Brown University economist Glenn C. Loury, African-American, recently discussed the racial climate in the United States with former Australian politician John Anderson. An edited and condensed version of their conversation appears below.
John Anderson: Can I begin by asking about your personal journey, your intellectual journey, in coming to grips with the nature of race relations in America?
Glenn Loury: Well, I was born on the South Side of Chicago in a working-class African-American community and educated in public schools there. Then I started college, but it didn’t end well. My girlfriend and I married early, with babies coming along, so I dropped out. But I ultimately found my way back to the university. I graduated at 23 from Northwestern University with a degree in mathematics, and then went on to MIT and did a Ph.D. in economics.
In those years—this was the 1970s—I was a conventional liberal microeconomist interested in inequality, among many other issues. But being black in America, I couldn’t really escape being engaged with the debates about discrimination and disparities and racial inequality. Early on, I felt some discomfort with the standard narrative that African-Americans lagged behind because whites wouldn’t extend opportunity to us. I began to think that, while there certainly were problems, that they were increasingly to be found within the African-American community itself.
I say this cautiously, with trepidation, because it’s very easy to slip into blaming the victim for all of his or her problems. But I had looked at the condition of the black family, the level of criminal violence in black communities, the extent of disparity in educational achievement, behavioral problems, a low attachment to work, and a heavy dependence on welfare, and I said, you know, if we want genuine equality it’s not enough to petition society to end discrimination. If the enemy without was white racism, then the enemy within was patterns of behavior in some parts of African-American society that impeded our ability to take advantage of opportunities.
Anderson: Some would say that the worst mistake you can make is to remove agency, by patronizing people and telling them, no, it’s really all our fault. Is that in part what you’re saying?
Loury: It is. The removal of agency is a deep concern of mine. The tone of the conversation here in the U.S. in the last ten years has shifted to notions of systemic racism, white supremacy, and so on, as if those facts alone determine the outcomes in the schools and neighborhoods and prisons of America in the year 2020. I think that is a bogus argument, an argument of surrender, and it leaves one, oddly, petitioning the putative oppressor to save you from the consequences of his oppression.
Anderson: What would you say is legitimate about what the police protest movements in America are saying?
Loury: I like to remind people that the United States is a country of 330 million people. We are a continental nation, sprawling over dozens and dozens of urban areas of concentrated population that are racially heterogenous. There are tens of thousands of encounters between police officers and American citizens daily. About 1,200 Americans are killed by police officers in a year, of which maybe 300 are black. That means that most of the people killed by police officers are not black, and the majority of people killed by police officers in the United States are white. For every George Floyd or Tamir Rice or Eric Garner, there are whites who have died in exactly the same manner, but we don’t hear about these stories because they don’t get reported in the press. So I try to keep things in perspective.
This does not excuse bad policing. Police need to be trained properly. They need to be held accountable when they violate rules of engagement with citizens. There are bad police. There are racist police. But these kinds of incidents are not, in my view, representative of the day-to-day life experience of African-Americans, and the extent to which Black Lives Matter and others have said that every African-American must fear for his or her life upon stepping from their door, this is a gross distortion of reality.
Anderson: To switch to the positive, my understanding is that, since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when only perhaps 30 percent of African-Americans were what you’d call loosely middle class, there’s been a significant lift.
Loury: At the middle of the twentieth century, 1950, the modal occupation for African-American men was farm laborer and the modal occupation for African-American women was domestic servant. Now, if you look at the penetration of professions like medicine, law, engineering, and the academy, if you look at the development of small business and entrepreneurship, if you look at the massive footprint that blacks have in entertainment and sports and so on, we’re the richest black people on the planet. Nigeria, with 200 million people, has about a third of the GDP that 35 million or 40 million African American households have here. I guess it depends on how one wants to look at things. If you look at in terms of the absolute living standards, the curve shows a continuous upward slope. If you ask in terms of the relative standing of people, there are disparities, and these remain a source of concern.
Anderson: As an outsider looking in, I’m also conscious that vast numbers of white Americans obviously voted for a black president as well.
Loury: That reflects the transformation of attitudes and the acceptance of African-Americans. Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, their two children, their dog, occupying the White House as First Family became emblems of the American project. Now, Obama met with some resistance because of his race. I think that that’s undeniable. But he was elected, twice, as the most powerful person on the planet, and he had a huge impact on American society, though the Trump administration has made efforts to undo much of what Obama attempted to accomplish.
Anderson: Nonetheless, I understand that some blacks, perhaps more than I might have expected, support Trump.
Loury: That’s true. By the way, what I mean when I say that much of what Obama was trying to do has been undone is that Trump is appointing judges and enacting legislation that Obama would have opposed. I didn’t mean to say that African-Americans’ political fortunes turn entirely on whether or not an action is in line with what this particular black politician wanted to do.
Donald Trump speaks, I think, to a lot of the culturally conservative sentiments that are characteristic of African-Americans. We’re a religious population, more so than the country as a whole. On immigration, Trump says in effect, “I want to have a border on the country, I want to be in control of who comes in. If they’re going to love our country and have something to contribute, we welcome them. If they’re going to be a burden on our country, we don’t necessarily welcome them.” I don’t see why black people should be opposed to an idea of that sort. Many would think that abortion, or public support for it, is not especially welcome. There are many African-Americans who stand opposed to coastal elites who want to shut down the economy in order to save the planet, who think transgender rights are at the forefront of the human rights agenda, and so on. So I’m not at all surprised that Trump has seen growing support.
Anderson: To come to a few terms that are bandied around with abandon at the moment—“systemic racism” and “white privilege”—you recently said, along these lines, “Structural racism is a bluff. It’s not an engagement with history. It’s a bullying tactic. In effect, it’s telling you to shut up.”
Loury: That’s right. Let me be specific. People look at the prisons. About 40 percent of the people incarcerated in the United States are black, and blacks are about 12 percent of the population. So some say, “structural racism,” as if citing the overrepresentation of blacks among those held in prison alone proved that the system was racist. While there’s certainly some racial discrimination in American criminal justice, criminologists have looked high and low to try to find evidence that the disparity in prisons is due to racial discrimination, and they cannot demonstrate that—because the disparity in criminal offending is itself off the charts, with blacks being vastly overrepresented among those committing violent crimes.
Now you can call that structural racism if you want, but I tell people who say that “You’re not trying to explain anything.” This is a rhetorical move. You think by using those words we’re going to change the subject from that to slavery or redlining or anti-black bias or whatnot, when in fact what we really need to confront, as a society sympathetically, is the foundations of the behavioral deviance that has produced this outcome. They want to blame the system for everything. That is false as a social scientific matter—the causal arrows don’t go in the directions that they’re claiming—but it’s also devastating as a political matter, I argue, because just about everybody listening to this conversation knows that what you’re saying is BS.
Anderson: You recently said that you can live with disparities, or you can live in totalitarianism. Why do you think the project of removing disparities or bringing about equality between identity groups tends to lead us towards totalitarianism?
Loury: Taken to its logical extreme, it would lead to totalitarianism because groups are different in ways that inescapably produce inequality. Look at Asian immigrants’ success in elite academic venues in the United States. A consortium of Asian-American students is suing Harvard, saying that the university is discriminating against them because only a quarter or so of the student body is of Asian-American descent. If you admitted strictly on academic merit, they would be half of the students at Harvard, they say. Now, why is that? And why are there so many Jews at the forefront of various venues of intellectual competition in the United States?
Genetic arguments are off the table, and I’m not making one here. There are, however, huge cultural disparities between these populations—how the children are raised, what things are valued in the community, what aspirations are embraced, how hard do people work, how do they deal with their setbacks, and so on. Are they worried about disappointing their parents? Are the parents supervising their behavior to ensure that they apply themselves in ways that maximize the chance of developing their talents? These factors are vastly different between groups within the United States and, I expect, within any society. People who say that every disparity is an evidence of historical wrong are ignoring the differences between these human populations.
You can try to eliminate the achievement differences, but you can only do it by stifling and extirpating the behavioral patterns that produce the differences in the first place. And when you do that, you’re on a slippery slope to tyranny. You’re telling the parents who want to devote all their available income to child development that they can’t send the kid to a special school or hire a tutor. You’re saying that kids who want to spend eight hours a day studying instead of four hours a day studying somehow have to be prevented from doing that. What you’re going to have at the end of the day is tyranny.
Anderson: In June, you warned your fellow Americans in an article in Quillette that “Americans are in a very dangerous situation now. We stand on the brink of a widespread epidemic of civil unrest whose ultimate consequences are difficult to reckon.” That seems to me to be particularly pertinent in the context of the upcoming presidential election. It wouldn’t take much for a policeman or a figure of authority or someone in a moment of blind panic to do something irresponsible and light the tinderbox. It is dangerous, isn’t it?
Loury: It’s a very concerning situation here. People were saying things like, “What does it matter if they burn a building down or they take some property? It’s only property. We’re talking about lives here.” If someone said law enforcement should prevent this disorder from happening the response would be, “Law enforcement can’t use the appropriate force in order to prevent the disorder because that would be putting property ahead of lives.” And I think that’s just madness.
I grew up in Chicago. The photographs, the images that I saw of high-end boutiques on North Michigan Avenue being looted, and then Black Lives Matter spokesmen saying, “People are entitled to a reparation for the racial injustice that they’ve had to endure,” and so on—all of it disturbed me deeply. And of course, it’s not only on the left of American politics that we have the potential, and the reality, of armed people going into the streets. Things could easily get out of hand. I don’t know the answer, but I do know that the danger is real.
Anderson: One of the things that strikes me about all this is that the 1960s civil rights movement was really a peaceful movement, strongly dominated by the Christian idea of turning the other cheek. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” advocated nonviolence, obedience, peaceful protest. My impression is that leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement say, “No, we’ve moved on from that approach all together.” This whole movement seems to be born in a deep anger, and I wonder how on earth that can play out the right way. Anger seems to endanger everything now.
Loury: I don’t know how it’s going to play out, but I do see the very different foundations on which the movement of the 1950s and 1960s rested relative to the movement that we are witnessing today. There was a Christian, not-quite-pacificism, but a commitment to nonviolence. A belief in the goodness of the fundamental structures of the country. Racism and discrimination were taken to be a deviation from an ideal. Martin Luther King and company were calling the country to higher ground. They were saying, “This is not who we are. I have a dream that one day my four little children will be judged by the content of their character, they’ll walk hand in hand, black and white.” Integration was supposed to be the goal.
Now, at roughly the same time, there were other strands of African-American political expression. Malcolm X, the Black Power people, the Black Panthers, and so on. The balled-up fist—the angry, shaking fist. There were people who called the riots of the 1960s, from Watts to the riots after the King assassination, “uprisings” to imbue them with a certain nobility. The effective legacy of the 1960s on contemporary African-American political expression is much more influenced by the angry, defiant, violence-threatening outlook of the Black Power, Black Panthers, and Black Muslim radicals, than it is by the Christian piety and pacificism of the conventional civil rights movement rooted in the church. The latter is iconic in American history, but it is much less influential politically than the radicals on the sensibility of contemporary activism on behalf of black interests in the year 2020—and I don’t think that that’s progress.
Anderson: What do you make of this incredible self-loathing now, where leading white thinkers essentially argue that racism is about white supremacy, and that, whether you’re conscious of it or not, if you’re white you are racist, and no one else is racist? You’ve got critical race theory, and these bestselling books, White Fragility and How To Be an Antiracist—how can that possibly help, that sort of approach?
Loury: I’m not going to be able to explain it. I’m a little befuddled by it myself. You’ve got groups of white people kneeling and begging forgiveness and so on. There seems to be a kind of moral panic, a kind of mass delusion loose in the land, that the use of race at every turn is the explanatory category that’s going to help us understand what’s going on in society. This is fostering racism, it seems to me. People think that they can constantly harp upon the fact that we’re going to be a majority-minority nation soon, that whites are going to be a minority. They talk about the black vote, the Latino vote, as if voting en bloc because of your race is somehow the natural approach to politics, when my interests are extremely varied and mostly haven’t got anything to do with the color of my skin. They think that they can play these race cards one after the other and not provoke racial identity-based political mobilization on the other side. If whites are going to become a minority, if we’ve got to get rid of whites, if whites are always guilty, if there’s white supremacy at every turn, then what are whites supposed to do? Aren’t they going to start thinking about their interests in terms of their racial identity? And if you say to me, “Oh, they always thought that way,” I would say, as a matter of fact, they didn’t.
Anderson: To round this out, could you name two or three things that could improve race relations? Put aside the causes, what’s really happening, the false narratives, the false solutions. What can be done?
Loury: I want to put choices in the hands of parents to seek whatever provision of educational services best suits their needs and let the chips fall where they may.
I want more integration, intermarriage, mixing. I want a ratcheting down of the intensity of the investment that we make in our racial identities, because that’s not the most important feature of our human profile.
I think the war on drugs has been a very bad mistake for the country. It’s not the only thing going on with the rise in imprisonment in the United States, but it’s a major factor. The overrepresentation of blacks in drug trafficking explains part of the conflict with blacks and the police, and I incline toward a somewhat libertarian outlook on some things.
I think we desperately need better black leadership—people prepared to step away from the crowd and stand up for what they know to be right. Many black police officers are beginning to speak out now. Kentucky attorney general Daniel Cameron, who happens to be African-American, has been trying to walk a very difficult line in the Breonna Taylor case, and he’s met with much vilification. We need 100 more public officials like him to offer a different account of what’s going on and to represent African-Americans in a different way.
Anderson: Glenn, thank you. You’ve unpacked a great deal for us, and I appreciate your insights and that you gave us the time to share them.
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