An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2011

Racial Liberalism, the Moynihan Report & the Dædalus Project on “The Negro American”

Daniel Geary

In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an official in the Johnson administration, published The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, better known as the Moynihan Report. He was influenced by his participation in two conferences organized by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in the mid-1960s, as well as two issues of its journal Dædalus, on the topic of “The Negro American.” Arguing that the “damaged” family structure of African Americans would impede efforts to achieve full racial equality in the United States, the Moynihan Report launched an explosive debate that helped fracture a fragile liberal consensus on civil rights. Geary examines the report alongside the Dædalus project, establishing its roots in the racial liberalism of the mid-1960s and connecting it to efforts by liberals to address the socioeconomic dimensions of racial inequality. He considers the close relationship between scholarship and public policy that existed at the time and reflects on the ways liberal ideas about race have changed in the decades since.

DANIEL GEARY is the Mark Pigott Lecturer in U.S. History at Trinity College Dublin. His publications include Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought(2009) and “‘Becoming International Again’: C. Wright Mills and the Emergence of a Global New Left, 1956–1962,” Journal of American History (2008). He is currently working on a book, tentatively titled Tangled Ideologies: The Moynihan Report Controversy and the Transformation of American Racial Discourse.

With the ultimate goal of “including [African Americans] in our society,” President Lyndon Johnson called on Americans to combat “the inter-locking effects of deprivation” that resulted from centuries of oppression.1 Johnson delivered these words not in a political speech but in his 1965 foreword to a two-part issue of Dædalus. It is not often that presidents write introductions for scholarly journals. But, from its inception, the Dædalus project on “The Negro American” (including two conferences, two journal issues, and the 1966 book based on them) was linked to mid-1960s liberal political efforts to address long-standing racial inequalities in the United States.2 The Dædalus project became entangled with one of the period’s most explosive liberal statements, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (1965), better known as the Moynihan Report after its author, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an Assistant Secretary of Labor, later a long-serving U.S. Senator from New York. The Moynihan Report argued that the damaged family structure of many poor African Americans would impede efforts to achieve economic equality between blacks and whites.

The Negro Family, written on Moynihan’s own initiative with the hope of influencing government policy, was a political document that drew heavily on social-scientific ideas; rarely have politics and scholarship come so closely together. The Negro Family’s lesser-known scholarly twin was Moynihan’s contribution to the Dædalus special issue, “Employment, Income, and the Ordeal of the Negro Family,” an article that he prepared simultaneously with the report. In 1964, Moynihan attended the first of the two Dædalus conferences held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, where he discovered an emerging social-scientific consensus on the need for new approaches to civil rights that focused on issues of socioeconomic equality. Conference participants agreed that black family structure formed a major part of this problem. At the 1965 Dædalus conference, Moynihan’s “Employment, Income, and the Ordeal of the Negro Family” won approval from many of the assembled social scientists and civil rights leaders. However, others present voiced some of the criticisms that would later be leveled against the Moynihan Report. Thus, the Dædalus project was a key conduit for introducing social-scientific knowledge into government policy-making and, ultimately, public controversy.

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  • 1Lyndon Johnson, “Foreword to the Issue,” Dædalus 94 (Fall 1965): 744.
  • 2Talcott Parsons and Kenneth B. Clark, The Negro American (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966).
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