Glenn Loury is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of Economics at Brown University, and a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. For forty years, he has thought and written extensively about race, poverty, crime, the Black family, affirmative action, and relations between people in our society, during which time he has earned a reputation as a truth teller and a sharp critic of the shibboleth of the moment. When we sat down with him recently, Professor Loury seemed more frustrated than sanguine, and deeply pained about the direction in which much of American culture is heading.
inFOCUS: Let’s jump right in. How are race and cancel culture related?
Glenn Loury: They’re joined at the hip, in my opinion, but it’s not only race. Cancel culture is also the MeToo movement. Cancel culture is if you like the Founding Fathers or Mount Rushmore, you’re in trouble. If you thought Columbus Day should have been Columbus Day instead of Indigenous People’s Day, you’re in trouble. Cancel culture is about a lot of things, but it is substantially about race.
We have events [Ed. the death of George Floyd] that become the focus of movements. And now they’ve become the stage on which people perform rituals of expiation. The president of Princeton University talked about how racist his institution is. Now, in 2021. It’s madness. All the affirmative action, all of the Black studies, all of the recognition of the legitimacy of the claim of African Americans against slavery and Jim Crow. We’ve been doing this for a half century and still presidents of Ivy League institutions have to “fess up” to systemic racism. And everybody knows it’s a fraud.
iF: Everybody knows that?
Prof. Loury: The professor of physics, the professor of organic chemistry, the person who actually knows something about the French Revolution, because he or she reads French and studied the texts from the 18th and early 19th century. The computer scientist…. No, of course, everybody doesn’t know it’s a fraud. But I’m saying it is a fraud and it doesn’t go down very deeply in the real root of the academy. It would be the tail wagging the dog to have these institutions defined and organized around the petulance and sophomoric tantrum-throwing of all of these kids. It’s the tail wagging the dog.
I think there’s substance in the university. I think that the great traditions of learning that we’ve inherited, they’re Western traditions, not exclusively, but substantially so, are real things. They’re the achievements of human civilization. I think they will weather the storm, although I don’t exactly see the end of the storm.
iF: What about all those departments of race, or sexual studies, or identity?
Prof. Loury: These departments are here to stay. I’m sorry to report that. I think it was a mistake, but they’re here to stay. Let me try to defend the position that it was a mistake. The year is 1969, ‘70, ‘71, Black power, and the kids are taking over the administration building, and they demand Black studies.
So, you create Black studies departments. Now, it’s not like there’s nothing to study, there’s a legitimate set of questions. But we all knew, and we always have known that the history department was where history was done, the political science department was where the study of government took place, the economics department stood on the shoulders of generations of reflection about economics. The university has traditions and the canon. The study of Afro-related affairs should have been vetted through the normal channels. Identity in politics should not drive that process. Sadly, what we did in the late 1960s and early 1970s was to lock in an institutional framework in the universities, such that identity in politics ended up driving that process. That was a mistake.
The Discipline of the Disciplines
iF: And Critical Race Theory?
Prof. Loury: That’s a slightly different subject. I’m not sure I understand it, but I will speculate. It’s not inconsistent with what I was saying because the discipline of the academic disciplines is what I was trying to drive toward when discussing Black studies. You have to submit yourself to the discipline of the disciplines, and you also have to submit yourself to the discipline of your peers in terms of evaluation. The gates get narrower as you ascend the pyramid of human excellence. And when we start talking about MIT and Caltech, we’re talking about the top tier. The narrower the gate, the more each one of us who seeks to pass through knows and is aware of the fact that we’re being judged.
And not everybody is going to be found fit. That’s the nature of the thing – it’s elite. Why is the “identitarian” attraction so powerful? For many, it’s a way of evading the existential angst of confronting one’s own failure in the face of severe competition as you enter into elite venues when nobody knows if they are really on sure footing.
The point of a university education is to expose students to the whole vista of what is available to know about life. Students don’t know what they’re going to be after they’ve encountered that vista. So rather than doubling down on what they bring to us at 18 years old, to form their identities, we should be encouraging them to shed that and to open themselves to all these possibilities. And we’re not doing that. Affirmative action exacerbates this.
iF: Last summer the Black Lives Matter explosion along with the claims of structural racism and White privilege, went from zero to Kamala Harris for president. What happened?
Prof. Loury: God, I’m befuddled by what happened in the summer of 2020, but I’m also chastened by it because this is a deep thing about our country. I mean, there are small points. Where’s Tom Wolf when we need him? George Floyd was buried in a gold casket. There was a caisson. It was a state funeral. George Floyd – I don’t mean to disparage him, but this wasn’t Emmett Till, lynched.
So, what’s going on? This is theater. “America needs to get its knee off the neck of Black people.” Come on, this is preposterous. It’s an absurdity. The Black Lives Matter movement, those riots. American will be a long time recovering from the summer of 2020 in terms of race relations.
I was deeply disquieted by what happened in summer. This will bear bitter fruit, in my opinion.
Mainstream institutions let us down. This is why I objected when the president of my university wrote one of these silly letters mouthing the Black Lives Matter platitudes. I thought, “My God, we’re a university, and we’ve surrendered our reason and our capacity to reflect about subtle moral issues to this… We’ve now joined that movement?” It’s insulting to the intelligence and since these are precious institutions… I speak about universities, but I could be speaking about newsrooms mouthing that riots were “mostly peaceful protests.”
iF: Where did the mobs come from?
Prof. Loury: Opportunity presented itself. I remember the book by Edward C. Banfield, The Unheavenly City. He had a chapter called, “Rioting for Fun and Profit.” He pointed out it’s an opportunity if you’re 18 years old, sitting around talking to your friends and have nothing else to do. I don’t know whether there was something more systematic, I certainly can’t rule it out. It gets into conspiracy theory territory, but I don’t think you could rule it out. But I think real damage was done on the race question.
There will be a backlash. They think they’re winning, the racial radicals, the “critical race theory” people. They’re not winning. It’s a big country. There are 330 million people. There is a lot that’s going on. It’s fast moving. We’re a nation of immigrants. The Asians and Latinos, everything is changing.
Civil Rights and School Failure
Technology will be completely different in 25 years. There are real impediments to success in the modern world and those problems got set back in the Black community.
We’re decades past the start of the Civil Rights movement. We should be all over school failure, advocating choice and charters and every other kind education. It should be a main pillar of the Civil Rights movement. And I’m not saying that as a partisan, neo-liberal, I’m just saying, if kids can’t learn to read and count in large numbers, it’s a time bomb. We need the country to embrace this project – not just in a racial way because kids are like this in Appalachia and Southwestern Ohio, and so on. We should get beyond this identity thing, but that’s a separate conversation. We were talking about the race question. And I’m saying, the issue here is the incomplete development and the ineffective functioning of these people in terms of their ability to cope in life.
We need the country to tackle that problem. And what happened in the summer of 2020, I think, alienates the country from a sense of responsibility for – and engagement with – these questions. Now it’s about a kind of bargaining, where belligerents sit on one side of the table threatening to burn the thing down and the powers-that-be placate and pay them off. Corporate America pays them off, the foundations pay them off, the Democratic Party pays them off and they lie about the real problem.
Violence and lethality are a fundamental impediment to Black life. The homicide numbers are unbelievable. They’re stratospheric.
The Black Middle Class
iF: There’s a very large Black middle class, and we don’t hear about them. How are they doing? They seemed to be doing better under Trump, economically. The Black middle-class cannot possibly support looting and rioting?
Prof. Loury: Oh, don’t be so sure. That would be a little bit like saying an American Jew couldn’t possibly support the Iran nuclear deal.
Prof. Loury: It seems like it shouldn’t be so, but believe me, it can happen. African Americans are the richest and most powerful people of African descent on the planet. Thirty or 40 million people – billionaires, industry-defining moguls, entertainers, and athletes who set global styles. There are artists and writers. Doctors and lawyers and Indian chiefs. A lot of people who are setting up businesses and so on. The United States has an extremely prosperous, extremely accomplished, large population of people of African descent.
There are problems and there are issues, and some of what affects the lower classes of the Black community creeps across the line. But on the whole, I think, there’s much to celebrate. When Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist came to the U.S. in the middle of the 20th century to write about the American Negro, the typical occupation for a Black man was a laborer in manufacturing or on the farm. Most Black women who were working were domestic servants of one sort or another. It was a completely different world.
Now there is a tremendous demand for the services of the educated African American middle class. This is the social revolution that gave us Barack and Michelle Obama. And it’s a part of the remarkable story. When you think about it in broader terms, African Americans emerged from slavery just 150 years ago. And this population has become integrated fully, not socially integrated in terms of intermarriage, but still… And of course, there are the issues that everyone talks about in terms of disparities, but come on, we’re citizens of this Republic, we are a part of the warp and woof of America at its center. And in fact, perhaps overrepresented to some degree at its center because gatekeepers and cultural barons want to compensate for the history of exclusion.
So, the African American middle-class is profoundly significant in indicating what’s possible to accomplish here in America, notwithstanding the disparities and the gaps. But the politics of it – as far as I can tell, they’re 80% behind the woke narratives.
They are committed to liberalism without a doubt, and the Democratic party. I want to make this point about the African American middle class and their political instincts: They’re going to circle the wagons around the Democratic party and around the liberal agenda, and many around the woke agenda. But there are issues that are ambiguous and complex. The implications of relatively uncontrolled entry into the country of low-skilled labor from south of the border is one of those issues
What unchecked immigration implies for African Americans is not a simple question. It seems to me that it should be an agonizing question causing deep deliberation. Same with the appropriation of the phrase “people of color.” This is a cultural move that’s been made with Critical Race Theory. The moral capital of Black people within this country, because of our history, has been commodified, generalized, and appropriated by other causes. Other groups basically draw an analogy to the rights claims of African Americans, including transgendered people, or immigrants who are coming from south of the border, who speak Spanish as a native language. How did they get to be people of color? How did they get our moral authority?
The black middle class doesn’t take up these questions because of the monolithic character of the narrative in intellectual life.
Who is Black?
iF: Barak Obama was the first black President, but not from the traditional African American, former slave community. Now we’ve got Kamala Harris and it’s the same thing.
Prof. Loury: Obama’s father was born in Kenya and his mother was born in Kansas. Neither one of those is the Southside of Chicago. And Kamala Harris’s father is Jamaican and her mother is Indian. And yet they’re Black.
What other group is so porous that people whose neither mother nor father belonged to the group get to be iconic tribunes embodying the aspirations of the group?
Equity, Equality and MLK
iF: When we were younger, it looked like our society was heading toward that Martin Luther King ideal of colorblindness: individual character and action, not race. And then that all seemed to go south.
Prof. Loury: The weight, the center of gravity, has shifted away from the colorblind ideal – which is a great mistake, it is a historic wrong turn. But the turn has been made. I don’t know how we go back.
What happened was that “equal opportunity” was not enough. The challenge of getting people equipped to actually compete and perform wasn’t met. Equal opportunity was not enough to bring a parity of performance about, quickly enough. And so, the latest version of this is, they play with language. We need George Orwell to protect us from these people. They don’t want to talk about equality anymore, they want to talk about equity. And you know what they’re talking about? They’re talking about covering up the fact that outcomes will not be proportionate because performance it’s not equal. But we’re not going to judge based on performance, we’re going to judge based on outcomes, and we’re going to jigger such that we get a parity of outcome notwithstanding the fact that we don’t have parity of performance.
The reality of the development question was too daunting. If you go color blind, you have to live with the consequences, like a law firm with a class of new partners that didn’t have any Blacks in it. You’d have to live with schools like Stuyvesant [Ed. competitive high school in Manhattan] which, when they admitted a thousand kids, had 15 Black kids in it. People don’t want to live with that. They prefer a security blanket of mandated “equity.” And again, I say they’re wrong.
They think they’ve got a trump card in identity, but it is as if they say, “I can’t compete. I’m not going to be able to cut it on the basis of performance. I demand because of slavery. I demand because of Jim Crow, redlining, micro-aggressions, cultural appropriation. I demand.” This is what goes on in a big newspaper, talking about what’s going to be on the editorial page. People are throwing tantrums and they’re throwing fits. This is a department in a university insisting that they don’t have enough people on the faculty who are this, or that – not based on the books that they’ve written or work they’ve done. They think they’ve got a trump card, but at the end of the day everybody knows it’s a shell game and people are being tolerated, patronized, placated, condescended to.
The Family and a New Black Movement
iF: When you talk about the development that didn’t occur, I presume you’re talking about the family.
Prof. Loury: I am talking in part about the family because that’s where human development is anchored, and about out of wedlock births and single parent families and multiple paternity. I’m not a sociologist, but there’s just a lot of child abuse, there’s a lot of domestic violence, there’s woundedness and brokenness and it affects kids. Schools can’t do everything. This is a part of it. It’s not the only thing, but it’s a part of it. And transfers of money will not solve all of these problems. Not that I’m necessarily against trying to help people who are poor, but it’s not a panacea. And policy is limited to the extent that you respect privacy and autonomy, and there are places you don’t want the state to enter, to try and govern people’s lives.
We could talk about what you can do about helping people be better parents – about supplementing the experience of early childhood with one kind of intervention or another, about various environmental, nutritional stopgaps. I don’t have a policy agenda, but yes, I would put my finger on child-rearing, on parenting, on the family, on the stability of the environment in early life. And I think the issues for the African American family are significant.
iF: Is it fixable?
Prof. Loury: It may not be. These are very large forces at work. It’s s not necessarily something that can be fixed by us, meaning the entire national community. It may require a movement of us, within the black community, a mobilization that would have to be cultural and would have to be driven by an inspirational articulation of a sense of Black identity. This cuts against colorblindness, so it starts to get complicated. Call it “cultural reform,” which entails changing bedrock patterns, expectations, habits, and customs within a community, such as “How do you behave inside the context of marriage?” or “Do you enter into it?” Changing that single childbearing practice and interactions between men and women.
These are very intimate things. And to mobilize on that perhaps might draw on positive black identity. I’d say, “Our ancestors didn’t bring us this far in order for us to let them down by…” This kind of talk. And that’s very sectarian. It’s very thick with groupness. And so, on the one hand, from the civic point of view, I want the nation to be a nation of laws in which people are getting the equal protection irrespective of their identity. But if I have a cultural impediment and I want to do something about it, I need to mobilize people and to draw them into the church basement. I want to write the sermon.
I want a movement for this, so that I think about my identity differently. I want a movement where people start saying how they want to live, and then start imposing those expectations on their peers. “You are not in good standing within our community if…” And this would have to have its effects in Hollywood on the popular culture, it would have to have its effect in the Academy.
Myron Magnet first made this argument in The Dream and the Nightmare. He wrote something like, “America caught a cold in the ‘60s with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, throwing over everything. And the poor, the Blacks at the bottom, they got pneumonia.” Because once you threw away all these guardrails and people didn’t have any resources, it was going to be a nightmare – and it has been a nightmare. That’s certainly a part of the problem, I think, that the larger culture has become so libertine. Black identity, all you have to do is look at hip hop, which is often musical genius, but it’s also not a part of the restoring the Black family program that I was giving voice to a moment ago.
iF: What comes next? Give me something optimistic, or is there nothing?
Prof. Loury: The last thing I put up in my newsletter was that I’m in complete despair. And I feel like I’m just tilting at windmills and it makes me think, “This is not what you want to do if you’ve only got a limited amount of time. Try to find some pragmatic way.”
So, I am thinking concretely about prison reform. And I am teaching a class, with 20 very eager Brown undergraduates, who are furious at how stifling things are. We are reading Plato, and John Stuart Mill, and we are all trying to think about the big questions.
iF: Prof. Loury on behalf of the Jewish Policy Center, and the readers of inFOCUS, Thank you.