Doubleday
- Furstenberg FF. 1976. Unplanned Parenthood: The Social Consequences of Teenage Childbearing. New York: Free Press
In Furstenberg’s account, many of the themes in these studies were reminiscent of research done earlier in the century, when social science research on poor Black families first emerged:
…the pervasive sense of fatalism among the poor, a lack of future orientation among youth, early parenthood as a response to blocked opportunity, sexual exploitation, tensions between men and women, the unswerving commitment to children regardless of their birth status among mothers, and the tenuous commitment among nonresidential fathers.
In addition, as Alice O’Connor notes in her intellectual history, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History, there was a shift around this time to more quantitative, technocratic research, using individual microdata. In particular, the highly influential Panel Study of Income Dynamics began producing studies at the start of the 1970s, and many scholars published research comparing social and economic outcomes across race, class, and family type using this data source. Here is a small sample of journal articles from 1971 to 1985, when the Moynihan taboo supposedly reigned:
- Datcher, Linda. 1982. “Effects of Community and Family Background on Achievement.” Review of Economics and Statistics 64 (1): 32–41.
- Greenberg, David, and Douglas Wolf. 1982. “The Economic Consequences of Experiencing Parental Marital Disruptions.” Children and Youth Services Review, 4 (1–2): 141–62.
- Hampton, Robert L. 1979. “Husband’s Characteristics and Marital Disruption in Black Families.” Sociological Quarterly 20 (2): 255–66.
- Hofferth, Sandra L. 1984. “Kin Networks, Race, and Family Structure.” Journal of Marriage and Family 46 (4): 791–806.
- Hoffman, Saul. 1977. “Marital Instability and the Economic Status of Women.” Demography 14 (1): 67–76.
- McLanahan, Sara. 1985. “Family Structure and the Reproduction of Poverty.” American Journal of Sociology 90 (4): 873–901.
- Moffitt, Robert. 1983. “An Economic Model of Welfare Stigma.” American Economic Review 73 (5): 1023–35.
- Smith, Michael J. 1980. “The Social Consequences of Single Parenthood: A Longitudinal Perspective.” Family Relations 29 (1): 75–81.
At least three of these scholars survived the experience of researching this subject and went on to become presidents of the Population Association of America.
Finally, an additional line of research pursued the question of family structure impacts on education or economic attainment, specifically aimed at assessing the impact of family structure on racial inequality. These studies were highly influential and widely cited, including:
- Duncan, Beverly, and Otis Dudley Duncan. 1969. “Family Stability and Occupational Success.” Social Problems 16 (3): 273–85.
- Featherman, David L., and Robert M. Hauser. 1976. “Changes in the Socioeconomic Stratification of the Races, 1962-73.” American Journal of Sociology 82 (3): 621–51.
- Hauser, Robert M., and David L. Featherman. 1976. “Equality of Schooling: Trends and Prospects.” Sociology of Education 49 (2): 99–120.
I don’t know how you get from this rich literature to the notion that a liberal taboo was blocking progress — unless you define research progress according to the nature of the conclusions drawn, rather than the knowledge gained.
The resilience of this narrative reflects the success of conservative critics in building an image of leftist academics as ideological bullies who suppress any research that doesn’t toe their line. Such critics have a right to their own perspectives, but not to their own facts.
[Thanks to Shawn Fremstad for pointing me to some of these readings.]
Exceptions, suggested reading, and counterarguments welcome in the comments.