Problematic Thoughts 03 - Harlem and the Baltimore Uprising

This podcast is an abbreviated version of a presentation I gave on Harlem and "black pathology." It briefly summarizes the project I rewrote as my blog posts, "Colonizing Harlem."

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 “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. This isn't just a racial thing; it goes across racial boundaries." - Ron Paul, 4/29/2015.

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…. 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 will 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.[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] Despite 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.[12]

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).[13] 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. For this reason, the physical layout and distribution of ethnic populations is critical to understanding how places like Harlem are represented by academics.

In a widely quoted study in the New England Journal of Medicine from 1990, the authors cynically declared that “black men in Harlem were less likely to reach the age of 65 than men in Bangladesh.”[14] What this suggests is that the American inner-city has been constructed as so thoroughly decayed that authors are willing to denigrate it by comparing it to a supposedly Third World country, while simultaneously maligning Bangladesh as an accepted standard by which poverty, disease, and life expectancy are measured. If Harlem is worse than Bangladesh, then it must occupy what sociologist John Hagedorn calls the “Fourth World” of extreme poverty, resentment, and brutal struggle for survival.[15] As historian Robin D. G. Kelley has argued, the enduring images of Harlem have become the images of “the underclass,” “welfare queens,” “criminals,” and dysfunction, and therefore “We have been the thing against which normality, whiteness, and functionality have been defined.”[16] He goes on to contend that academics have engaged in ghetto ethnography, diagnosing the pathological character of blacks as the primary reason for their impoverishment, “pathological products of broken families, broken economies, and broken communities.”[17] These academic claims were most visibly inaugurated by the Moynihan Report and subsequent studies of the failures of black fathers and matriarchal families.

Harlem was racialized as a black ghetto and a symbol of urban decay: a once-great haven for artists that had collapsed under the burden of black pathology that rendered its population perpetually impoverished. Kelley’s observations about anthropologists can be interpreted in this framework of racialization: “anthropology… has played a key role in marking ‘blackness’ and defining black culture to the ‘outside’ world” in order to “get a handle on… terms like nihilistic, dysfunctional, and pathological [that] have become the most common adjectives to describe contemporary black urban culture.”[18] When scholars or journalists write about Harlem, they are always writing about black America. Appealing to Harlem as both the hub of black culture and the center of northern, urban, black violence illustrates that problems with Harlem are discursively connected to every other urban community. In many instances, journalists and scholars begin their pieces by stating that Harlem is America’s most famous black community, which empowers them to speak to the universality of black pathology because its most representative community experiences all of black pathology’s most visible manifestations: poverty, violence, urban decay, family decay, and crime.

Disease metaphors pervade literature about black crime, likening criminality to a disease that spreads by cultural osmosis. In a New York Times article from 1989, one journalist attempted to reveal the “grim seeds” of a serious assault in Harlem, observing that “[In] a neighborhood where extreme violence is common… sociologists and anthropologists say the attack may have emerged from several underlying currents in the community.”[19] These experts, many of whom were quoted in the article despite never having studied Harlem, testified that children are “affected by the norms of the culture.” Using the term “norms” here is especially instructive because it asserts that violence, and the culture that creates it, is completely normal in urban communities like Harlem. More importantly, citing scholars who have never researched Harlem illustrates how discourses about Harlem always implicitly indict other black communities, allowing Harlem to stand in as the quintessential example of American ghettos and black pathology. In an article titled “Curing Violence” from 1990, one journalist praised Dr. Peter Stringham, a black doctor from Harlem, who was “one of a growing number of doctors who treat violence as a disease.”[20] The article praises medical professionals who have learned to treat white and black patients differently because black adolescents are predisposed to violence. Stringham hopes that “if he can treat enough families, avoiding violence will make as much sense as getting shots against diphtheria.” The use of the word “families,” rather than “patients,” is significant in this instance: like Moynihan had argued three decades before, family structure was the root cause of violence.

Authors, from Moynihan and 1960s sociologists to journalists and public health officials in the 1990s, are always articulating the inferiorities of black culture, justifying cultural racism and the normality of the resultant social hierarchy. This was historically achieved by attacking black families and drawing scientific links between family structure, crime, violence, and urban decay.


[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] 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.
[13] 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).
[14] Colin McCord and Harold P. Freeman, “Excess Mortality in Harlem,” New England Journal of Medicine 322, no. 3 (January 18, 1990): 173.
[15] John M. Hagedorn, A World of Gangs: Armed Young Men and Gangsta Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 2009), xxvi.
[16] Kelley, Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!, 3; cf. Harris, Little White Houses.
[17] Kelley, Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!, 8–10.
[18] Kelley, Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!, 16.
[19] Gina Kolata, “Grim Seeds of Park Rampage Found in East Harlem Streets,” New York Times, May 2, 1989.
[20] Alan Lupo, “Curing Violence,” Boston Globe, June 9, 1990.