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A Shared American Inheritance

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A Shared American Inheritance

10 Blocks podcast November 17, 2021
Politics and law
The Social Order

Glenn Loury makes the case for black patriotism in this week’s special episode.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. This week's special episode features Glenn Loury. He's a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, he's a frequent contributor to City Journal, and he's the Merton P. Stoltz Professor at Brown University. Last week at a Manhattan Institute event, Glenn delivered a talk entitled "The Case for Black Patriotism," a subject about which he's written for City Journal in the past. We're delighted to share his remarks on the podcast.

Glenn Loury: Thanks for coming out, everyone. I'm honored to have this opportunity to address this important question.

I'm a black American intellectual in an age of persisting racial inequality in my country. I'm an Ivy League college professor and a descendant of slaves. I'm a beneficiary of the civil rights revolution, which made possible for me a life that my forbears could only have dreamed of. I'm a patriot who loves his country. I'm a man of the West. I'm an inheritor of its great traditions. I've said this many times. Tolstoy is mine. Dickens is mine. Newton and Maxwell and Einstein are mine. Franklin, Hamilton, and Adams are mine. It's my heritage.

So what are my responsibilities? I feel compelled to represent the interest of my people, but that reference is not unambiguous. I'm an intellectual at a moment of racial reckoning, and I declare right here and right now for all the world to hear that, no matter what the political turmoil that envelopes us may be, my fundamental responsibility is to stay in touch with reality, and to insist that others do as well. That's what I'm about here today, so brace yourselves.

I'm going to make a case for unabashed black patriotism, for the forthright embrace of American nationalism by black people. The currently fashionable standoffishness characteristic of much elite thinking concerning blacks' relationship to the American project, exemplified, for instance, by the New York Times' 1619 Project, serves the interest, rightly understood, of neither the country nor of black Americans ourselves.

Frankly, the "America ain't so great and never was" posture, popular on campuses and in liberal newsrooms, is a sophomoric indulgence for we blacks in the 21st century. Our birthright citizenship in this great republic is an inheritance of immense value. To whom much is given, of him much shall be required. We black Americans are a privileged and a blessed people. Our Americanness is much more important than is our blackness. We must embrace this great inheritance and resist the temptation to see ourselves as a people apart.

We Americans of all stripes have a great deal in common, and those commonalities can and should be used to show how bridges, undergirded by patriotism, can be built between black America and the nation as a whole. At bottom, we Americans all want the same things. We all want a legitimate shot at achieving the American dream. We all want each generation to do better than the one that came before. We all want to feel secure in our homes and when we are in public. We all want to live in clean and orderly communities with good services. We want the government to work for us, and not the other way around. We want to be treated fairly by the broader society and by our institutions.

Our commonalities are endless, and connections between various groups in America could be stronger were we to focus more on the things that we have in common instead of those that divide us. Those who make their living by focusing on our differences seem to think that there's something fundamentally wrong with America. Well, they are wrong. It is too easy to overstate the racial problems facing our country or to understate what we have achieved.

The right idea for our country is to embrace the ethic of trans-racial humanism, which Martin Luther King Jr. propounded. We as citizens of this great republic must strive to transcend racial particularism and to stress the universality of our humanity and the commonality of our interests as Americans. I realize that this flies in the face of the dominant anti-racism sentiment in our time, but I must insist that the only way to effectively address a legacy of historical racism without running the risk of inducing a reactionary racial chauvinism on either side of the color line, or both sides of the color line, is to march on, if only fitfully and by degrees, toward the goal of creating a world where racial identities fade in significance, a world where no person's worth is seen to be contingent upon racial inheritance, a world where we learn how to unlearn race, as the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams has put it.

Promoting anti-whiteness, and let's be clear, Black Lives Matter can be found doing just that, will cause those advocates to reap what they sow in a backlash of pro-whiteness. The folks who think that they can insist on spelling black with a capital B while keeping the word white in the lowercase are in for a very rude awakening. Better by far for black people and for this country would be to emphasize our common American interests and to de-emphasize our superficial racial differences.

Now, racial inequality is real, of course, but inequality in America is not solely, or even mainly, a racial issue. There are plenty of poor and marginalized white people in this country, and they deserve our concern too. Contemporary American politics obsesses to an unhealthy extent about racial identity. Just how important is race? Is it an undeniable difference between people, like gender, or is it a social construct? Consider, for instance, the growing number of interracial marriages and the ever-increasing number of people who view themselves as multiracial, including the first black president and the first black vice president of this country.

We talk incessantly about racial identity, but what about culture? What about values? Don't these things transcend race? How are we to explain the alienation that afflicts many prosperous black Americans? These folks are being told by demagogues and pundits that white supremacy threatens them, that we've gone back to the 1960s or earlier. They are being led badly astray, I claim here.

Black votes are being sought via gross exaggerations of legitimate concerns. We've now reached a place where millionaires like LeBron James can really think they're being hunted down like rabid dogs by rogue cops. Demonstrable facts seem insufficient to stop such false narratives.

Yet just look at what has happened here in the United States of America in the last 75 years. A huge black middle class has developed. There are black billionaires. The influence of black people on American culture is stunning, and it has global resonance. Black Americans are rich and powerful, relatively speaking. To put it in perspective, there are 200 million Nigerians, and the gross national product of Nigeria is about $1 trillion a year. America's GDP exceeds 20 trillion a year, and we 40 million or so African-Americans have claimed roughly 10% of it. We have access to 10 times the income of a typical Nigerian.

What is more, the very fact that the cultural barons and elites of America, the people who run the New York Times and the Washington Post, those who give out Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards, those who make grants at the MacArthur Foundation, those who run the human resource departments of corporate America, those who run the universities, those who make the movies, have bought into the woke racial sensibility hook, line, and sinker, gives the lie to such pessimism as the claim that the American dream does not apply to blacks. It most certainly and emphatically does, and it is coming to fruition daily.

To dismiss this reality is to tell our children a lie about their country, a crippling lie which, when taken as gospel, robs us black people of agency and a sense of control over our lives; a patronizing lie which betrays profound lack of faith in the capacities of us black Americans to rise to the challenges, to face up to the responsibilities, and to bear the burdens of our freedom. Bearing the burdens of black freedom in America means acknowledging the socially mediated behavioral issues that lie at the root of today's racial inequality problem. These behavioral issues are real, and they must be faced squarely to grasp why racial disparities persist. These, I hasten to add, are American problems, not merely matters of communal concern to black people. Nevertheless, downplaying behavioral disparities by race is a bluff.

Anti-racism activists on the left of American politics claim that white supremacy, implicit bias, and old-fashioned anti-black racism are sufficient to account for black disadvantage. Those who make such arguments are, in effect, daring you to disagree with them. You must be a racist, they say, one who thinks something is intrinsically wrong with black people, if you don't attribute pathological behavior among some of us to systemic injustice. You must think blacks are inferior, for how else could one explain the disparities?

In calling their bluff, one risks being convicted of the offense of blaming the victim, but this is a debater's trick. It's a dare. At the end of the day, what are those folks saying who declare that something called mass incarceration is racism, that the high number of blacks in jails is a self-evident sign of racial antipathy? To respond commonsensically, "No, it's mainly a sign of antisocial behavior by criminals who happen to be black," one risks being dismissed as a moral reprobate. This is so even if the speaker is black. Just ask Justice Clarence Thomas.

Nobody wants to be canceled, but we should all want to stay in touch with reality. Common sense and, more importantly, the evidence suggests that those in prison are mainly people who have hurt somebody, who have stolen something, or have otherwise violated the basic norms of behavior which makes civil society possible. Let's be clear, those who are taking lives on the streets of St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago are, to a man, behaving despicably. Moreover, those bearing the cost of such pathology are almost exclusively other blacks. An ideology that ascribes this behavior to racism is simply not credible. Why have so many been getting away with espousing it for so long?

Neither could any sensible person actually believe that 70% of African-American babies born to a woman without a husband is, A, a good thing or, B, is due to anti-black racism. People say this, but they don't believe it. They're bluffing. They're daring you to observe this truth, that the 21st-century failures of some African-Americans to take full advantage of the opportunities created by the 20th century's revolution of civil rights are palpable and damning. These failures are being denied at every turn, but this position is simply not tenable.

The end of Jim Crow, the advent of the era of equal rights, these were transformative events in the history of our republic. And now, a half century down the line, we still have significant disparities, a shameful blight on our society to be sure, but the plain fact of the matter is that some considerable responsibility for this sorry state of affairs lies with black people ourselves. Dare we Americans acknowledge this? Dare we black Americans accept responsibility for it?

Here's another unspeakable truth. We need to put police killings of black Americans into perspective. There are about 1,200 fatal shootings of people by the police in the United States each year, and about one-fourth of those killed in this way are black Americans. We are 13% of the population, so that's an overrepresentation, though twice as many whites as blacks are shot dead by police in this country every year. You wouldn't know that from the activists' rhetoric.

Now, 1,200 may be too many. I'm prepared to entertain that idea. I'd be happy to discuss the training and recruitment of police, their rules of engagement with citizens, and the accountability that they should face in the event they overstep their authority. These are legitimate questions. And there is a racial disparity, although there is also a huge disparity in blacks' rate of participation in violent criminal activity.

I am making here no claim one way or the other about the existence of discrimination against blacks in the use of police force, but in terms of police killings, we're talking about 300 black victims per year, roughly. Few of these are unarmed innocents. Most are engaged in violent conflict with police officers. Some are instances like George Floyd, unquestionably problematic and deserving of scrutiny.

But still, we need to bear in mind, in this country of 300 million people, that there are scores of concentrated urban areas where police regularly interact with citizens, and there are tens upon tens of thousands of arrests which occur daily. These events, extremely regrettable, and sometimes not reflecting well on the police, are nevertheless rare. To put it in perspective, with roughly 20,000 homicides in the United States each year, nearly half of which involve black perpetrators, and the vast majority of those had blacks as victims, for every black killed by a police officer, more than 25 other black people meet their end because of homicides committed by other blacks. Now, this is not to downplay the importance of holding police accountable for how they exercise their power. It's merely to notice how very easy it is to overstate the significance and the extent of this phenomenon, precisely as the Black Lives Matter activists have done. This is not good for our country.

There is a fundamental point here. There is a terrible threat to social cohesion here in the United States of America implicit in seeing police killings primarily through a racial lens. Such events are regrettable, regardless of the race of the people involved. Invoking race gratuitously, emphasizing that an officer happens to be white and a victim happens to be black, is to tacitly presume that the reason said officer acted as he did was because the dead or injured victim was black. Yet this is a presumption seldom tested against the facts. We don't necessarily know this.

Moreover, once we go down this road and get into the habit of racializing such events, we may not be able to contain that racialization merely to instances where white cops kill black kids. Soon enough, we may find ourselves in a world where instances of black thugs killing white citizens come to be seen through a racial lens as well. This is a world no thoughtful person should welcome since there are a great many such instances. Framing them as racial events gratuitously is counterproductive in ways that are too obvious for me to detail.

When criminals harm people, they should be dealt with accordingly. They do not represent others of their race when they act badly. White victims of crimes committed by blacks must not come to see themselves mainly in racial terms when someone steals their automobile, beats them, takes their wallet, breaks into their home, or abuses them. People are playing with fire by gratuitously bringing a racial sensibility to police citizens' interactions. They are playing a race card from the bottom of the deck. Well, they may find soon enough that theirs is not the last play in that game.

The narrative that we black Americans settle upon is crucial to the future of this country. Is this a good country, one affording boundless opportunities to all who are fortunate enough to enjoy the privileges and to bear the responsibilities of citizenship? That's one narrative. Or is this a venal, immoral, and rapacious bandit society of plundering racists, founded in genocide and slavery, and propelled by capitalist greed and unrepentant anti-black antipathy? That's another narrative.

The weight of the evidence overwhelmingly favors the former, for the founding of the United States of America in 1776 and 1787 was a world-historic event, by means of which Enlightenment ideals about the rights of individual persons and the legitimacy of state power came to be instantiated for the first time in world history in real institutions. The founding, of course, entailed a compromise with the institution of slavery. That's true. Yet now, some 40 million strong, we black Americans have become by far the richest and most powerful large population of African descent on this planet.

The issue then is a question of narrative. Are we blacks going to look through the dark lens of America as a racist, genocidal, white supremacist, illegitimate force in history, or shall we see our great nation for what it has become over the course of the last three centuries, which is to say the greatest force for human liberty in the world? The narrative we black Americans choose will influence our assessment of certain key periods in history.

There is, of course, the Civil War, which left 600,000 dead in a country of 30 million. The consequences of that war, together with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendment, enacted just afterwards, did something remarkable and unprecedented in world history. It made the enslaved Africans and their descendants into citizens. And in the fullness of time, we have become equal citizens.

Should that last have taken another 100 years? No. Should my ancestors have been enslaved in the first place? No. But we must not forget that slavery had been commonplace in human experience going back to antiquity. Emancipation, the freeing of slaves en masse, after a movement for abolition, that was new. That's a Western phenomenon. It's the fruit of Enlightenment, and it happened right here in these United States of America with the liberation of four million people.

Such an achievement surely would not have been possible without the philosophical insights and the moral commitment and the institutional designing genius of the founders of this country, ideas that were cultivated in the 17th and 18th century in the West, ideas about the essential dignity of human persons and about what can legitimate a government's exercise of power over its people. Something new was created in America at the end of the 18th century. Slavery was a holocaust, out of which emerged something that advanced the morality and the dignity of humankind, namely emancipation. The abolition of slavery and the incorporation of African-descended people into the body politic of the United States of America, these were monumental, unprecedented achievements for human liberty.

In closing, I wish to call our attention to that escaped slave and great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who, in 1852, in a famous speech entitled Whose Fourth of July?, asked America whether he had a share in the nation's civic inheritance. Douglass was cautiously hopeful about the prospect that America might be faithful to the founding principles and grant liberty and equality to his people, but he had to plead with his audience to consider the gravity of the circumstance. He had to indict his country for not standing up to its own ideals. That was in the 1850s.

The question Douglass posed, which was open at the time, has been answered by history. As a black American intellectual who loves his country, I can say without equivocation, in the year 2021, that the Fourth of July, like George Washington, like Thomas Jefferson, and like Abraham Lincoln, is ours. These things belong to me, a descendant of slaves, every bit as much as they belong to any other American.

The question confronting us black Americans today, the fundamental existential question, is not whether we are included within the body politic as full heirs to the bequest of American political culture. Most emphatically, we are. Today's question for us American descendants of slaves is not how to end our oppression. Rather, it is, what shall we do with our freedom? What shall we make of the enormous inheritance that is our birthright citizenship in history's greatest republic? Thank you.

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Photo: pamelasphotopoetry/iStock

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