Benign neglect was a policy proposed in 1969 by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was at the time on President Richard Nixon's 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 ones with a majority black population, as Moynihan's statements and writings appeared to encourage, for instance, fire departments engaging in triage to avoid 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 type of laissez-faire policy, in which a lack of regulation or investment is allowed in the belief that it will improve, or at least not hurt, the interests of the "neglected" group. Benign neglect is also used as to mean divestment from under-served communities, with the implication that resources will be diverted to preferred communities, usually suburbs.
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- #1579 Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations (1989)
- Wallace, Deborah and Wallace, Rodrick. A Plague on Your Houses: How New York Was Burned Down and National Public Health Crumbled. ISBN 1-85984-253-4