Douglas Massey: Pat Moynihan on Affirmative Action
As part of a celebration marking the publication of “Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary,” AAPSS invited Douglas Massey to read one of the letters of Senator Moynihan included in the book and comment on its significance. Massey is the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and President of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. The following is a transcript of Massey’s selection, which may also be listened to or downloaded as a podcast.
Letter from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Harry McPherson, May 20, 1965
Douglas Massey: Let me take you back to May 1965. Of course, in late 1964 Lyndon Johnson triumphed in passing the Civil Rights Act, which for the first time in American history outlawed discrimination in many markets—markets for goods and services, for accommodations, for labor—and this was his triumph. And if you read memoirs of Bill Moyers, he will say that (he was one of Johnson’s assistants at the time) he came into the Oval Office and all the headlines and all the newspapers were triumphing about the great achievement that Lyndon Johnson had achieved. The first, the massive civil rights, the most forward movement in the civil rights movement since reconstruction. But he was brooding and very dark, and Moyers said, “What is wrong?” And Johnson said, “Well, you know what I’ve done. I have given the South to the Republicans for another generation.” And of course he was absolutely right. He was no fool. And at this time, many people thought that we had reached the epitome of a liberal moment and that the problems of civil rights and racial justice had been solved because we had outlawed de jure segregation, we had outlawed discrimination in markets, but Senator Pat Moynihan, then Assistant Secretary in the Department of Labor in the Johnson Administration, knew better and knew that the road ahead was going to be much more difficult than anyone had imagined. And he was trying to, in a series of memos in the White House, trying to prime President Johnson to think more broadly, that it was not just about achieving formal equality, it was about achieving actual equality. And now that the discriminatory mechanisms had been eliminated, now that de jure segregation had been attacked, a new set of demands were going to come forth and that the administration had to be ready to respond to these. So let me read to you from a memo that he prepared to one of President Johnson’s top assistants at this time, in May 1965 on the eve of his celebrated address to Howard University, where he first introduced the concept of affirmative action.
The point of this memo is to suggest a somewhat new way of looking at the general subject of ethnic, racial, and religious issues in the world today. The subject came to my mind in the course of discussing the split in the civil rights movement, which many persons perceive but none can quite explain clearly. The SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and CORE (the Congress Of Racial Equality) are moving in a direction different from that of the NAACP or the Urban League. Or, rather, elements in all four seem to be diverging, etc. Saunders Redding put it that the SNCC is leading the civil rights movement. Whether this is so or not was discussed at length with no one much satisfied with our information or conclusions. I suggest a different way of looking at it. Not in terms of a split but rather in terms of a dualism in the movement. This dualism is characteristic not only of the civil rights movement but of American democracy itself. It has been with us from the beginning. American democracy is founded on the twin ideals of liberty and equality. Our education and general mindset does not much distinguish between these two ideals but the fact is they are distinct. If they are joined together in our common understanding they are not always joined in our basic discussion. The Declaration of Independence, for example, begins with a proposition about equality. But the subject is not mentioned in the Constitution until the Fourteenth Amendment, which is, of course, post-Civil War. One of the reasons for this, surely, is that at the time the Constitution was adopted one in five Americans was a slave. Nor, over the years, have the two ideals enjoyed the same acceptance. Liberty has been the American middle class ideal, par excellence. It has enjoyed the utmost social prestige. Not so equality. Men who would carelessly give their lives for liberty are appalled by equality. And there is also an opposite style to be seen; men who are passionately devoted to equality but they are troubled by liberty. More importantly, the great movements for equality in our history, the Jacksonian democracy movement through populism to the trade union movement have invariably faced fierce opposition. The civil rights movement was, in this sense, a duality. It is a movement for both liberty and equality. The march on Washington was for jobs and freedom. Until now, the two components have been running along together without any great tension. But this phase is coming to an end. Until now, the great American middle class has seen the Negro movement largely in terms of a movement for liberty, for the right to vote, to assemble, to petition. This is not really an issue in America. Any group that asserts its rights in this field and can show that its rights are infringed upon quickly receives the overwhelming support of the middle class and the legal institutions of the nation. In the South, where the Negro demands have almost exclusively been directed to the issue of liberty, the white middle class is increasingly allied with them in a political coalition against the white lower classes. Atlanta is a striking example of this political development. But in the North, Negroes have liberty and what they want is equality, which they do not have. Here, unfortunately, our ways of thinking are ill-equipped to cope. The New York Times, which is unflinchingly in support of the demand for the right to vote, that is liberty, is thunderstruck by the demand for special assistance, benign quotas, that is equality. We are not going to escape this confrontation. We must, therefore, learn more about it. Why and how people demand equality is not something we know much about or are very well-equipped to deal with. That is why our success in dealing with the demands of the Negro American revolution can be the bona fide achievement which we should strive to establish our true importance in the twentieth century. The supreme challenge of our age will be the quest for political stability, an elusive and ill-understood condition that we are hardly yet interested in as a political condition. The issue of our time will be how to attain equality with liberty, pluralism with unity, national purpose with local initiative. These things are not easily come by but probably more in evidence in the United States than in any other nation in the world, any way, an enormous nation. Is this not the true cultural and intellectual mission of the United States and the world? I very much fear that most of our cultural enterprises have their origin in their rather pathetic effort to prove to Europeans that we, indeed, have a soul. And a genteel, middle-class soul at that. Balls! What we have to say to the world about how to live with one another is much the most important fact of our lives and, in ways that they do not understand, of theirs. That this should not be clear to the world is hardly a manner for wonder but it troubles me that it does not seem to be clear to us, either. I think a specific theme in American policy in the world should be that liberty and equality are, in fact, things to go about and to put together. We probably know as much about how to do this is anyone, but no one knows very much. Religious, ethnic, and racial tensions are at the heart of so much of the demand for equality. They are legitimate demands. They must be accommodated but it is damn hard. The legitimacy of our claim to a world role in this area will be the success or failure of our Negro revolution at home.
This was 1965, and he foresaw the coming crisis of civil rights in the United States. When simple granting of basic civil liberties would not be enough and the demands for equality would come to the fore. Now, we all know historically that Moynihan had actually a plan of action, which he outlined to President Johnson in the infamous Moynihan Report. The Moynihan Report essentially called for a massive full-employment program, a massive investment of federal dollars into the American economy to provide full employment so that African-American males and African-American women (he was not so concerned about women in those days), but African-Americans could achieve full employment and avoid pitfalls of a poverty trap, which he so eloquently laid out in the report. And for this, of course, he was vilified. And it was a moment, a singular moment in American history, when a clear-thinking social scientist who understood the world better than most had laid out the fundamental problem of the age and actually tried to lay out a solution and the great irony; and the great tragedy of American life is that Lyndon Johnson was not able to follow up on the advice that Moynihan gave him, and rather than strive to create a full-employment economy went down the narrow, twisting path into the morass in Vietnam.