In 1965, then undersecretary of labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan foresaw a problem that was about to undo the promise of Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and his boss Lyndon Jonson’s 1965 launch of the “Great Society.”
In reading her dissenting opinion last week on the affirmative action case before the Supreme Court, I got the distinct impression that Justice Sonia Sotomayor never read Moynihan’s The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, likely never heard of it, and certainly had no idea of how prescient it would prove to be.
Despite the “full recognition of their civil rights,” argued Moynihan, black Americans were growing 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.”
Nearly sixty years later Moynihan’s warning seems all the more prophetic. Herculean efforts have been made over the years to achieve “equal results,” but none has addressed the core issue. Wrote 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. 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.
In a Father’s Day speech in 2008 then candidate Barack Obama affirmed Moynihan’s worst fears. “Of all the rocks upon which we build our lives, we are reminded today that family is the most important,” Obama told the congregation at a Chicago church.
Here, Obama spoke with a candor not heard since Lyndon Johnson threw Moynihan under the bus. “But if we are honest with ourselves,” he continued, “we’ll admit that what too many fathers also are is missing—missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”
Obama started chipping away at the very idea of systemic racism as the cause of Black failure. “We know that more than half of all Black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled—doubled—since we were children. We know the statistics—that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and twenty times more likely to end up in prison.”
Like Moynihan, Obama came in for a spanking of his own. A hot mic at a Fox News studio picked up Jesse Jackson saying to another Black guest, “See, Barack been, um, talking down to Black people on this faith-based—I wanna cut his nuts out.” Here Jackson made a cutting motion with his hands and added additional commentary that I dare not repeat. Obama got the message. He never spoke forcefully on this subject again.
If nothing else, Jesse Jackson affirmed Moynihan’s prediction:
“The principal challenge of the next phase of the Negro revolution is to make certain that equality of results will now follow. If we do not, there will be no social peace in the United States for generations.”
In her contentious and confused dissenting opinion on the affirmative action case before the Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor proved there is no social peace even in the highest court of the land.
“The Court subverts the constitutional guarantee of equal protection,” Sotomayor scolds her colleagues, “by further entrenching racial inequality in education, the very foundation of our democratic government and pluralistic society.”
Where to begin? For starters, in my new book, Untenable: The True Story of White Ethnic Flight from America’s Cities, I show the futility of any quest to achieve equity among ethnic groups either economically or academically.
Starting with no more “privilege” than any other ethnic group in my native Newark, New Jersey, Jewish students consistently outperformed all others. By mid-twentieth century, Blacks were narrowing the gap between themselves and the city’s two other dominant ethnic groups, Irish and Italian, but none of these groups would ever outperform Jews. Due to the family dissolution of which Moynihan warned, Blacks would fall further behind the other three.
Later in the century, two other ethnic groups emerged in Newark as political blocs, Portuguese and Puerto Rican. The Portuguese had an advantage: they arrived in Newark free from the tentacles of the welfare state. With strong families and minimal public assistance, they created jobs and a harmonious neighborhood that has proved an attractive destination for outsiders. The Puerto Ricans did not.
In her dissent Sotomayor speaks of a society “where opportunity is dispensed along racial lines.” The Puerto Rican Sotomayor was, of course, righter than she knew. Fifty years ago, she was accepted at Princeton despite her admittedly below par test scores. “I am the perfect affirmative action baby,” she has conceded. Her “racial” line was what got her in the front door although, in truth, “Puerto Rican” is no more a race than Mexican or American.
Sotomayor attributes the “achievement gaps” in standardized test scores to “entrenched racial inequality in K–12 education.” Sotomayor, however, attended excellent Catholic schools in New York City K-12. That she would get an affirmative action bump while the Portuguese would not is attributable solely to the political clout of the much larger “Latino” bloc. It has nothing to do with justice.
Fifty years after Sotomayor’s admission to Princeton, Puerto Ricans remain among the “underrepresented groups.” The reason why they are underrepresented, she contends, is that, “for far too long [they] were denied admission through the force of law.” This is nonsense. With logic like this, it was no wonder she tested poorly.
Even if Puerto Ricans as a cultural group were as achievement oriented as Jews and many Asian groups, their rates of fatherlessness would subvert their ambitions. In Puerto Rico, 49 percent of children live in single parent households. For Puerto Ricans in the U.S. the number is likely comparable. This would be two times higher than the rate among blacks that triggered Moynihan’s report.
Writ large, some 42 percent of “Latino” children live in single parent households today. This compares to 24 percent among non-Hispanic whites and 16 percent among Asians. For Black children, the number is 64 percent.
Given the odds at the starting gate, “equity’ will only be achieved if President Biden appoints the equivalent of what satirist Kurt Vonnegut called a “handicapper general.” In his 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron,” Vonnegut imagined an official with the power to assure that everyone would be “equal every which way” and no one would be “smarter than anybody else.”
Sonia Sotomayor, I think, has just the right amount of imagination to do that job well.
Jack Cashill’s new book, Untenable: The True Story of White Ethnic Flight from America’s Cities, is now widely available.