Colonizing Harlem: Part 4 - Medicalization and the Cure for Black Culture

By Doctor Comrade

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


In Moynihan’s attempt to elaborate practical solutions to racial discrimination, he also exemplified discourses that sought to prove that blackness could be cured. The sociological moment in which Moynihan and others were participating can be characterized as a medicalization of poverty, and therefore the solutions to poverty are constituted by improvements in public health. The term “pathology,” and its repeated deployment by sociologists and other scholars, is particularly telling because pathology is the study of the causes of diseases. In Moynihan’s terminology, Harlem was constrained by the “tangle of pathology,” the interlocking and interdependent cultural traits which acted like a disease for urban African Americans. Even black scholars, such as those who authored publications like the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited foundation, identified a distinct and coherent black pathology that afflicted urban populations. This essay has also addressed how journalists referred to Harlem and other black communities as exhibiting a kind of violence that could be cured by medical professionals, education, and family stability. In order to overcome these obstacles, one journalist declared that in order to stop street violence, which was “as much a part of growing up as listening to rap music, teen-agers say: it has its own rhythms, and it is everywhere,” intervention was needed to change the “ritualized code of behavior between adolescents... and their older, stronger brethren... raised for the express purpose of meting out punishment.”[1]

The issue of intervention and the form it should take further reflects the epistemological foundations of Orientalism. Said argued that Orientalism was constituted as “an elaboration of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts… a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is manifestly different.”[2] Post-colonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak outlined a specific example of western intervention in her analysis of Indian widow sacrifice.[3] When the British outlawed sati, the practice of self-immolation by Indian widows on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands, the intervention took the form of white men protecting brown women from brown men.[4] In Harlem, the interventions described by sociologists, anthropologists, and journalists take the form of white men protecting black children from black parents. Even African-American educators and scholars have embraced many of these solutions, contextualizing them in terms of benefits to public health and education.[5] In several articles cited throughout this essay, journalists have cited public health statistics about venereal disease and divorce, juxtaposing them with the prevalence of “illegitimate” children and parental absenteeism, which draws discursive links between these public health issues and endemic ghetto violence. Moynihan, as one of the planners of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, observed the “objective” conditions of the Harlem ghetto and accurately traced their lineage to slavery, but his conclusions about the causes divulged a kind of benevolent racism toward Harlem’s inhabitants by comparing these conditions across racial groups; his cures for black poverty were couched in racial assumptions about black culture.

Due to these comparisons, sociological texts are inextricably linked to Orientalist discourses that compare the civilized, healthy West against the barbaric, diseased East, allowing for the naturalization of the social hierarchy. The Orient, as Said argued, was constructed as the inferior geographical, intellectual, and cultural foil to the Occident; in the same way, Kelley asserted that Harlem (and the ghettos it represented) became the geographical, sociological, and economic measure against which elite white scholars defined whiteness. These notions of place and the distinctions drawn between populations are instrumental in creating a racial discourse that posits essential differences between people, not only in terms of race but also in terms of culture and habitation. Living in the ghetto became a stigma of its own, and it carried a number of connotations that had been assigned to it by cultural racism. Only by linking the ghetto with racial difference could black pathology be adequately explained by new developments in social science: at a time when racial inferiority could no longer be legitimately attributed to biological traits, social scientists inadvertently did attribute cultural inferiority to race by drawing explicit connections between black family structure and its inability to conform to white family norms. However, because culture was mutable compared to biology, that meant that black people’s pathology could be cured by interventions orchestrated by liberal elites.

Epilogue: Moynihan’s Legacy in Baltimore

The politics of ghettoization have been reinvigorated by the publicity surrounding police brutality against men of color in the past two years. The shootings of unarmed black men by police officers and vigilantes have prompted fierce debates over the nature of police interactions in urban and majority-minority communities. Violence against residents of urban ghettos has also catalyzed scrutiny of policing culture and the racialized nature of law enforcement.[6]

Perhaps most disturbingly, some politicians have asserted that the violence against men of color, and the community reactions to police brutality, can be attributed to the lack of family stability in urban communities. According to Senator Rand Paul, a presidential candidate for the Republican Party, the riots in Baltimore—which followed the death of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody—can be explained by the absence of black fathers: “‘It’s something we talk about not in the immediate aftermath but over time: The breakdown of family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society.’ He added: ‘This isn’t just a racial thing; it goes across racial boundaries.’”[7] Fully 50 years after the controversial Moynihan Report, Rand Paul, a highly educated white medical doctor, has reasserted the same kind of cultural racism against black communities: black fathers have abandoned their children and black mothers are incapable of transmitting a “moral code” to black children.

The fact that he had to state that his criticism was not racial in nature is also instructive. What Paul cannot escape are the Orientalist overtones that pervade discourse about black families. His efforts to blame black fathers for the riots in Baltimore demonstrate that he believes black families have failed to live up to white standards of morality. He seems to be asserting that if black fathers had conformed to “traditional” gender norms, then their children would not be at risk of police brutality and the riots would be rendered nonexistent. This reassigns culpability for police violence, essentially blaming the pathological nature of black families for the violence they experience.

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: A Colonized Population
Part 3: The Quintessential American Ghetto


[1] David E. Pitt, “For East Harlem Teen-Agers, Posses Mean Violence,” New York Times, May 9, 1989.
[2] Said, Orientalism, 12; cf. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000).
[3] Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 271; cf. Durba Ghosh, Sex and the Family in Colonial India: The Making of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
[4] Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 297.
[5] Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, Youth in the Ghetto, 137, 161, 313, 407; cf. Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness, 10.
[6] For example, the Cato Institute now tracks daily incidents of police misconduct: “PoliceMisconduct,” Cato Institute, (2015),; Huffington Post has devoted a web page to tracking stories about police brutality: “Police Brutality,” The Huffington Post, 2015,
[7] Philip Bump, “Rand Paul Cites a ‘lack of Fathers’ in Baltimore. Here’s What the Data Actually Show,” The Washington Post, April 29, 2015,

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