On race: Time to revive the principle of 'benign neglect'

“Florida is where DEI goes to die,” Gov. Ron DeSantis posted on Twitter this past week. He was celebrating the end of the DEI regime at the University of Florida and at other public universities throughout the state.

At the University of Florida this meant closing the office of the chief diversity officer, halting all DEI. contracts, and eliminating 13 full-time positions and 15 part-time assignments for faculty members.

What was surprising about the move was the lack of outrage from the usual sources. In its article on the purge, the only critics the New York Times could muster were a state representative and the state’s Democrat Party chair who warned, the impact “will be felt for generations.” Yawn.

Nearly four years after the onset of George Floyd mania with its obsessive and destructive focus on race, we may be heading to an era of what the late Democrat Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “benign neglect.”

To clarify, we’re not heading back to that era because we never got there. In January 1970, Moynihan, while serving as an adviser to President Richard Nixon, wrote a memo detailing the “extraordinary progress” blacks had made.

So far, so good. Then Moynihan went and spoiled it all by saying, “The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect.'”

Washington was no more ready for an honest discussion of race then than it has been in the half-century since. Moynihan caught hell while Nixon duck and covered.

Cowardice was then and is now bipartisan. As assistant secretary of labor under Lyndon Johnson, Moynihan issued a report in 1965 that shook the nation’s capital more viscerally than any document since the “Pumpkin Papers.”

In “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” Moynihan said out loud what city dwellers were seeing in the streets and playgrounds. Family breakdown was killing the black community.

Despite the “full recognition of their civil rights,” argued Moynihan, blacks were increasingly discontent. They were expecting that equal opportunities would “produce roughly equal results, as compared with other groups,” but added Moynihan, “This is not going to happen.”

Nor did he think it ever would happen “unless a new and special effort is made.” In explaining the primary cause of the already widening achievement gap between blacks and whites, Moynihan went where few elected officials have ever dared to go:

Said Moynihan, “The fundamental problem, in which this is most clearly the case, is that of family structure. The evidence – not final, but powerfully persuasive – is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling.”


He continued, “A middle class group has managed to save itself, but for vast numbers of the unskilled, poorly educated city working class the fabric of conventional social relationships has all but disintegrated.”

“Negro children without fathers flounder – and fail,” Moynihan wrote only a shade too broadly. “White children without fathers at least perceive all about them the pattern of men working.”

Before the 1960s, among black families, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) cases and employment numbers rose and fell in near perfect harmony: the lower the unemployment rate, the fewer the AFDC cases.

In 1960, “for the first time” as Moynihan pointed out, unemployment numbers declined, but the number of new AFDC cases rose. This seemingly freakish pattern repeated itself in 1963 and again in 1964.

More jobs no longer meant fewer people dependent on government assistance. This unwelcome development put pressure on government resources, but that was a minor problem compared to the damage done to family and community stability.

“The principal challenge of the next phase of the Negro revolution is to make certain that equality of results will now follow,” Moynihan wrote at his most prescient. “If we do not, there will be no social peace in the United States for generations.”

The report received solid support when circulated within the Johnson administration, but when released publicly in July 1965, Johnson wilted under fire from those passing as civil rights activists.

Johnson canceled a conference he had scheduled around the idea of family and scolded his staffers for getting him “in this controversy over Moynihan.” The protection of the family was effectively dead as a source for White House policy.

Moynihan’s sin was to see what others refused to. When earlier waves of black migrants to northern cities from the South, they understood, just as European immigrants understood, that to survive one had to make a living.

The waves of Southern migrants that came north starting in the mid-1950s were met by social workers eager to show how a living could be had without being made.

Post-Moynihan, politicians and bureaucrats knew better than to address the fallout from welfare dependency head on. Almost no one in Washington was willing to say the obvious out loud.

In 1965, roughly one out of every four black children was born out of wedlock. Today, it is close to three out of four. As Moynihan predicted, the gap between black and white and Asian achievement widened as the black family continued to dissolve.

As the gap widened, frustration grew. Rather than address the core problem demagogues had to invent new outrages like “white supremacy” to explain it away and exploit it. No one has done this more viciously – or ineptly – than Joe Biden.

With the navel-gazing DEI era possibly coming to end, it is time to send Biden packing and give “benign neglect” a fighting chance.

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