On June 24, amid great cultural upheaval and unrest, Glenn Yu reached out to Glenn Loury, his former teacher, to record his thoughts about the current moment. An edited version of their conversation follows.
Glenn Yu: I’ve asked to speak to you because I find myself in the awkward position of being at once uncomfortable with the liberal stance on race that seems to deny the underlying reality of the black experience today while also being uncomfortable with conservatives who seem to disdain the George Floyd-related protests in a manner that makes it hard for me to believe that they have any empathy for the problems. I am also confused about whether it’s even my place to talk about these issues.
Glenn Loury: Well, I can’t exactly answer that question, but I happen to be suspicious about the assertion of authority based upon personal identity, such as being black. Let’s take this example. Were the actions we’ve all seen of the police officer in Minneapolis, Derek Chauvin, expressions of racial hatred? I happen to think that we have no reason to suppose that about him, absent further evidence. There are plenty of alternative explanations for his actions that could be given, from negligence to him just being a mean son of a bitch. Sure, we could project a motive onto him, onto the expression on his face, onto his smirk; we could feed thoughts into his head that make him symbolically emblematic of a certain trauma or sickness in American society, and this all may or may not be true. It might be true. But it might not be.
You may or may not have an opinion about that, but suppose the question were to arise in the dorm room late at night. Suppose you have the view that you’re not sure it’s racism, and then someone challenges you, saying, “you’re not black.” They say, “you’ve never been rousted by the police. You don’t know what it’s like to live in fear.” How much authority should that identitarian move have on our search for the truth? How much weight should my declarations in such an argument carry, based on my blackness? What is blackness? What do we mean? Do we mean that his skin is brown? Or do we mean that he’s had a certain set of social-class-based experiences like growing up in a housing project? Well, white people can grow up in housing projects, too. There are lots of different life experiences.
I think it’s extremely dangerous that people accept without criticism this argumentative-authority move when it’s played. It’s ad hominem. We’re supposed to impute authority to people because of their racial identity? I want you to think about that for a minute. Were you to flip the script on that, you might see the problem. What experiences are black people unable to appreciate by virtue of their blackness? If they have so much insight, maybe they also have blind spots. Maybe a black person could never understand something because they’re so full of rage about being black. Think about how awful it would be to make that move in an argument.
Suppose someone, a white guy, is arguing about affirmative action with you. Suppose he thinks that affirmative action is undignified because he thinks that positions should be earned, not given, but he allows that he doesn’t expect someone like you to understand that argument because you’re black. That would be terribly unreasonable— even “racist.” Yet I’m hard-pressed to see the difference.
Yu: Hundreds of thousands of people are protesting George Floyd’s death, as well as broader issues having to do with the structure of American society. On June 1, President Christina Paxson wrote a letter to the Brown University community indicting the structures of racism and prejudice that she and most on the left claim to lie at the heart of American society. A few days later, you wrote and published your challenge to this letter. Why?
Loury: If my dear colleague, Christina Paxson, professor of economics, as well as president of this university, were simply to have said, “Dear colleagues, I have been pondering the events of the last few days and weeks, and it has brought me to a set of conclusions that I want to share with you from my heart,” and then she proceeded to do so, I would not have written to my friend, nor would I have made public what I wrote, which was printed in City Journal. I wouldn’t have done it because she’s entitled to her opinion. But that’s not what happened.
What happened was a letter signed by the president and cosigned by the provost. It was signed by the senior vice president for administration, by the senior vice president for finance, by the person in charge of advancement and development for the university. It was signed by the university’s general counsel, by the vice president for diversity and inclusion, and by every other functionary all the way down the line to the dean of the School of Public Health. They signed a political letter.
These events don’t speak for themselves. Americans disagree about Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter is not axiomatic. The group represents a thrust in American politics. We can talk about it. I’m not without sympathy for the struggle for racial justice, but I have disputes with people when it comes to interpreting what’s going on in American cities. The letter doesn’t mention the fact that it’s dangerous on the streets of many inner-city neighborhoods where police have to operate every day, that there are a lot of weapons out there, or that the homicide rate is extraordinarily high and that most of the people committing the homicides in these places are black.
Now, imagine that I wrote not a Left letter, but a Right letter: “I think the blacks are complaining too much.” Suppose I wrote that letter and I had everybody in the administration sign it. So it’s a political statement. It may be a very sympathetic and a very persuasive statement, but it’s political! Universities ought not to be political in this sense. When I received that letter, signed by everybody on the payroll of this university who gets paid above $400,000 a year, I thought: “This is thought-policing.” They’re telling us what to think. They’re saying that this is what “Brown values” require one to think. They’re speaking about a “We” with a capital W, and it’s including everybody.
Well, it didn’t include me! So, I object. I object to the soft tyranny of having political postures put forward as self-evident truths to which every decent member of this community should subscribe. I object to that. That’s the last thing that a university should be doing. It’s malpractice. It is administrative malpractice of this precious institution to be swept along by political fad and fancy, and then demand the assent of every administrator, in lockstep, without any dispute among themselves. This is horrible, I thought. I thought the propagation of such groupthink at our university was just horrible.
I know this will seem a bit hysterical, but I felt violated by the letter, because it was trying to tell me what to think. And not only that. It was also, in effect, telling me what I can say in my classes without contravening “Brown values.” It was telling me what I can and cannot write, what I can and cannot pronounce in my public statements if I wish to remain a member in good standing in this community. That is an outrage, in my opinion.
Yu: President Paxson has a point of view about racism—that it is structural. How does your definition of racism conflict with that definition? If structural racism is not responsible for levels of crime and poverty and black communities, what is?
Loury: Well, I want to be very respectful because the discourse has taken a certain turn and people use these words casually but let me try the following. Something like seven in ten children born to an African-American woman in this country are born to a woman who doesn’t have a husband. I don’t have an opinion about whether that’s right or wrong morally. But I do have a question about whether that’s at all relevant to aggressive behavior by male adolescents in American cities. I’m not making a claim that it is. But let’s just say I’m asserting that it could be. Suppose it’s the case that most incidents where police violence has been used against black men are incidents where there was resistance to arrest. No, you did not hear me say that his resisting arrest justified killing him. But aggressive behavior is relevant to the dynamic of social interaction that may result in him being killed.
People cry, “structural racism.” Is that why the homicide rate is an order of magnitude higher among young black men? They say structural racism. Is that why the SAT test-score gap is as big as it is? They say structural racism. Is that why two in three black American kids are born to women without a husband? Is it all about structural racism? Is everything structural racism? It has become a tautology explaining everything. All racial disparities are due to structural racism, evidently. Covid-19 comes along and there’s a disparity in the health incidence. It’s due to structural racism. They’re naming partners at a New York City law firm and there are few black faces. Structural racism. They’re admitting people to specialized exam schools in New York City and the Asians do better. This has to be structural racism, with a twist—the twist being that this time, the structural racism somehow comes out favoring the Asians.
This is not social science. This is propaganda. It’s religion. People are trying to win arguments by using words as if they were weapons. They point to history. But the history is complicated. Yes, there was slavery. Yes, there was segregation. Yes, there was redlining. There were other things, too. A lot has happened in American history. Is the relatively marginal position of African-Americans taken within American political economy a causal result of Jim Crow segregation? Nobody knows the answer to that question. I’m not saying that you won’t find many patterns or practices of racial mistreatment in history, but I’m saying that the link between them and the contemporary circumstances of African-American communities, especially at the bottom end, is woefully inadequate to explain what we see.
And just so I don’t sound like a right-winger, observe that if I were a Marxist, I’d be furious at these people going around talking about “structural racism.” Structure, yes. Racism, no. Because if I were a Marxist, which I’m not, I’d understand the driving force of history to be the interaction between class relations and the means of production, the struggle between workers and capital in the quest for profit given the logic of capitalism. Though I don’t subscribe to it, that’s at least an intellectually serious theory. I know what people are talking about when they say we need more unions, when they say we need to break up big companies, when they say that the accumulation of wealth has gotten too great. When someone says that the logic of profit-seeking leads to war, at least I know what they’re talking about. I don’t necessarily have to agree with Das Kapital to understand that it’s a serious engagement with history.
Structural racism, by contrast, is a bluff. It’s not an engagement with history. It’s a bullying tactic. In effect, it’s telling you to shut up.
Take structural racism’s narrative of incarceration. It’s supposed to be self-evident that if there’s a racial disparity in the incidence of punishment from law-breaking, then the law is illegitimate. Well, an alternative hypothesis is that, for reasons that we could perhaps spend lots of time pursuing, behaviors are different. Behaviors that bear on lawbreaking are different between races, on average. Violence is one behavior, but it’s not the only one I’m talking about. People have tried to do these studies. They’ve examined whether policing practices can accommodate disparity in arrest rates. They’ve examined whether court dispositions are somehow structurally biased, finding blacks guilty when whites would have been found innocent; whether judges systematically pronounce longer sentences for blacks than for whites. The net finding was no.
You cannot get off first base trying to account for the racial disparity in incarceration rates, or in the purported behavior of police courts or parole boards, by reference to Michelle Alexander and the thesis behind The New Jim Crow. I’m not saying that there’s nothing there, but you can’t get anywhere close to explaining the outsize disparity with the explanations she and others provide. There are many disparities, and for every disparity, there are alternative explanations that one can bring to bear, but structural racism doesn’t even attempt to provide an explanation. It attempts to maneuver you into a corner rhetorically so that you must concede it’s not the fault of the people who suffered the condition at hand.
Yu: In a lecture you gave for the Watson Institute a few years ago, you detail a formative moment for you, a meeting you had in Washington with black leaders years ago wherein you made Coretta Scott King cry. In your description of that event, you said that you went in there thinking that once they knew the facts, they would have to agree with you. But they didn’t. Do people disagree with you because they don’t have the same information or statistics as you? Or are these differences ideological?
Loury: Everybody pretty much has the same information available to them, but people are very selective of what information they avail themselves. There’s also a confirmation-bias problem that we all suffer from, where we want to pay attention to evidence that confirms our prior beliefs and disattend evidence that contradicts them.
Let’s take the question of the police use of lethal force. Do they use lethal force in a manner that is systematically racially biased? There are studies out there, and it’s not the kind of question you’re going to definitively answer with a single study, but the accumulation of people’s careful investigations should bear on what we think about the question. Nevertheless, I don’t think people care what’s in the appendices of these studies. I don’t think they care what attention went into the accumulation of the data set at the basis of the statistical analysis. I think they cherry-pick.
Here’s Roland Fryer, for instance, who has this controversial paper regarding police use of force in American cities, where he finds no racial differences between police use of lethal force once you’ve controlled for the circumstances of the situation. As I follow the discussion on Econ Twitter, Facebook, and popular media, Fryer is portrayed in two distinct ways. He is either, from a Heather Mac Donald point of view, a white knight riding in with the facts that finally prove what she’s been saying all along, or he’s a traitor sensationalist who wants to get famous by telling the white people what they want to hear. After some engagement with the details, I personally think Fryer has the better of the arguments. I think he raises very legitimate questions about how important the circumstances are of each encounter that lead police officers to use deadly force.
But to answer your question: Is disagreement factual or ideological? The answer is it’s ideological.
Yu: Then how do we convince people? In your personal experience, have you ever convinced anyone?
Loury: I cannot say that I have. Maybe I’m talking to the wrong people. Maybe if I talked often enough to people who really disagreed with me, I would have created a broad enough sample of encounters such that sometimes I would have succeeded. Maybe I haven’t given myself the opportunity to persuade. I’m conceding that that’s a possibility.
Yu: I’ve had conversations in the past few weeks that have ended very poorly; conversations that have spiraled out of control, where I’m suddenly a racist, so I’m on damage control. I just don’t know how to reach people in a meaningful way, and that’s very disturbing to me.
Loury: It is disturbing. I’m not a seer. My mouth is not a prayer book. I only say what I say based on my subjective assessment of it all. But it may be that, for a while anyway, there’s not going to be a whole lot of effective talking. It may well be that we have to imagine a world where effective deliberation and consensus is not within reach for us, and we’re going to have to manage that situation. It could get very bad. It could go to violence. This is what Sam Harris always says, and he’s got a point. He says that if we can’t reason together, then the only alternative for dispute resolution is violence.
I don’t know if you saw my piece in Quillette about the looting and the rioting, but I pick up these pieces published in the New York Times, respectable left-wing journals. I’m reading them, and the writer is saying, “America was founded on looting. What did you think the Boston Tea Party was?” Or, “You’re talking about looting when George Floyd lies dead? Oh, I see, black lives don’t matter as much as property.” These are, to my mind, incomprehensibly idiotic. I don’t mean that to cast aspersions. The civilization that we all enjoy rests upon a very fragile foundation. Look. I’m in my backyard. It’s very nice. I’ve got a lot of space. There’s a fence. The birds come. I have a lawn. It’s mine!
Now, if a homeless person comes and squats in my backyard, I call the police. I have him removed, forcibly. There should be no lack of clarity about whether George Floyd’s death somehow excuses or justifies burning a bodega to the ground that a Muslim immigrant spends his whole life building. Being confused about that, equivocating about that, splitting the difference about that—I don’t understand how we’re going to have a reasoned discussion. My thoughts go back to, protect civilization. Again, I know how that sounds. It’s hyperbolic. It’s exaggerated—but only a little! My gut response is that this is not the time for argument. This is the time to protect civilization and protect institutions. When people start toppling statues of Abraham Lincoln and spray-painting on statues of George Washington, “a slave owner,” things fall apart. The center cannot hold. We teeter on the brink of catastrophe.
Yu: What about the Ferguson Effect?
Loury: I think Fryer’s studies give us good evidence of the Ferguson Effect’s validity. This most recent paper is only one study, but the numbers are stunning. It looks at Ferguson, Riverside, Chicago, and Baltimore as cities where there were Michael Brown- or Freddie Gray-type viral incidents of police brutality, which caused a big public stir that then drew in a federal investigation of each respective local police department. He compares those to other cities, similar in demography and economic structure, but where there was no viral incident, or there was a viral incident, but it was not followed by an investigation by the federal government of the local department.
Fryer finds that violent crime is significantly higher in those cities that were investigated than it is in comparable cities in the years after the federal investigations. It’s a very comprehensive regression-discontinuity study. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s compelling. They estimate that these investigations caused an additional 900 homicides and an additional 30,000 or so felonies. Why? Because, he says, the amount of policing activity in those places diminished significantly with the onset of the federal inquiry, which he shows by documenting the decrease in stops made by police in those places. So he’s got two findings, really. First: police engagement with citizens seems to be sensitive to the extent to which police are placed in jeopardy by the scrutiny of the federal government. Second: the amount of violent crime in those places depends on the amount of police engagement because violent crime goes up when police engagement goes down. That’s an association, not a demonstration of causality, but it’s a very suggestive association.
Yu: Tell me, what is wrong with this characterization of history? Black men and women were brought to America to be exploited. They were brought here so that white agriculturalists in the South and white textile manufacturers in the North could make more money. For 400 years, they have been trying to make better lives. They tried to be landowners only to have their land stripped from them. They tried to be shopkeepers and they were dispossessed. They tried to participate in the political process but were disenfranchised. They fought wars for the country; they were treated with disdain. They tried to live productive lives; they were lynched. They tried to build communities in Tulsa and Rosewood. These were burned to the ground.
Now, Glenn Loury comes along. He looks at the conditions of black communities. He points at the homicide rate. He points at SAT scores. He points at the children growing up without fathers. He doesn’t point at white people. He points at black people. Glenn Loury points at them and says, “You are responsible for this. This is your fault. You need to fix your culture and stop blaming white people.” Am I mischaracterizing you?
Loury: That is an especially ungenerous representation of my position, but I don’t think it’s a mischaracterization of it. I think I would put it differently, but I don’t think I would necessarily disagree.
Okay, yeah, I’m black. Yeah, these people are black. And we descend from Africans, and the Africans were enslaved. But how determinative is that fact of history on the condition of my community today if I’m an African-American? How determinative is that on the condition of my family today, for what happens in my life today? Left out of your litany was the civil rights era. Left out was the advent of affirmative action. Left out was the elaboration of an extensive welfare state with vast reach; I’m talking about support for indigent families; Medicaid; food stamps and unemployment insurance. Each of those has had its own consequences on the development of social life.
Left out of your story are causal mechanisms. I’m talking about the family. I’m talking about how children are raised. This is not relevant? Human development doesn’t just take place in a school building. It takes place 24/7, 365. The values of the peer group with whom young people affiliate matters. Differences between ethnic groups in the social outcomes we’re interested in, like performance in educational institutions, surely have some relationship to patterns of culture, values, behavior, and the organization of families and communities from which these youngsters emerge, okay? You left some stuff out.
Things are not what they were in 1860, in 1910, in 1950, or even in 1980. Things are different now. Now, you get fired from your job if you’re a prominent person if you merely use the wrong word. Now, if you are a university administrator known to be hostile to affirmative action, your chances of employment outside of Liberty University in Virginia are essentially nil. There’s a vast middle class of African-Americans that didn’t exist a half-century ago. Compared with where else on the planet are your prospects better, even as a person of African descent, born from nothing? Where has the practical implementation of government resulted in a more dynamic, more open society than the one that you and I are privileged to live in right now? Does that sound like some kind of “America’s all great” ideology? Perhaps it does. But I’m willing to take that chance because I think it’s an empirical assessment. The question must always be: “Compared to what?”
Yu: But isn’t there more socioeconomic mobility for some and less for others in America?
Loury: Say you’re a black kid with working-class parents. You’re reasonably smart. You couldn’t get into Stuyvesant or Bronx High School of Science, but you got into the Ivy League anyway because you had a good record and your SAT scores weren’t half bad. Are you telling me that the streets of this country are not paved with gold for you? Are you telling me that you’re not going to end up at a good law firm? Are you telling me that if you want an MBA, you’re not going to end up with a job in a Fortune 500 company?
Yu: Well, what if you’re growing up in Chicago? You’ve got crime all around you. No one in your family can hold down a job. There’s lead in the walls. School is a waste of time for six hours a day. There are no books in your house. That’s certainly not the same upbringing that I had.
Loury: Sure, it’s not. But what’s racial about that? Aren’t there white people in that situation? And Latinos? As I said, if structural racism explains everything, then it doesn’t explain anything. There’s lead in the water because the municipality hasn’t been properly maintained; because the tax base is too scant to be able to support the kind of infrastructure investment needed to get decent water delivered to people, and the teachers’ union blocked the effort to try to reform the schools to charter schools, and the local school district is strapped because of the low values of the properties surrounding it, and the state is unwilling to help.
Those are all problems. I agree with you that those are problems, but they are American problems. To construe them as the consequence of something called structural racism, in my opinion, is not only to get causality wrong but, more importantly, to impede the kind of politics that would end up effectively addressing that problem, which would be a working-class politics on behalf of a decent provisioning to Americans, period. I don’t dispute the fact that there’s unequal opportunity in society.
Yu: Then, what are solutions for poor communities, black or otherwise?
Loury: Well, there’s a need for a robust safety net and investment in human capital. I think people need order and safety in the environments in which they’re living. I think they need the police—I’m not for defunding the police. Reform the police? Of course. The police should be accountable for behaving in accordance with the basic strictures that we would want to impose on people who have that kind of authority among us.
Grow the economy. Look, I’m not a Bernie Sanders Democrat here. I’m somewhere in the center of the policy spectrum. I confess to a certain degree of neoliberalism. I don’t want to kill the golden goose. The goose has laid golden eggs in terms of the prosperity of the society. I don’t think we should soak the rich because I believe in incentives, and you don’t want to discourage creativity, productivity, and whatnot. In a situation where you’re leaving behind a gazillion dollars to your kid and the government wants to tax that away—okay, you can have your philosophical argument about whether that should happen. I don’t think that’s a first-order economic question. But an 80 percent marginal tax rate on incomes above $300,000 a year? That’s a very bad idea.
Yu: What about policies that might help bridge the disparity between blacks and whites within society?
Loury: So, we’ve got affirmative action, or what’s called diversity and inclusion now, and we have institutions trying very hard to manage their affairs in such a way that they increase the representation of the African-Americans in their midst. We can talk about reparations. People talk about wealth disparity. They say that there should be an acknowledgment of the historical indebtedness to African-Americans that has accrued from the history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. I’m not a fan of affirmative action or reparations.
Yu: If there’s no available policy intervention, and there’s also no way we can change people’s minds, then is it hopeless? Is disparity always going to be the case?
Loury: Yes. My answer is it’s hopeless. But let me rephrase the question, and I’m channeling Thomas Sowell now. You have two alternatives. You can live with disparities, or you can live in totalitarianism. Again, hyperbolic, I know. No, I’m not talking about Eastern Europe circa 1960, but look at it this way: there can’t be a disparity without somebody being on top. People don’t recognize this.
What groups are on top? What about the Jews? You could say, “There are too many Jews in positions of influence.” If there are too few black lawyers who are partners in big law firms, doesn’t it follow that are too many Jews who are partners at these big firms? If there are too few blacks who are professors of mechanical engineering at places like Carnegie Mellon, why aren’t there too many Korean professors at these places?
If the system is structured to deny the potentiality of black humanity, then the system is structured as to affirm the humanity of the particular groups that are overrepresented in the prized venues of American life. People don’t realize that they’re playing with fire when they take these disparities as ipso facto evidence of systemic failure. They insist on wholesale interventions into people’s exercise of their liberty in order to enact a reduction or elimination of disparities, yet a world without any disparities is a world where you don’t have so many—name your group—who’ve got so much money or so many prizes. There are only so many positions. There is no under-representation without over-representation. This is arithmetic.
What is the nature of the world that we live in? Why would I ever expect that there would be parity across the board between ethnic, racial, cultural, and ancestral population groups in an open society? It’s a contradiction because difference is a very fact of groupness. What do I mean by a group? Well, it’s genes, to some degree; it’s culture; it’s networks of social affiliation, of intermarriage and kinship. I mean the shared narrative, the same hopes, the dreams, the stories. I mean the practices of parenting and filial piety and whatever else there might be.
A group is a group. It has characteristics. Those characteristics matter for whether you play in the NBA. They matter for whether you learn to master the violin or the piano. They matter for whether you pursue technical subjects or choose to become a humanist or a scientist. They matter for the food that you eat. They matter for how many children you raise and how you raise them. They matter as to the age when you first have sex. They matter for all those things, and I think everyone would agree with that.
But now you’re telling me that they don’t matter for who becomes a partner in a law firm? They don’t matter for who becomes a chair in the Philosophy Department somewhere? Groupness implies disparity because groupness, if taken seriously, implies differences in ways of living life. Not everybody wants to play the fiddle. Not everybody wants to dunk a basketball. Not everybody is frightened to death that their parents are going to be disappointed with them if they come home with an A-minus. Not everybody is susceptible to being swayed into a social affiliation that requires them to commit a violent crime in order to prove their bona fides. Groups differ. Groups are not evenly distributed across society. That’s inevitable. If you insist that those be flattened, you’re only going to be able to succeed by imposing a totalitarian regime that monitors everything and jiggers everything, recomputing and refiguring things until we’ve got the same number of blacks in proportion to their population and the same number of second-generation Vietnamese immigrants in proportion to their population being admitted to Caltech or the Bronx High School of Science. I don’t want to live in that world.
Yu: Clearly, we don’t want equality of outcome. But what about equality of opportunity?
Loury: Well, that’s the ideal. And, insofar as we can give people opportunity through public action—for example, funding schools—yes, I think we should do so. But, insofar as opportunity is also a consequence of informal associations among people—for example, what goes on in their families—again, I repeat: You can get equality only at the cost of tyranny. You’re going to make every parent spend the same amount of time reading to their kid? Is every parent going to make sure that the television is turned off and make sure that the kid is studying at night to the same degree? No, they’re not. Some parents are going to do more. The kids who have parents who are attendant to the nutrition of their child during the gestation period before they’re born, who read to the child while the child is in the crib, who insist that their child does their homework and monitors the kind of friends have and knows where they are at 10 o’clock on any given night—those kids have greater opportunity. How are you going to equalize that?
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