Documenting Moynihan: Charlotte Rosen Reviews the 2018 Documentary about the Late New York Senator

By Charlotte Rosen

There is no dearth of historical scholarship demonstrating the dangerous afterlife of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” or what would become commonly known as the “Moynihan Report.” An internal document written when Moynihan was the Assistant Secretary of Labor under President Lyndon Johnson, the report argued that years of racist oppression against Black people had led to a “deterioration of the Negro family,” which in turn created a “tangle of pathology” responsible for higher rates of Black poverty, single-parent families, and “illegitimate” births. The implication, as many Black radical and civil rights leaders pointed out at the time, was that inherent Black cultural deficiencies—and not white structural racism and state-sanctioned racial violence—were to blame for continued racial inequality. By appearing to offer “a sociological ‘truth’ of Black criminality,” the report minimized the racist and capitalist underpinnings of enduring poverty and rising crime in urban Black neighborhoods. It also justified punitive intervention into these communities, thus ensuring a white supremacist political economy would endure in the post-Civil Rights era.[1]

This robust critical scholarship on Moynihan’s political legacy barely appears in the documentary Moynihan, which presents a largely apologist view of the Senator’s career and impact. To be sure, the film acknowledges civil rights leaders’ negative reaction to the report and features some critical voices, namely Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and Ta-Nehisi Coates, though in other moments they agree that Moynihan was misunderstood in many ways. On the whole, Moynihan’s report comes across as an unfairly maligned document that was ultimately correct in its assertions about the Black family in America.

For example, renowned sociologist Orlando Patterson points out that Moynihan was deeply influenced by the work of Black sociologists like E. Franklin Frazier and Kenneth Clark. The documentary further indicates that numerous prominent Black civil rights leaders, such as Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr., supported the report’s findings, even if, as MLK apparently called Moynihan to say, they could not politically afford to endorse the report publicly. The documentary also ensconces discussion of the Report between segments that detail Moynihan’s hardscrabble, working class upbringing, as if to suggest that his experiences with poverty and hardship should ultimately induce the audience to view the report sympathetically.

The film softens another damning incident for Moynihan which occurred during his tenure as President Nixon’s Urban Affairs advisor. When Moynihan argued that President Nixon should enter a period of “benign neglect” regarding race relations in the nation, civil rights leaders protested, contending that such language represented the Nixon administration’s efforts to undermine recent gains. While conceding that Moynihan’s intention in the memo was to admonish the “incendiary language” of Black radicals, they contend that he was “equally frustrated” with Nixon’s deployment of the racist Southern Strategy. Yet, the clip that follows this claim features Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew saying “I repudiate white racists, do you repudiate black racists? Do you repudiate Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael?” That Moynihan’s “benign neglect” comment actually shared a politics—disdain for Black radicals—with the very Southern Strategy architects his memo purports to critique goes undiscussed by the film. Instead, viewers are yet again encouraged to understand the “benign neglect” comment as another uncharitable assault on Moynihan’s otherwise well-intended liberal initiatives.


To be sure, Moynihan’s legacy goes beyond the infamous Report, and the documentary shares useful information about Moynihan’s less well known but far less objectionable contributions as an academic, politician, and public intellectual. In 1959, he wrote a piece entitled “Epidemic on the Highways” which pulled from epidemiological studies to demonstrate that car crashes were the result of unsafe car design, not driver error. It became the inspiration for Ralph Nader’s influential 1965 study Unsafe at Any Speed. Moynihan was also a vocal advocate for a policy that would make most urban historians cheer: using transportation funds not for highway construction, but for investing in mass transit. In attending to Moynihan’s long career, the documentary responsibly refuses to reduce Moynihan to his most visible controversies.

In the end, however, the documentary appears to uncritically affirm the recent wave of Moynihan apologism among liberal and conservative commentators alike. These pundits frame Moynihan as a well-intentioned and underappreciated trailblazer willing to tackle “taboo” topics. That the documentary overlooks a raft of historical scholarship on the consequential and nefarious legacy of Moynihan’s ideas, particularly regarding the influential Moynihan Report, is suspect. To be sure, the film rightly argues that Moynihan wanted a large-scale jobs program that would benefit Black families, a demand that many civil rights activists at the time would have supported. But the film’s failure to discuss how Moynihan’s ideas furthered racial inequality by offering an ostensibly “scientific” justification for public disinvestment from—and punitive intervention into—Black working-class communities makes the film at best incomplete, and at worst, willfully negligent.

charlotte-rosen-168x210Charlotte Rosen is a fourth year History PhD Candidate at Northwestern University. Her dissertation, “Carceral Crisis: The Challenge of Prison Overcrowding and the Rise of Mass Incarceration, 1970-2000,” examines the history of prisons and prisoner resistance in late-twentieth century Pennsylvania, with a focus on the politics of prison overcrowding and Black protest to the emergent carceral regime in the 1980s and 1990s. She has written for The Cleveland Review of Books and The Metropole, the official blog of the UHA, where she is also an Associate Editor. Charlotte also tutors at Stateville Correctional Center with the Northwestern Prison Education Program.

Featured image (at top): Daniel Patrick Moynihan speaking at a meeting of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations courtesy of wikimedia commons.

[1] Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 3.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.