Current Affairs

A Contentious Conversation on Systemic Racism in America

Prof. Glenn Loury, who has both critiqued the concept of systemic racism and argued that understanding racial inequality is crucial to policy-making, discusses the complexities of his position.

Brown University economics professor Glenn Loury recently joined Current Affairs editor in chief Nathan J. Robinson on the Current Affairs podcast to discuss his book The Anatomy of Racial Inequality (newly reissued by Harvard University Press) and to dive into questions about the pervasiveness of systemic racism in the United States.

Professor Loury has had a long career as a commentator on economics, race, and sociology. He was the first Black tenured professor in the Harvard economics department in his early 30s, and coined the term social capital. Earlier this year he testified before the Senate Banking Committee, where he expressed skepticism of explanations for racial inequalities that emphasize the role of historical or systemic racism. However, his Anatomy book is partly concerned with defending a theory of the way racial biases passed down across generations have far-reaching social consequences. Much of the conversation is devoted to exploring this perceived tension in his work.

The transcript has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

Robinson   

The Anatomy of Racial Inequality is where I’d like to start. This book is an attempt to do a few things. You originally published it in 2002. It’s a fascinating book. I am a sociology PhD student, and economists generally don’t take much interest in sociology. But this book shows how the work of economists can be enriched by sociology, and I don’t think many people are doing this. And it’s really quite cool, just from an academic perspective. But I want to get to the core theory of the book. What you’re attempting to do is, as I understand it, clarify some of our thinking about what race is, what racism and discrimination are, whether those terms are the terms we should use, and to help us understand how racial inequalities develop. You are associated with conservatism. But it seems like you differ from a lot of others on the right. And, in fact, I think you’ve said that you’ve broken from some on the right in that you reject very strongly in this book the idea of “race blindness.” You say that the fact that there is no biological racial essentialism—which leads some people to say that race is a figment, so we should just ignore it—does not mean that race is less “real.” So perhaps you could draw the distinction between you and some others who say, well, race is a social construct, so we can just ignore it and move past it.

Loury

So what is race? I’m saying, basically, you’ve got marks on human bodies that people are taking to be significant. They don’t have to be intrinsically significant. The meaning can emerge out of the way in which people associate their expectations, and I have the concept of stereotyping. I have the concept of stigma. But it’s a socially constructed—and not a biological—conception of race.

Robinson  

Is it fair to analogize to a hypothetical society in which everyone was given a label—one or two, or A or B—and then they started to attach meaning to these labels? Identities developed around these labels. People labeled number one started developing conceptions about the people labeled number two. These categories would become very, very salient in explaining how the society worked. They’d be salient in understanding people’s identity and the way they perceive each other. It could just be a random assignment. It could be totally arbitrary. Is that what you mean by socially constructed?

Loury  

Yeah, that is what I mean. And once these associations, or identifications, come into being, they become facts in and of themselves. So to say that it is irrational to give meaning or invest identity in one’s racial coloration—because after all, this is all very arbitrary, and there are no intrinsic differences between people based on that, and we’ve only freighted these meanings on top of it—to say that it’s irrational is a mistake. If, in fact, you anticipate that other people are going to interact with you in a particular way, or if the way in which you understand your history reduces total complexity to a meaningful narrative for yourself, is built around these superficial traits, then that becomes fact in and of itself. The meanings are facts even if the framework on which those meanings are hanging, is, in some sense, arbitrary.

Robinson  

One of the most fascinating parts of your book is when you talk about what you call self-confirming stereotypes. That is when meanings or prejudices are attached based on racial categories. And then the stereotypes become true through having been assigned. In one example that stuck with me, you talk about the cab driver who assumes that young Black men at night are going to be criminals and robbers. And you point out that even if the rate of offending among young Black men is actually no higher [than non-Black men], through the cab drivers’ decisions, it may be that… We start off with cab drivers in 1952, and they’re prejudiced. So as a result, young Black men who aren’t robbers think, “Well, I can’t get a cab, so I’m gonna find some other form of transit.” Then, because of a kind of selection effect, the cab driver will be correct that out of the percentage of young Black men who would get in his cab that night, there is a disproportionate number of people who would want to rob him, even though the rates of offending are no different. And so the prejudice has made the thing true. Is that a correct description of that?

Loury  

That’s brilliant. That’s exactly what’s going on. And the whole thing is that the cab driver is able to make different assumptions about whether he will be robbed based on race only because he can see the race. It’s this marker that the cab driver can see. But the example is meant to capture exactly what you said, which is this idea that there could be no difference in the background condition between these populations. But the equilibrium pattern could be very unequal, and could be, justifiably, a source of generalized suspicion or differential behavior. The cab driver is not the wrong actor. He’s not making a mistake in the example that you described. He correctly anticipates he’s more likely to be robbed by a Black guy, but the only Black guys who are hailing cabs proportionately are robbers, because the non robbing Black guys know that the cab is not going to stop for them. So why are they out there? But the robbing Black guys will be willing to wait all day in order to get somebody to stop. So that’s not real inequality in the endowments of the populations, but it is equilibrium inequality because the cab driver can differentiate this behavior based upon race. Race has been made meaningful in this context, but it doesn’t have an intrinsic meaning. And that was one of the things that I wanted to try to get across in the book. I wanted to ask people to reflect on the following: if indeed this kind of phenomenon can be happening, it would be understood to be happening. That is, would an observer be prepared to consider that the apparent inequality was really an artifact, and not a deep or essentialist feature of the two groups? I’m talking about racial inequality, the anatomy of racial inequality. So I’m trying to build a ground in which the inequality need not be an indictment of the population that’s on the short end.

Robinson   

Could you discuss one of the core distinctions that you make in the book? This is between the language of discrimination and racism, and the language that you prefer in this book, which you called biased social cognition along with stigma. You emphasize that the terms are clarifying in thinking about what is actually going on to create contemporary racial inequality.

Loury   

It’s a long story, Nathan. I’m trying to say the social meanings that are attached to a particular racial marker. So I’m saying blackness. So blackness is stigmatizing in the American context, because it’s associated with the people who descend from slaves. You can’t have that kind of an institution that is racial in its construction without it tainting the connotations and associations that are brought to mind by the racial markers on it. This is stigma. The political question is: what explanations do people give to account for the disparities that they’re seeing? So if they think the disparities are within the systemic interactions, and therefore subject to the possibility of change, that will be one thing. But if they think that the disparities are a reflection of the intrinsic nature of the different groups, then they will be less inclined to affirm to take social responsibility. Take incarceration, for example, where there’s a huge racial disparity. Is that a reflection of the systemic interaction between people in the society or is it a reflection of the nature of the racially identified group, of their culture, or even of their genes? So that’s what I think is at stake in the debate about The Anatomy of Racial Inequality

Robinson  

I want to dive into incarceration. This is a really fascinating area in which there is a tension in your work. I see you emphasizing factors that are intrinsic. You had this tweet recently where you were like, “stop emphasizing Black victimhood.” In your testimony that you gave to the Senate Banking Commission, I want to reconcile two things here. You were talking in this testimony about incarceration and racial inequality, and you said there are those who blame systemic racism for mass incarceration—the higher number of Black people in jail—and regarding those who you say claim that that [mass incarceration] self-evidently is a sign of racial antipathy…when you respond, “no, it’s mainly a sign of antisocial behavior by criminals who happen to be Black,” people will dismiss you as a moral reprobate. But you say that people are not being arrested, convicted, and sentenced because of their race. “Those in prison are mainly those who have broken the law. Seeing prisons as a racist conspiracy to confine Black people is an absurd proposition. No serious person could believe it.” 

That’s from the testimony. Okay. But then I go back to The Anatomy of Racial Inequality. And when you’re talking about mass incarceration in that book, you talk about stigma, “the non-attribution of a common humanity at the core of the problem of treatment.” This is regarding the treatment of criminals. You say that our public responses to a social malady, say drug involvement, depend on the races of those suffering the problem. You argue—as I understand the argument—that there may be differences in rates of criminal offending. But what is driving our responses to those, and the reason that race is still a salient factor in explaining mass incarceration—and you talk heavily about this—is the difference in the degree to which people are granted a common humanity. And you say that “these cognitive distinctions tend to be drawn to the detriment of millions of racially stigmatized citizens.” And that explains why instead of treating drug use with a therapeutic response—the way suburban dwelling drug buyers or sellers would be treated—we treat city dwelling drug buyers or sellers with a punitive response. 

And so I want to ask you to try to reconcile these perspectives. On the one hand, you say, “Well, we can’t talk about race because it’s not the problem with mass incarceration, it’s lawbreaking, and we need to look at culture.” And then on the other hand, you say, “But also, we put people in prison because we disregard their common humanity, and stigma affects the worth that we assign people. And stigma is based on race.”

Loury   

That’s very brilliant. I think you summarize the lay of the land. And I’m not even sure I can reconcile the things. Times change, and the context in which you’re operating changes. So I might be reacting to some degree to the nature of the larger conversation that’s ongoing. And it becomes a matter of emphasis. But you’re right to point out that I was very influenced, for example, by this book by Khalil Muhammad—a historian at the Harvard Kennedy School— called The Condemnation of Blackness. It’s about race and criminal justice issues in the turn of 20th century America, 1890 to 1920. And he’s interested in the stigma of race coming out of the postbellum American Reconstruction period—with the incorporation of African Americans…and that time in American political intellectual history—he’s pointing out that Blacks were seen as different. European immigrants were coming in large numbers to eastern seaboard American cities. And the Europeans also had various social behavioral issues and criminality and whatnot. But their criminality was taken to be specific to their social location, whereas Black criminality was somehow seen as intrinsic. I was very taken by that book, very taken by the kind of social psychological etiology of the war on drugs and the condemnation of drug addiction and whatnot and the way in which racial tropes and racial stereotypes play into that. And I don’t disavow this idea that the catastrophe of mass incarceration, for low-income Black communities, didn’t register to the same degree within the social political consciousness as it might have because of stigmatizing social meanings of blackness. But I’m taken by another idea. If this doesn’t square the circle of my apparent contending views, I think it might help. 

Robinson

Okay.

Loury 

First of all, notice that all of what I said had to do not so much with the administration of law, but with the kind of larger political framing in which the legal thing wasn’t about police singling out Black people for law enforcement. It was about whether or not you really wanted to have as punitive a response to the fact of illicit drug traffic as you elected to have. The idea that there would be a conspiracy—that is, to say the idea that discrimination is the issue, that it’s the police unfairness—that is the question. That it’s somehow white supremacy that is stalking us when in fact I have a homicide rate that’s off the charts. I have carjackings and so forth. I have the fact of criminal behavior. It doesn’t follow from the fact that there is deep social causation to a ghetto community where lawlessness is widespread…it doesn’t follow from the fact that that is a social product, that no responsibility falls on the individual actors who are, in fact, killing each other, mugging and robbing and raping people. To talk about crime is not to take a stand against the quest for social justice. It seems a category mistake to me to preclude a fervent defense of the innocent victims of criminal activity. To preclude it [talking about victims] on the argument that big social forces are at work here…I think it’s a category mistake.

Robinson   

You helpfully categorize three different possible explanations of racial inequality. You describe external structures to the group—that is, civic and public institutions that provide opportunities and rewards; schools; policing; the rules governing market transactions, etc. Then you describe non-external factors—that is, things that are influenced by an internal group culture mediating between subjects and opportunities. And then you describe a third explanation, which is racial essentialism, which is a kind of Charles Murray view, which says that essentially, race is real. Race is a biological fact. And there are things that are intrinsic to Black people that are not even even cultural that are the cause of these things. One of the points that you make is that racial essentialism essentially allows you to have a kind of excuse for not doing anything. And you emphasize both in the book and in your testimony that it is the responsibility of Americans to see racial inequality as a problem that we all care about. And I think one of the issues seems to be that when people hear you talk about explanation number two—what you call non-external structures—they hear explanation number three. And so they hear the attribution of internal defects to African Americans. And obviously, people have a very visceral reaction—and quite rightly—to what amounts to an essentialist kind of racism. That partially explains why these conversations are so emotional.

Loury   

That’s a very fine setup to characterize the three different possible explanations: (1) external forces of oppression, (2) internal lack of coordination and development of the cultural nexus to support success, or (3) “there’s something wrong with these people.” And it hymns in the discourse, the fear that you might give credit to the essentialist theory, and the injury, that any entertainment of the idea that Black people are somehow inferior or unfit or somehow in their nature, not able to, you know, accommodate the modern world. There’s a threat to the psyche, to the sense of value. So yes, that’s all true. And I’m an internal man. And I’ve had a conversation with Charles Murray on my podcast, actually, about his book Facing Reality, but we got into some of the other stuff. And I didn’t condemn him as vociferously as I think some of my listeners would have wanted me to do. I tried to have a civil, respectful conversation with him. But I wanted to highlight this distinction between there’s nothing wrong with Black people that we can’t fix, which is the internal. I’m acknowledging that there might be something wrong with Black people. That’s already saying quite a bit. I’m acknowledging the out of wedlock birth rate, I’m acknowledging the intellectual achievement gap, I’m acknowledging the over representation amongst criminal offenders, I’m acknowledging that the dysfunction that we see manifest in one way or another is a real quote unquote problem with Black people. That’s already a huge, huge step. Because most would say that it’s entirely external, that there is no space for any consideration of this thing that I’m talking about when I talk about the internal and cultural. So to be able to have that conversation—while at the same time being mindful of the essentialist out there who would want to use the confession of dysfunction as evidence of intrinsic unfitness—is a difficult thing to do. But we must have the conversation.

Robinson   

I was totally fascinated by the book, and then I was totally angered by the Senate testimony. The book was so beautifully nuanced. And then in some of the stuff that you write, I hear you say that you’re an “internal” man. Well, I understand it from one perspective, because I’m not Black. I think it would be very different if I was Black, and I was talking to other Black people about—I just think the conversation is different, right? If you’re telling a Black child the story of what they can do, you tell them a different story. You don’t tell them that they can’t accomplish anything, that there are all these barriers in their way. You tell a kind of conservative story about fulfilling your dreams, because otherwise you have a self-fulfilling prophecy where you demoralize a child, and then the barriers do become real. 

But when you’re talking to the Senate Banking Commission, I feel like there’s all this stuff in your book that I think is so important that you don’t give. In your testimony, you’re rejecting an account of systemic racism. But your book seems to be an account of an intelligent way to understand how systemic racism is, in fact, very important, and how things that happen over the course of generations are really, really difficult to purge. And why it is incredibly difficult for Black people, internally, to overcome these social cognitive biases—you talk about the inheritance of these conceptions of dishonor, these conceptions of low worth. These are massive systemic factors affecting Black people in today’s generation growing up in the United States, with the institutions having people in them who do not see Black people as sharing in the equality of human worth. That seems to me to be an inescapable conclusion of what you say about stigma in the book. You emphasize that there’s all these leftists who say it’s systemic racism, but “we need to look at ourselves, we need to look internally” seems to me to be much less nuanced than the very interesting account that you give in the book, where the internal culture is always at war against this giant inherited racial stigma.

Loury

Again, you’re very wonderful in your summary observations here. It’s very stimulating. Look, I’m reissuing the book. I’m the same guy. I haven’t disavowed the book. I say in the new preface, this is a better theory of systemic racism than the theories of systemic racism that you’ve heard. I’m proud of having a subtle and deep sociological sensibility, which I’ve honed over decades by reading sociologists. Some of them were my friends. So I’m not repudiating the nuance, and it’s gonna sound like hackery, isn’t it? It’s gonna look like this is a hit piece somehow. I mean, so now I’m a flack. And that’s not a good look. So I should probably try to defend myself here. The fact that there is a deep stigma and anti-blackness embedded within the DNA and the sinew and the consciousness and the Freudian subconscious and whatnot, is an unavoidable reality in this society. Inveighing against it changes nothing. If the issue was, do I have a narrative that indicts white people and allows me to have an elaborate conversation, indeed a reckoning within society, about the fact of the durability of racial stigma—if that’s what I was interested in doing, if I was just interested in lamenting the fact that this exists…But I’m talking about the quest for equality, and I’m saying, this is the me who is no longer emphasizing the structural predicate, but rather insisting upon the existential imperative… Can I say that again? Nathan, I’m contrasting a sociological, almost Marxian-like, causal account and some big structural forces weighing against, how do you live? How do you actually get from one place to the other in life? How do you find dignity? Where do you find a meaningful expression of the fullness of your humanity? And I’m talking about Black people, we’re talking about 40 million people in the United States of America. And what I’m doing is shifting my emphasis from the subtle and nuanced and brilliant, if you will, dissection that I provide in that book to the contemporary emphasis, as was reflected in that banking committee. I’m fighting for the existential dignity of my people. I’m sorry for how that sounds. Because we can go on forever. Nobody is coming to save us, is what I’m saying, Nathan.

Robinson   

I’m struggling with this tension between the book and the testimony. In the testimony, you say, “common sense suggests that on the whole, people are not being arrested, convicted, and sentenced because of their race, but because they broke the law.” But then the part on mass incarceration in the book is all about how that is technically true, but it is misleading, because it avoids confronting the fact that the institutions that we’ve built to deal with crime are based on differential evaluations of people’s social worth by their race, and that has resulted in a system where we don’t mind the fact that millions of young Black men are essentially tossed in cages and given up on.

Loury 

I’m sorry, I have to disagree with you. I don’t think there’s any inconsistency at all. In saying on the one hand, the genesis and the organic evolution of the structures of order maintenance, are tainted by racism and racial stigma, and so on, and to say on the other hand that most of the people under lock and key today are there because they raped somebody, robbed,somebody, hurt somebody, and were duly processed and convicted. I say somewhere not in this book—a million cases, each one rightly decided, can still add up to a historic wrong. It can be true at one in the same time, that each one of the cases that resulted in the person being incarcerated was a faithful administration of judicial process, unbiased with respect to race. And it also be the case that the jails overflowing with young Black men in city after city around this country is a historical travesty. Those things are not inconsistent with each other. We have to decide, indeed, whether or not the summer of 2020—where cities were aflame—is going to happen again in 2022 when inevitably another incident in which a white police officer kills a Black kid happens. We have to decide whether or not we’re gonna allow this vulnerability that we have to the mass mobilizations consume our democracy. That’s not putting too fine a point on it, actually. And that’s what I’m fighting over here about, Nathan.

Robinson   

Let me ask you this, though. I’m a man of the left. I tend to feel like I agree with what you said that the two things can be reconciled. This is “structure” and “agency,” in sociological terms. Individuals have personal agency, but they operate within broader social structures. But it’s always seemed to me that people on the right need to be educated on the structure, and the leftists need to get a better understanding of the agency. When you tell Republicans that they don’t have to care about structural racism—that it’s an empty term, it’s an explainer of everything—that, to me, suggests that they don’t have to confront all of the stuff from The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, which is deep-seated. You don’t use the term “implicit bias.” But that is another attempt to describe the kind of phenomenon you are talking about, which is that there are these deep inherited stigmas. And I feel like that’s actually quite an important part of the story.

Loury   

My message is that nobody is coming to save us. We must look African Americans’ reality in the face. We must accept responsibility for the way we raise our children, and how we conduct ourselves, what we do with our time, for the nature of our family life, for the foundation of the development of our full reach of our human potential. This is what’s not happening. So I’m beginning with a factual predicate. I say the law could be fruit from a poisoned tree. The law could be deeply, deeply quote unquote racist, but the law-breaking behavior… 

Robinson    

That makes sense to me to a Black audience. American conservatives and Republicans, when they hear that, they think, “We don’t have to care about police reform.” Because it’s all the fault of these dysfunctional communities. So we don’t have to worry about the police.

Loury

The alternative would be to allow the way in which you reacted to the reality of the law-breaking behavior, the way in which you reacted to it, to allow that to be driven by your anticipation of how addressing the factual circumstance, will redound to their reaction. I mean, you’re now hostage to this political bank shot that you’re making,

Robinson   

So, the police example. The number of encounters with police among Black people that are negative are reported as being very, very high compared to white people. I mean, even the Roland Fryer study saying that there’s no racial bias in shooting suggested there is a lot of racial bias in the level of force used by police. Even people like Tim Scott and Jason Riley have said that their encounters with police have been horrible. So there is a need to build a public consensus among people who don’t really care about reforming the police that the police don’t treat Black people well in very large swaths of this country. The Justice Department’s reports on various police departments have really been horrifying. There’s a major need for reform there. And people need to understand that even if police aren’t intentionally hateful, they have biased social cognition that results in—I know you don’t like the term racism—but… racism.

Loury

I grant you that police need to be regulated in their behaviors. I grant you that there exists plenty of evidence that there is racial bias in police behavior. It’s a legendary feature of the thing. I’m not against sensible reforms. I don’t want to defund police departments or abolish police departments. But those practical issues of the regulation of police need to be dealt with. But the narrative that there’s open season on Black people—that’s Benjamin Crump’s book, that’s the title of the book—that America needs to take its knee off the neck of Black people, that’s Al Sharpton at George Floyd’s funeral in Houston. The narrative is about blackness. We all have these anecdotes like, I was stopped by a cop, the cop was rude and assumed I had drugs in my trunk, he made me get out of my car. This has happened to me. I could tell this story. I’m not gonna tell it. We don’t have time for that. That this is a major phenomenon of justice in this society, such that the intensity of protest and violent demonstration against an order that is said to be repressive—I think it’s hysteria, Nathan, frankly. I think it’s a very interesting moral panic. It’s a phenomenon of social psychology that should be studied. It’s completely disconnected from reality. Because what we’re doing here is we’re arguing about the narrative, we’re arguing about how the account is going to be told. And these things are apiece with one another—the critical race theory controversy in American schools about how you frame the teaching of race related historical issues, the 1619 Project at the New York Times, and contestation over how you represent the narrative, the diversity training in corporate America and internal institutional contestations, which are about racial power within corporations and the comfort with which various employees feel in their work relations with one another, which then get politicized and assimilated to this larger narrative of racial reckoning. And I’ll tell you what I think is at the root of it. The Civil Rights Movement is a 50-year-old history. The leverage to racial claims of unfairness—the elasticity as it were—on any social outcome that we could point to, the big changes have already happened. The country is moving and it’s moving on. And we’re 50 years into the regime, and people cling to it. No, I don’t think the issue of police violence against black people is a major first order, second order, or third order social phenomenon. I think it’s a moral panic.

Robinson 

Does 50 years seem like a long time to you? It doesn’t seem like a long time to me. That seems very brief to undo hundreds of years of built up institutions and all the stigma you discuss in the book, these inherited conceptions, the structure of wealth in the country. That’s less than a human lifetime.

Loury  

Okay, well, I’m saying the country has completely changed in these 50 years. There weren’t any Asians to speak of within the American structure in 1965. America will not in my opinion in the mid-21st century, still be vulnerable to the idea of, we had slavery, we had Jim Crow, Black people were mistreated. We’re an exception. African Americans are an exception. The country is going to process this however it’s going to process it. The meaning of the American experiment is at stake. When you see a sitting member of Congress, Maxine Waters, make reference in this border patrol treatment of Haitian migrants to slavery. You see what I mean? That dog is not going to hunt, as they say in Texas. That’s not gonna…

Robinson

Really? Isn’t the whole point, again, that if the inherited dishonor and stigma—this stuff from Orlando Patterson that you discuss in the in the book—that the assessment of the worth of Black lives is based on bias, based on physical markers on the human anatomy, is passed down generationally, then the treatment of Haitians you would expect to have some some link to this history? You can link it to history.

Loury   

No, I think that’s wrong. I think it’s quite wrong. I mean, you can link it, but you’re just making a mistake. And I’m not disavowing anything that I’ve said about racial stigma. Those are Haitians. Haitians are not the descendants of American slaves. Those are not people organic to the American political culture.

Robinson  

But your theory of race doesn’t have to do with country of origin.

Loury 

You’ve essentialized the color of their skin when you assimilate them to the descendants of American slaves. You’ve made a dramatic, gigantic leap. You’re saying that skin color is the only thing that matters. It’s not the language that they’re speaking. It’s not how they comport themselves. It’s only that their skin is dark. And you’ve jumped over a century and a half of history. I’m sorry, I don’t buy that as a social, psychological, historical explanation. But I’m also very suspicious of the motive of anyone making that leap. They are dealing in a certain kind of currency, there’s a certain kind of moral blackmail, there’s a sleight-of-hand that’s happening here when you do that. The issue with respect to Haitians at the border is about refugee policy and desperate people who want a better life. It’s not about the color of their skin. Black Americans don’t have the political capital to spare, to lend to that cause. We can take whatever positions we want to about that cause. But please don’t appropriate the 300-year history of my people in this country on behalf of that cause. That is a bait and switch. It’s a trick of optics with respect to politics, and it needs to be disputed. I’m disputing Maxine Waters taking the history of slavery and using it as a trope, as a prop, to argue that we ought to let Hatians into the country. If she wants to let him into the country, let’s discuss that. But let’s not say that it was slavery, because it was not. I’m not a racial essentialist. Do you see? 

Robinson  

I understand race is a construct of perception, right? 

Loury  

Well, yes. But that’s not the totality of the things that we have to consider. Black people are situated within the American nation-state. We’re Americans. Nothing happens for us, whether it’s police reform or social policy, that doesn’t get processed through the institutions of public deliberation and decision making, which is the Democratic Republic of the several States of the United States of America. So the fact of racial stigma of Americans needs to be situated within the larger frame of the American project. And I say this in particular with reference to the example we were just discussing about the border. To elide the racial thing with the national thing—where’s the boundary of the country, who are the American people?—we can argue about it. People have different views, but to let it be driven by a superficial assimilation of skin color commonality into a narrative of [booming voice] “systemic racism is gonna get your mama,” that’s what I’m objecting to over here.

Robinson  

I have one final question for you. You believe that the most important priority is cultural change internal to Black Americans. Let me put this possible critique to you and you can respond: You’re being impractical because you’re asking each individual to try and solve what is ultimately a collective action problem. One person, one young man in Chicago, for example—are you preaching to that person? Are you saying that there are particular decision points that individual people need to make? Or are you saying that a decision needs to be made in the abstract? Your criticisms of the impracticality of acknowledging systemic racism—we can accept those. But what about the counter-criticism, which says, “Okay, but how does one change a ‘culture’ when each of us are just individuals wandering through the world?” Aren’t you just shifting the responsibility in a way that doesn’t end up actually being able to alter anything?

Loury   

Okay. So everything is not politics and policies. Some stuff is higher than that. It’s about spirituality. And it’s about fundamental commitment. So I don’t have an answer to the question. I mean, you’re right. I introduced earlier the structural and the existential. I’m speaking not from the point of view of a doctor administering a remedy to a condition. I’m not prescribing in that sense. I’m speaking from the point of view of someone—it’s hortatory in the literal sense of the word. It’s meant to be a kind of prophetic or visionary injunction. I am sorry for the way that that sounds, I apologize in advance for the self-aggrandizement that’s implicit in that characterization. I’m saying let me try to give an analogy. Okay. Let me try to give an example. “I’m Black, and I’m proud. Say it loud. I’m Black, and I’m proud.” That was a popular tune by James Brown. Back in the late 60s, if I’m not mistaken. Black Power. Black is beautiful. Negritude. Black is beautiful. We should know our African heritage, Kwanzaa, communal re-enactment of whatever, okay? That would be one example. Let me give another example. Religious revival, which has swept through cultures at different times, sometimes with horrible results of massive, inspirational uprising, a movement within the people of this sort of intense quest for the defining of what gives their lives meaning. And so on. That’s a different sphere of human activity. It’s not instrumental as a policy prescriptive, but it’s nevertheless a part of our human culture. So I’m speaking to everybody. And I want to come back to that audience. I’m mainly in my mind, speaking to, quote unquote, my people, by which I mean, African American people slash/American people. I’m speaking to the dual antecedent. They’re my people, African American people/American people. There’s multiple audiences here. And I’m saying the clock is ticking here in the existential sense, in the sense of how are we going to reckon with the realities that are actually confronting us? And I’m saying that politics is only a part of that. When you mentioned culture, you were not dismissive, but you characterized it in a way that made me feel uncomfortable because it made it feel trivial. I’m talking about raising children. Again, let me give an example. So there was this case in Chicago where police officers shot to death an 11-year-old boy, at 1 a.m., somewhere because the kid had a device, the officer thought it was a gun, there wasn’t any gun. And of course, it’s a horrible, horrible, horrible tragedy. And the policeman may have not exercised good judgment, and it might have been affected by the kid’s race. I’m not just saying that any of that was not true. What I’m saying is that an 11 year old was on the streets with a device that looked like a gun running from a police officer, an 11 year old at 1 a.m. If I may say so, that reveals something profoundly problematic about the structure of social support within which that youngster was embedded. And we can begin to talk about who’s responsible there, that would be a long conversation, and about what practically can be done about it, there will be no panaceas. But to avoid noticing that the failure of the structures of social support for that young person is implicated in his death—because I’ve made a political calculation, that red states like that rhetoric better than blue states do, is just not something an intellectual should do. This is George Orwell talking to you.

Robinson   

What I meant was more like a practical matter: Isn’t it easier to try and get the police not to shoot people than to change what 11-year-olds do? Or isn’t it easier to say: “Well, kids in Detroit go to horrible schools and kids in white suburban Michigan go to great schools, so we’re going to give every kid in Detroit tutoring,” than to say, “Are these parents in Detroit raising their kids badly?” Isn’t that just like shifting the responsibility without practically being able to alter the situation?

Loury   

I’d love to give kids tutoring. And I’d like to use some of the money that the public school unions are consuming, in many places, to no particular distinctive effect. I’d love to see a thousand flowers blooming in education. By no means do I mean to abandon the discussion about policy to say that policy is not the only thing worth discussing. I don’t have to choose between talking about educational policy in Detroit, and talking about parents needing to make sure that they turn the television off, and that the kids do the homework. And if I’m in a city like New York City—where in the excellent exam schools, Asian American immigrant children, half of whom are qualifying for reduced-price or subsidized lunches, are acing a test that a handful of Black kids are performing well on—I don’t decide to completely scuttle the testing regime for the selecting of excellent students in order to accommodate the underperformance of the communities of color whose kids are underrepresented in these schools. I can do both things at the same time. I can address myself to the policy needs of tutoring and other such educational innovation, which I wish more fresh air were allowed within that monopolized system to allow that to happen. And also say, if you don’t teach your kid how to read their letters, their numbers, their shapes, by the time they get the first grade, if you don’t make sure that your kid is getting homework brought home…Why would I not talk about parenting? Because I think that there are legitimate questions on whether there’s enough funds going into the school system. I don’t have to choose.

Robinson   

Well, I truly appreciate all the time you’ve given me. The book is The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, second edition, from Harvard University Press. And I should also mention that the book is dedicated to your late wife and includes a very heartwarming and moving tribute to her at the beginning, which I feel the need to mention because it’s such a beautiful dedication. The book itself is incredibly stimulating and provocative and a really fascinating mixture of sociology and economics that draws from various intellectual traditions to answer some of the hardest questions that I think we can pose about the difference between structure and agency, about what race is, about how we should think about it, about what racism is. Professor Glenn Loury, thank you very much for joining me.

Loury  

Nathan, thank you. Thank you so much for a penetrating interview and a wonderful intellectual experience. I love that you so closely read and thought about my book. Thank you. 


After the interview, Prof. Loury and I had an email exchange continuing the subjects discussed. It is reprinted below with permission and is also on Prof. Loury’s Substack.

Robinson to Loury

Okay, sorry, I need to ask you one thing, though, because I found your explanation reconciling the book and the testimony satisfying during our conversation, but now I’m reading this 2012 lecture and I just cannot find a way to reconcile in my head the argument from the testimony that mass incarceration is not racist but a result of Black law-breaking driven by “despicable behavior” and the argument you made in 2012 that mass incarceration is clearly racist and that the critic who sees disparate crime rates as proof the system isn’t racist is “ahistorical, shortsighted, and ethically challenged” because they’re focusing on individual/community responsibility rather than social responsibility, history, and public policy. See the below quotes.1

Likewise with “I do deny the causal social-historical connection between the fact of slavery and Jim Crow on the one hand and the plight of contemporary African-American communities on the other” (Vox interview) and “much rests on my conviction that the history of slavery in America casts a long shadow, one with contemporary relevance…. I claim that an honest assessment of current American politics—its debates about welfare, crime, schools, jobs, taxes, housing, test scores, diversity, urban policy, and much more—reveals the lingering effects of this historically engendered dishonor” (Anatomy)

I don’t think these are completely wildly apart. As we talked about, a lot of it just depends on whether you decide to emphasize structure or agency, each being part of the story. But here’s why I press you on this: I feel as if in your recent public speeches on this, you lapse into the very kind of binary thinking that you’ve done such an elegant job getting us around in the earlier work. Like today you declared yourself to be on the culture side of things. I understand why you would choose to do this; as you say in the Vox interview, it’s a “bleak moral landscape” if human choices don’t matter and we’re billiard balls pushed around by historical forces. What I would object to is the attack on the systemic racism explanation of mass incarceration. I think it’s fair to say that that explanation is true but incomplete, but unfair to go before Senate republicans and encourage them to think of it as absurd. I think your 2012 lecture is completely correct, and while it’s perfectly reasonable to place different emphases for different audiences, I think that saying it’s ridiculous or foolish to place the emphasis on law/history/society/economics rather than ‘despicable behavior’ is exactly the kind of un-nuanced thinking that the 2012 lecture warned about.

I go into this at length because I am depressed at the breakdown of dialogue between positions that I think ultimately be reconciled. I thought the Senate testimony was great in one way in saying that we needn’t take a side between cultural explanations and collective social responsibility, but then went into a cultural explanation on mass incarceration that I think missed an opportunity to present the much more interesting perspective that comes out of Race, Incarceration, and American Values” and The Anatomy of Racial Inequality.

I think I can show what I mean by “lapsing into the very false dichotomy you are warning us against” with this quote from your Vox interview:

It becomes a practical question whether single-parent families, in which 70 percent of African-American children live, is rightly thought of as social phenomenon over which we have control, if it’s thought of as the inheritance of Jim Crow slavery and American racism. Are the structures of African-American social life the derivative consequences of the political and economic history of African Americans, or are they subject to being reshaped and reformed and remade in an image that we will for ourselves and our progeny? The latter is the stance I’m taking. The alternative is a bleak moral landscape for me.

It seems to me like that isn’t an either-or and your work has shown exactly why it isn’t an either/or. Both of those are true and the Anatomy is the best explanation I’ve yet read of why they’re both true.

I am sorry to be argumentative. I promise you it is out of respect. I read your work closely, I enjoy it, I take it very seriously, and I want to understand it because it is profound. One reason I feel the need to quibble is that I don’t think we’re ever going to get anywhere if conservatives dismiss leftists as peddling something fantastical when we talk about systemic racism (or, we could call it, the institutional consequences of widespread biased social cognition, since I don’t like flabby buzzwords either). The interesting question to me is how you can reconcile the fact that it’s quite real with a need for individual humans to seize control over their lives and not see themselves as victims who cannot act. I feel that for that conversation to happen, the left absolutely does need to get over its belief that the state, and state policy, are the only levers that can be controlled in order to make society, and the right needs to be more charitable and grant some basic left contentions, e.g. that differential lawbreaking rates do not exonerate the prison system from charges of racism because it can still have come out of an insufficient regard for equal Black humanity on the part of those charged with responding to social problems.

All best,

Nathan

Loury to Robinson

What a remarkable letter, Nathan! I’m grateful to you for your careful attention to my work, for your keen intelligence, for your passion and for caring enough to challenge me and engage me in this way. I had not expected to gain nearly so much when I agreed to be interviewed for your podcast.

You’re right. I have lost sight of the profound wisdom in my earlier work, where I was able to dissect with rigor and nuance the systemic forces which underlay persistent and profound racial disparities. As I wrote in the new preface for ARI: “The effect I was after when talking about racial stigma, and the reason I employed the seemingly loaded phrase ‘biased social cognition,’ was to identify the politically consequential cognitive distortions that occur when the observably inferior position of a racial group is thought to have emerged from qualities intrinsic to that group, even though the actual causation entails a system of social interactions.” I go on to write that, “This is a theory of ‘systemic racism’—using the language of our time—that I advanced two decades ago, and which I believe remains relevant to this day.”

My latter-day denunciations of “systemic racism” as “a bluff and a bludgeon” — as fanciful, absurd and preposterous — constitute a willful abandonment of ths wisdom, and it is incumbent upon me to ask: Why? Why have I allowed my distaste for Black Lives Matter and the Critical Race Theorists of our time (Di Angelo; Kendi; N.H. Jones, etc.) to obscure in my own mind those hard-won insights into the nature of racial politics in America? Part of the answer, I think, is what you allude to — a shift in emphasis; a conviction that internal cultural matters require more attention; a revulsion at the crude anti-racist blame-game where “white supremacy” is the source of all evil; where “personal responsibility” has no place in the discourse, etc. But that’s only part of the explanation, I fear. 

I went back and listened to that lecture (2012) on incarceration that I presented at the Univ. of Michigan. It was a remarkable experience for me. I remember the guy who gave that speech; I can still evoke some of the passion which animated him, but the embers have cooled quite a bit. I was furious about the mass imprisonment of the least advantaged, most challenged segment of our society — this as the sole governmental response to the profoundly unjust structures of our political economy. I could see the multi-layered historical antecedents of this sorry state of affairs. I knew that the disproportionate presence of blacks among those being imprisoned was the bitter fruit of historical racism. And I knew this was so, even if every single one of those imprisoned had been duly and fairly judged guilty of criminal offenses by juries of their peers: “A million cases, each one rightly decided, can still add-up to a great and historic wrong,” I was inclined to tell my audiences. I had almost forgotten about the feelings which underlay my writing sentences such as that. I am grateful to you for reminding me of my earlier self, and for challenging me to reconcile my contemporary argumentation with the obvious truths upon which I had seized in ARI, RIAV and elsewhere.

I will be taking all of this to heart as I prepare for a major address I am to give, tomorrow night in Orlando, Florida, to the  National Conservatism Conference. They may be surprised at what they hear. So, too, may I!

With gratitude,

Glenn Loury

Robinson to Loury

One of the passages that I found most moving in Anatomy was (pp. 81-83):

This is the Land of Liberty, yet some class/race-defined segments of the society literally live in a police state. Now, perhaps that must be so. But why is there no public reflection about it? Why does this circumstance not create dissonance? How is it that our moralists and our political leaders are able to sleep at night in the face of these facts? Dramatic racial disparity in imprisonment rates does not occasion more public angst, I claim, because this circumstance does not strike the typical American observer at the cognitive level as being counterintuitive. It does not to a sufficient degree disappoint some deeply held, taken-for-granted expectations and assumptions about the nature of our society. It can be accounted for by a narrative line attributing the outcome to the inadequacies of the persons who suffer the condition, not to any as yet undiscovered problems with our own social organization. […] So the question becomes, What disturbs us? What is dissonant? What seems anomalous? What is contrary to expectation? A racial group is stigmatized when it can expe- rience an alarming disparity in some social indicators, and yet that disparity occasion no societal reflection upon the extent to which that circumstance signals something having gone awry in OUR structures rather than something having gone awry in THEIRS.

I think this is not only moving, but also useful in explaining what it means for a ‘society’ to be ‘racist.’ I have a friend who is a schoolteacher in Detroit, your typical Poor Inner City School, and half her kids come to school without having eaten, and a bunch have behavioral problems, parents with addiction, etc. And of course it’s possible to say, well, they’re being parented horribly and there are no books in the house and they’re being shuffled from place to place, and in the 1950s marriage rates were higher and all that. But that passage above captures something that has always struck me whenever my friend tells me about her kids, which is, yeah, but it’s also the case that “Black poverty in the cities” is just accepted as a normal state of affairs in this country, nobody really gives a shit. The white people in the suburbs aren’t sufficiently troubled that they live in a big ring around a city that has been hollowed out and where the houses and school buildings are all falling down. There is an empathy gap, and that empathy gap has to do with the fact that racial inequality has come to be seen as kind of natural, and even if the number of “hateful” racists goes down and down, and the Klan and the Nazis are marginal now, there’s this very disturbing kind of American acceptance that Detroit and Gary and New Orleans will always be the way they are, or these are internal problems that do not require a national response. I do think that one thing that was consistent both in your 2012 lecture and your 2021 testimony was an insistence that it is the obligation of people to care about what happens to each other, and for America to accept the moral burden of caring equally about all of its citizens. The plea against indifference is something I respect, and is one reason why I enjoy your work even when I disagree completely with you.

I’m very gratified to have helped you see again some of the value that I have found in your previous work. I agree with you that ‘systemic racism’ has been a woolly and frustrating concept, and as good social scientists obviously we detest explanations with imprecisely defined mechanisms. The lasting contribution of Anatomy, I feel, is that it identifies the mechanism very clearly and therefore allows ‘systemic racism’ to go from being a term used to mean ‘vague big structural forces’ to something that has content and can either exist or not exist.

One reason I liked the approach was that instead of, as many conservatives do, seeing the most extreme absurdities of the left as a reason to assume there is nothing to their analysis, it is a constructive critique that says: what about this concept is redeemable? What parts can we test? What is a system? What is racism? And it does not answer by saying ‘if a term is woolly and used as a catch-all, it must not be true that racism can persist without racists,’ but ‘here is a way for this to go from a slogan to a testable social scientific proposition.’

My own view is, in general, that I think conservatives have a lot of valuable critiques of the left, but that they throw the baby out with the bathwater by often declining to be constructive in this way. This is going to come up in my interview with John. My problem with Woke Racism is that he’s so angry at the idiocy of the worst people that he doesn’t do the interesting intellectual work of trying to engage the least-unintelligent versions of their position. So, for example, even with Robin DiAngelo—whom I find almost completely worthless—there is one interesting discussion that her work can produce, if we are trying to be charitable and find some kernel of worthwhile thought, which is: how do defense mechanisms around biased social cognition prevent honest confrontations with it? Her book is supposedly about how white people are fragile and get angry when you call them racist, which is true, but we know that mostly they probably get angry with her because she is patronizing and unpleasant and says that if they disagree with her it just offers more proof of their racism. Still, why not discuss the question of whether her concept of “white fragility” is getting at anything? I personally do think there’s something to it, there is a genuine social phenomenon where people are reluctant to admit their biases even when presented with evidence of them.

Alright, so she’s probably not very redeemable. Kendi is a more interesting case. Stamped from the Beginning is a pretty serious work of history based on a great deal of research, but it’s harmed by the fact that he’s got a fuzzy definition of what’s racist and what isn’t, and he doesn’t seem to have done the serious philosophical work of working out what he means by his terms. He’s infamous for saying that all racial disparities are attributable to racism, because if they weren’t, then they must be the result of racial inferiority. I am sure you find that statement absolutely maddening and wish he’d read a few pages of Thomas Sowell to understand why that’s false. But even if he’s wrong, I think it can serve as a starting point for a valuable discussion, which is: how do we identify “legitimate” versus “illegitimate” disparities, if such exist? Does the “Kendi rule” work better if it is taken as a presumption rather than an absolute? Or does the Sowell presumption, which is that inequalities are to be expected and are the rule rather the exception, serve us better?

One of the things I have tried to do over the course of editing Current Affairs is take conservative ideas seriously, even when I think they are terrible and misguided. I get exasperated that other leftists just feel they can write the right off without dealing with the best and most persuasive version of the arguments. I don’t think it’s intellectually honest to just pretend Thomas Sowell’s books don’t exist, which is what the New York Times and most of academia does. However, one thing I’d say to you (and John) is that the opposite is true, too. People on the right who become convinced the left are a bunch of hysterical wackos lapse out of serious engagement. (I quite understand why. Many of my people are unbearable.) For example, Woke Racism dwells on all the ludicrous examples of the term “cultural appropriation” being used seemingly to create strict rules against any kind of cultural mixing or borrowing. Yes, that’s silly. But my colleague Briahna Joy Gray wrote a fascinating article on the subject in which she asked the question: what are people trying to get at with this concept? Is there something redeemable in it? Because it’s easy to dismiss the absurdities, but there are cases where there does seem to be some kind of moral violation in lifting someone else’s cultural practice, bastardizing it and commercializing it, without offering credit or really understanding it, and how do we describe that? And I wished reading John’s book that he’d dealt with the interesting questions (can there be cultural property? Is one obligated to respect other cultures? Is it wrong for me to go to a poor country, borrow their culture, and get rich off it?) rather than going after the most extreme and obvious absurd doctrines. Because he certainly has a deep grounding in the history of culture, and I felt like he took the easy way out.

Another example from our conversation: you described last year’s uprisings over policing as a “moral panic,” and said (an argument I hear commonly on the right) that the rates of police killings are so much lower than the rates of street killings that the reaction does not make sense and clearly BLM’s priorities are out of whack. Perhaps, but I think there are also interesting questions raised here, like: How different is a killing by a safety officer to any other killing? For example, if the president shot someone, it would be a far bigger news story than if an ordinary criminal shot someone. To what extent is it irrational to give greater weight to a transgression committed by the state than one committed by a private person? Is it not the fact that police are the very people we trust to help us that gives these killings a uniquely outrageous quality, the same way a betrayal by someone thought to be a friend hurts more than a betrayal by a stranger? Is it not also perhaps the product of convenience, where it’s easy to protest the state because the state can make policy, but difficult to protest murder because murderers don’t respond to public political pressure? How do we test whether those explanations or a moral panic theory is true? I think those are interesting questions, and while I am open to being convinced of the argument that the left just has its priorities completely out of whack, I think both left and right would be less likely to see one another as insane if, instead of taking the most ludicrous and irrational versions of the other side’s position, we strove hard to find the most defensible and charitable version of the position. Again, to come back to Anatomy, I think that that is what it does so well. It is an exercise in constructive criticism of the systemic racism concept that ‘saves it from its defenders,’ so to speak.

Personally, I have become a more intelligent commentator because I read conservative books and take them seriously, though I have lost none of my fiery leftism. I think many of the people so exasperated by woke-ism, pseudo-CRT, etc would find themselves having more illuminating things to say if they got past the fact that it is almost impossible not to react with visceral loathing to DiAngelo and instead tried to fix the analysis.

Would be very keen to hear what you said in your speech. I truly enjoyed the Christian economist article which seems to me another example of you doing the extremely difficult work of synthesizing seemingly incommensurate intellectual traditions and positions.

Sorry to ramble. Thank you for your extremely gracious reply. A lot of people react very badly to being challenged or contradicted, or being told their old stuff was better, but I think you and I both share the understanding that knowledge cannot move forward unless we are able to sharply disagree on terms of mutual respect. I appreciate you taking my questions and comments in the spirit in which I mean them.

—Nathan


  1. Senate Testimony (2021) 

    “What are those folks saying when they declare that “mass incarceration” is “racism”—that the high number of blacks in jails is, self-evidently, a sign of racial antipathy? To respond, “No. It’s mainly a sign of anti-social 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 cancelled. But we should all want to stay in touch with reality. Common sense and much evidence suggest that, on the whole, people are not being arrested, convicted, and sentenced because of their race. Those in prison are, in the main, those who have broken the law—who have hurt others, or stolen things, or otherwise violated the basic behavioral norms which make civil society possible. Seeing prisons as a racist conspiracy to confine black people is an absurd proposition. No serious person could believe it. Not really. Indeed, it is self-evident that those 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, almost exclusively, are other blacks. An ideology that ascribes this violent behavior to racism is laughable. Of course, this is an unspeakable truth—but no writer or social critic, of whatever race, should be cancelled for saying so.”

    “Race, Incarceration, and American Values” (2012) 

    “We’ve come from a history of racial slavery and institutionalized racial subordination, and the principle venue in which the legacy of that history remains vividly apparent in our public life, is in the realm of punishment. We’re becoming a nation of jailers, and if I may say, racist jailers at that.  … State sanctioned violence continues to ravage the lives of the black — of the black poor, some among the black poor, and to impede their participation in our common national life. Contempt for young black men remains abroad in the land, and a new enthusiasm for their debasement has gripped us. …  But this is different, my critic is going to say, toe-tapping impatience and all. So long as laws are enforced without racial bias, the mere fact of some disparity in the incidence of incarceration, is in no way indicative of a new anti-black animism, my hypothetical critic might continue. As I see it, an argument more or less of that form, underlies the passivity, even the enthusiasm, with which so many informed Americans have greeted these new developments. … All of this is a piece with an increasingly common view, not only on the right, about the woeful tragedy now playing itself out amongst the black poor, which might be paraphrased as follows. Blacks may languish, but this is their own fault….  If the blacks would marry, they would embrace the responsibilities of their own freedom. They would cease to see themselves as victims, if they would just stop their lawbreaking.  Then their prospects would brighten.” I find this line of argumentation, to be a shockingly ahistorical, shortsighted, and ethically challenged response, to what is one of the great social transformations of our time. …  I once made a fine public career, using quite similar arguments myself….  I want to suggest that the racially despaired incidence of this massive punishment structure is, when viewed in historical context, patently unjust…  I want to present a cursory overview of the history of the rise of race and class—of the race class punishment nexus since the 1960s. Covering the basic facts, concerning incarceration rates and how the incidence of punishment varies by social location. The social and epidemiological harm that punishment can inflict on the communities, from which offenders come, and to which they return. And the connection of this development to the rhetoric of social discipline, at large in our political culture of today. Rhetoric about dependency, personal responsibility, social hygiene, and punishment as the reclamation of public order…. History is presenting us with a nightmare scenario, one that goes to the heart of the contradictions of the liberal democratic society that has been poisoned by race. I will suggest that this punishment policy complex has become a principle way in which racial hierarchy is reproduced in our society and I will insist that this matter requires, and deserves, a concerted attention of the nation’s policy makers. [D]urable racial inequality can be understood as the outgrowth of a series of vicious circles of cumulative causation… The association of blackness in the public imagination with unworthiness, distorts cognitive processes, promoting essentialist causal misattributions.Translated, they see the disparity among blacks, but they don’t think of it as saying anything about the structures in which people are embedded, but they rather impute the outcomes to the deficiencies of the persons involved. And they’re more likely to do so with as a psychological matter, to the extent that it’s African-Americans, given the history of race and racial stigma in the society.  is the fact that there’s opened a racial gap in the acquisition of cognitive skills, in the extent of law abidingness, in the stability of family relations, the attachment to the workforce, and the like. And this is a disparity in human development, which is, as a historical matter, rooted in political, economic, social, and cultural factors, peculiar to this society and reflective of its unlovely racial history.  That is the inequality of human development that is reflected in widely despaired rates of criminal offending by race in this country, is a societal, not a communal or personal achievement. I just want to underscore this. It’s a societal product, it’s something in which we are all implicated. … These are choices that we’re making in an ongoing way. The law is endogenous. We have lawbreakers, we also have lawmakers. The lawmakers have choices. Their choices have consequences. They can mitigate the impact of what we’re doing in the pursuit of public safety, to the extent that it produces the kind of cost and the differential incidence of those costs that I’ve called attention to here.  To the extent that they elect not to, those also will be choices that they’ve made…” 

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