Freedom Is Not Enough

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James T. Patterson. Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life from LBJ to Obama. New York: Basic Books, 2010. xvii plus 216 pp., $26.95, ISBN 978-0-465-01357


Summary

James T. Patterson’s book, Freedom is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life from LBJ to Obama, is a political biography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and a history of over five decades of public debate centering on the causes of American black inequality. The work centers on what has become known as “The Moynihan Report”, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” and the demise of American liberalism, embodied by the reaction to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society social engineering. Like Patterson’s earlier work Grand Expectations: The United Sates, 1945-1974, Freedom is Not Enough further argues that the expectations of the American people are often unrealistic in light of practical considerations, such as the economy, political realities, and extraneous events such as the Vietnam War and the Watts riots. Also, Patterson’s work documents the limitations of translating the findings of academic research into the implementation of governmental policy.

Patterson argues that potential federal government legislative remediation towards the plight of the American black family was thrown off track by the “misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and destructive controversies” (xii) following the public release of the Moynihan Report in the summer of 1965. Although the work examines the political and cultural controversies surrounding the Moynihan Report, its importance to twentieth-century American historiography is in the study’s examination of the effect of special interest groups, radical, liberal, moderate, and conservative, on the national debate over Black equality.

Freedom is Not Enough begins with Lyndon Johnson’s commencement address at Howard University on June 4, 1965 where he proposed “the most far reaching civil rights agenda in modern U.S. history.”(ix). It can be interpreted that Patterson saw this event as the zenith of 1960s liberalism and the culmination of federal government attempts to promote social progress during the twentieth century. It was a speech drafted by Moynihan, which reflected the concerns raised in his report concerning the persistence of a permanent inner city black underclass. The Moynihan Report and Howard commencement address articulated the need for the civil rights movement to enter a second phase. To Moynihan, the first phase attempted to secure the rights associated with American concepts of liberty for the American black. As Moynihan envisioned it, the second phase of civil rights needed to address Black economic inequality through help by the federal government through antipoverty programs, employment schemes aimed at the Black male, and the need for the American Black to help them selves. Moynihan based his conclusions on the premise that: ‘At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community at the present time.’(42). This conclusion was framed around the lingering effects of slavery, a maternal based family culture with the father being largely absent, and the notion of a Black underclass pathology.

It was this premise that ignited a firestorm of controversy amongst the special interest groups, which in turn was fueled by the selection of passages from the report that reflected information each group used to promote its particular agenda (84). Indeed, in the chapter, “The Moment Lost”, Patterson states that civil rights leader backed away from the report because of the contentiousness of the Moynihan’s interpretation of the cause of the American Black family’s disintegration. To many on the left the report unfairly stigmatized Blacks, family life and blamed the victim. He also asserts that because Moynihan was white, the report was unpopular with black leaders. (76) At the other end of the spectrum, Patterson asserts that the conservatives used selective information to re-enforce notions of social deviancy of young adult black males. (138) and opposition to accord special federal programs based on race. Further, the misrepresentations and distortions of the Moynihan Report by special interest groups served to divert national discourse on what was a growing problem in the inner cities. The contentious nature of the subject and the acrimonious ideological charges and counter charges led to a political stalemate of one of the major platforms of Johnson’s Great Society.

The book concludes with statements by Bill Cosby and current President Obama. Both men reiterated some of the ideas contained within the Moynihan Report. Mainly both men expounded on some of the core ideas of the report: the need for self- accountability and less self-victimization within the black community. Patterson asserts that as in previous decades and for many of the same reasons, this call went virtually unheeded and the search for effective public policies remains as elusive as it was in 1965.

Commentary

Scott Abeel, Spring 2011

Freedom is Not Enough is a very well structured political biography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and history of an idea that he seemed to devote his life in promoting. As such, it is a very even handed account of the failure and decline of American liberalism the latter half of the twentieth century. As stated in the summary, Patterson, promotes a thread of argument that was articulated in his earlier work, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974. Patterson argues that the expectations of the American populace often are unrealizable because of a confluence of events, ideological warfare, and misinterpreting the nature of a problem. However, during these periods of American euphoria, such as during the middle nineteen sixties, an attitude of America can overcome any problem supplants reality. Hence, federally declared wars on various social problems of the latter half of the twentieth century (poverty, racism, drugs, cancer, etc...) become possible and in the minds of idealists, winnable. As Patterson's work points out, reality often crushes these expectations.

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