The policy of ‘benign neglect’ blames the victims themselves for racial tensions. Historyplex explains the full meaning of this policy, by telling you the definition of benign neglect, along with its role in US and British history.
Did You Know?
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the man behind the benign neglect policy, had served with four successive US presidents.
The 1960s marked an eventful period in US history. Apart from the first moon landing in 1969, this period also saw the Civil Rights Movement reach its zenith. Richard Nixon came to power in 1969, and during his presidency, some of the most prominent measures to end racial segregation were passed.
At the time, more than half of the African-American community lived in the Southern United States, where they had to attend minority schools. However, less than 10% of their children ever attended school, which hampered their progress. Nixon took the first steps to end this practice, by integrating the public school system in the south.
Despite his best efforts, the beginning of Nixon’s term was marred by a controversy, which tarnished his reputation as a crusader of civil rights. This was the policy of benign neglect, though its history can be traced even farther back in time.
Definition of Benign Neglect
Benign neglect is a policy which believes that ignoring a particular issue or problem will benefit it more, than publicizing it, or putting in more efforts. While it is mostly associated with a leaked memorandum of the Nixon Administration, a version of this policy was followed in Colonial America as well.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Great Britain attempted to tax her colonies in America, and passed laws banning them from trading with other nations. However, these laws were not enforced strictly, and the smuggling of goods was allowed to go on in the colonies, until Great Britain gained complete control of North America in 1763. This policy was called salutary neglect, which was a version of benign neglect, as the English wanted to avoid enraging the colonists so as to ensure their loyalty. However, historians believe that this policy gave the colonists a taste of freedom, which contributed to the Great War of Independence, which started when Great Britain began the strict implementation of its laws and taxes.
During the Nixon Administration
In January 1970, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Urban Affairs Counselor to President Nixon, sent him a memo urging him to follow a policy of ‘benign neglect’ towards the issue of racial tensions. In this memo, which was leaked in March the same year, Moynihan stated that the African-American community was well on its path to progress, and publicizing the issue would only add fuel to the fire. This was a period when the Civil Rights Movement was at its peak, and radical organizations like the Black Panthers were being established. Moynihan wanted to avoid giving fodder to these movements, and believed that with effective administrative measures, the colored community would benefit enough for such sensitive issues to die down.
The democratic opposition and liberals were quick to accuse Moynihan and the Nixon government of racism. The memo claimed that crime rates were high in colored neighborhoods, because African-Americans felt alienated from society due to their anti-social lifestyle, like living in female dominated households. Since fires are a good indication of a crime-filled area, Moynihan claimed that most fires in colored neighborhoods were found to be cases of arson, and not accidents. So, critics thought ‘benign neglect’ meant that firefighting teams were to ignore such neighborhoods, as it was futile to fight arson.
Trying to indicate the need for benign neglect, Moynihan claimed in his memo that strong efforts to curb racial tensions end up benefiting radical groups more than the victims themselves. Unlike the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panthers was a radical group known to use violent tactics. However, it was a nondescript organization, until the Chicago Police raided one of their offices, which gave them the fame they needed, and earned them affluent donors. This was exactly what Moynihan intended to avoid.
► The US has been accused of turning a blind eye toward political developments in East Asia and Latin America, because they serve no purpose in its foreign policy, post the September 11 attacks of 2001. Other than North Korea, which follows an aggressive nuclear policy, much to US anger, most of the US foreign policy has been directed on its war on terror.
► Some believe that the US policy of benign neglect towards North African countries has ended up making them a safe haven for terror. This region is believed to have contributed almost 12,000 recruits to terrorist organizations fighting in countries like Iraq, Libya, and Mali.
► President Barack Obama, who came to power riding a huge wave of African-American support in 2008, has faced significant criticism of neglecting this community. This is because, his policies are directed at improving the entire economy, believing that this will benefit all sections of society, rather than giving special packages to racial minorities.
Moynihan’s memo is criticized to this day for his benign neglect policy, especially because it blamed the victim (discriminated colored people) for racial tensions. However, off late, several non-white politicians have voiced similar views, asking minorities not to use racism as an excuse for failure.