Glenn Loury’s The Anatomy of Racial Inequality

Glenn Loury is a professor of economics at Brown University and the host of The Glenn Show, a podcast sponsored by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, where I first discovered him some years ago. I have been a loyal listener of his program ever since, won over not only by the quality of the guests he brings on, and his ability to have difficult and searching conversations with them, but by Loury’s own fierce independence of mind, his courage and composure in the face of counter-argument, and his disdain for orthodoxies, evidenced most recently by his open letter, “I Must Object,” addressed to the president of Brown University (his employer!), decrying her public response to the killing of George Floyd. A sample paragraph reads:

I wondered why such a proclamation was necessary. Either it affirmed platitudes to which we can all subscribe, or, more menacingly, it asserted controversial and arguable positions as though they were axiomatic certainties. It trafficked in the social-justice warriors’ pedantic language and sophomoric nostrums. It invoked “race” gratuitously and unreflectively at every turn. It often presumed what remains to be established. It often elided pertinent differences between the many instances cited. It read in part like a loyalty oath. It declares in every paragraph: “We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident.”

In 2020, the transformation of our universities from institutions consecrated to the pursuit of truth into quasi-religious organizations spreading the gospel of social justice is all but complete, and in the decades-long history of that institutional revolution, I can number on two hands the brave few who voiced dissent. In other words, Glenn Loury is that rarest of creatures, an academic with a spine and not merely a brain, and though he is now in his 70s, the man has found his moment and his audience grows apace.

This book emerged from a series of lectures Loury gave at Harvard University in 2000, as part of the W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures, though, as he puts it, its true genesis goes back much earlier. “It grows out of my efforts over nearly three decades to understand the causes of black Americans’ social and economic marginality, and to find possible remedies for this situation.” An appendix at the book’s concluding pages contains a series of graphs detailing the size and scope of this marginality (two that stood out to me: in 1999, roughly 80% of the children of white parents lived in two-parent homes, and just under 40% of the children of black parents; and from 1976-1999, the victimization rate for homicide was higher among black women than among white men), and it is disheartening to say the least. He is also quick to note that, while some of these measures have improved, most have remained stagnant, and some have even worsened in the decades since the Civil Rights Movement.

In The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, Loury takes aim at the colour-blind ideals of liberal individualism, not as ideals, per se, but as inadequate to solving the challenges facing black America after centuries of subjugation and slavery. His argument is built in part on the work of historian and sociologist Orlando Patterson, whose book Slavery and Social Death argued that slavery, cross-culturally, operates not only against the bodies of the enslaved, but against their position in a socially determined status hierarchy: slaves are “natally alienated and generally dishonored persons.” When Loury speaks of “racial dishonor,” he means that specific assumptions have been attached to their social status that cannot be abolished by legal writ: the “entrenched if inchoate presumption of inferiority, of moral inadequacy, of unfitness for intimacy, of intellectual incapacity, harbored by observing agents when they regard the race-marked subjects.” Stigma, Loury argues, now plays a far greater role than discrimination in the American polity, most evidenced by the “muted” public response to what are nothing less than social catastrophes: the high incarceration rate of black men, for example, or the state of perpetual gang warfare in many black neighborhoods. “If there were a comparable number of young European-American men on beer-drinking binges, or anorexic teenage girls starving themselves to death, and if these were situations in which the same degree of human suffering was engendered as is being produced in this case, it would occasion a most profound reflection on what had gone wrong, not only with THEM, but also with US.” On this point, he is undoubtedly correct, and it’s saddening to think, two decades after the book’s publication, that so much of the suffering he refers to continues.

The solution, then, according to Loury, involves rejecting “race-indifferent” policymaking. He wishes politicians and legislators to foreground the consequences of any given public policy – even those neutrally conceived –on black communities. If, for example, in prosecuting the drug war, we are deciding whether to concentrate law enforcement efforts on arresting dealers or buyers, some consideration should be given to the fact that many more black men are dealing, while the buyer population spans the racial gamut. In other words, greater racial integration – a reduction of black social or economic marginalization – should be counted among the benefits of any given social policy, however race-blind its construction. Loury: “Those people languishing at the margins, even if they are strange and threatening, are to be seen, in the ways that most fundamentally count for our politics and civic life, as being essentially like us. We’re going to prudentially and constitutionally, but determinedly and expeditiously, move so as to tear down, or certainly build no higher, the boundaries of race that divide the body politic.”

The Anatomy of Racial Inequality is a challenging, probing and far-reaching examination of America’s ongoing racial inequities, written with an economist’s passion for evidence and argument. Loury possesses that rare ability to grapple with all sides of an idea – on more than one occasion I found myself objecting to a point he made, only to find my objection accounted for in the subsequent paragraphs – characteristic of the best intellectuals, and the growing prominence of his mind and voice in the public debate has been one of this year’s few redeeming features.