A call to optimism from Glenn Loury

April 21, 2021 • 1:30 pm

From City Journal we have a short piece (an edited version of a talk) by Brown economist Glenn Loury, who is of course African-American.  Here he makes the case that although the Woke and extreme Left often seem to vilify America, black Americans should recognize not only the progress they’ve made, but also join in with all Americans in helping improve the country, which he sees as a beacon of liberty. I guess this is all done in the cause of comity and racial harmony, though I suspect that people like Ibram Kendi and Ta-Nehisi Coates would disagree. (Nobody, least of all me, thinks we’re perfect, or the best country in the world!)

Click on the screenshot to read.

Three excerpts and one comment:

The thesis:

There is a fashionable standoffishness characteristic of much elite thinking about blacks’ relationship to America—as exemplified, for instance, by the New York Times’s 1619 Project. Does this posture serve the interests, rightly understood, of black Americans? I think that it does not.

Indeed, a case can be made that the correct narrative to adopt today is one of unabashed black patriotism—a forthright embrace of American nationalism by black people. Black Americans’ birthright citizenship in what is arguably history’s greatest republic is an inheritance of immense value. My answer for black Americans to Frederick Douglass’s famous question—“Whose Fourth of July?”—is, “Ours!”

Is this a venal, immoral, and rapacious bandit-society of plundering white supremacists, founded in genocide and slavery and propelled by capitalist greed, or a good country that affords boundless opportunity to all fortunate enough to enjoy the privileges and bear the responsibilities of citizenship? Of course, there is some warrant in the historical record for both sentiments, but the weight of the evidence overwhelmingly favors the latter. The founding of the United States of America was a world-historic event by means of which Enlightenment ideals about the rights of individual persons and the legitimacy of state power were instantiated for the first time in real institutions.

African slavery flourished at the time of the Founding, true enough. And yet, within a century of the Founding, slavery was gone and people who had been chattel became citizens of the United States of America. Not equal citizens, not at first. That took another century. But African-descended Americans became, in the fullness of time, equal citizens of this republic.

After listing some of the successes of black Americans, Loury issues his call to action—or at least a call to civil debate:

The central issue, then, is a question of narrative. Are we going to look through the dark lens of the U.S. as a racist, genocidal, white supremacist, illegitimate force? Or are we going to see it for what it has become over the course of the last three centuries: the greatest force for human liberty on the planet? This conflict of narratives is worth arguing about—with Ta-Nehisi Coates; with Colin Kaepernick; with the Black Lives Matter activists; with the officials who will exercise power in the Biden administration; and with the editorial staff of the New York Times. The narrative we blacks settle upon about the American project is fundamentally important to our nation’s future.

This is a debate that I’m not sure I can adjudicate as I’m neither black nor a historian. But I will point out one odd thing that Loury says, which I’ve put in bold.

In the last 75 years, a vast black middle class has developed. There are black billionaires. The influence of black people on the culture of America is stunning and has global resonance. Some 40 million strong, black Americans are the richest and most powerful population of African descent on the planet. There are 200 million Nigerians, and the gross national product of Nigeria is just about $1 trillion per year. America’s GNP is over $20 trillion a year, and we 40 million African-Americans have claim to roughly 10 percent of it. We have access to ten times the income of a typical Nigerian. What is more, the very fact that the cultural barons and elites of America—who run the New York Times and the Washington Post, who give out Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards, who make the grants at the MacArthur Foundation and run the human resources departments of corporate America—have bought in to the new woke racial sensibility hook, line, and sinker gives the lie to the pessimism that the American dream doesn’t apply to blacks. It most certainly and emphatically does apply, and it is coming to fruition daily.

It seems strange that Loury touts the ubiquity of the “woke racial sensibility” as a sign of progress for blacks when he intensely dislikes the woke racial sensibility. Yes, I can see the point that wokeness affecting the Powers that Be might be a sign that those Powers don’t intend to impede the African-American route to equality. But Loury also thinks (or so I suspect) that the woke sensibility isn’t only impotent at helping blacks, but actually impedes their progress. That’s because, if I read the man right, he thinks Wokeness is not only largely performative, and doesn’t really help people fulfill the American dream, but is also divisive and patronizng, and in that way makes the American dream recede. After all, wasn’t it Loury who fuliminated against watering down mathematics so it would be less “white” (i.e., less rigorous)? If competency in math is part of the American Dream, as it was for Loury, then wokeness isn’t doing jack for it.

Read the bit in bold as you will.

26 thoughts on “A call to optimism from Glenn Loury

  1. I don’t think any of this has to be either-or. The temptation of dichotomous thinking is its simplicity; we don’t have to succumb to that mental laziness.

    “Wokeness”, I think, is a response to a very real problem. As a “solution”, is it ineffective? Yes. Does it cause more problems than it solves? Probably. Is it divisive? No doubt.

    But it IS a proposed solution to a very real problem, or set of problems, if you will. Instead of just focusing on “wokeness” and its inherent weaknesses, we can look for other, better, solutions.

    Are we a racist society? Yes. Are we a society of opportunity? Yes again. Both at the same time. How about we focus on expanding the opportunities and diminishing the racism?

    Getting out of our mentally lazy, dichotomous thinking patterns, IMO, would be a great beginning.


    1. HI Linda, I am a naturalized American citizen, so not fully socialized in the US. If you were to point to countries that were less racist than the United States, What country/society would that be?

      I think skin color is one way of forming hierarchy, So which societies or countries in the world would you say is less hierarchy than the United States.

      Any other reader can answer my questions. It’s also fine to reach into history….Thanks.

      As a further note there is this via Andrew Sullivan commenting on an interview with Ibram Khendi on CBS:

      “Misleading reference to 1,000 cop killings, implying all were black and unarmed. CBS producing critical race theory without any critique. America itself is convicted”

      1. I can’t speak for a lot of societies because I’m not all that conversant with them. And, I don’t have an “ideal”.

        The places that look saner to me, though – New Zealand, for one. The one I am most familiar with, however, is Switzerland. Yes, they have problems, too, and I’m sure people could outline them. But, the last time I was there, I had an experience that, to me, epitomized what I would like to see.

        We were in Wadenswil, which is a tourist town. We stopped for lunch at an Asian restaurant. You placed your order at the counter, took a table, and they brought your food and drinks out to your table. We were first in line, with two women behind us.

        The women running the place were speaking Thai with each other. It’s a language I recognize because I had a Thai roommate in college. They spoke English with us, switching effortlessly. The woman behind us in line was Asian, and they spoke Mandarin with her. The last woman in line was a local, and they spoke Swiss-German with her. In the space of a few minutes, I heard FOUR languages!! There was a good vibe in the restaurant, and the food was really good.

        The reaction of Americans here to hearing a language other than English ranges from confusion to outright hostility. I could easily have been trilingual, but instead both my parents fell for the “real Americans speak ENGLISH” baloney. I have a neighbor who is Hispanic/Apache, with a little European thrown in. She has told me horror stories about how her grandparents were treated by both her Hispanic relatives and her Apache relatives.

        We have a restaurant. We have to be super careful about what we say because there are people in our town who would try to destroy us just because we might have a different political viewpoint than they do.

        I find life in this country exhausting.


        1. Hell, there’s a substantial portion of the US population (around 46.9% of the US electorate per the results of the last election) that gets all pissy anytime they have to press 1 for English.

          1. Too true, counsellor, and Linda C.
            It always amazes and saddens me. Not b/c of the obvious xenophobia but more a sympathy at: “Don’t you know what you’re missing?”

            Admittedly I’m a bit of a language geek – I’ve been studying Japanese and Russian since my teens – some others languages a bit on the side – and each new language is a new personality one acquires, hundreds of millions of people you can talk with and understand, (and impress if you’re good – or even if you just try!) and an academic challenge in itself. Not for everybody, sure.

            The “press 1” pissy folks are just sad to me.
            D.A., J.D.

    2. I don’t see a solution in Wokeness. I don’t even hear clear proposals (political, economic, societal).

      This is puzzling to me. Why aren’t there clear proposals? (Empty barrels? Embarrassment? Dishonesty?)

      I just hear about “social justice” and “equity” and how we don’t have them.

      Name a time when it was better to be black in the US.
      Name a time when it was better to be a woman in the US.
      Name a time when it was better to be gay/lesbian in the US.
      Name a time when it was better to be transsexual in the US.

      Why are 100 black and brown people per day (on average) risking their life savings and their lives to cross the US southern border into this terribly racist white supremacist state? Why isn’t the the flow in the other direction?

      I’m not saying the US perfect, far from it. We have work to do. But the woke path isn’t going to get us there.

      In my opinion, the real woke project is: Equal outcomes. Which isn’t possible. So, it’s a politics of permanent grievance.

      1. I don’t see a solution in wokeness, either. That is exactly my point.

        Real solutions require confronting complexity. They also require a recognition that there probably is going to have to be some experimentation, some adjusting, and a willingness to admit when something isn’t working as hoped.

        Real solutions also require being willing to listen to other people, truly working at hearing what they’re saying, and working toward compromise. Compromise seems to be viewed as evil in today’s America.


  2. Loury’s argument illustrates a point I have made several times before: that there is no “true” history. Loury and those who oppose his viewpoint probably agree on the “facts.” That is, they agree mostly on the “what” of the events that took place in the racial history of the country. They may differ, as historians do, on how much the American revolutionaries feared what the British would do with slavery, but I consider these minor differences. The major difference is how past events are interpreted. What are their significance? How did they impact future events? Historians debate these issues all the time. I like very much Loury’s characterization of this as a “conflict of narratives.” It is a great expression.

    Loury’s hope is that Black Americans will view their current status as one of great progress. Obviously, others take a contrary view. It is optimism versus pessimism or something in-between. It is a debate worth having. But, before this can take place, Americans of all backgrounds need to learn the “facts” before they can debate their meanings. This first step is a great challenge considering the historical illiteracy of the American public and that the understanding of history (through the perpetuation of fake history – intentionally making up things, e.g., Black Confederate soldiers) is perverted to advance a political agenda.

  3. I read the bit in bold thus, that the actions of these “cultural barons and elites of America” belies the notion that black Americans are largely oppressed. These barons and elites have made many blacks, like Coates, Kendi, and Hannah-Jones, hugely successful achievers of the American dream. These blacks are rich (Kendi charges $360/hour for a telephone conference.), famous, treated as practically unassailable authorities, and generally kowtowed to by the press, politicians, and corporate America as well as by good-hearted ordinary Americans who want to solve the problems caused by racism.

  4. The woke racial sensibility—namely the “U.S. as a racist, genocidal, white supremacist, illegitimate force”—extends more widely. It often includes a similar animus against the entire history of the Renaissance/scientific revolution/Enlightenment, located as these developments were in evil, white Europe. When espoused by whites (as so often in academia), this attitude may reflect an impulse like that of the self-flagellation cults of the middle ages. It can also serve as an attention-getting device; and, given the inroads it has made in the educrat establishment, by now it may generally be deployed out of sheer careerism.

    A thought experiment illustrates the historical usefulness of this attitude. The Chukchi–Kamchatkan native peoples of NE Siberia were conquered, brutalized, and nearly exterminated by white, Russian, mainly Cossack invaders in the 17th-19th centuries; and today nothing whatsoever in the modern world is of Chukchi-Kamchatkan provenance. Does it illuminate anything to view the entire history of the European Renaissance/scientific revolution/Enlightenment as nothing but an expression of systemic anti-Chukchi-Kamchatkanness?

    1. The picture of homo sapiens populating the world that comes from ancient DNA studies is that the populating of the planet came about in very noticeable fashion, it seems more than just small part, through genocide, war, extinctions and…..yes….replacement.

  5. I think it would be good for everyone to learn, to study more about our history. But I would also warn people not to put too much of what is happening now on what took place 300 years ago or 200 years ago. We do not have a nice straight line from there to here. The southern states have always been very racial and very segregated. But all other states have their problems with this for sure. Minneapolis as we see is not the Mary Tyler Moore Show. I have known people in rural Iowa where the population is almost all white that are racist. They did not get that way from any direct contact with African American but they are just as bigoted as anyone I have known in the south. I see people in rural Iowa flying Confederate flags. It does not take much to make a racist. For my two cents it still adds up to ignorance and some kind of a need to be superior to other human beings. Anyway, we are still a long way from getting there and I am not optimistic.

    1. The Woke assertion is: All white people are racist.

      Any statement of the form: “All X people are Y” can only be either wrong or trivial.
      X being: The racial group they were born into.

      Such a statement is almost perfectly racist.

      I have had intelligent, mature people whom I respect propose that “there are ways of defining racism where all white people are racist”.

      Asserting that BIPOC people are simply victims, chips of wood tossed on the sea of external forces, without agency, is also quintessentially racist.

      These types of assertions certainly will never get us “there”.

      If racism isn’t based on behavior, then it’s nonsense.

      The left seems to have missed the point of 3-Nov-2020: The country wanted to purge itself of Voldemort. But GOP gains and holds* demonstrated that Americans are not going for the woke agenda. (* Georgia Senate races were tipped by Voldemort’s tampering and poisoning the well of voter confidence among the GOP voters (in my opinion, obviously).)

      I have a rainbow flag on the front of our house, right next to the USA flag. I have a large Black Lives Matter placard on the front of our house. But I don’t buy the whole BLM political agenda. I have voted since 1980; and I have never voted for a Republican (and highly, highly doubt I ever will). But I don’t buy the whole agenda of the left end of the Dem Party either. I pretty much can’t listen to NPR anymore, because it has transitioned from a news operation to an identity politics operation, before my eyes, in less than a year (I’ve been listening since about 1980).

      My wife comes from in rural Wisconsin and I fully agree with your assessment: Confederate battle flags all over, big-time Voldemort country. Racist as any place I’ve been.

      1. Up to and including the civil war the south was simply a racist society. All the African Americans were slaves. All the white boys volunteered to go to war to preserve this slave economy even though most of them never owned a single slave. They all knew the southern society put them in a class above all slaves. When they lost the war they never accepted it and continued to need this society where they were above all of the Black population. Jim Crow allowed them to do this. But frankly the merging of the people never happened in the north or the south. Lots of African Americans left the south to find a better deal and what they found was not always much of an improvement. There is certainly a wide variation in racism among white people today and how many could be said to be free of it, I could not say.

        1. I think a lot of us here have the same take on things as you, jblilie (probably that’s one of the big reasons we *are* here).

          I always thought the line ‘Clowns to left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you’ was kind of funny, but these days, not so much.

  6. It’s an interesting point Loury mentions regarding “reparations”. If there had been no slavery and no slave trade, and so their descendants (today’s African Americans) were instead citizens of Western African nations, would they be wealthier or better off overall? Clearly, the answer is “no”.

    1. Well, hell, by that reckoning, maybe black folk in the US should be reimbursing white folk for the free transportation across the Middle Passage.

  7. I think maybe Loury’s point about the adoption of Woke sensibility means that a large chunk of the shakers and movers in society are now opposed to racism and want it to end, so that is progress. The intention is good. The implementation is a whole other, sad, story. His comments about the founding documents are, I believe, accurate. The USA was the first European-occupied country to explicitly deny the Divine Right of Kings concept and to introduce Enlightenment values as the core principles of its constitution. That was a Very Good Thing.

  8. Earth to Professor Loury: The median wealth of Black families in Boston is EIGHT dollars. Yes, eight dollars.

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