Saturday reading: Glenn Loury on the history of civil rights

October 8, 2022 • 12:00 pm

Glenn Loury is, as you know, a black heterodox thinker and writer, much like his friend John McWhorter. Loury was also the first professor of economics at Harvard to get tenure, and that at only 33. Now he works at Brown University.

I found out only yesterday that Glenn has a Substack site, and saw the post below on it. Click to read, but, as always, subscribe if you read regularly. This post is free to the public, and if you’re pulled up short, just click “Let me read it first”:

This is a long post, much of it reproduced from an earlier interview that is not online. Loury intro:

There is no better time than now to think back with a critical eye on the conditions that brought about landmark mid-century civil rights legislation and Supreme Court decisions. Below I do just that in a long interview from 2019 led by Bucknell University sociologist Alexander Riley, which is taken from his edited collection, Reflecting on the 1960s at 50: A Concise Account on How the 1960s Changed America, for Better and for WorseIn it, I speak at length on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panthers, affirmative action, mass incarceration, and reparations, among other topics.

A few quotes under topics I’ve chosen:

The relative efficacy of Dr. King’s actions vs. those of contemporary activists:

. . . .I get why people are saying that. I get why contemporary social justice activists are impatient with the color-blind “I have a dream that one day my children will be judged by the content of their character. Black and white will walk hand-in-hand together, etc., etc.” I understand people’s impatience with that rhetoric in our current day, but I just ask people to reflect on what the power of that rhetoric actually was in transforming structures in American society. Again, I don’t think the threats of violence, the rejection across the board of American norms, the contempt for patriotism, the classification of the Founding Fathers as a bunch of dead white males, half of whom were slave owners anyways, and “we were 3/5 of a man in the constitution,” I don’t think that kind of rhetoric gets us anywhere. So there’s that.

On affirmative action:

 I’m not one of those who would respond to affirmative action by saying it’s discrimination against non-black or non-Latino people and therefore it’s wrong and must not be done. It is discrimination to the extent that it’s undertaken to benefit blacks or Latinos, but it’s not discrimination that I think should be prevented on a constitutional argument. That’s one thing that I would say.

But we are here in the year 2019. Affirmative action is something that dates back to the late 1960s, and really gets going in the 1970s. President Lyndon Johnson famously says, I believe it’s at a commencement address at Howard University in 1965, that you don’t take someone who’s been hobbled by history, the chains that encumber them, and remove the chains and bring them up to the starting line of a race and then you set the race off and expect that you’re being entirely fair. This is a paraphrase of Johnson. What he says is we need equality as a fact, and equality as an outcome, not merely equality in principle or equality as a theory.

We are a half-century into this idea that we’ve got to do something special for the blacks in the competitive venues where they lag behind in order to ensure equality of opportunity. A half-century, that’s a long time. It’s as long from Johnson giving that speech in 1965 to where we sit right here, today, in 2019, as was the time that expired between Appomattox, where Lee surrenders to Grant, and Versailles, where the First World War is brought to a conclusion. That’s a long time. That’s three generations. It’s a long, long time.

There is a lot more he has to say on the issue, and it’s relevant because the Supreme Court is set to overturn the Bakke case. Last night I discussed with my friends, who are longtime social-justice activists of the good sort (they actually did and are still doing stuff: teachers at minority schools and social workers), and we all agreed that the true solution to underrepresentation (“inequity”) is not the magicking of equity into existence by lowering the bar for some groups, but a fundamental change in opportunity, allowing everyone equal opportunity from birth. And that would require income redistribution—anathema to most Americans and all Republicans. It would also require other changes difficult to make. But it’s the only viable long-term solution. As McWhorter notes:

There was recently this controversy about the exam schools in New York City: Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science, Stuyvesant. They have an exam. They give the exam. Tens of thousands of people take it. They are admitting only hundreds. Stuyvesant constitutes a class—an incoming class for the fall next year—of 895 admits. Seven of them are black. And the newspaper article says, in the spirit of affirmative action, “Racial Segregation Returns to New York City’s High Schools.” The presumption is the low number of African Americans being admitted is a reflection of the failure of the institution to be fair and open to all people.

It is not! It’s a reflection of something else, something less pretty, something much more challenging, something that goes much more profoundly to the heart of what’s wrong in our country. It’s a reflection of the failure to develop the human potential of those youngsters who happen to be black. The test is only a messenger. It’s merely telling us what people know and what they don’t know. Some respond, “Well, let’s get rid of the test, let’s put a quota on the schools, let’s raise those numbers.” But why not, “Let’s develop those people so that they can compete”?

. . . I used to be one of those people who said, “Oh no, it is just racial discrimination, it is just reverse discrimination, and we shouldn’t do it.” And then I became one of those people who said, “Oh no, wait a minute, I do think we need to defend affirmative action.” And now I am one of these people who is saying, “Are we ever going to get serious about the actual problem of inequality and address ourselves to it? Affirmative action doesn’t take us to that point.” Imagine how weak, and, at the end of the day, pathetic it is to be in this position of begging not to have affirmative action taken away. Throwing a tantrum not to have them take away affirmative action. “We want our affirmative action!” Pathetic!

I still think that in the interim some form of affirmative action is needed, but perhaps it should be based on socioeconomic considerations rather than ethnicity. Since ethnicity is correlated with socioeconomic status, that would still create more “equity,” and perhaps that is the way colleges will counter the upcoming dismantling of affirmative action by the Supreme Court. I always wonder what will happen to the elaborate and expensive apparatus of DEI bureaucracy erected by many colleges and universities, including mine.  Will “D” no longer include race, but diversity of viewpoints and of socieconomic status?

On reparations.

I actually think that little bit of the question is kind of interesting, and maybe even ironic to me, because if I said that the family has a right to pass his wealth on to from one generation to the next without the encumbrance of inheritance tax, or call it the death tax as Republicans like to call it, a lot of progressives would say “Oh no, oh no. Just because your father made a lot of money doesn’t mean you’re entitled to anything. You didn’t earn it.” Well, likewise, just because my ancestors may have been deprived of the fruits of their labor by being forcibly enslaved doesn’t mean that necessarily that I am entitled to anything. I really don’t see, conceptually, a distinction between one or the other. In some sense, intergenerational entitlement being transferred from one generation to the next is intergenerational entitlement being transferred from one generation to the next.

But that’s not my main point. Do the facts of slavery, and Jim Crow segregation, and inequality, and restrictive covenants, and racial discrimination, and poll taxes, and literally tests, and anti-miscegenation laws, and all of that figure in a social scientifically identifiable way in accounting for some of the disadvantage of African American? I have no doubt that that’s true. I have no doubt that history casts a long shadow, that some dimension of African American poverty does indeed derive from historical mistreatment of African-Americans. Saying how much would, it seems to me, be a bridge too far. I don’t know how you do that as an empirical project.

. . . How about this? How about those who are concerned about the lasting effects of slavery and Jim Crow as they manifest themselves in the lives of very poor and disadvantaged and marginalized people, how about if we get about the business of building a coalition of poor, disadvantaged, and marginalized people of all races, and try to formulate a politics in which the essential needs of those people for opportunity would be at the center of our advocacy? I am prepared to include white people, brown people, yellow people, red people, as well as black people in that effort. That would be, I think, a serious American political enterprise. This sectarian enterprise—“Y’all disadvantaged my ancestors and I need to get paid”—I don’t think it’s going anywhere and I don’t think frankly it should go anywhere.

There is much to read and think about in Loury’s essay, including prison reform as well as these Big Three racial issues: Is our goal to become color blind? What should we do about affirmative action? And should we enact reparations, and, if so, how? You may disagree with Loury, but he will make you think. (Feel free to give your opinions below on these three questions or other related issues.) But do read this piece.

We are probably going to have Loury speak on our campus this year, and I wonder what sort of disruptions would ensue.

30 thoughts on “Saturday reading: Glenn Loury on the history of civil rights

  1. Glenn Loury is always well worth reading, not only because of his high intelligence and his well-reasoned approach to issues surrounding public policy, but also because he possesses the courage (none too common in today’s academic world) to express dissenting and contrarian opinions on controversial topics. His essay entitled “Whose Fourth of July? Black Patriotism and Racial Inequality in America” is fascinating, as are the other pieces in the collection in which it appears, The State of Black America (2022), edited by William B. Allen.

  2. … allowing everyone equal opportunity from birth. And that would require income redistribution … […] perhaps [affirmative action] should be based on socioeconomic considerations rather than ethnicity.

    I’d support extra assistance and educational opportunities for kids from low-income families (for example, I dislike the US policy of funding schools based on local property wealth).

    But income redistribution and spending equal amounts of money on each school and each kid would not be sufficient to produce equal outcomes.

    E.g. “This is the 2011 SAT dataset. Asian Americans from families with household incomes below $20k per year score higher on the SAT than African American families with incomes above $200k …” (link).

    One factor that is likely much more important than family income is family and peer-group culture. E.g. “Asian American high schoolers spent nearly two hours on homework per day—almost twice the amount of time spent by White and Hispanic students. Black students spent the least amount of time on homework at around 30 minutes per day.”

    Redistributing money is relatively easy. Changing cultural attitudes is much harder.

    1. Preparing to learn comes early at homes where parents read,sing, count. Is their early childhood means for kids without that access? Or desire

  3. I might take a relaxed, perhaps even slightly favorable view of positive racial quotas in favor historically underrepresented groups, if that policy were named honestly
    (such as “positive racial quotas in favor of historically underrepresented groups”). But those committed to honest language should oppose anything sold under a euphemistic label, because tricky labelling institutionalizes dishonesty. As George Orwell put it: “political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” The latest example of this sort of trickery is “affirmative therapy”.
    When the SCOTUS prohibits, as it soon will, the practice currently labelled “affirmative action”, universities will devise counterfeit mechanisms of the same kind, and they will undoubtedly label them “Affirmative Affirmation”.

  4. If only culture was the main problem. The most important factor in educational outcomes is innate ability and talent. Blank slaters have obfuscated the issue, but this fact is well known among those who study it. Better schools, teachers, and attitudes will do very little to solve the problem.

      1. I think I was pretty clear. I can’t tell if you are being ironic or accusing me of something. If you’re disappointed I stated general facts without applying them to ethnic/racial groups, I prefer to treat people as individuals as much as possible. The statements I made apply to all humans and are agreed to by thinkers across the political spectrum from Freddie deBoer to Charles Murray.

    1. Innate ability and talent certainly come into play at higher levels of mental competition. However, I don’t think that is really the main issue we are discussing.
      Lets say we are concerned about diversity in the chemical engineering department of some university. Any student with the basic qualifications to enter university can take CE as a major, and earn that degree.
      Granted, some kids will have to put in a great deal more work than others to get there. But anyone not suffering from brain parasites can get there, if they work hard enough.

      Being willing to work obsessively towards a long-term goal is mostly a cultural issue, which can be taught to most any child.
      I was always taught that one can always make up for what one lacks in talent with perseverance, and I have found it to be the case.

      Years ago, we had some famous basketball players out to the ranch for some fishing. I was not there, but Dad flew out west, picked them up, and had a nice couple of days with them. I later asked his impressions, and he told me his biggest impression was that they were incredibly focused and self disciplined individuals. That was something, coming from someone who normally associates with astronauts and test pilots.
      Those players had the right physical dimensions and athletic grace for basketball, but their poor single parents set them up for success no matter what career path they had taken.

      1. I have to disagree with your take on this, which seems influenced by blank slate type views. Not everybody is capable of everything, no matter their resources and opportunities. For some things like math or software development very few people have what it takes. Native talent and ability (which includes perseverance and desire to work hard along with intelligence) start separating people out in primary school and interventions have been shown to have little effect.

        It’s actually quite cruel not to recognize that some kids will never handle all kinds of things (algebra for example) even given the best schooling and tons of individual attention. Insisting they just need to try harder is a torture they don’t deserve.

        I am not making any ethnic or racial distinctions here – what I’ve written applies to any group of humans, including all taken together.

  5. Thanks. I’ve been following Glenn andJohn for years. Love heterodox. Also the economist ar Brown mark Blythe. Always good to think about dissimilar views

  6. This is the question that undergirds the current debate about race in America. It seems that the majority of black activists (if not most black people in general) answer this question in the negative. They reject the melting pot ideal and replace it with the stew metaphor. That is, they envision America as a country of tribes based on race and ethnicity where each gets benefits from government and perhaps interact in the workplace, but otherwise live their private lives in their own little ghettos, engaging rarely with people in other tribes. No society can be peaceful and prosperous under this type of system. The activists do not realize that it is part of human nature to be suspicious if not overtly hostile to people that are perceived as essentially different in some important respect. Only be minimizing such perceptions can a society make even a pretense of being harmonious. Lacking any sense of the long and sorry history of racial and ethnic conflict, the activist goal is dangerous to all element of society, particularly themselves.

    1. I think the stew metaphor, though, means that all ingredients mix together into one delectation. I use the salad metaphor, in which the individual ingredients maintain their integrity/identity, at least until you eat them, when they get mixed as chyme in your stomach. But seriously, even in the salad bowl, the ingredients are covered by dressing and, to continue the metaphor, that societal dressing is every citizen’s allegiance to our secular Constitution. So I think all three metaphors should end up in the same place, namely, e pluribus unum.

      1. Those who have read about pre-war Poland (for example in the memolrs by Czeslaw Milosz) will take the stew/salad metaphor more seriously. In these accounts, Polish
        society managed an imperfect but roughly harmonious structure of separate but
        mutually respectful Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, and Jewish communities. Going further back in history, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth maintained something like that arrangement (although with certain outbreaks of conflict), and even achieved tolerance between Catholics and Protestants earlier than elsewhere. Of course, we have no idea how useful this example might be for other, different societies. For one thing, one might guess that the Polish model rests upon heavy consumption of wódka.

    2. Agreed. Continued emphasis on inherited racial differences turns society and government into a competition with racially defined winners and losers, regardless of an individual’s situation; in the USA’s case, the Obama daughters would be more entitled than working-class white children to affirmative action and reparations. NZ is being afflicted by the current government with a similar vision of the ethno-state.

      As an aside, I was much taken by Johnson’s starting the race metaphor in my youth, but then several years later the winners of the 1968 Olympic men’s 100, 200, 400 and 4 by 100 metres relay and the long jump were all African-Americans, if that was the correct label back then, which rather undermined the force of that metaphor.

      Metaphors can both illuminate and obscure.

  7. Pedantic though I may be, I am glad to see the quotations above using consistent capitalization for ‘black’ and ‘white’. McWhorter took a stance several months ago to capitalize ‘black’ but not ‘white’. (And yes, ‘Latino’ is capitalized. Sure. That term derives from a geographic region – via a very roundabout etymology.)

    1. I think McWhorter in his columns is simply forced to go along with the Times’s standards, as all its writers are. And those are to write “Black” and “white.” Oddly, the Washington Post capitalizes both, and that makes more sense. Either capitalize both or neither. It seems to me that capitalizing “Black” but not “white” is a hamhanded way of valorizing African-Americans (which should be capitalized).

      1. Good catch, thank you.

        Many people these days, noting my frequent skepticism of the woke vocabulary and woke prescriptions for language use, ask me why I’m capitalizing “Black” when I write about Black Americans. The truth is: I’m not. The New York Times’s house style, on the news side and the Opinion side, requires it, and that’s how it reads when this newsletter publishes. But the copy that I send in has “black” styled with an old-school lowercase “b.”

        I swear there was something of his I’d read a few months ago where he had changed his mind, but I can’t find it. I’m having some paywall issues with the NYT site. Then again, I could be wrong.

  8. “Is our goal to become color blind?” Brief answer, since I’m short on time now. I’ve reconceived this notion of color blind and now envision our goal to be color irrelevant as much as possible. Thus, in most spheres of human life, civil rights, school admissions, hirings, auditions, housing, etc., color is irrelevant. But in certain personal relations and private spheres, color may justifiably be relevant. I can elaborate on this conception more at a later time, just wanted to get it out here now for possible comment.

    1. > I’ve reconceived this notion of color blind and now envision our goal to be color irrelevant

      I like your stance. I’ll give you the standard response for you to play with as you like: there are secondary and tertiary characteristics. Even though we can be color-irrelevant and sex-irrelevant, other traits correlate to them, and those factors still play a part in our evaluations. Some people with certain DNA, chromosomes, or hormones tend not to be as tall or muscular as others (I won’t even comment on other factors or traits here.). The devil’s advocate question then becomes how we allow ourselves to be blind to color or sex when correlating characteristics mean that most – but not all – group members will not measure up by the same standard. Personally, I still try to be color-blind and sex-blind, and am always amused when people call me out for not pretending that members of certain demographics deserved sacred safe spaces.

  9. New to the comment section, but I just wanted to add one thought on affirmative action. I think switching to socioeconomic status is really important and makes both a moral/legal and real-world difference.

    One thing that gets lost when talking about affirmative action in the abstract is that you lose sight of individual situations and how things work in college admissions.

    Disclaimer: I’m a privileged Indian American who’s currently applying to universities.

    With that in mind, college admissions are a really stupid game. For example, my parents (despite my constant protests) hired a counselor who, in turn, has had me create a non-profit that definitely falls on the bad/useless side of social Justice advocacy, apply for a major that’s underrepresented despite me having no attention of picking that major, and do engage in other forms of fakery.

    Getting back to affirmative action, I think a large reason colleges have moved away from test scores as a primary tool is because of a desire for diversity. However, no matter how unfair tests are to poorer students, holistic criteria are far more stacked in favor of kids with resources.

    So, what I think happens when you start to try and balance a plethora of factors in some holistic admissions process with race is that you rely on imprecise classifications. You don’t tranche Asian American by Indian American (extremely well off) vs Philipinno (not well off). You give white-looking kids who have a small amount of Hispanic heritage (I know one such friend whose dad worked on Wall Street) the same race advantage as the marginalized Hispanic populations that truly need a boost. You privilege recent immigrants from countries like Nigeria who are inordinately well-off the same as the inner-city black kid whose family actually suffered through the height of American racism.

    Maybe socioeconomic status isn’t perfect, but using income as a numerical way of adjusting how you view test scores or extracurriculars seems far more fair than using race as a proxy.

    On the constitutional point, I think that this analysis also makes it harder to hold the view that affirmative action is race discrimination that is justified by the 14th amendment. Of course, the amendment was meant to help freedman rise to an equal level. But is it really allowed to give the half-Hispanic kid the nod over a Philipinno. We live in a multiracial country, and I feel that a lot of the arguments over affirmative action attempt to boil everything down to black and white. Again, socioeconomic status does a much better job.

  10. >”And [allowing everyone equal opportunity from birth] would require income redistribution—anathema to most Americans and all Republicans.”

    I would propose the modest correction to read, “. . . would require even more income redistribution than we [you] Americans already accept now . . .”

    The Myth of American Inequality: How Government Biases Policy Debate
    by (former U.S. Senator) Phil Gramm, Robert Ekelund, John Early. Rowman & Littlefield, publ. 2022.

    Their thesis:
    When the value of all cash transfers and benefits in kind* is accounted for, Americans in the bottom census income quintile who earn little on-the-books income from legal work enjoy an imputed average income that is equal to the next quintile up, the working poor, who themselves close with Quintile 3. And the top quintile enjoys much less disposable income (because of redistributive taxation to pay for those benefits) than their nominal salaries and profits would suggest. Quintile 2, the broad middle class, is largely indifferent to the welfare state: their income is too low to be hit with swingeing taxation but too high to see any means-tested benefit. As caring and compassionate citizens, they can argue for more redistribution to the less well off without risking having to pay higher taxes themselves–they out-vote Quintile 1 by a large margin–, and without even being aware of how much actually goes on now.

    Income redistribution could be considered reparations that are already being paid. I won’t get into the partisan question of whether it is not enough or too much, or whether it needs to be tied less strongly or more strongly to people of whatever income as long as they had enslaved ancestors. Phil Ochs sang about it way back in the early 1960s: “But they’ve got too much already, and besides we’ve got the cops.” So the issue isn’t going away any time soon.
    *It has been argued that Medicaid payments are of less value to the beneficiaries than they are to the doctors and hospitals receiving the payments for the free services they provide. Because Medicaid is consumed by the bottom quintile, this is important. If Medicaid didn’t exist, doctors would live with a greater burden of uncompensated care but emergency care at least, the high value stuff, would still be provided free. So my personal opinion from afar is that Quintile 5 does not do quite as well out of the welfare state as Gramm et al. argue. It’s still expensive for Quintiles 1 and 2 to provide free anything, though.

  11. I wish Substack would allow some kind of bargain deal where one can subscribe, say, to four bl*gs (sorry, Jerry!) for the price of three. There’s a lot I’d like to support, but can’t afford them all!

  12. I hope this is not tedious or too off topic, but the AA debate reminds me of my Grandmother. Anyway, her church did a lot of charity work, and focused on Haiti, a place that I have spent time in.
    One of the missionaries gave a presentation at her church with film and images he had taken while there. Poverty porn for fund raising, really.
    But she came away with a surprising conclusion. What they needed was not cash, but seeds. It was to her eye obviously fertile land where lucrative crops could be grown with minimal effort. Send them some seeds, and they should prosper.
    Clearly, she fundamentally misunderstood the problems there, or at least mistook the symptoms for the disease, which is massive cultural dysfunction.
    Just like the homelessness issue in our cities is not really about the number of homes. Some people have experienced tragedy or been priced out of housing, but many more need treatment for mental health issues or substance abuse. It is further complicated by the fact that many of them will not accept such help. Forcing them to accept that help and comply is not compatible with our basic views on rights.

    It seems like the focus on AA is centered on university admissions, which seems again like treating symptoms.
    A poor Black kid who grows up with two parents who read to him, enforce basic discipline, and raise him with self confidence and a desire to succeed, does not need affirmative action.
    The 36 underage kids arrested for homicide in Chicago in 2020 did not end up in the big house because college admissions standards are too high.

    It matters very little that Chicago is spending around twice as much per student as my district does, if those kids are not participating in their own education. The kids start with essentially the same potential as kids anywhere, it is their parents who are shortchanging them, but I don’t know how to make them read to their kids or make other basic parenting sacrifices to convey the best advantages to the kids.

  13. The whole AA discussion totally misses the point about improving black lives. Yes. There are less percentage of blacks go to college, but so what? Nobody has to go to college to have a good stable income.

    Dragging low academic performance students go to college does not help anybody. It has nothing to do with race. The real solution is universal to all races: trade schools. Becoming plumbers, electricians, etc. is a way better solution than going to college for those kids.

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