POLITICO New York

Bratton assailed for embrace of 50-year-old Moynihan report

09/01/2015 06:17 PM EDT

 

Bill Bratton has always viewed his job as police commissioner as something far larger than simply being a top law enforcement official. In his 1998 book, "Turnaround," and in public comments throughout his four decades in policing, he has often explained the challenges of achieving public safety in sweeping terms more akin to a sociology professor rather than a police officer.

At the beginning of the year, Bratton responded to a nationwide series of protests following the killings of unarmed black men by police officers in Missouri and Staten Island by making a heartfelt plea for police and residents to "see each other."

 On Tuesday, appearing on MSNBC's Morning Joe program, Bratton emphasized a different part of the equation, and went further than in the past. He seemingly embraced a controversial report issued a half-century ago by a young official in the administration of Lyndon Johnson. The document bore the formal title of "The Negro Family: The Case For National Action." It is more commonly called the Moynihan report, after its author, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, future U.S. senator from New York.

On the show, Bratton was asked why murders are rising in cities across America, and if an erosion of values was at the root cause. Bratton replied, "There is something going on in our society and in our cities. I had the occasion over the weekend to read Senator Moynihan’s famous treatise from the 60s. Go read that again. Talk about being prescient about what was going to happen, in black society, in terms of ... the disintegration of family, the disintegration of values, and it’s gone beyond just the black community."

Bratton did not use the phrase "Moynihan report," but it seemed clear he was referencing the famous document. The police department did not return calls seeking clarification.

The Moynihan report is often contrasted to another one issued two years later after a series of race riots ripped apart cities like Newark, Detroit, and others. That report, known informally as the Kerner Report after the chairman of Johnson's National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Otto Kerner, warned that the nation was becoming dangerously divided by race. 

Since their release, the two reports have come to reflect two ideologies about why a disproportionate number of African-Americans face lower qualities of safety, housing, education and economic opportunities, compared to their white counterparts.

The most famous line from the Kerner Report — “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal” — cast the challenges as systematic, societal and institutional. Moynihan’s report took a different approach, seeing family breakdown as an obstacle to black progress. “The gap between the Negro and most other groups in American society is widening. The fundamental problem, in which this is most clearly the case, is that of family structure.”

Moynihan’s solution, critics said, was misguided: “A national effort is required that will give a unity of purpose to the many activities of the Federal government in this area, directed to a new kind of national goal: the establishment of a stable Negro family structure.”

Assemblyman Charles Barron of Brooklyn told POLITICO New York, “I find it racist.”

Barron said he was at the tail end of his active years with the Black Panthers when Moynihan released his report. “We were all livid by it,” Barron recalled. “The Moynihan report, it put more of the blame on the victim, compared to the Kerner Commission,” he said.

Kerner’s report spoke about “structural deficiencies in criminal court systems” and essentially blamed the country for the problem. “Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future. White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.”

Barron said, “Moynihan didn’t go there."

One of the city's leading police reform groups faulted the commissioner for embracing Moynihan's conclusions.

Veronica Bayetti Flores, a spokeswoman for Communities United for Police Reform, said Tuesday's remarks by Bratton — who previously complained about the lack of parenting and values in some households — “promoted regressive and racist views that seek to place blame for crime and other societal challenges on the 'values' of Black families and those of other New Yorkers of color."

"It's insulting and troubling for these extreme comments to be made by a top member of city government, and his comfort in doing so speaks to the challenges our city and country still face with racism," she said. "While the rhetoric alone is unacceptable, it has real implications in how the officers under Bratton's command perceive and treat Black and Brown New Yorkers.”

Walter Fields, executive editor of NorthStarNews.com and the former political director for the NAACP of New Jersey, was furious that Bratton embraced a report that, in his view, faulted black families for their hardships. “We kept families together under the most extreme circumstances,” said Fields. “I’m the product of a single family household,” he told POLITICO New York, noting he and his siblings all graduated college.

 

 
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Bill Bratton || Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio

 

City Councilwoman Inez Dickens of Harlem credited Bratton with trying to repair police and community relations, and Mayor Bill de Blasio for reducing the number of stop-and-frisks conducted by the police. But she said she believes the two men share fundamentally different world views. She told POLITICO New York, "I never was one that believed Bratton and de Blasio got along behind closed doors very well."

Not everyone believes the worst of the Moynihan report. Historian James Patterson's 2012 book, "Freedom is Not Enough," argued that critics have taken Moynihan's argument out of context. And Councilman Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn, who has clashed with Bratton in the past, said there were some "legitimate" solutions raised in the report but cautioned against relying on it too much.

He said the report "could have been more sensitive in how it was written" but "the solutions are germane." In explaining his reluctance to denounce the commissioner over his reference to Moynihan, Williams said, "I'm trying to move the conversation forward" and advised Bratton "to be a little more sensitive when referring to the report."

The commissioner was in City Hall on Tuesday afternoon for a meeting on the mayor’s side of the building. A spokesman for the mayor said Bratton was there for “a meeting” and declined to elaborate. The spokesperson also did not say whether the mayor agreed with Bratton's remarks.

Back in May, Bratton spoke at a technology conference in Manhattan and received a round of applause when he said, “The community has to play its role. When I’m asked to demand that I control my cops, my response is, ‘I’ll control my cops, you control your kids.'”