Benign neglect was a policy proposed in 1969 by New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was at the time on Nixon's White House Staff as an urban affairs adviser. While serving in this capacity, he sent the President a memo suggesting, "The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of 'benign neglect.' The subject has been too much talked about. The forum has been too much taken over to hysterics, paranoids, and boodlers on all sides. We need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades."
The policy was designed to ease tensions after the American Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960s. Moynihan was particularly troubled by the speeches of Vice-President Spiro Agnew. However, the policy was widely seen as an abandonment of urban neighborhoods (particularly black ones), as Moynihan's statements and writings appeared to encourage, for instance, fire departments engaging in triage to avoid engaging in a supposedly futile war against arson.
A Rand Institute report suggested that many of the fires in the South Bronx and Harlem were arson, but subsequent analysis of the data did not back this up. Of the fires in buildings, only very few were arson, and that portion was not higher than the rate of proven arson found in wealthier neighborhoods. However, influenced by the report, Moynihan went on to make recommendations for urban policy based on the assumption that there was "widespread arson" in poverty stricken neighborhoods like the South Bronx and Harlem. To Moynihan, arson was one of many social pathologies caused by large cities that would benefit from benign neglect.
The term is today more widely known as a variant of laissez-faire, a lack of regulation and/or investment in the belief of improving (or at least not hurting) the interest of the "neglected" group.
- A Plague on Your Houses: How New York Was Burned Down and National Public Health Crumbled By Deborah Wallace, Rodrick Wallace. ISBN 1-85984-253-4