Colonizing Harlem, Part 1: Harlem in Collective Memory

By Doctor Comrade

[This is part 1 of a four-part project on collective memory, the power of place, and the pathologization of blackness in American history. Part 2: A Colonized Population | Part 3: The Quintessential American Ghetto | Part 4: Medicalization and the Cure for Black Culture]


In 1965 Daniel Patrick “Pat” Moynihan, a sociologist then working for the Office of Policy Planning and Research in the United States Department of Labor, wrote that racial and economic inequality suffered by African Americans in ghettos like Harlem could be attributed to “The fundamental problem… of family structure. The evidence… is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling. A middle class group has managed to save itself, but for vast numbers of the unskilled, poorly educated city working class the fabric of conventional social relationships has all but disintegrated.”[1] Moynihan was not the first social scientist to put forth such a claim, but the combination of his position within the U.S. government, his official capacity as an advisor to President Johnson, recent riots in Harlem, and the burgeoning civil rights struggle catapulted Moynihan’s formulations into the national spotlight, quickly making the “Moynihan Report” one of the most infamous and controversial documents of the era.[2] The conclusions of the Moynihan Report encapsulated a shift in intellectual debates that had been occurring since the early-twentieth century: scientific racism had been slowly supplanted by cultural racism through metaphors of pathological disorder in black communities.[3] Rather than relying on pseudo-sciences like phrenology, eugenics, and Social Darwinism, racism against African Americans became supported by liberal social scientists that practiced psychology, sociology, anthropology, and ethnography.[4] At the center of their concerns were the deteriorating inner-city communities like Harlem, a neighborhood that had become the symbol of black culture following the Harlem Renaissance.

Thus, I argue that the African-American people of Harlem were treated like a colonized population because Harlem came to represent the quintessential American ghetto based on the belief that black poverty is a pathological condition. Intellectuals and the media (both black and white) have been complicit in institutionalizing a collective memory of Harlem that renders it the center of black pathology as well as a metonym for other American ghettos. Relying on discourses justified by the patina of scientific legitimacy, social scientists have constructed African Americans as inferior Others, reminiscent of the British treatment of Indians and Arabs in the previous decades. Blackness went from something to be eliminated, suppressed, and conquered to being something to be treated, remedied, and civilized. Like Indians and Arabs under the British Empire, blacks in American cities were seen as inherently diseased and uncivilized, adhering to a dying and dysfunctional culture. Their inability to rescue themselves from poverty had been the result of the disease of unhealthy culture that not only destroys their ontological wellbeing but also their physical health.[5] In particular, the culture of black families has been keenly studied, and the idea that black fathers fail to impart traditional values to their children has had immense staying power in academic discourses.

The absence of black fathers and the disintegration of the “traditional” family in black neighborhoods, particularly in Harlem, became the centerpiece of Moynihan’s theories about black inequality.[6] Moynihan was a well-intentioned liberal who sought practical explanations and solutions to racial inequality. In many instances, he declares that blacks had been subjected to hundreds of years of violence, discrimination, and segregation, and that their resultant social circumstances could be directly traced to slavery and racism: “the racist virus in the American blood stream still afflicts us: Negroes will encounter serious personal prejudice for at least another generation. Second, three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment have taken their toll on the Negro people,” and he is quick to praise their resilience.[7] However, despite his intimations that “there is no satisfactory way… to measure social health or social pathology within an ethnic, or religious, or geographical community,” he insisted that a “pathology” did exist and had to be studied.[8] He attributed this phenomenon to the difference between white and black families, in which “The white family has achieved a high degree of stability and is maintaining that stability. By contrast, the family structure of lower class Negroes is highly unstable, and in many urban centers is approaching complete breakdown.”[9] Throughout the text, Moynihan heavily cited a 1964 study by Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, a foundation started by prominent black psychologist Kenneth Clark.[10] Clark and his colleagues argued that in areas like Harlem, the youth experienced high rates of pathology, which affected their personalities, self-image, and belief in self-efficacy, which in turn became a “self-perpetuating community pathology.”[11]

These theories catalyzed fierce opposition, stated most forcefully by psychologist William Ryan in his 1971 book Blaming the Victim. Ryan observed that “The shorthand phrase is ‘cultural deprivation,’ which, to those in the know, conveys what they allege to be inside information: that the poor child carries a scanty pack of intellectual baggage as he enters school…. Cultural deprivation becomes an omnibus explanation for the educational disaster area known as the inner-city school. This is Blaming the Victim.”[12] In an explicit repudiation of Moynihan and those of his ilk, Ryan contended that “‘Negro family’ has become a shorthand phrase with stereotyped connotations of matriarchy, fatherlessness, and pervasive illegitimacy. Growing up in the ‘crumbling’ Negro family is supposed to account for most of the racial evils in America” because the “deviant value system of the lower classes... cause[s] their own troubles.”[13] Despite this harsh academic criticism, cultural racism, the ideology that the cultural traits are attributed to race and therefore account for inferiority or inequality, broadly influenced many scholars and journalists, infiltrating numerous debates and studies in the following decades.[14]

Moynihan’s report illustrates the rising dominance of cultural racism in academic discourse. Moreover, many writers chose to address Harlem specifically because it was the perceived hub of black culture, especially following the Harlem Renaissance, but also due to its overwhelmingly black population (which peaked at 98% in 1950).[15] This attention on Harlem demonstrates the power of place in popular culture and memory: Harlem functioned as a racialized metonym for the American ghetto, a kind of intellectual shorthand for conceiving of black poverty and destitution in America writ large. Harlem became synonymous with urban identity, forming a cultural landscape that intersects with “the production of space, human patterns impressed upon the contours of the natural environment. It is the story of how places are planned, designed, built, inhabited, appropriated, celebrated, despoiled, and discarded. Cultural identity, social history, and urban design are here intertwined.”[16] These human patterns are then re-expressed by urban social science, which re-appropriated the built environment and translated it into cultural racism by attributing urban decay to black cultural attitudes, the human patterns which appear to be manifested by the settlement of poor blacks in these environments. For this reason, the physical layout and distribution of ethnic populations is critical to understanding how places like Harlem are represented by academics. Social and urban historians have observed in various instances the distributions of inequalities that are born of urban design and policy.[17]

Part 2: A Colonized Population
Part 3: The Quintessential American Ghetto
Part 4: Medicalization and the Cure for Black Culture


[1] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (Washington, D.C.: Office of Policy Planning and Research of the United States Department of Labor, March 1965), i.
[2] “Notes and Comments: The Moynihan Report,” Social Service Review 40, no. 1 (March 1, 1966): 84–85; “Updating the Moynihan Report,” Science News 99, no. 23 (June 5, 1971): 384; L. Alex Swan, “A Methodological Critique of the Moynihan Report,” The Black Scholar 5, no. 9 (June 1, 1974): 18–24.
[3] Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011), 9.
[4] Ibid., 4.
[5] Robin D. G. Kelley, Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998), 9–10, 16–18.
[6] “Traditional” is here bracketed given the non-existence of a traditional nuclear family, as demonstrated by Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (BasicBooks, 2000).
[7] Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, i.
[8] Ibid., 4.
[9] Ibid., 5. Emphasis added by Moynihan.
[10] Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, Youth in the Ghetto: A Study of the Consequences of Powerlessness and a Blueprint for Change (New York: HARYOU, 1964).
[11] Ibid., 6, 11–12, 137.
[12] William Ryan, Blaming the Victim (New York: Pantheon Books, 1971), 4.
[13] Ibid., 5–6; cf. Greta Miao, “Marital Instability and Unemployment among Whites and Nonwhites, the Moynihan Report Revisited-Again,” Journal of Marriage and Family 36, no. 1 (February 1, 1974): 77–86; Alan S. Berger and William Simon, “Black Families and the Moynihan Report: A Research Evaluation,” Social Problems 22, no. 2 (December 1, 1974): 145–61.
[14] Clare Sheridan, “Cultural Racism and the Construction of Identity,” Law and History Review 21, no. 1 (April 1, 2003): 208; Ken Auletta, The Underclass (Woodstock, N.Y: Overlook Press, 1999). Moynihan’s report had such long lasting effects that the journal Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science devoted its entire January 2009 edition to revisiting Moynihan’s legacy.
[15] Sam Roberts, “As Population Shifts in Harlem, Blacks Lose Their Majority,” The New York Times, January 5, 2010; works on violence in Harlem include: Max Wylie, 400 Miles from Harlem ; Courts, Crime, and Correction (New York: Macmillan, 1972); Steven E. Barkan and Lynne L. Snowden, Collective Violence (Boston, Mass: Allyn and Bacon, 2000); Philippe I. Bourgois, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Russell Leigh Sharman, The Tenants of East Harlem (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Shadi Neimneh, “Thematics of Interracial Violence in Selected Harlem Renaissance Novels,” Papers on Language & Literature 50, no. 2 (Spring 2014): 152–81; Monique M. Taylor, Harlem between Heaven and Hell (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002); Eric C. Schneider, Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings: Youth Gangs in Postwar New York (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1999).
[16] Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1995), 15.
[17] Ibid., 6–8; Phoebe S Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); Sven Beckert, The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896 (Cambridge, UK; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 3, 9; Kevin Boyle, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age (New York, N.Y.: Holt Paperbacks, 2005); Michael J. Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Richard R. W. Brooks and Carol M. Rose, Saving the Neighborhood: Racially Restrictive Covenants, Law, and Social Norms (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013), 2; Dianne Harris, Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 5; Chad Heap, Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).