All in the Family

The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s

Robert O. Self

Hill and Wang


On a March morning in 1964, the day after President Lyndon Johnson announced his War on Poverty, Sargent Shriver climbed the Capitol steps to deliver a report to Congress on the Job Corps, the centerpiece of the new president’s employment plan. Brother-in-law to the slain John F. Kennedy and former director of the Peace Corps, Shriver was confident that the administration’s antipoverty initiative reflected sound liberal economic theory and embodied Kennedy’s legacy.
Others were less convinced. “What brought about this limitation to young men?” the Oregon congresswoman Edith Green asked Shriver. A longtime advocate for women’s rights—she had sponsored the 1963 Equal Pay Act—Green was the lone woman on the committee considering Shriver’s report. “Are there not as many young women in this age group?”1
Shriver’s response was telling: “The general purpose of these [employment] centers” was to help young men who “we hope will be heads of families.” Naturally, he continued, men were charged with “supporting a family.” Prepared for such an answer, Green asked if, because the military already absorbed a large number of disadvantaged young men, there was not a “greater need” to train and employ young women?2
The following day, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the clean-cut former president of the Ford Motor Company and emblem of Camelot’s masculine resolve, arrived on Capitol Hill to explain another component of the president’s War on Poverty, the Pentagon’s plan to “rehabilitate” half a million young men who had failed the Selective Service exam. As she had with Shriver, Green asked McNamara why the administration seemed oblivious of the problems facing women. Plenty of young women, she told the defense secretary, “are bogged down because of poverty and are disadvantaged culturally, economically, and educationally.” McNamara echoed Shriver by asserting one of the assumptions of the era: “Boys are likely to be the heads of families and the primary breadwinners in the family.”3
Breadwinning was the ideal that had supported both middle-class domesticity and working-class demands for the “family wage” since the nineteenth century. Breadwinning divided labor by gender: men’s work was public, remunerative, family sustaining, while women’s work was domestic, caregiving, and, if it was remunerative, supplementary to their husbands’ wages. He performed market work; she performed family work. The social psychologist Morris Zelditch summed up the era’s conventional wisdom in 1955, writing that “the American male, by definition, must ‘provide’ for his family … his primary function in the family is to supply ‘income,’ to be the ‘breadwinner.’” Male breadwinning was so taken for granted that it was not even acknowledged as an ideology, as a choice. It functioned as an organizing mythology of social life and was believed to be the bedrock of a sound family and by extension a sound society. Its pervasive influence explains a great deal about how Americans struggled to shape the social order in these decades.4
This male head of household contracting his labor in the marketplace was more than social science and cultural touchstone, however. He drove public policy. In the 1930s he was enshrined in the New Deal welfare state, which sought to assist the breadwinner’s efforts in the market. Inasmuch as the nation had developed a national employment policy—through legislation such as the 1935 Social Security and Wagner acts, the 1937 Fair Labor Standards Act, and the 1946 Employment Act—it was based on male-breadwinner ideology. The New Deal’s “citizen worker” and the nuclear family he headed remained a mainstay of conventional liberal thinking and a cornerstone of the Keynesian consensus that guided 1960s economic policy, which together can be called breadwinner liberalism.5
For the greater part of the sixties, Green and women like her had little success in challenging breadwinner liberalism. During the heady days of Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society, men, and their status as citizen workers, monopolized the attention of big-picture policy thinkers. The nation’s liberal establishment knew that women engaged in market work. After all, federal and state governments offered vocational programs that trained women and provided the poorest among them with needed services. But postwar liberals nonetheless consistently underestimated the growing importance of women’s market labor to the fate of families and the nation. They remained well behind a curve that was to define the last third of the twentieth century: the shifting of greater and greater economic responsibilities within the American household, and in the country at large, onto the backs of women.6
Yet before Great Society liberalism ran headlong into the women’s movement in the late sixties, the black freedom movement had already politicized the nation’s breadwinners. Compelled by the surging calls for civil rights and African American equality, liberal officials, from Johnson, Shriver, and McNamara to Robert Weaver and Wilbur Cohen, came to believe that ending racial discrimination and embarking on ambitious antipoverty and affirmative action programs would allow heretofore marginalized black men to become productive workers and heads of families. They sought to expand the reach of breadwinner liberalism to encompass black men. Such efforts collided with a white working-class breadwinner ideology, which championed a presumptively race-neutral ethic of male labor and responsibility. In a paradox that would produce decades of conflict, breadwinner ideology thus became the basis for both a liberal project of racial recompense and equal opportunity and the conservative resistance provoked by that project.
Because so few Americans questioned the naturalness of the nuclear family, what most divided Great Society liberals from their opponents was the nature and extent of government assistance. Liberals’ focus in the sixties on the deficiencies of male breadwinners, especially nonwhite ones, opened a political flank exploited by the opponents of civil rights and the welfare state, critics such as George Wallace or the conservative columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. If men failed to become breadwinners and support families, these opponents argued, it was a personal failure, not a social one. Breadwinners earned their places at the heads of families; their jobs and income were products of individual effort. Government, these critics conceded, should certainly endorse market freedom for potential breadwinners, a classic “negative” right. But to take further, positive steps to ensure equality was to overextend government’s mandate. The allegedly race-blind meritocratic individualism that supplanted forthright segregationism during and especially after the 1960s was a version of breadwinning that could be bent toward a distinctly conservative view of social policy. Arguments against civil rights, affirmative action, and other state interventions on behalf of people of color and poor people increasingly bore the stamp of this individualist, bootstrap version of male-breadwinner ideology. Manhood signaled many things, dependency on government not among them.7
As Green’s dispute with Shriver and McNamara demonstrated, conservative opposition was hardly breadwinner liberalism’s only obstacle. It suffered its own blinders. Breadwinner liberalism failed to come to terms with women’s rapidly evolving relationship to work. It posited marriage, not the marketplace, as the vehicle for women’s economic security and public standing. The nation’s marketplace, the remunerative economic sphere, remained the public world of men. Financially taken care of by her husband, a woman could preoccupy herself with domestic goals, avoiding the rough-and-tumble workplace and the vagaries of the market. Such a model of the sexes, derived largely from nineteenth-century white middle-class notions of public and private spheres, never described a majority of Americans in any decade, but it grew woefully outdated as the long postwar economic boom began to fizzle in the late 1960s.8
Breadwinner liberalism represented the dominant liberal thinking in the early sixties. Its advocates believed it to be the best, most politically defensible alternative to socialism on the left and free-market libertarianism on the right. Yet it was far narrower than its architects imagined and therefore vulnerable to social movements that would point out its exclusions. In particular, the rising political fortunes of African Americans and women threw inherited notions of breadwinning, and therefore breadwinner liberalism, into turmoil. The centrality of the male breadwinner was such that the disputes that erupted over him, the critiques leveled at him, and the defenses marshaled on his behalf set in motion a decades-long political and cultural transformation.
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Two distinct ways of thinking about work and family clashed in the first half of the 1960s. One focused on women. Its advocates—namely, a small but growing coterie of female trade unionists, academics, and politicians (such as Edith Green)—argued that with women constituting more than one-third of the paid workforce, the male-breadwinner ideal was becoming a historical relic. In 1962 blue- and pink-collar and professional women together contributed between one-quarter and one-third of family income in the United States, and one in ten households was headed solely by a woman (one in four among African American women). The obstacles these women faced were abundant: low wages, job and educational discrimination, sex segregation, and unaffordable child care.9
The second and more influential way of thinking focused on men. New Frontier and Great Society liberals worried deeply about male unemployment, the replacement of manpower by machine power in the nation’s factories, and the racial discrimination that kept black men underemployed and in poverty. Though they pushed for better education and training of young working-class men of all backgrounds, they devoted their greatest attention to the reality that too many impoverished fathers, black and white, would not or could not support families. Liberals stressed the need to rehabilitate the male breadwinner—through social programs, remunerative market work, and military service—and return him to his proper place at the head of the family.10
Those who focused on women were divided. Since the 1940s labor union women had led the fight for higher wages and better working conditions for female workers. Sensitive to the precarious balance between women’s paid work and family work, they sought a broad array of reforms aimed at helping them, especially equal pay for equal work, government-subsidized child care, and maternity leave. Their influence, though limited, came from the women’s divisions of major trade unions, including auto, meatpacking, and electrical workers, female-dominated unions such as the clothing and garment workers, statewide AFL-CIO federations, and the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor. By the early 1960s their political efforts had begun to reap small rewards. In 1961, President Kennedy fulfilled a long-standing goal of the Women’s Bureau when he created the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) and appointed the labor reformer Esther Peterson to run it. And in 1963 Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, for which Peterson and other prominent labor union women had lobbied since World War II.11
Labor union women came from diverse backgrounds to unite over common objectives. Dollie Lowther Robinson, the daughter of southern black sharecroppers, migrated in the 1930s to New York City, where she organized a union of laundry workers. She advised the Women’s Bureau in the 1940s and later earned a law degree and served as secretary of labor in New York State. Mary Callahan, a widow and mother of one, took a factory job in the electrical industry in the 1930s. She later helped win provisions for maternity leave in union contracts. Kennedy appointed her to the PCSW in 1961. Robinson and Callahan believed in women’s equality to men, but they also saw an economic marketplace that exploited women and compromised their ability to be mothers. As a result, they and women like them fought for minimum wages and hours for women—so-called protective legislation—alongside maternity leave and child care, treading the fine line between a woman’s freedom to work and her family responsibilities.12
Labor union women’s support for protective laws and their reluctance to challenge sex segregation—the relegation of women into jobs men preferred not to do—left them vulnerable to charges that they did not support full workplace equality. After all, in a market where women constituted 86 percent of elementary school teachers, 97 percent of physicians’ assistants and dental hygienists, and 97 percent of secretaries but less than 5 percent of lawyers and physicians, protective legislation was a limited approach to improving women’s options. Women needed access to the entire occupational ladder—not special treatment as women but equal treatment as workers.13
This view was strongly supported by the National Woman’s Party (NWP). The NWP had long disparaged the Women’s Bureau and its reformist objectives. This division among feminists dated to the 1920s, when the NWP had first introduced the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and embraced full equality with men in the labor market. Led and supported by professional women from middle- and upper-class backgrounds—often known as equal rights feminists—the NWP chafed at the barriers to women’s full participation in market work and rejected a model of female citizenship constrained by motherhood and family.14
Both contingents wanted to expand economic opportunity and ease the double burden of paid work and family work, but they viewed the market from different perspectives. Equal rights feminists argued that sex discrimination denied women personal fulfillment and depressed female wages across the economy. They viewed the market from the top down. Labor feminists countered that if left unprotected to compete with men in the market, women would be exploited by employers and would lose support for motherhood. They saw the market from the bottom up. The differing viewpoints stemmed from class realities. For middle-class women, the problem was forced domesticity and denial of access to the market. For working-class women, the problem was forced market labor and the denial of full-time domesticity.15
However divided, women’s activists generated real political momentum in the mid-sixties. They were not yet powerful enough, however, to displace deeply ingrained habits of mind, as well as economic and social theory, in which the problems of men were the overriding concern of economic policy and equal rights legislation.
To many observers, these problems appeared most acute among African Americans. In the tenets of breadwinner liberalism, black men occupied a special, troubled place. Owing to a segregated labor market and a racist labor movement, black men were unemployed at far higher rates than whites. An accomplishment of the black freedom movement was to make this a pressing national concern. “The virtual exclusion of Negroes from apprenticeship and other training programs,” Herbert Hill, labor director of the NAACP, wrote in 1962, “forces them to remain as marginal employees in the economy and directly affects the economic well-being of the entire Negro community.” In his 1964 book To Be Equal, the Urban League’s Whitney Young estimated that “one million Negroes—one out of every four Negro workers—are unemployed,” a crisis for African Americans and the country. “Either we make these people constructive citizens,” he predicted, “or they are going to be destructive dependents.” Invoking breadwinner ideology, Young worried about black families’ long-term reliance on government assistance or their detachment from the labor market altogether. Dependents were not providers. They were not real men.16
The crisis that so disturbed Young dated to the 1940s and 1950s. Between 1945 and 1960 national black unemployment hovered around 10 percent, but it spiked to 15–18 percent in industrial cities such as Detroit, Oakland, and Chicago. Typically, young black men found themselves unemployed at twice the rate of their elders—as high as 30–40 percent in some cities. Automation, plant relocation, and racial discrimination closed much of the nation’s industrial labor market to young black men for nearly two decades, even as migration from southern farms to northern cities increased. In a society based on male breadwinning, so many unemployed men did not invoke the language of crisis only because black leaders were unable to penetrate national racism and draw attention to the problem until the 1960s.17
Civil rights leaders were not oblivious of black women’s fate in the labor market—where married black women were 50 percent more likely than married white women to work for wages—but they saw the unemployment and underemployment of men as more urgent. For many civil rights leaders, racial progress was inseparably linked to the capacity of African American families to create the male-breadwinner, female-homemaker household presumed to be enjoyed by whites. The common goal of the upwardly mobile black family involved trading a woman’s domestic labor in a white home for prideful domestic labor in her own home.18
The long fight for fair employment based on race stretched back to the 1930s. In the middle years of that decade, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League (NUL) campaigned unsuccessfully to have nondiscrimination guarantees included in major New Deal legislation. A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement, which won establishment of the wartime Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC) during World War II, was a continuation of those efforts. But Congress refused to extend the FEPC after the war. Randolph, the NAACP, and a generation of African American activists then spent two decades endeavoring to place fair employment on the national political agenda. With each passing year, the crisis in black communities grew worse.
As black leaders drew attention to the marketplace’s racial bias, women’s advocates attempted to draw attention to its gender bias. Among the contributors to the PCSW, the most forward thinking was the African American civil rights activist and feminist intellectual Pauli Murray, who told the commission that women should push “to extend the concept of equal protection of the law to discrimination grounded in sex and sex alone.” The commission’s 1963 report to the president, entitled American Women, fell short of Murray’s ambitious agenda. Still, it far outstripped the conventional wisdom of New Frontier liberalism, calling for significant government action on behalf of women in the marketplace, in health and child care, and in property and divorce law. Presenting women as more than wives and mothers (without dismissing those roles), American Women introduced a new concept to liberal politics: women experienced a set of problems because they were women. There was no universal genderless citizen.19
Following Kennedy’s assassination, Congress considered the Civil Rights Act, which promised equal rights to all racial groups, including labor market protections. It was, first and foremost, a response to the civil rights movement, which is more accurately called the black freedom movement, since its objectives went beyond civil standing to economic and political justice. Women’s advocates monitored the bill carefully, hoping that it might advance their interests as well. But “sex” was added to its protections through an unexpected route. Howard Smith, a segregationist congressman from Virginia and chair of the powerful House Rules Committee, introduced, to provoke his political enemies and possibly defeat the bill, an amendment to add “sex” to race, color, religion, and national origin in the act’s employment section. Smith told Congress that since the “bill is so imperfect, what harm will this little amendment do?”20
Esther Peterson was incredulous at Smith’s gambit. So was Edith Green, who pointed out that “the strongest proponents of the sex amendment were the Southerners who were the strongest opponents of the equal pay for equal work legislation.” Moreover, many of the members of the National Woman’s Party who encouraged Smith, led by Nina Horton Avery, were themselves devoted segregationists—whites loath to see the rights of African Americans, male or female, advanced ahead of their own.21
Smith’s sex amendment threw women’s advocates into disarray. Green feared that its inclusion would either defeat the bill outright or, if the bill passed, would invalidate women’s protective legislation. But Murray, who coined the term “Jane Crow,” possessed a keener sense of the kinds of discrimination black women faced and believed that Title VII would do little for them without the inclusion of “sex.” She urged Green in a private letter to “reflect upon the significance of this amendment for Negro women.” Other proponents of the sex amendment, however, couched their support in unapologetically racist language. One southern congressman reminded his colleagues that without the amendment a white woman “would be drastically discriminated against in favor of a Negro woman,” an abomination he could not sanction. The result was a strange political alliance. Pauli Murray, a dedicated black freedom and women’s advocate, found herself allied with segregationists in favor of the amendment, while Green, a women’s advocate and a fierce defender of black rights, opposed them both.22
The sex amendment remained in the bill but played little role in its ultimate fate, which hinged almost exclusively on its racial implications. To everyone save women’s advocates, the Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of sex discrimination was a joke. Politicians across the political spectrum considered distinctions based on sex, not their abolishment, desirable. Women’s biological difference, the self-evident priority of their family work, and their “femininity” demanded such distinctions. The liberal New Republic wondered if “a mischievous joke perpetrated on the floor of the House of Representatives” should be taken seriously “by a responsible administrative body.” Conservatives at The Wall Street Journal struck a similarly dismissive tone, asking readers to imagine “a shapeless, knobby-kneed male ‘bunny’ serving drinks” or a “matronly vice president” chasing “a male secretary.” Male breadwinning determined thinking about market work and family work to such an extent that Americans by and large could not imagine women’s paid labor as anything but secondary, existing in a realm of distinct and segregated “women’s work.” To suggest otherwise was laughable.23
When the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), charged with enforcing Title VII, began to consider the new law in 1965, its chairman, Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., placed little emphasis on sex discrimination. Addressing racial discrimination, he believed, was of far greater import. Like most liberal Americans, the leaders of the commission saw racial discrimination as unnatural and harmful and sex discrimination as natural. Given the presumptions of the era and the crisis of black male unemployment, that conclusion is understandable—and many at the time believed utterly defensible. Unknowingly and largely unintentionally, however, the insertion of “sex” into Title VII would in time prove providential, becoming in the late sixties and seventies a means by which women could make their second-class economic citizenship a question of rights. Still, it would be two years, during which time women flooded the EEOC with sex discrimination complaints and founded the National Organization for Women (NOW), before the commission even began to consider the marketplace’s sex inequalities.24
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The Civil Rights Act was not even a year old when a quick trio of thunderclaps struck the black freedom movement in 1965. In February, Harlem buried Malcolm X. “Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood,” the actor and activist Ossie Davis said in his eulogy to the overflow crowd of mourners on 125th Street. Then that spring an assistant secretary of labor under President Johnson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, drafted The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, which introduced the haunting phrase “tangle of pathology” into the civil rights debate. The following August, just days after Johnson had signed the Voting Rights Act, black residents in Watts, Los Angeles, burned and looted nearly a hundred square blocks of homes and businesses. Each event drew breadwinner liberalism closer to the center of national debate about what the nation owed African Americans and what they owed the nation.25
Malcolm X called for black freedom “by any means necessary,” but he and the Nation of Islam stressed male responsibility. A political radical, Malcolm X, owing to his religion, was a patriarchal conservative. He attributed his escape from the world of chaotic street violence to “manly” self-discipline and took after black leaders like Robert F. Williams, the North Carolina advocate of black self-defense, who told an NAACP audience in 1959 that “we as men should stand up as men and protect our women and children.” Malcolm X’s belief system involved adherence to a “strict moral code and discipline,” including a lifetime commitment to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, narcotics, and other vices and a pledge to “shelter and protect and respect” black women. Malcolm X saw no contradiction between his radical politics and his conservative vision of the black family.26
That vision was widely shared in African American communities. In April 1963 eleven black leaders had met to draft a report for Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women. Cernoria Johnson of the National Urban League insisted that in “trying to strengthen family life,” it was imperative to address “the male, in order to bring the picture together.” Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, concurred. “Negro women,” Height said, must respond to the black man’s need to feel respected “in order that he may strengthen his home.” Johnson, Height, and the other middle-class women present agreed that black women needed better access to education and good jobs but stressed that the central goal of public policy ought to be securing a male breadwinner at the head of the black family. Echoing such sentiments, a black youth project director in Los Angeles told the Nation of Islam’s Muhammad Speaks: “When a man cannot find employment which pays enough to support his family, this man becomes less than a man.”27
Moynihan’s report represented a scholarly if strained version of the same idea. Theorizing that black men were “trapped in a tangle of pathology,” fathering children out of wedlock and eschewing the breadwinner role, The Negro Family warned that “the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling.” Federal policy, the report argued, should set “a new kind of national goal: the establishment of a stable Negro family.” Echoing prominent social science dating to W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1908 Negro American Family that found subsequent expression in E. Franklin Frazier’s 1939 The Negro Family in the United States, Gunnar Myrdal’s 1945 American Dilemma, and Kenneth Clark’s 1965 Dark Ghetto, Moynihan blamed black men’s abandonment of the family on joblessness, white racism, and the legacies of slavery. In the vacuum created by male flight, Moynihan observed, a matriarchy had arisen. This “deviant” family structure led to a “startling increase in welfare dependency,” the “fundamental problem” in the contemporary black community.28
No social welfare policy should concern the country more, Moynihan concluded, than restoring black men to the breadwinning head of the family. Out of Malcolm X’s mouth, the identical claim was embedded in a complex conversation among African Americans about their cultural history and collective destiny. Coming from Moynihan, it could be interpreted as another in the history of white sexual mythologies about black Americans. Indeed, Moynihan’s report seemed to rationalize African Americans’ second-class citizenship on the basis of their alleged familial pathology.29
Soon after Moynihan’s assessment came the final thunderclap. On an August evening two California highway patrolmen stopped twenty-one-year-old Marquette Frye at 116th and Avalon in Watts, on the far south side of Los Angeles. Frye’s mother, Rena, hurried down the street to prevent her car, which Marquette had been driving while intoxicated, from being impounded. Accounts of what happened next vary, but what is certain is that after his mother appeared, the officers took issue with Frye’s behavior and handled him roughly. Brandishing guns, they faced a gathering crowd of onlookers accustomed to the indignities of routine police brutality. When Frye resisted, the white officers beat him. Rena intervened on behalf of her son, and she was promptly arrested. It was a complex drama of family, manhood, and white repression that could have taken place in virtually any black community in early-sixties America.30
In Watts, though, the outcome was different. News of the arrests and beating, along with wild rumors, spread up Avalon. The neighborhood erupted. Residents reacted with a wave of burning, looting, and scuffles with police that built slowly over several hours and eventually engulfed more than ninety square blocks in flames and violence for seven days. The worst riot of the twentieth century left a stunning 34 dead, 1,042 injured, and 3,952 arrested. Watts shocked whites, including a dispirited President Johnson. Disheartened African American leaders, who had celebrated the signing of the Voting Rights Act a week earlier, feared a backlash from the largely white authorities. Watts, filtered through the perspective of Moynihan, brought breadwinner liberalism to the fore as the primary crucible of debate over African Americans’ place in the nation.31
The McCone Commission, appointed by California Governor Edmund G. Brown, convened to investigate the riot in the autumn of 1965. Moynihan’s logic played a major role in its conclusions. Brown himself blamed the riot on “a scene of broken families and broken hearts, of lonely children and aimless adults.” The “sickness in the center of our cities,” the McCone report read, began with joblessness and thwarted ambitions, which together led to “a family whose breadwinner is chronically out of work” and “invariably a disintegrating family.” Activists and politicians testified to a more complex reality, citing the long history of police brutality, housing discrimination, and other obstacles African Americans faced, but to no avail. The McCone Commission gave birth to an archetype: the rootless, unemployed, and fatherless black man prone to violence.32
Two months before the riot, President Johnson had also drawn heavily on Moynihan’s report, then an internal administration document, for a frank and widely praised speech at Howard University. Standing before graduating seniors, representatives of the rising postwar black middle class, he touched on America’s history of racial discrimination, especially “the centuries of oppression and persecution of the Negro man,” which had led to the “breakdown of the Negro family structure.” Ending racial oppression, he declared, would be “a chief goal of my administration, and of my program next year, and in the years to come.” The section of the speech on “family breakdown” drew applause from the audience, striking a chord among men and women who could assume he did not mean them. The Howard University speech represented the rhetorical high point of the Great Society’s efforts to expand breadwinner liberalism—to expand the social and economic citizenship promised in the New Deal. Away from the public eye, Johnson presented his policy goals in blunter language: “to teach these nigras that don’t know anything how to work for themselves, instead of just breeding.”33
Moynihan’s report ambushed black leaders. Despite its resonance with thinking in black circles, most African Americans, as Michele Wallace later wrote, “wanted to cut Daniel Moynihan’s heart out and feed it to the dogs.” Responding to the report seemed imperative because members of the media, along with liberal allies and civil rights opponents alike, constantly invoked it. James Farmer, director of CORE and one of the report’s most vigorous critics, spoke for many when he insisted that “Moynihan has provided a massive academic copout for the whole white conscience.”34
Moynihan and Watts undermined the extraordinary legislative gains of 1964 and 1965. Together the report and riot threatened the black freedom movement’s still-tenuous legitimacy among whites and shifted the national discussion away from the moral legitimacy of black demands to familial arrangements in the black community. Black freedom activists had no other options but to recalibrate their message for a debate about black manhood. For in the hands of anti-civil-rights conservatives such as the South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond and the West Virginia senator Robert C. Byrd, as well as the commentators William F. Buckley, Rowland Evans, and Robert Novak, the supposed gender role pathology of impoverished African American families became an argument against, not for, greater government attention to African American rights—the opposite of what Moynihan had intended. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that opponents of racial equality would posit moral decline as an argument against government action in the realm of civil rights.35
Many commentators, black and white, viewed Moynihan through a Freudian lens of sexual psychodrama. “The breakup [of the black family],” wrote psychologist Webster Argow, “acted as a psychological castration of the male.” Black men, this line of reasoning suggested, faced emasculation at the hands of whites in public and at the hands of black women in private. Castration and emasculation became such accepted metaphors for black men’s status that the first generation of civil-rights-era feminists and womanists, as Alice Walker was to name them, confronted the trope out of necessity. In their 1969 essay in Liberator, Jean Carey Bond and Patricia Peery asked, “Has the black male been castrated?” They answered with a resounding no, but their argument—that Moynihan relied on specious gender stereotypes rooted in slavery and white supremacist thought—confirmed how thoroughly the debate over black rights had become entangled with arguments about gender roles.36
The Moynihan report’s portrait of male unemployment as devastating to black families and communities has been vindicated. But this portrait was not revelatory in 1965, especially among African American activists. What Moynihan did get wrong was his depiction of black “matriarchy,” which suffered from the gender assumptions common to most liberal social scientists of the era. He was right about the long-term consequences of absent or out-of-work fathers, but his dismissive tone toward black women struggling to keep family and home together was to haunt and constrain future political efforts to defend poor black communities.37
At the time of its release, however, the report’s political impact trumped questions about its accuracy. Many journalists and commentators either failed to read the entire report or distilled its complex message to the enticing and sensational “tangle of pathology.” Most damaging was a column by Evans and Novak that appeared on August 18 as Watts lay smoldering. Implying that family breakdown had caused the rioting, they ignored the report’s focus on economic discrimination and the legacy of slavery and segregation. How the nation responded to the report, they concluded, “may determine whether this country is doomed to succeeding summers of guerilla warfare in our cities.” By neglecting the report’s indictment of slavery, Jim Crow, job discrimination, and white racism, reporters and conservative activists ignored social context and reported simply on “family breakdown” or, worse, “castration.” By admitting the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, as Moynihan did, one could see broken black families as subjects of democratic rights and amenable to government intervention. Shear that legacy away, as many conservatives chose to do, and there remained only fixed pathologies beyond help or hope.38
Not a few commentators since 1965 have lamented that black leaders and white liberals largely rejected the report and enforced silence on the subject for decades. In refusing to see any validity in Moynihan’s work, these commentators have argued, liberals made it impossible to discuss crucial questions of black male responsibility even though many black leaders themselves acknowledged the importance of such questions. This line of reasoning is understandable, but it raises a crucial question: How could the report not have been rejected? Its transformation of a moral crusade for equal rights into a discussion of gender role pathology seemed guaranteed to disable the movement at that historical moment. In the previous eighteen months, Congress had passed the most important equality legislation in a hundred years. The president had announced both the War on Poverty and a new commitment to equality of result among the nation’s citizens. The worst riot of the century had taken place in August. Nationally, unemployment among young black men ranged between 15 and a staggering 30 percent. All this had carried the black freedom movement to its most important crossroad since emancipation. Pushing forward would require a combination of immense political capital, wide public support, compelling moral authority, and a committed national state. Moynihan, however unwittingly and unintentionally, offered an escape hatch from that difficult work ahead. To accept a discussion at that historical moment on the terrain of moral and familial dysfunction was already to have lost the debate.
The pathologizing of African American men placed African American women in an almost untenable position. They heard from all sides that their job was to support “their men.” “It was her man,” wrote the Chicago psychiatrist Kermit Mehlinger, “who bore the full impact of the white man’s oppression.” Navigating those demands, especially in the context of an emerging women’s movement led by whites, would prove treacherous for black women’s advocates. But these demands would also be the starting point for a distinctly African American feminism. In 1966, at the height of the Moynihan debate, Pauli Murray wrote to the Johnson aide William Yancey to say that “by stressing the matriarchal nature of Negro family life, the Moynihan report failed to place it in the broader context of changes in American family life generally.” Murray meant that American women of all kinds, black and white, pink-, blue-, and white-collar, were becoming family providers because of economic necessity. Taking the Moynihan report at face value, she cautioned, could have “the possible result that Negro males would be pitted against Negro females in a highly competitive instead of cooperative endeavor.” The report, she implied, wrongly encouraged black women to step back so that black men could step up.39
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Few periods in American history match the urgency of the half decade after Watts. One compelling voice that embodied the intensity of these years belonged to Stokely Carmichael, who issued his call for “black power” in a June 1966 speech in Greenwood, Mississippi. Tough-minded, erudite, and sickened by the intransigency of white authorities since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Carmichael called for black unity and political power, drawing from Malcolm X, the Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and the Ghanian president Kwame Nkrumah. Black power awakened more than rage. It pulled forward the long-sought objective of self-determination, in which black communities were not supplicants of white favor but autonomous agents of their own will. In that context, black power also served as a vehicle for men to lay claim to both a heroic and a breadwinning manhood.40
The notion of black power stretched centuries in black consciousness. Its roots lay in the notion that African Americans ought to control their own communities, own their own assets, and set the terms of their relationship to the larger society, rather than have to live as whites instructed them to. When Carmichael called for “black people to begin to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations and to support those organizations,” his words resonated with African Americans across the country whose communities had by necessity been shaped by self-help and built on a foundation of racial pride. “I would rather have a black man make forty mistakes in the next year if he was doing it out of love and unity … than have a white man do everything for me,” Detroit’s Rev. Albert Cleague wrote in 1968. Self-help was one cornerstone of black power. Another was the refusal to do the bidding of whites. When he defied the U.S.government by refusing to serve in Vietnam in 1967, Muhammad Ali said to white America: “I don’t have to be what you want me to be.” Black power’s reclamation of manhood was therefore a double gesture. It was an assertion of humanity. But it was also an expression of a more literal manhood: the courageousness, the audacity of that assertion was a manly one.41
Defense of family and community against white violence had long been an African American man’s responsibility. As Carmichael explained in his 1966 speech, such defense had become even more critical because of the violent turn of white authorities and vigilantes since 1954—what James Boggs called white barbarism. The Emmett Till murder in 1955, the bricks that greeted black high school students in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, the savage beating and firebombing of freedom riders in 1961, Medgar Evers’s murder in 1963, the killing of four black girls in Birmingham, Alabama, and three Freedom Summer volunteers in Mississippi in 1964, the mass beatings at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, and the murder of Sammy Younge in 1966, among countless others—the names and years invoke an era of brutal white repression. In the face of such violence, against the backdrop of the Moynihan report, a new generation of young African American men followed Carmichael in saying “enough.” Their adoption of the working-class argot and exaggerated masculine bearing of the street and their refusal to please whites signaled authentic black manhood.42
White commentators preoccupied themselves with the meaning of Carmichael’s declaration and its association with violence, especially potential violence against whites. Panic turned to hysteria in May 1967, when Huey Newton and the Black Panthers marched legally and peacefully into the California Assembly with rifles on their hips. Most whites did not see themselves implicated in violence against African Americans and could comprehend neither the escalating rhetoric and posturing of black power nor the rioting that swept through American cities in the “long hot summers” of 1967 and 1968. The white establishment, as Paul Good wrote in The New York Times, “had tolerated racial injustice for a century yet denounced black power in a day.” To dramatize white complicity in black misery, black power spokesmen, sometimes unwittingly and sometimes knowingly, offered evidence for the opposite conclusion: that black male anger absolved whites of responsibility and that black power was a nihilistic, hypermasculine, and destructive philosophy. Figures like Carmichael, Newton, and H. Rap Brown, among others, embodied the black manhood, oversize and outlaw, that white society mythologized and feared.43
If whites were preoccupied with black power’s violent implications, many African Americans focused on its familial implications. Though sometimes exaggerated, black power represented, among other things, the latest iteration in the attempt by African Americans to assert “traditional” manhood and womanhood as cornerstones of black domestic life. When Malcolm X wrote about “the importance of the father-male image in the strong household,” he invoked a gender ideology embraced by most Americans, but one that held special significance for black families torn asunder by the legacies of slavery and the burdens of poverty.44
The manifestations of this manhood varied widely. Some men, taking Eldridge Cleaver’s notion of pussy power seriously, saw revolutionary black women as sexual rewards for the warrior male. In a less exploitative mode, Maulana “Ron” Karenga, who founded the political organization US in Los Angeles in 1965, conceived an Afrocentric nationalism, loosely based on what the poet Amiri Baraka called a “black value system,” that promised a restored black manhood. Local organizations across the country, such as the Black Coalition in Philadelphia, Albert Cleague’s nationalist Christian church, Shrine of the Black Madonna, and the Newark Congress of African People, likewise embraced a renewed black patriarchy. Many men, cognizant of the feminism emerging among black women, were careful to heap praise on their “sisters.” Honorifics aside, however, most envisioned a world in which women, in the words of Karenga, would dedicate themselves to the “inspiration, education, and social development of the nation.”45
Though one version of black power embodied renewed manhood, the call for self-determination and group consciousness inspired widespread female activism and the emergence of black feminism. It emerged in part from the untenable position Pauli Murray recognized and felt compelled to write William Yancey about. “Of course we have to help the black man,” the congresswoman Shirley Chisholm said in 1969, “but not at the expense of our own personalities as women. The black man must step forward, but that doesn’t mean we have to step back.” For Chisholm, a Barbadian from Brooklyn whose up-front feminism elicited the ire of many male black leaders, black power was a fluid concept that embraced self-help, community organizing, and even electoral politics—not simply “manly” resistance. “Upon the rebirth of the liberation struggle in the sixties, a whole genre of ‘women’s place’ advocates immediately relegated black women to home and babies which is almost as ugly an expression of black Anglo-Saxonism as is Nixon’s concept of ‘black capitalism,’” the African American feminist Linda La Rue wrote in 1970. The proper response to white supremacy, La Rue made clear, was not male supremacy. Many African American women agreed.46
Indeed, most black women saw their own work, and the work of their mothers and grandmothers, as an equally valid form of black power. “It is really disgusting to hear Black women talking about giving Black men their manhood—or allowing them to get it,” wrote the African American feminist Mary Ann Weathers in 1969. What Moynihan and many male African American commentators viewed as a punishing “matriarchy” was, in reality, a long tradition of community-sustaining labor by black women. For the generation of women that began shaping black feminist consciousness between 1965 and 1970, black power was less about conspicuous masculinity than about a self-reliant black community and a revolution in gender roles.47
Male-dominated black power and white-dominated mainstream feminism meant that black feminists found themselves caught between the emphasis on male breadwinning and the greater social capital of whites. However, black feminists turned that seemingly narrow space into a capacious one. Weathers, La Rue, Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, Frances Beal, and Beverly Smith, among others, laid the groundwork for understanding the unique predicaments of people who were neither male nor white; others would add “heterosexual.” Joining them was a growing group of women—Pauli Murray, Aileen Hernandez, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Sadie Alexander among them—who had secured positions of influence in white-dominated organizations such as NOW or in the field of law. They issued a powerful critique of both breadwinner liberalism and the male-centered politics of black power. From liberal to radical, black feminists refused to accept manhood as the only currency of sixties activism.48
The prominence of male black power figures and white obsession with violence obscured the complex debate within African American communities over the role of gender within the black freedom movement. That debate was animated by a critical question: Did the liberation of black America require conventional domesticity in which men not only restored community power but reclaimed their rightful place at the head of the family? This question raged across the spectrum of the black public sphere: in the pages of the bourgeois Ebony, the progressive Liberator and Freedomways, the mass-market Jet, the intellectual Black Scholar; in dozens of African American newspapers; and in tens of thousands of black churches. In the way that all nationalist movements historically have been bound to one version of family life or another, so too was black power.49
Black power held within its wide embrace many distinct types of manhood and womanhood. These included Malcolm X’s disciplined patriarchy, Shirley Chisholm’s uncompromising feminism, Gloria Richardson’s feminine warrior ideal, the intellectual-as-activist model of Angela Davis, Huey Newton’s sexual magnetism and blatant misogyny, the welfare rights of George Wiley and Johnnie Tillmon, Albert Cleague’s Christian nationalism, Flo Kennedy’s audacious and unapologetic feminist politics, and Amiri Baraka’s probing thought, which evolved from the beat-inspired black macho of the mid-1960s to the responsible patriarchy and Kawaida values of the Spirit House in Newark, New Jersey. Born in the crucible of mid-sixties African American agitation, but stretching deep into history, black power asserted manhood but also led to black feminism.
Each in its own way became a powerful challenge to the reigning conventions of breadwinner liberalism, because black men asserted their right to be breadwinners in white-dominated America and black women asserted their right not to be shoved aside in a male-dominated America. Though the preponderance of nationalist sentiment across a range of African American movements converged on the conviction that male-headed breadwinner nuclear families would best advance the cause of the larger black struggle, the alternatives to that ideal would in time come into their own on the American landscape. In the wake of Moynihan and Watts, however, that time remained on the horizon. In the mid-1960s, most African American leaders remained overwhelmingly preoccupied with winning recognition of black men’s status as breadwinners in an economy long accustomed to denying them that role.
*   *   *
Great Society liberals crafted government programs to shore up breadwinner families. President Johnson opened the War on Poverty in March 1964 by making no secret of his concern with male breadwinners, both white and black. “There are 2.3 million fatherless families in America who have inherited nothing but their father’s poverty,” he said. Denied breadwinning mates, single mothers sought work as domestics, service workers, and factory laborers. But these jobs, Johnson continued, could not “furnish the stability and income so sorely needed in [the] absence of an able, breadwinning father.”50
The next year, following the riot in Watts, Vice President Hubert Humphrey voiced another prominent concern of the administration. There are, Humphrey observed, two million “jobless and technologically illiterate young men who form a great untapped labor reservoir.” Without more jobs, he warned, “there is a great explosion here ready to go off.” As usual, Johnson put it in characteristically blunter terms in a private conversation. The War on Poverty could take “a bunch of these young strapping boys out of these damn rioting squads … [and] … put them to work.”51
These dual concerns—promoting nuclear families with breadwinning fathers and preventing urban unrest—stood at the center of Great Society antipoverty initiatives. Architects of the War on Poverty understood the dynamics that kept many families poor: absent fathers and low-wage jobs for women. But the programs created by the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act (EOA), the cornerstone of Johnson’s war, tended to focus only on absent fathers. According to Great Society thinking, newly trained men, adapted to a job market that heretofore had marginalized them, would find breadwinning employment and stabilize families. Even better, War on Poverty funds would mollify communities on the brink of rioting and divert male energies into job training rather than brick hurling. Thus, despite the War on Poverty’s broad agenda, race became an overwhelming factor in the politics of breadwinner liberalism.52
Poverty warriors, no matter their intentions, could not escape their own and the larger culture’s ambivalence about women’s relationship to the market. Women were largely an afterthought in Great Society schemes. When considered at all, they were imagined mostly as potential dependents, waiting to be enfolded into a family economy. The Neighborhood Youth Corps piled up extensive waiting lists of young women, for instance, but the national office held the program’s gender breakdown constant in deference to men. The Job Corps improved some women’s vocational skills when a supplemental Women’s Job Corps was established at Edith Green’s insistence. Upward Bound too helped a small number of disadvantaged teenage girls—about ten thousand by 1967—prepare for college. And Legal Services gave poor women access to legal assistance with housing, divorce, employment discrimination, food stamps, and welfare. Such programs were not inconsequential, but given the scale of women’s market disadvantage, they proved negligible compared with the size of the problem.53
Welfare reform, however, not the War on Poverty, produced the most visible and controversial efforts to use government policy to shape the nuclear family’s relationship to the market in the Great Society era. After taking office in 1969, President Nixon, echoing Moynihan, put it bluntly: “any system which makes it more profitable for a man not to work, or which encourages a man to desert his family rather than stay with his family, is wrong and indefensible.” Welfare’s supporters and critics alike by the late 1960s saw Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)—a small and until then not a particularly controversial program entering its fourth decade—as encouraging male desertion.54
The system’s complex rules provided government support only to unmarried mothers, the most common victims of male abandonment. Moreover, back in the 1950s, as the number of African Americans on welfare rolls increased, most states had amended AFDC provisions to deny benefits to women if a “substitute father” (a boyfriend, lover, or guest) was found in the house. This opened the door to intrusive supervision of the intimate lives of welfare recipients because families on public assistance could not expect “privacy” in any traditional sense. “Midnight raids” by state welfare departments were common enforcement measures. In such a system, critics argued, fathers had every financial incentive to leave and none to stay. Welfare reformers at the national level had been at work since the 1950s to devise a program that would assist women without turning away prospective breadwinners. Like Moynihan, these critics and reformers saw themselves as New Deal or Great Society liberals mending a broken system.55
Reform efforts acquired a new urgency in the second half of the 1960s for four reasons. First, the logic of Moynihan and Watts had linked absent male breadwinners with women’s welfare dependency and male urban violence. Second, the combination of black migration out of the South and the employment crisis in northern cities threw increasing numbers of African Americans onto state welfare rolls. Third, in the South, segregationists had been bemoaning black “illegitimacy” and family instability since the Brown decision, in an effort to define court-imposed school desegregation as a violation of the white community’s moral “standards.” And fourth, the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), led largely by African American women, challenged the iniquities and indignities of AFDC, including the substitute father rule and midnight raids, while encouraging women to see welfare as a right. All four developments both racialized welfare and made it fully part of the breadwinner liberalism of the Great Society.56
By the late 1960s no one liked welfare: not the left, not the right, not the center, not even the recipients themselves. Liberals in the Johnson administration and Congress hoped to raise welfare benefits and encourage male responsibility, but simultaneously they pushed unwed mothers into the labor market. They thought that absent male breadwinners, the exigencies of earning a wage would elevate women out of “dependency.” Welfare activists foresaw the dire consequences of this reasoning: low-wage labor at the bottom of the economy without assistance for child care. In response, they cast welfare as a right, fought the surveillance of women’s personal lives, and criticized liberals for abandoning them to degrading labor that compromised their motherhood. Conservatives, with a few exceptions, wanted to end welfare altogether. They saw it as a taxpayer drain, a travesty for the nuclear family, and a subsidy to “profligate breeders” among the black poor.57
To cut the Gordian knot, a few months into his presidency Richard Nixon took a bold gamble that he believed would both fix and shrink the welfare system. Prodded by Moynihan, who began working for Nixon in 1969, the president endorsed the Family Assistance Plan (FAP), a proposal to provide a guaranteed minimum income to a wide range of low-income families, including both current welfare recipients and the so-called working poor. Its complicated formula would award greater income support for two-parent families and for families in which both parents worked. Single-parent homes and homes without an employed family member would receive less. The inclusion of working families was essential, the president explained in his first major domestic policy speech in August 1969: “It is morally wrong for a family that is working to try to make ends meet to receive less than the family across the street on welfare.”58
Nixon sent the bill to Congress. A relatively enthusiastic House passed it by nearly one hundred votes, despite the opposition of the Ways and Means Committee boss Wilbur Mills (D-AR), who believed that “one possible reaction of some fathers may be to let the government take over the job of completely supporting his family.” As the bill sat in the Senate committee, however, its opponents on both the left and right slowly cut it to shreds. Led by George McGovern and backed by vocal NWRO activists, the liberal left charged that the FAP’s formula favored working white families over impoverished black ones, that its income supports were insufficient for families and would actually reduce welfare benefits in a majority of states, and that it would force poor, unskilled women into the labor market with little assistance for child care. Senate conservatives simply could not abide the idea that the federal government planned to guarantee every American family below a certain income level annual assistance—especially now that the public face of poverty was urban and black. Citing an American Conservative Union study of the FAP, the conservative columnist James Kilpatrick charged that while the present system “cultivates an attitude of permanent dependency upon the welfare state,” Nixon’s FAP “would be worse.” By the time the Senate Finance Committee turned it down, Nixon himself had begun to renege on his tactical commitment to poor breadwinners, leaving the FAP to die.59
As Moynihan gravitated toward neoconservatism, he continued to insist, as he had said in 1965, that “America is the only industrial democracy in the world that does not recognize the welfare and stability of family life as a principal object of social policy.” Indeed, he singled out for criticism NWRO activists who fought the FAP bill, claiming they had passed on the best political compromise they would ever see (he was right). The long drama stretching from the Moynihan report in the summer of 1965 through the FAP debates in the spring and summer of 1970 deepened the connection in the public mind between the question of black equality and the stain of state assistance to the poor. Much as it had in the 1930s, the family emerged as a public project to be debated and systematically addressed. In that context, the absent male breadwinner seemed to make a mockery of the desire of Great Society liberals to broaden the New Deal’s promise of economic security and opportunity for nuclear families. “Charity can prevent physical starvation,” one Iowan wrote to Moynihan, “but it cannot nourish manhood.”60
*   *   *
The Iowan was far from alone in his dissatisfaction with liberals’ welfare policies. In the spring of 1969, as Nixon officials drafted the FAP legislation, a New York journalist named Pete Hamill redirected the national political conversation. Hamill viewed “the growing alienation and paranoia of the working-class white man,” not African American or women’s rights, as the political drama of the era. In an influential and incendiary article in New York magazine entitled “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class,” Hamill cast the “white working class” as a bastion of idealized but hard-bitten manhood and as hostile to black progress. “Talking darkly about their grievances,” these breadwinners spoke with “quiet bitterness” about the loss of their economic status while complaining that “everything is for the niggers.”61
Hamill’s piece sensationalizing white male victimization was part of a much broader impulse at the end of the 1960s to recast the story of race and gender in national political life as one about working-class white men. Its authors included academics genuinely sympathetic to white workers’ legitimate anxieties, cultural commentators such as Hamill, and opportunistic politicians and right-wing strategists, such as Nixon, George Wallace, Patrick Buchanan, Spiro Agnew, and Benjamin Wattenberg. From different vantages, they sought to resolve the tensions of the decade in the exasperated and put-upon white male breadwinner. But those efforts quickly and permanently obscured whatever legitimacy white male claims had by subjecting them to exaggerated political demagoguery.
Hamill did not invent, or discover, this enduring figure in American life. Robert C. Wood, director of the Harvard-MIT Joint Center for Urban Studies, similarly fused race, class, and masculinity into an iconic portrait. “Let us consider the working American—the average white ethnic male,” Wood urged in 1968. “Layoffs, reductions, automation, plant relocation remain the invisible witches at every christening … he sees only one destination for the minority movement—his job.” As often as not, that job was understood as property. “Some men leave their sons money, some large investments,” wrote an ordinary worker to The New York Times. “I have only one worthwhile thing to give: my trade … and [to] sponsor my sons for an apprenticeship.” Having secured a tenuous foothold in the American economy, these men saw their jobs as family assets. “For this simple father’s wish,” the letter writer concluded, “it is said that I discriminate against Negroes.”62
Hamill’s article circulated in the White House and figured prominently in Nixon’s hard hat strategy of 1970 and 1971. The hard hat—the white, usually “ethnic” blue-collar worker—did a great deal of political work in the early 1970s. He became the answer to the black power militant and the welfare slacker, because his humble breadwinner ambitions, his unbridled patriotism, and his unflagging work ethic were celebrated as contrasts with their unreasonable demands. His relationship to work, family, and nation reflected conventional American mythologies of the social order; his heterosexuality was implicit but would be emphasized in due course. That his and his family’s economic future remained in doubt as postwar expansion ground to a halt compounded the sense of injustice.63
In the late summer of 1968, as dozens of cities were recovering from the riots that followed Martin Luther King’s assassination, more than three thousand activists met in Philadelphia at the Third National Conference on Black Power. The conferees declared black self-determination in urban America, including black control over major cities, to be the new goal of the movement. A central tactic in that struggle would be to secure construction jobs for black men, what the NAACP labor director Herbert Hill called “manly jobs” that were deemed “especially important for negro men.” Public-sector financing of interstate highways, rapid transit, new schools, and urban renewal created hundreds of thousands of jobs in the heart of major cities. The black power conference had actually arrived late to this issue. Between 1963 and 1967 construction site protests by African Americans, led by local movement activists, had taken place in New York, Philadelphia, Newark, Cleveland, Cincinnati, San Francisco, Oakland, and St. Louis. Johnson’s 1965 Executive Order 11246 enabled the federal government to terminate contracts with firms that refused to take affirmative action in hiring. But as community leaders discovered, on projects as diverse as the Bay Area Rapid Transit in San Francisco and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, no one, not even federal judges, knew precisely what “affirmative action” meant. Protesters thus had two objectives: to pressure judges and other federal officials to define “affirmative action” and to force contractors to enter into private agreements by highlighting the absence of black workers at construction sites.64
To white construction and building trade workers, the protests were nonsensical and offensive. Most white blue-collar workers in the 1960s were only a generation removed from the bottom of the occupational ladder and retained a striver’s sensibility. They did not see themselves as privileged, nor could they understand how their holding jobs prevented other men from doing the same. They saw protesters as men who wanted something without working for it. The skilled tradesmen among them had inherited a work culture in which manliness was deeply embedded in the process of apprenticing, learning and refining a craft, and working toward an independence rare in blue-collar employment. They saw the protesters as interlopers attempting to force their way into a world that white workers believed they and their fathers had built. Access to well-paying blue-collar jobs came to be understood as a zero-sum game in which black gains came only through white losses. Such sentiments represented the feelings of entire communities.65
One need not imagine all white workers in this era as racists to understand the structural and rhetorical logic of the nation’s job markets. Such markets have never been “free” in any meaningful sense. Jobs come through dense networks of kin, friends, communities, unions, churches, business associates, education, training, mentors, and any number of ethnic ties. Such networks have long been racialized as well—both through the intentional “Caucasian-only” kind of segregation and through the normal day-to-day life of already racially segregated communities. From the inside, these networks do not look racist. They look natural. Buttressing the apparent naturalness is the rhetoric of masculine individualism—hard work, striving, self-reliance, and merit—that permeates American life and poses individual success or failure as always earned and always deserved. It is unsurprising that white workers would defend their crafts and their jobs in these terms.66
Neither is it surprising that black workers would object. African American activists challenged a wide range of employers in the 1960s and early 1970s, through both protest and EEOC lawsuits, but these battles rose into national consciousness most prominently in the construction industry. Following the 1968 black power conference, major campaigns opened the following summer in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Seattle. The Chicago Coalition for United Community Action picketed twenty major projects, and in July 1969 seventeen members of the politicized street gang Black P. Stone Nation seized the Building Trades Council headquarters, prompting arrests and generating headlines. In Pittsburgh picketers targeted construction on the new Three Rivers Stadium, and in Buffalo activists protested at the new $650 million State University of New York campus. In New York City, as construction began on the mammoth World Trade Center, the African American contractor James Haughton formed Fight Back and led a campaign to get black workers hired on the project.67
In response, Nixon resurrected a fallow Johnson administration initiative, the Philadelphia Plan. Mandating “goals” and “timetables,” the plan introduced penalties for federal contractors who did not hire African Americans and other workers of color in sufficient numbers. The Philadelphia Plan has long been understood as cleaving two allies in the liberal political coalition: African Americans and trade unions. Nixon critics have tended to see his turn to the plan as cynical manipulation, intended to divide two constituencies that opposed him. More sympathetic observers have interpreted it either as a genuine response to African American inequality or as a pragmatic political effort to prevent the 1969 protests from erupting into violence on the scale of 1967 and 1968. Whatever the administration’s motives, Philadelphia Plan goals, including what many called quotas, got bogged down in a quagmire of disputes: over how many skilled black tradesmen existed in any given city; whether apprenticeship programs recruited African Americans; whether contractors should be punished for the practices of unions over which they had no control; and which branch of government had control over the contract compliance program. Nixon’s strategizing aside, the plan succeeded in defusing the dramatic public protests within a few years by shuffling street demonstrations into courtrooms, where affirmative action became a bureaucratic question.68
Most important, the construction protests and the Philadelphia Plan represented the changing politics of breadwinner liberalism. Much as conservatives attacked welfare and the FAP as programs to distribute money to people who did not deserve it, they cast affirmative action as awarding preference, or “special rights,” to the unqualified or undeserving. “There is no warrant in American law or history for setting up a quota system in any area of employment,” the president of the Southern States Industrial Council told a Senate subcommittee. “The American way has been to hire the best man for the job.” Here was a still-inchoate breadwinner conservatism—“the best man for the job”—mobilized against breadwinner liberalism in the battle over whether and how to redress racial inequality.69
But was “the best man for the job” such a transparent concept? In his 1965 speech at Howard, President Johnson explicitly endorsed equality of result precisely because, as he reasoned, “it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.” If the relationship among unions, contractors, employers, builders, and local communities had for decades operated to exclude African Americans, locking Johnson’s “gate,” was not “the best man for the job” already racially predetermined?70
Black activists thought so. Hill told a Senate subcommittee that with black populations topping 50 percent in many major cities, it was unacceptable for African American men to hold less than 5 percent of the best-paying blue-collar jobs. A disproportionately high percentage of black workers held jobs paying close to the minimum wage, Hill explained. “These are the working poor” who live “in a permanent condition of poverty.”71
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Beneath the affirmative action conflict lay ideals that both sides took for granted. White working-class men believed that they had earned these jobs; black men believed they deserved their fair shot at them. What they had in common, as few acknowledged at the time, was an overlapping vision of breadwinning manhood. They shouted at each other across an unbridgeable divide, however. Black activists articulated a sociological view of society and the marketplace. Race, they argued again and again, had always shaped opportunity, constraining African Americans’ rightful roles as men in the nation. White workers, unions, and their defenders responded with an individualist view of male breadwinning and opportunity. They disputed that “equal rights” meant white workers had to relinquish jobs they considered personal assets. The American legal system, with its overwhelming emphasis on individual and property rights—to say nothing of the political system—was poorly equipped to adjudicate such disputes.
The hard hat’s political season stretched from 1969 through 1972. He divided the American working class along stark racial and gendered lines. Lifted from the amorphous “silent majority,” he offered a concrete, if two-dimensional, figure in which patriotism, whiteness, and merit-based breadwinning defined the legitimate American man. He exposed the artificiality of sharp distinctions between “values” and “economics” in post-1960s American politics. The two often became one and the same because the economic interests of white workers, like their black counterparts, were represented and understood through a politics of male breadwinning.72
White male breadwinning may have been a powerful force thwarting claims based on racial justice, but hard hat politics actually obscured the legitimate grievances of white blue-collar workers at the dawn of the seventies. Nixon’s efforts to forge a permanent Republican majority by driving white working-class voters away from the Democratic Party met with mixed success, in part because of his administration’s economic policies, which encouraged union busting and rankled devoted union members among voters. But the conflict over construction jobs, which was emblematic of struggles across the country over affirmative action, disguised larger developments. As employers sought to deal with the downturn of the early years of the seventies by pushing back against labor unions and relocating plants overseas, the American public witnessed very public battles over race, manhood, jobs, and welfare—struggles that focused grievances on workers rather than bosses and on individuals rather than broad government and corporate policy. Breadwinner liberalism would have grown increasingly unable to deliver on its promises to white men, even if their status in workplaces and the national imagination had not been challenged by black men and by women of all races.73
The assumptions of sixties breadwinner liberalism concealed a great deal about the road on which the country was traveling. Breadwinner ideology encouraged Americans to underestimate economic transformations, to see black demands for justice as undeserved, and to worry that women’s similar demands spelled the end of the family. Thus breadwinner liberalism was vulnerable not just to assault from the left but to appropriation by the right. Stripped of its social welfare and government support components, breadwinner liberalism could fast become breadwinner conservatism: a defense of white male breadwinners and their nuclear families against the claims of nonwhites, women, and ultimately gay men and lesbians. The political battles of the second half of the sixties launched just such a process of transformation. Those battles would be extended deeper into national life in the coming years, as more and more Americans questioned the heterosexual white male breadwinner and his nuclear family as the only legitimate framework for organizing the rights and obligations of full citizenship, and as others scrambled to defend him anew and to make him the symbol of a revived politics on the right.

Copyright © 2012 by Robert O. Self