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Racism Is An Empty Thesis

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Racism Is An Empty Thesis

An African-American professor says that blacks hold their fate in their own hands. June 11, 2020
The Social Order

Turmoil in the United States over police violence is the result of a distorted representation of the problem, says Brown University economist Glenn C. Loury. According to Loury, an African-American, the “empty thesis of racism” distracts us from the real problems of black Americans. Below is an edited and translated conversation that Loury had with Peter Winkler, U.S. correspondent for the Swiss daily newspaper Neue Zuercher Zeitung (NZZ).

Peter Winkler: Professor Loury, hundreds of thousands of people in American cities have been protesting that police treat black people more harshly than other populations. The reason, they say, is systemic racism. What do you think?

Glenn Loury: This is a representation that has developed a life of its own. The claim is: the police are hunting black people, black people are at risk, there is an epidemic of violence against black people—unarmed, innocent black people.

There is a problem, but I think its scale is exaggerated. There are approximately 330 million people in the United States, and there are many tens of thousands of encounters between citizens and the police every day. We take half a dozen, maybe a dozen, admittedly outrageous, disturbing incidents of police violence, and we form this into a general account of how people are treated. I think that’s dangerous.

Winkler: But wasn’t the incident in Minneapolis extraordinary in its nonchalant brutality?

Loury: I don’t want to understate it: the case is terrible. It is difficult to look at the images. There was nothing good about it; it’s certainly not good policing. But you still don’t know what exactly happened. This requires an in-depth investigation. Even so, people have started to call it a lynching, and to say that it characterizes the nature of racial relationships in America today. This is a kind of collective hysteria.

I am aware that millions of people are horrified by what they see as systemic racism in this case. But I repeat: I am waiting for the investigation to be completed. This applies to all such incidents. That they happen is nothing to dismiss, but I deny that these incidents are representative of the everyday experience of African-Americans.

I am a contrarian, and I have refused to follow the mob opinion that led to the recent turmoil. And I’m also convinced that this is about more than what happened to George Floyd. That event was a catalyst, and I hope we can finally talk about the broader framework and the circumstances in which racial charges are made in the United States.

Winkler: Even a superficial look at the statistics confirms that there are more confrontations, including violent ones, between blacks and the police. Isn’t that evidence of racist prejudice?

Loury: Not necessarily. Every year, more whites than blacks are shot by the police in the U.S. But it is true that the number of blacks killed by police, relative to population, is higher. However, the problem of police violence affects all ethnic groups.

Moreover, the likelihood that an individual will come into conflict with the police depends on the frequency with which that individual behaves in a manner that attracts police attention. Criminal behavior is not equally distributed across all population groups. African-Americans are overrepresented in prison because they commit more acts that can be punished with prison.

Winkler: Can you elaborate?

Loury: Blacks make up an average of around 40 percent of inmates in prisons and jails, but they make up no more than 15 percent of the population. If you look at the statistics, there is no evidence to support the hypothesis that this overrepresentation can be explained by racist prejudices of the police or the courts. Rather, the numbers show that this is due to an overrepresentation of blacks who violate the law.

It’s legitimate to ask why black men commit more crimes than whites. But it is a fact that they commit massively more homicides; almost 50 percent of homicides, while representing maybe 6 percent or 7 percent of the U.S. population. Or consider robbery: many more whites are victimized by blacks than vice versa, speaking in absolute numbers, not per capita.

Part of the reason why the police have had so many difficult encounters with black people is because the crime rate in black areas is much higher. For example: If the police want to arrest a driver in a black neighborhood, they must be prepared for the possibility that the driver might have a gun on him. Statistically speaking, this is generally not the case—but experience has shown the likelihood that such a dangerous situation will arise is higher in black areas.

Winkler: But you yourself admit that what happened in Minneapolis was bad police work. Is anger at the police understandable?

Loury: The main threat to the quality of life of people living in black areas is the criminal behavior of their fellow citizens, most of whom happen to be black. Black people in American cities are victims of rape, robbery, and murder to a very significant degree, and the perpetrators are almost always black. The protection of life and property is the most important task of the state, and many African-Americans cannot feel safe in their homes. The police are part of the solution to this problem. Black people need the police more than other people do.

Of course, the police must treat all citizens with respect. Racist officers must be disciplined and fired. I don’t want to apologize for anything here: bad policing is bad policing, and you have to do something about it. But depriving the police of resources, making them an enemy, vilifying them, violently assaulting them, or hindering them when they are trying to arrest someone who committed a crime is destructive to black communities. Blacks would suffer the most if police pulled out of their neighborhoods.

Winkler: So you would say that African-Americans just have to take responsibility, get their act together—and then things will get better?

Loury: I wouldn’t say it in these words, though I think that’s true in a way. But if we just tell black people: “Get it together and everything will be fine!”, that would be a crude and ineffective way to start a conversation.

I don’t know the situation in Switzerland, but I assume that there is no racism there; and that Germany and France are flawless, too. I’m being sarcastic, of course. What I want to say is this: racism is a fact of human culture. Racism is also a fact in the United States. But the nature of formal legislation and informal social custom on racial matters has changed radically in America over the past 50 years. I’m 72 years old, and I know what things were like in the 1950s and 1960s. The United States has become a completely different country.

Whites can lose their jobs today if they talk to blacks in the wrong tone. Institutions at all levels of government work full-time against racism. Every university and major corporation has a powerful executive position that monitors and strives for diversity and inclusion. Affirmative-action measures have even penetrated Silicon Valley.

Yes, racism is real, but as a crucial factor that enables or prevents social advancement, it has lost a lot of force in the past half century. I am sure that there are deep-seated inequality problems in America that affect everyone, and black people in particular. Some are institutional, but many have to do with the culture and behavior of black people themselves. I’m talking about lack of educational achievement, and about the higher crime rate; I’m talking about the collapse of the black family. Seven out of ten black children are born outside of marriage. It is a plausible surmise that households where a mother is present, but no father, are more likely to produce adolescent males with behavioral problems.

People are frustrated that conventional political solutions, such as expanding anti-discrimination and welfare programs, have not worked. That’s why they take refuge in the empty thesis of racism. They speak of 1619, when the first blacks landed in America, and they speak of slavery, which was abolished more than 150 years ago. They talk of “centuries of oppression.” But, they don’t talk about how the social condition of blacks in America well may have been healthier in 1950 than it is today—the integrity of family structure, the level of the crime rate, the relationship to work of the poorly educated, and the values with which many children are raised. Summarized in one sentence: racism exists, of course, but it does not sufficiently explain what is going on here.

Winkler: Then what does explain it?

Loury: We need to focus much more on the means through which people acquire the techniques, skills, and behaviors that make them productive members of society. I call that development. It can be about education but also about behavioral, emotional, psychological, and social development. You learn restraint, patience, postponing reward, and things like that. When I look at statistics and find high rates of school failure, the low percentage of blacks in the professions—lawyer, doctor, engineer, or scientist—when I see the high rate of criminality and violence that is endemic in black communities, I see a failure in development, in people reaching their full human potential.

Please understand, that’s not just a question of mistakes or poor choices by these individuals or their families. It’s also about schools that are far less good in areas where many black people live. It is undoubtedly partly related to discrimination and the legacy of that discrimination. Blacks, for example, started with significantly less wealth.

Still, it’s a common mistake to think that we are still in the middle of the twentieth century and that the decisive obstacle to the successful inclusion of blacks in society is racial prejudice. Many people insist that we debate racism, face the injustices of history, and so on. Instead, they should be looking at our children and asking: Can they do math? Can they read a text and understand it? Can they cooperatively get involved in social groups? And when I see that this is sadly not the case with many black children, I believe I am seeing not simply “racism,” but something that is more specific and that is remediable—the obviously insufficient development of their human potential.

We find that immigrants, wherever they come from, have much better success rates than certain African-Americans. One of the main reasons for this is that these groups arrive here with a different culture; they have different, value-oriented expectations of the behavior of their fellows.

Winkler: Are you talking about the fact that violence is sometimes glorified in African-American culture—for example, in certain music styles?

Loury: No, that’s not what I mean. What I mean is: How much am I willing to sacrifice so that my children get the support they need to develop the skills that will help them succeed? It’s also about which values are respected in the social environment and which are not. And violence—that’s culture, too, the willingness to kill, which is astronomical in certain African-American communities. I’m not referring to the entirety of black Americans, but to some black enclaves in big cities.

How many black people start their own businesses? Is it utopian for me to imagine that the income and wealth gap between blacks and other groups would be more quickly closed by more blacks starting their own businesses than by demanding reparations for slavery?

Winkler: Some banks have announced that they will make larger amounts available as loans for business start-ups, especially from African-Americans. Would that be the better approach?

Loury: If the people to whom this is directed are able to benefit from such offers, I think so.

Winkler: Would you admit, however, that there is a correlation between cultural incentives and the very painful history of African-Americans?

Loury: It would be foolish to suggest that the history of slavery and the long years of oppression that followed are unrelated to the current traits of African-American society. We are all, to some extent, products of our history.

I also don’t want to give the impression that I’m castigating those affected by these cultural issues. I’m not saying, “This is all your fault!” On the contrary, I insist that society as a whole is at some level responsible even for the unfavorable behavior patterns in some black communities. These communities are the product of historical dynamics of American society. But again: I don’t think that fact of historical influence is very relevant to the challenges black people face today.

If anyone wants to blame the history of racism as the culprit for the failures of modern black society in the United States, go ahead. I won’t argue the point. But I insist that, despite everything, we African-Americans are free actors who can shape our lives according to our ideas and convictions. We are not determined by the weight of historical disadvantage. That disadvantage was real and to some extent remains an obstacle, but it is not our fate. Our fate is not fixed by the fact that our ancestors were enslaved, or that racism still exists. Our fate is in our hands. One can believe this—indeed, if we are ever to enjoy equal dignity in this society, black people must believe this, I would hold—even while also recognizing that what we see today is in part a product of our past.

Winkler: Your ideas go against arguments that are currently very popular. In fact, the apparent consensus about racial guilt makes me slightly suspicious. What do you think?

Loury: I think we do not live in a really free space where we can discuss these questions. Pressure to conform is intense because nobody wants to give the impression that they stand on the wrong side of the great moral questions of our time. Ironically, this reticence undermines the possibility of genuine and effective moral reasoning. Instead, everyone follows the other, spouting platitudes, as in a herd. Everyone wants to underline their virtue by showing the world: I stand for “justice” and against “racism.” Part of it is simply a tacit agreement about what a truly virtuous person simply does and does not say—which we can also call political correctness.

To make matters worse, real racists still exist in America—people convinced of the superiority of whites and the inferiority of blacks. They believe that the problems we are discussing are proof of supposed black inferiority. Though this is a small minority, these voices do exist, and when you make arguments such as I am doing here, you want to avoid being connected to them or strengthening them in any way.

Because you want as much space as possible between yourself and real racists, you are tempted to avoid hot-button debates about black crime or related topics. Because racists say that black crime is terrible, you are afraid even to address the issue and admit that it may be part of the problem. For example, you are afraid to say that in certain cities police officers fear young black men because those men are too often armed and known to be willing to use their weapons. These are facts—but you are afraid to acknowledge them because these are exactly the things that white racists also say. So you’d rather be silent. And that gets us nowhere—or rather, it gets us to where we are today.

Photo: JayLazarin/iStock

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