Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Baltimore

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, May 05, 2015 No Comment(s)

Do you want to know what happened in Baltimore? Here’s what happened.

“From the wild Irish slums of the 19th-century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows large numbers of young men to grow up in broken families… never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future – that community asks for and gets chaos.” – Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

When Moynihan wrote that passage he was not thinking of Baltimore. But then again, he was. He died in 2003 and the quote is from a 1965 report he wrote when assistant secretary of labor in the Johnson administration. Moynihan was a sociologist by training, and went on to become a much admired U.S. senator from New York. Criticized by some as a racist at the time, he has since been recognized for his vision. He saw the future by observing the past. A year before his report, there had been a race riot in Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia riot was nothing if not complex (to this day people argue about it) and laden with irony. In 1964, Philadelphia had a new police commissioner, Howard Leary. He was progressive, reaching out to the black community and initiating a review board to handle claims of police brutality. But that made no difference one August day when a black couple on Columbia Avenue, not far from Temple University, got into a fight at an intersection. She was blocking traffic, but the woman refused to move her car, and when police tried to get her to move it, the neighborhood moved in. One man attacked the police (one black and one white officer), and soon word spread that a pregnant black woman had been killed by white police. Keep in mind, this was long before the Internet was around to fuel such wild rumors.

Three days of rioting and looting followed. The destruction of stores made the recent Baltimore violence seem tame. Commissioner Leary avoided heavy force, although hundreds of people were arrested. He sort of let the fire burn itself out, working to contain the looting to one busy street. Some contend black militants fueled the flames while local black clergy tried to stop it. Most of the destroyed stores were Jewish owned, adding an element of anti-Semitism to the incident.

After things settled down a bit, we were sent by Philadelphia magazine to analyze what had happened. We had a good guide. A black guy in our circulation department lived in the neighborhood. Our most vivid memory of that story is visiting a pool room at night. There was a bare bulb over the table, which seemed surrounded by 100 young guys, whose faces appeared olive green in that dim light. Some wondered if this white guy was a cop.

We met some of the guys who had been involved in the looting. If you asked them if they were angry, they would of course say yes, offering a litany of excuses for their behavior. But that mood seemed staged, and temporary. For the most part, they seemed pretty happy, joking around. None appeared to have any guilt about destroying the shopping street in their own neighborhood. One young man, a leader in the riot, actually gained stature for his role. "Street cred," before that term became popular. We had never heard of Daniel Patrick Moynihan at the time, but we were seeing up close and personal what he had written about. These were young men who, in another Moynihan phrase of “furious, unrestrained lashing out at the whole social structure.” All they needed was an excuse.

Not long after, we had a much different view of the same problem. We did a freelance piece for the United Presbyterian Church magazine. The church had poured money into a grade school in the same black neighborhood. They offered every program available to give little kids a better start in education. We spent some time in the back of a class of youngsters, second graders, we recall. Their teacher was an idealistic young white woman. We admired her for even venturing into that neighborhood on a daily basis. Not many would. Although we were a long time removed from our own early grade school days, we sensed that with these kids something was missing. The Olympics were going on at the time, and when the teacher asked if anyone knew what the Olympics were, dozens of hands crowded the air. The boy she called on said, “That’s where the man jumps over with a pole.”

As our assignment was ending, the teacher asked us to stay a few minutes after school. She showed us her book. Of about 30 children in her charge, only two or three came from homes with both a mother and father. The rest were either single parents, or in a number of cases, relatives, often grandparents.

“That’s the problem,” she said. This brings us back to Moynihan.

Fifty years later, that problem has only gotten worse. Even as educated or talented blacks have ascended to prominence, in such fields as the media, the military, sciences and the professions, and not the least, politics (notice who’s president of the U.S.), the black underclass has grown enormously. Seventy percent of black children are born out of wedlock. Single mothers struggle to support them. It takes two middle-class wage earners to raise a family today. Poverty is almost inevitable. Crime is its predictable accomplice. There are no father figures creating examples or exercising control.

The media, many of which are black, tell us the problem in Baltimore is poverty, unemployment, boarded up houses, crime, etc. But those are symptoms of the disease. Moynihan identified the germ so long ago, and to date no cure is in sight.


Image via


Add new comment