Wrongthink on Race with Glenn C. Loury
A conversation with one of our sharpest cultural critics.
Four decades ago, Glenn C. Loury became the first tenured black professor of economics in Harvard’s history. Ever since then, he has made waves for his willingness to buck the elite intellectual establishment; for his iconoclastic ideas about race and inequality; and for his incisive cultural criticism.
He is a man of many apparent contradictions: he rails against the divisiveness of woke politics from his post as the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics Brown University, one of America’s most left wing campuses. He worries about what the death of God means for the country — though he calls his own past religious beliefs a “benevolent self-delusion,” even as he admits they saved his life. In the ‘80s, Glenn challenged his fellow black Americans to combat the “enemy from within,” while he himself battled personal demons like addiction.
For my part, I think Glenn embodies what the philosophers call a man in full. Glenn is a man who, in a time of lies told for the sake of political convenience, strives to tell the truth even when the truth is hard. Or complicated. Or an affront to our feelings. Or contradicts what we wish were true.
On today’s episode of Honestly we discuss: race, racism, Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, Tony Timpa, school choice, standardized tests, crack, sexual infidelity, Christianity, the Nation of Islam, neoconservatism, and pretty much every other hot-button subject you can imagine.
Plus, Glenn’s own remarkable life story and what it says about America.
Below are some of the highlights from our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
On being the skunk at the garden party:
BW: Two years after you got to Harvard, in 1984, you published an explosive essay in The New Republic called “A New American Dilemma.” In it, you wrote “the social disorganization among poor blacks, the lagging academic performance of black students, the disturbingly high rate of black on black crime, the alarming increase in the early unwed pregnancies among blacks now loom as the primary obstacles to progress.”
BW: I want to hear about the decision to publish that piece.
GL: Bari, that almost made chills run down my spine. Remembering those words, those years and the whole thing that led up to it. I made Coretta Scott King weep in a meeting of the urban coalition leaders and civil rights leaders in Washington, D.C. the summer before that essay was published. That essay comes out of my years at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor when I would go into Detroit a great deal. And I was seeing what was happening to Detroit in the late 70s and early 80s. And it also came out of my work in my dissertation, in which I addressed the post-civil rights dispensation and whether the disparity would narrow in the face of equal opportunity. It was very much influenced by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. So there was all this talk in the air. And in that meeting where Coretta, the great widow of the iconic figure, Martin Luther King Jr., wept, I was invited to give a précis of this essay and to hear from civil rights leaders in response before it was published.
BW: Did it feel like you were saying something out loud and in public that many people you knew and probably many people you grew up with believed, but it just wasn't allowed to be said out loud at a place like Harvard?
GL: I don't want to get too partisan about it, but I just want to say I don't think the people around that table who led those organizations were like: “Yeah, I agree with you. That’s the problem. But we can't say it that way.” I think they were more like: “That’s not how we talk. That’s reactionary talk that gives aid and comfort to the enemy. We expected better of you than that.” That’s why I think Mrs. King was weeping. At the end of the day, I was standing right next to her. We're only about 20 people in the room. And I'm standing up extemporaneously giving a 20 or 30 minute exposition. And I looked down and there are tears rolling down her cheek. And I think it was a disappointment. You know, I am this wunderkind, I'm 34 years old and I'm a tenured professor of economics at Harvard. I have all that cache. And there I am. That's my message. That's what I have to say.
On the state of American universities:
BW: You’ve been on campus for several decades now and you're now at Brown, which has a reputation of being, for lack of a better word, one of the most “woke” campuses in the country. What changes have you seen on campus since the time that you began teaching at Harvard to what you're seeing at Brown today?
GL: My, that’s a very large question, which I'm loath to answer off the cuff. I think standards have gone down. You ask me, I'm going to tell you. I think, for example, in math education we're not serious. We in the United States of America are losing our edge. When I speak to one of my classes, if I do anything, that's the least bit demanding of abstract, analytical, logical framing, I'm looking at their faces and I'm made to dumb down, in effect, what I want to say. I'm not doing this subject justice, but I don't think we expect as much of our students. I don't think we demand as much. Grade inflation is a horrible corruption.
BW: To what extent do you connect the decline in standards to the fact that schools are effectively now a political monoculture? Is there something about not being around other people with worldviews that are radically different from your own and being forced to contend with them? Does that make people stupider and perhaps lazier?
GL: I think it sounds correct to me. I don't know if that accounts for the fact that if I write an equation on the blackboard during a lecture to undergraduates at Brown, a third of the class eyes will glaze over. I don't know if I can draw the direct connection there, but groupthink is the enemy of rigor. I think that's a defensible place to take a stand. So one of the things that I think has happened is that our standards have lowered. Now, another thing that has happened is that I think we're in the service of various believed-to-be-certainties about moral issues. We feel that we need to signal solidarity with them through the work of the university, through its research, through its teaching, its pedagogy, through its composition of its incumbent members and how we select and what we define to be excellence and all that. That has become captive to a certain political agenda. I mean, it's left. It's definitely left. We could go into it. And if I get specific, then I'll be written off as a reactionary.
BW: I'd like for you to get specific.
GL: The diversity thing is going to be one of the things that I'm going to say. The hostility to American interest in the world is another thing that I could point to. The impatience with the fact that when you transform moral judgments about things like gender identity overnight in a country of 330 million people, where everybody is not going to be on the same page at the same time, and the way you decide to talk about that from some lofty, supercilious, self-righteous, sanctimonious moral posture and to condemn the people who are holding their bibles or holding on to their traditions as if they were know-nothings. That smugness infects the university. But I think the diversity thing is related to the standards thing.
So I'm just going to say this: You can't do affirmative action, maintain black dignity, and maintain the standards at the same time. That's a trilemma, you can't do all of those things at the same time, if you lower the standards for black people to admit them to elite venues of intellectual performance and the standards are correlated with performance, you assure as a statistical necessity, on average, lower performance of the blacks whom you've admitted. If you insist on their dignity, you can't be Sandra Sellers. This is the adjunct lecturer at Georgetown Law Center who was caught on an open mic lamenting the fact that most of the kids in her class who were at the bottom were black.
BW: And she was fired and the person listening to it left.
GL: And the whole brouhaha, the whole navel-gazing conflagration that happened at the institution of Georgetown Law with a black faculty demand of the white faculty that they acknowledge their white supremacist, blah, blah, blah. It's all a cover for black mediocrity. Yes. There, I said it. You lowered the standards. Now the black kids are at the bottom, but they have to have dignity. Therefore, you immolate yourself morally. That is a disease in the university. I'm going to say it one more time: Black equality cannot be had in this way.
BW: What do you mean when you say “ immolate yourself morally”?
GL: What I mean is they’re now going to search under every bed for racist white people. Do you know that the grades of Sandra Sellers’ previous classes were audited by the law school to see whether she exhibited unfairness to black students?
BW: So let me say back to you what I’m hearing: there needs to be some explanation for disparity beyond the academic proclivities or talents of the students. And so in order to explain that disparity, racism needs to be found.
GL: Yeah, that is what I'm saying. Reporting the existence of the disparity is ipso facto racist in the minds of these people.
On what a movement for black lives should look like:
BW: The word racism has been redefined, particularly by Ibram X. Kendi. First of all, it's no longer about personal bigotry. It's about any system that results in disparity. So if you have any kind of disparity between racial groups in any given institution, school culture system, it is evidence in and of itself that racism is present.
GL: That is exactly what Kendi is saying. He's not mincing words about it. What it brings to mind is George Orwell's essay “Politics and the English Language,” in which he talks about how words and the meaning of words fall in the service of political programs. And people think they can make reality by playing with words. I don't know why anybody takes Ibram X. Kendi seriously. That's a silly book, “How To Be an Anti-Racist.” Kendi’s formulations are sophomoric. They don't bear up under the least bit of serious, rigorous social scientific scrutiny. He's not standing on any literature. He's not citing any intellectual development that has any deep roots in anything. It's pablum. It's froth on the intellectual surface of our life. And it behooves us all to think pretty hard about why it is that we're content with that kind of analysis. When civil disorder in American cities is consuming the lives of black people like a machine, our political leaders and intellectual class and journalistic representatives haven't got a word to say about it. Black Lives Matter is almost completely irrelevant to what matters in black lives.
BW: And yet corporations and the entire elite establishment has taken up the cause of Black Lives Matter. And the cynic in me would say it’s just about the cheapest and easiest thing that they could possibly do.
GL: Nothing that Black Lives Matter is about has any intersection with the things that actually matter in black lives. What about education? The gap in the cognitive development of the human potential of African-American youngsters relative to others in this country widens. It's a yawning chasm.
BW: Glenn, if one really cared about black lives and wanted to insist on a movement that actually fulfilled the promise of black lives mattering, what would be the top three priorities of that movement?
GL: I think self-determination and taking responsibility for our lives. I'd say education. I'm sorry this is partisan, but the public-school unions are poorly serving, on the whole, the places where black students congregate and the intellectual needs of those students. Now, there are other people to be faulted as well. But opening up that system to innovation is absolutely imperative to improving the quality of black life in this country.
And the public safety piece of this narrative, that the police are out to get black people, this contempt for law, the lawlessness of the George Floyd protests, the celebration of that lawlessness, the silence in the face of it. Patriotism. And by that I don't mean blind loyalty to a flag salute, I mean seeing yourself as an integral part of the American project. This is our country. We don't stand off from it. There is no United Nations where black claims will be negotiated. We must make our peace with our fellow citizens. That has corollaries: two national anthems is a terrible idea, reparations for slavery is a mistake. It wrongly places the nature of the moral problem. It creates these parties as between which a negotiation and a deal is being cut. There are not two parties here. There's only one party.
On partisan race-baiting:
BW: There was an incident recently surrounding Larry Elder’s campaign during the recall. And the first was when the L.A. Times called Larry Elder the “black face of white supremacy.”
GL: I saw it.
BW: He was campaigning in Los Angeles right before the vote. And a white woman wearing a gorilla mask came up to him and was screaming, throwing eggs at him, trying to hit him I think. And this went almost ignored by the mainstream press. Whereas in the notorious Central Park Karen case, there were almost two dozen stories about that incident in The New York Times. And yet here a black politician is being harassed by a woman in a gorilla mask . . .
GL: Why is it not an unacceptably racist political act to caricature Larry Elder in that way and to assault him? I'm sorry, I think many of us black people are not fools. I mean, this is not a plantation. You can’t tell me what I'm supposed to think. Larry Elder is a conservative. I'm not advocating for him here. I'm just saying to use his race in that way, as the Los Angeles Times did, that's unspeakable. That’s despicable.
BW: Is that because he's just not the right kind of black man or the right kind of black politician?
GL: OK, now you're asking a partisan. I’m critical of the Democratic Party’s use of race in its larger political strategy, which relies on keeping black people afraid of racism. The idea that black people need to be afraid of the police. I think that's absurd. I think it’s madness that with 330 million people in the country, with 40 million black people in the country, we've got dozens of cities with 500,000 people in them with large urban areas. There are tens of thousands of encounters between the police and citizens on a daily basis. You've got a handful of incidents of the George Floyd variety, and even many of those are ambiguous. So you construe that as open season on black people when, in fact, homicide is through the roof.
BW: And yet when I watched the video of George Floyd, and when I watched the passion and rage of that summer, I was shaken by it. I watched that video and thought: How the hell could this be happening in America right now? Maybe I was taken by what Shelby Steele said. That is, the poetic truth of it. And maybe that’s one explanation for why something like that goes so viral. That it represents, maybe in our collective consciousness, the truth about the fundamentally racist history of America. What do you think of that?
GL: Well, I think Shelby does make that point in reference to Michael Brown. Poetic truth. I think that's a very brilliant way of putting it. He has a point that reading these events in a particular way resonates with a larger narrative about American society that feels true to many people. I would point out that for every George Floyd type situation, there’s a Tony Timpa type situation. This is a white guy who got similarly abused by police officers under similar circumstances. The numbers say that it happens to white people, too. So we have to choose to read what happened to George Floyd as a racial matter. We're choosing to interpret it that way. To say that that's a reenactment of Emmett Till, that's a choice we're making.
I could go down the litany of evidence to the effect that the race-relations situation in America in the 21st century is completely and radically different and improved relative to what it was in the mid 20th century. And I think we have to begin to entertain a possibility, which is that the actual success of American history, the fact that we overcame the warts, is the problem. Because the fact of that success in the face of the continuing failure of a large chunk of black society to get on the escalator of opportunity, which defines this country, is just too much cognitive dissonance for a lot of people to grapple with. It’s the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama. It’s the fact that black women are the mayors of a half dozen big cities that I could name. It's the fact that there are black billionaires. That Oprah Winfrey is Oprah Winfrey and that LeBron James is LeBron James. It's the fact that every corporate office has an Ibram X. Kendi-loving executive running it. These are the realities of America. Now, in the face of that, you still got jails overflowing with black people. You’ve still got massive poverty and disparity. People do not know the goal in the 21st century with those facts. So they end up, like infants, throwing tantrums in the corner.
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