How One Guy’s Daddy Issues Inspired Mass Incarceration
Our season finale!
Let’s run it back one last time in 2020, subscriber,
And no, we’re not talking about Charles Koch again, but rather Daniel Patrick Moynihan, author of one of the most devastatingly impactful reports in US history:
This week’s story comes from From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America by Elizabeth Hinton, and Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.
If you’d like to learn even more about Danny Boy who, BTW, went on to become a New York Senator from 1977-2001 (freeking insane, I know), I’d recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates’ story on him in The Atlantic, which I also cite in this week’s episode.
Next season on Skipped History
We’ll look at how the racist ideas we covered this season spread abroad.
There will be coups, there will be wars, there will be exploitative industries, and there will be at least two references to this scene from There Will Be Blood:
We’ll kick off Season 2 in February or March. Darling paying members of the Skipped History squad will continue to hear from me between now and then!
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Until next time,
This week’s transcript
Hello, I’m Ben Tumin, and welcome to Skipped History. Today’s story is about Daniel Patrick Moynihan. I read about him and the 1960s in From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, by Elizabeth Hinton; Race for Profit, by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and an article in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Oh, Dannny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling... or was it the hooks?
When he was 10 years old, Daniel’s father left his family, plunging them into poverty and forcing them to move to New York. To help out his mom, Moynihan worked at the docks in Manhattan, and in 1943, at an entry exam for City College, he insisted on testing with a longshoreman’s loading hook in his back pocket lest he ‘be mistaken for any sissy kid.’ Yeah dressing like a pirate did trip him up when he got to question 6, “Claustrophobia leads to avoiding (a) rabbits (b) enclosed spaces (c) challenging salty sea dogs to duels!” but that’s the thing about Daniel: he was more style than substance. And after later studying sociology at the London School of Economics, where he adopted the mannerisms of an English aristocrat, Daniel charmed his way into a job as an aide at the US Department of Labor. There, he would help lay the groundwork for mass incarceration, which not coincidentally disproportionately affects Black people today.
Oh, Danny Boy.
Although we often associate incarceration with Reagan / the War on Drugs / Nixon / and “law and order,” they’re not the only ones responsible for the US today imprisoning more people than any country in the world. Because before there was a War on Drugs, there was a War on Crime, which LBJ initiated in response to repeated outbreaks of violence over the five summers of his presidency. From 1963-1969, hundreds of Black Americans died, thousands of officers and civilians were injured, and billions of dollars of property was destroyed. (Don’t worry, there was no Chuck E. Cheese yet, so the animatronic animals were unharmed.)
Why were people so heated? Well, as we’ve covered, there was a lot of structural inequality, and according to a Washington Post poll in 1967, “7 in every ten Negroes [said] that lack of decent housing contributed to the riots.” To his credit, LBJ responded by launching the War on Poverty, which created programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and by passing civil rights legislation like the Voting Rights Act. But he also came to see the protests less as a response to things like oppressive living conditions and more as a manifestation of the breakdown of Black American families. Why? Well, thanks to an internal government report in March of 1965 and which was drafted by, you guessed it, Danny Boy.
In the report, called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” Daniel said there’d been massive damage done to Black families by “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment.” With dads leaving families behind, the Black family relied on “a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male.” These moms, in turn, were to blame for problems like high unemployment, which led to crime, and Moynihan went so far as to criticize them for robbing Black men of their birthright: “The very essence of the male animal,” Daniel wrote, “from the bantam rooster to the four-star general, is to strut.” And putting aside how that’s new to me—sometimes, I prefer just to walk, or how it’s new to my dog, who whenever he has indigestion, prefers to scoot—there is another red flag here, which is that maybe the guy who carried a hook in his pocket to look tough was projecting just a tad.
You see, Daniel wasn’t a huge fan of his mom, later writing in his diary, “Apparently I loved the old man very much yet had to take sides... choosing mom in spite of loving pop.” “Both,” he said, “let me down badly,” and, “I find through the years this enormous emotional attachment to Father substitutes.” So maybe Daniel’s obsession with missing fathers and masculinity had to do with his “repressed feelings towards dad.” And maybe Daniel’s blaming of the breakdown of Black families on the “very large percent of Negro families… headed by females,” as he wrote in his report, had a little to do with a tough childhood living in a family headed by a female. And maybe his warning that, “Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world,” was reflective of his own tangle of poverty and relocation. Because either Daniel was projecting, or he was racist, or both, or the essence of Australian reporters while holding bantam roosters is to strut.
Red flags aside, Daniel’s report was a gift to the government, because it meant politicians could say the problems Black people faced weren’t structural but pathological. In other words, it’s not us, it’s you, which is pretty much what LBJ said in a commencement speech at Howard University soon after reading “The Negro Family.” Rather than emphasize the systemic obstacles faced by Black Americans, he insisted that Black American poverty stemmed from “the breakdown of the Negro family structure.” Six weeks later, in July 1965, he launched “a thorough, intelligent, and effective war against crime,” which enabled local governments to enlarge their police forces and acquire military-grade weapons for the first time.
When Nixon inherited LBJ’s War on Poverty and War on Crime, he said, Uh, no thanks to the anti-poverty programs and Yes, please to more crime control, as did to a large extent, his successors. Consequently, the government’s crime-control budget ballooned from $22 million in 1965 to $7 billion by the 1980s, so that even before Reagan added the War on Drugs to the equation, “Across party lines,” writes Elizabeth Hinton, “representatives increased urban patrol forces, enacted harsh and racially biased sentencing laws, and endorsed new penal institutions that made mass incarceration possible.”
In other words, mass incarceration became possible because Daniel gave the government justification to shift the blame for violence in the 1960s away from conditions that led to crime and onto people who committed it. Fast forward to 2020, and the US has the largest system of incarceration anywhere in the world ever, with the Black American youth Moynihan was so concerned about locked up more than anyone else.
Now, is Daniel alone responsible for mass incarceration? Of course not, but he helped provide the rationale for it, which speaks to a deeper problem: how do we live in a country where it’s possible for a racist pirate with the mannerisms of an English aristocrat to project his personal experiences onto the entirety of Black America and for the highest-ranking officials in the country to listen to him?
Well, part of the answer, as we’ve seen this season on Skipped History, is that racist ideas have spread around the country and across the political spectrum from before the Civil War into the present day, and those ideas, which tend to make people receptive to bad ideas, continue to shape many of our social and political institutions. And the spread of destructive, frankly idiotic bigotry didn’t stop at the American shoreline: those ideas also spread abroad.
Tune in next season to learn more about those bits of Skipped History—or as the Australians would say… I’ll tell you more later.
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Take a deep breath, look at some trees, and see you with new stories in 2021