J. L. A. Garcia
During the 1980s, Glenn Loury was one of the most influential and formidable conservative thinkers on race in America. But beginning in the mid–1990s, he began to move leftward on the political spectrum. In addition to criticizing major conservative thinkers in print, including Dinesh D’Souza, Charles Murray, and Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom, he repudiated his old allies in their campaign against racial preference programs just as that campaign was starting to gain legislative and judicial traction. The Anatomy of Racial Inequality is Loury’s first major publication since his ideological change of heart, and as such it has been eagerly awaited by current and former friends alike. The book’s modest size—under 170 pages of text, with another thirty pages of tables and graphs as well as notes and bibliography—should not be taken as a sign of intellectual modesty. Rather than simply tracing the ways we classify people by race, Loury here wants to use that investigation to do nothing less than delineate and explain the long–lasting and deep–seated socioeconomic inequality between blacks and whites in the United States.
Loury begins his book by announcing his support for three “axioms” that will shape his discussion. These are, roughly, 1) that race is socially constructed, 2) that racially classified individuals have no common essence that can explain their superior or inferior social performance and achievement, and 3) that racial stigma is deeply ingrained and highly influential. Oddly, the first and third axioms do not really function as axioms, for Loury announces he will argue for and to them, not just from them. Moreover, in my judgment, he never succeeds in making a plausible case for the first axiom, and as I suggest below, his argument from the social effects of racial categorization fails to demonstrate the social reality of races, only of racial classification. As for the concept of stigma central to the third axiom, Loury never fully explains where stigma resides or how to combat it or its effects. When it comes to the second axiom, Loury seems not to recognize how uncontroversial it is and how little follows from its truth. With the possible exception of Murray, recent conservative thinkers on race (e.g., D’Souza, the Thernstroms, Thomas Sowell) do not impute black social failure and disadvantage to anything they deem (biologically or otherwise) essential to black people. Rather, they impute the problems of black Americans largely to antisocial and self–destructive attitudes, values, and conduct within that group.
Loury’s first major concern has to do with racial stereotypes. Above all, he is interested in denying any kind of essentialism. There are no races in nature, but the place race–thinking plays in our interactions makes race a “human product.” As he writes, he “use[s] the term ‘race’ to refer to a cluster of inheritable bodily markings carried by a largely endogamous group of individuals, markings that can be observed by others with ease, that can be changed or misrepresented only with great difficulty, and that have come to be invested in a particular society at a given historical moment with social meaning.” This “definition,” as Loury calls it, conceives race as “all about embodied social signification.” Loury thinks this amounts to a “constructivist position in regard to the ontological status of race” because it allows that, owing to their being classed together as racially alike, “groups of subjects” who share feelings of pride, shame, etc., and who are defined by the race–markers, actually “come into existence” in the real world.
Although there may be some ambiguity in his position, all of this strongly indicates that Loury thinks race is a real attribute, even if only in the sense that it is a “social reality” constructed from social conventions. In my view, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has successfully refuted this argument. But because Loury cites and airily dismisses Appiah’s anticipated critique, it is worth spelling out its force in some detail. The fact that some people are classified as Rs (where R is a racial assignment), and differentially treated because of that classification, proves only that racial classification has real effects, not that race itself is real, socially or in any other way. To see this, Appiah suggests we consider a social system that classifies people as witches. That I am so classified and suffer because of it does nothing to show that I am (or that anyone is or could be) a witch. Whether I am a witch depends on whether I have the qualities predicated of me (i.e., attributed to me) when people say I am a witch.
To determine whether races are real, we must study racial discourse to determine just what is being predicated of someone when he is said to be, say, black. Then we need to determine whether he or anyone has those qualities. In contrast, Loury’s emphasis on the “all too real consequences” of “the social convention of [racial] classification” is irrelevant to the question of whether there really is in nature something that divides people into racial groups. A man being a full professor or a pastor, a green piece of paper being money—these are “social constructs” in the sense that to be such a thing is to occupy a role within some institution established by and within human society. It is very doubtful that being a member of the black race can be similarly analyzed. By failing to distinguish between the “social signification” of race–classification and the question whether those classifications are accurate (i.e., whether races are real), Loury becomes entangled in a conceptual thicket.
We might also note a second problem in this view of race, one that may appear insignificant, but that proves to be quite problematic. As we have seen, Loury does not specify whether each member of a given racial group will possess determinate traits. Yet to insist, as Loury does, that every member of the black race must have physical features that “are easily discerned and not readily disguised” is to ignore the possibility (and often ease) of racial “passing.” As Walter Benn Michaels has argued against Adrian Piper’s presentation of a view similar to Loury’s, to root blackness in how it is perceived by others is to deny the possibility, very real and much discussed in such classics of African–American literature as James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex–Colored Man, that a person can be black while pretending he isn’t. This might be a small problem that Loury could correct by defining a black person as a member of a group most of whose members have hard–to–disguise, racially distinctive features, or is someone descended from such people. But this may be more than a minor alteration of Loury’s views. For how can he set the conditions of group membership without appeal to those very natural, biological features it seems the point of his “social constructivist” position to avoid? If society can be mistaken in assigning someone to a racial group, then there must be something more to someone’s race–membership than social assignment.
For Loury, the most important stereotypes are those that are “self–confirming.” By this he means that their popular acceptance negatively affects the stereotyped group to such an extent that it gives them reason to respond in ways that conform to the stereotype. Thus, if Xs are widely thought to be, say, cheap, lazy, and mistrustful, then Xs may find themselves in such economically and socially constrained circumstances that it becomes reasonable to hoard what resources they can accumulate, to give up on trying to advance themselves through effort, to be suspicious, and so on. In short, they may become cheap, lazy, and mistrustful. In this way, the stereotype’s widespread and lasting acceptance gives its victims a practical reason to admit to it—thus providing, in turn, evidence of the stereotype’s truth, even if such evidence was originally lacking. What starts out as merely irrational prejudice can thus become more rationally warranted.
We should take note of something unsettling in this line of thought, however inventive it may be. That is, it seeks to explain how a stereotype can come to be rational rather than questioning the appropriateness of stereotyping as such. There is simply something distasteful in seeking to explain the truth in ethnic stereotypes—why, for example, Jews are cheap, blacks are indolent, whites are bigoted, Midwesterners are boorish, and so forth. Instead, we should try to explain why people believe these things, even though they are false and unsupported.
And yet, Loury persists in his approach because he believes that his two core claims—that races are social constructs and that certain racial stereotypes can and do operate to confirm themselves—can ground his anti–essentialism. The book does not clearly explicate this connection, but I think Loury means the argument to run along the following lines. Even when there is truth within racial stereotypes and when their acceptance finds some rational support, the generalizations’ truth is not rooted in the biology, nature, or metaphysics of the racial group or its members—for races themselves are only humanly constructed parts of social reality—but in social feedback mechanisms. To put the point in starker terms than Loury does, he seems to be arguing that even if and when black people are, for example, disproportionately “low energy,” this is the case not because of some tendency or character defect inhering in the biological, moral, or metaphysical essence of black people, but rather in social expectations that lead blacks to conclude that it is not unreasonable to become less energetic.
As I have already suggested, this line of argument seems not to rebut the conservative adversaries Loury wishes to target. Even D’Souza explains what he calls black “failure” by appealing not to a black racial essence (that would be racism as D’Souza conceives it, a doctrine he is at pains to repudiate), but to elements of a black culture that even he recognizes are responses to the historical circumstances of blacks in the United States. But Loury has another reason for revisiting and newly elaborating the notion of self–confirming stereotypes. He does so in order to argue that, ultimately, racial stereotypes are rooted in something bigger, less rational, and far uglier: racial stigma.
The core of Loury’s book, and the topic that will, I think, draw the most comment and stimulate the most research, is not stereotype, but stigma. The idea is not new, but Loury gives it a careful and novel construal and uses it as centerpiece of some arguments bound to provoke contention. Loury never fully explicates the difference between racial stereotypes and stigma, but, in his most explicit effort, he writes that while stereotypes merely associate subjects with qualities prior to adequate information, stigma “invokes the observer’s . . . perception of qualities thought to be essential to the make–up of the subject.” Stigma, he continues, “is some kind of ‘meta–belief,’ . . . a belief by the observer . . . about the subject’s intrinsic nature,” which is thought to account for the other associated qualities. Less lucidly, Loury suggests that stereotypes answer to our need for “information,” while stigma supplies our need for “meaning.”
Adapting Erving Goffman’s influential account of social stigma, Loury writes that “when the meanings connoted by race–symbols undermine an observing agent’s ability to see their bearer as a person possessing a common humanity with the observer . . . then I will say that this person is ‘racially stigmatized,’ and that the group to which he belongs suffers a ‘spoiled collective identity.’” The idea seems to be that if, upon hearing only that my neighbor is a Jewish man, I assume he is bookish and puny, I have employed a stereotype. However, if, after learning of the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate the Jews, I respond not with outrage, but with the thought that Jews are so deeply, even essentially, despicable that such episodes are understandable, then I’m approaching stigma.
Loury contends that, because of slavery and its aftermath, African–Americans suffer “racial dishonor . . . [and] an 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.” However, Loury goes on to insist that this stigma and dishonor are not “mainly an issue of the personal attitudes of individual Americans,” because he is “discussing social meanings, not attitudes.” For Loury, stigma concerns the “unexamined beliefs that influence how citizens understand and interpret” the events and conditions around them, as opposed to the fear, unease, hostility, distrust, and contempt that some whites feel toward blacks.
Racial stigma thus consists of “social cognitions”—beliefs and, as Loury emphasizes, doubts—that incline people to view, for instance, “veterans [as] acceptable beneficiaries of” government help and (largely white) drug buyers as fit for therapy, while believing that government programs that are designed to help blacks “violat[e] meritocracy” and that (largely black) drug sellers are fit only for prison. These examples, however, are unpersuasive. Plainly, selling drugs demonstrates a deeper involvement in crime than does using them, and the limits of policing likely motivate law enforcement to target sellers rather than users. And even those of us untroubled by the fact and magnitude of government social welfare programs can see that their basis is different from that of the benefits we provide to veterans who risked their lives in our defense. It is unfortunate that Loury ignores such details, contenting himself instead with imputing sinister “social cognitions” to those who think such differences make a difference.
Loury clearly states that stigma leads people to call into question the common humanity of the stigmatized, or, less hyperbolically but more vaguely, to stress the “social otherness” of black people. He is less clear about whose minds the stigma resides in. Of course his reader assumes it is found chiefly among whites. And yet Loury stresses that “nothing in my theory prevents a black man from succumbing to the same cognitive biases as anyone else.” The point may have some import. If racial stigma also infects black minds, with black people sometimes suspecting their own worth and ability, then it may operate in part through forms of self–doubt, resentment, self–destructiveness, and despair. Loury does not explore these possibilities, but insofar as his analysis permits them, then his former allies on the right, who think many of the problems of black Americans are self–caused, may find in Loury’s work grist for their own mill.
Just as Loury is less than explicit about whose minds stigma resides in, neither does he clearly specify who bears the racial stigma. He observes that “the stigmatized ‘racial other’ in our midst today is unlikely to be wearing a business suit or an athlete’s uniform,” suggesting that stigma is reserved to the have–nots; but he adds, in a carefully worded sentence, that he has “no need for the exaggerated and indefensible assumption that stigma hampers social achievement for all blacks—universally and to the same degree.” The final qualifiers may indicate that Loury thinks all blacks do bear the racial stigma, though some do so only to a lesser extent.
This raises the question of what may be done both to lessen stigma itself and, what may be a different matter, to alleviate its effects. In a section of the book titled “Racial Stigma at Work in America,” Loury traces a variety of phenomena—from the disproportionately high incarceration rate of blacks and federal anti–drug policy to welfare reform, the race–and–I.Q. controversy, and photojournalistic depictions of poverty—to racial stigma. As a social scientist, Loury is no doubt aware that there is little evidence that these phenomena can all be traced to the workings of stigma. Yet throughout the discussion he intimates that sinister, dehumanizing “cognitions” are at work behind the scenes.
This questionable approach to the problem of race leads Loury to believe that the best way to diminish the effects of stigma is to eliminate it altogether. One way to do so involves reducing the black prison population through the reform of drug laws and the use of alternate sentencing. Once the proportion of black inmates declined, the stigma would receive significantly less confirmation. Still, there are surely other, less radical ways to attack racial stigma. Harsher punishments might enhance deterrence and thus lessen black crime and the incarceration that inevitably follows. Policies could be designed to insure not that fewer blacks are imprisoned, but that more whites are. Finally, as Loury is well aware, the racial–image problem could be addressed by highlighting black achievement and success.
All of which means that we would do well to explore alternatives to the policies to which Loury appears most sympathetic. It makes little sense to describe the black incarceration rate as being too high or too low without considering the incidence of black crime. The issue is and must remain not how many are imprisoned but whether they deserve it. Yet Loury is more concerned with the injustice that follows from racial stigma, even if it means giving clemency to criminals. In his view, imprisonment not only increases stigma but also deprives black communities of valuable members. But does it really? If pushers, users, and small–time hoods were released from prison, would they become model citizens? I am no social scientist, but New York City’s experience with so–called “zero–tolerance” policing seems to indicate just the opposite. The evidence appears to show that jailing minor offenders removes the criminally inclined from the streets before they can commit more serious crimes.
In any case, we ought not lose sight of the obvious fact that people who have committed serious crimes deserve to be imprisoned. Loury might protest that such claims lack “objective, scientific warrant,” but that argument lacks force. Of course, science cannot justify moral judgments, but that applies at least as much to Loury’s moral complaints about racial injustice as it does to less controversial judgments, such as the conviction that those guilty of serious crimes merit prison irrespective of their race. The imprisonment of the guilty raises no issues of injustice. Yes, we should look to the environmental factors that predispose some to succumb to the corruption that can be found inside all of us. But more importantly, we must resist the corruption that saps our moral confidence. With such confidence restored, we may actually make serious advances in the projects of moral correction, penitence, and reform required in our prisons. I agree with Loury’s opposition to the view that we need only “warehouse” our wrongdoers, black or white. Still, we can do more while also justly punishing those who act viciously.
Loury intends his discussions of stereotype and stigma to set the stage for his concluding arguments about “racial justice” and political strategies. In my view, Loury makes a good case against “race–blind” conservatives, showing that they have failed to make a moral case against allowing race to play some limited but direct role in both preferential programs and assessing outcomes. However, his insistence on “race–egalitarianism” is less persuasive, focusing too little on individuals and hastily identifying disparity between racial groups as racial injustice. More disturbing still, he sets no principled limit to race–conscious policies, even going so far as to suggest that consideration of criminal laws should take account of whether those convicted under them will largely be black.
On the controversial issue of reparations, Loury is at his best. He avoids the ugly denial, found in such anti–reparations writers as David Horowitz, that America owes a debt to her black citizens. Loury argues more subtly that we are ill–advised to construe this debt too literally, because, to the extent we do, we imply that the nation might properly see itself as having completed its racial reckoning once a specified sum of money has been transferred from whites to blacks. The problem of race in America is not a black problem but our American problem, and it cannot be “solved” by some of us paying off others.
Less encouraging is Loury’s defensiveness in the face of justified criticism of the vicious transvaluated “values” expressed and promoted in so much of black popular culture. Surely, star athletes who use drugs, spit on umpires, choke coaches, or bite opponents—not to mention hip–hop lyricists, performers, producers, and music promoters who portray black women as “bitches” or “‘hos” and Black men as “Niggaz,” who glorify “gangsta chic” and glory in a culture of guns and violence, despite their seven and eight figure incomes—play an important role in perpetuating the stigma Loury decries. Yet this defensiveness is less apparent in Loury’s coda, where he suggests that personal action and attitudes, abetted by moral suasion and subtly indirect social policy, can effect genuine change. Even conservatives could accept this conclusion.
Sometimes Loury appears, like so many others at all places on the political spectrum, to hope for a “post racial future.” Eventually, he hopes, racial stigma and its consequences will fade, especially among whites but of necessity also among blacks, and the remaining obstacles to transracial adoption, mixed–race parenting, housing and educational integration, a shared culture, and American community will be removed. If stigma does its harm largely through “discrimination in contact” in our private lives, it will be dissolved most effectively by eliminating social isolation and linking whites to blacks in civil society, not just as citizens, but also as neighbors, classmates, congregants, in–laws, cousins, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces.
I think all this suggests that the analysis and recommendations from Loury—at his best a bridge figure between right and left—might point towards a promising and nonpartisan racial agenda. That agenda would integrate some of his suggestions with other policies and proposals that would seem to follow the spirit of his analysis. That broader agenda might strive 1) to mend affirmative action short–term—no “theorem” having been proved, as Loury mordantly notes, that shows that race–conscious policies hinder racism’s demise—but also look to end it long–term through a gradual phase–out; 2) to downplay racial thinking in our personal lives, while recognizing that responsible public policy will need to recognize racial categories for some time to come, even as we steadfastly refuse to let the state determine what is most important in our lives and minds; 3) to continue to reform our reformed welfare system, increasing funding and extending the term of benefits in times of recession, but also retaining the incentives to work and leave the system; 4) to confront the magnitude of black incarceration rates in conjunction with that of black crime rates, imprisoning those we ought, but making time served an opportunity for moral reform, not brutality, dehumanization, and further education in criminality; 5) to execrate the elements of popular culture, black and white, that celebrate obvious viciousness, while recognizing that it is despair and nihilism that make them appealing; and 6) to recognize the seriousness of our racial divide, not necessarily as a continuing injustice, but as an enemy of comity and community in our society.
That agenda will address imperfections not just in our institutions but in personal lives and relations. In the phrase that gave his earlier book its title, Loury said that African–Americans would find social advancement “one by one, from the inside out.” That is no less true of our becoming a more genuine community.
J. L. A. Garcia is Professor of Philosophy at Boston College. In 1999–2000 he was a research fellow in Loury’s Institute on Race and Social Division at Boston University. Garcia is currently preparing a volume of his philosophical essays on race and racism, entitled The Heart of Racism.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Glenn Loury vied with Thomas Sowell for the title of America’s most prominent black conservative thinker. Long before I began to write on race or even thought of doing so, I clipped pieces by the black economist at Boston University whose elegant and forceful writings were among the very few that seemed to reflect my own experience of race in the United States. For blacks of my generation, the overt racism of the pre–civil rights era was an ugly memory fast fading into the past, and the black middle class many of us were part of was well–established and expanding rapidly. Yet the Black Power trope that equated black authenticity with eliciting white guilt had already begun to freeze into a reflexive posture of belligerence, as the war on drugs fostered the myth of a “war on black men.”
Although the black battle for full equality had not been entirely won by the early 1990s, the racial events of that decade sadly demonstrated that the civil rights establishment had begun to encourage a manner of thinking and acting that showed every sign of increasing the obstacles to further black advancement. Al Sharpton, who had risen to prominence defending a young black girl’s false rape charge against white policemen, all but incited a black–Jewish race riot in Brooklyn. Black thugs destroyed their own neighborhoods and maimed many nonwhites in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. Black America cheered as O. J. Simpson was acquitted of a brutal double murder when evidence strongly suggested his guilt. A black–led school board insisted that black students lag behind white ones because the former are confused by the small differences between black and standard dialect, and dismissed the skepticism of critics as racism.
The moral lines of the race question have certainly shifted since Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream.” Loury was one of the few black writers to recognize that blacks could thrive under less–than–perfect conditions, that self–empowerment did far more good for blacks than melodramatically tabulating instances of “racism,” and that blacks sabotage their own chances when they celebrate black underclass behaviors that, whatever their origins in larger social forces, work to sustain negative racial stereotypes. Shelby Steele made a similar case in 1991 in The Content of our Character, and it is not an accident that Loury and Steele cofounded the Center for New Black Leadership in 1995, an organization dedicated to a conservative but activist message of black uplift, a message that found eloquent expression in Loury’s book of the same year, One by One from the Inside Out.
But by the late 1990s, a series of personal crises began to lead Loury to question his earlier views. He could no longer support the growing criticism of racial preferences in the form of affirmative action, and his discomfort with this core element of the conservative agenda developed into outright opposition with Ward Connerly’s stunning success in getting Proposition 209 passed in California. Loury broke with the Center for New Black Leadership, and then a significant change began to crop up in his writings. For example, a hostile review of Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom’s America in Black and White revealed a new orientation as much threnodic as analytic. This new direction was one that most black leftists would applaud. Loury’s “coming out” became official in a series of lectures at Harvard in 2000. His new book, The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, is an elaboration and adaptation of those lectures.
The central theme of Loury’s book is that the main obstacle to advancement for black Americans today is less overt discrimination than the looming “stigma” of inferiority that whites impose upon them. Loury repeatedly refrains from describing this as “racism” per se. Rather, he notes that human beings tend to cast their thought about others according to generalizations, along the lines of the paradigms that, according to Thomas Kuhn, both drive and limit scientific inquiry. Loury notes that people are motivated as much by a desire for social belonging as they are by strict rationality and cost–benefit analysis, and they often form their beliefs accordingly. The tendency to generalize is reinforced by the fact that few people have enough information at their disposal to enable them to acquire a more nuanced understanding of individuals. As a result of these tendencies as they operate within the American racial context, black people today suffer from what Loury calls a reward bias. That is, no longer confronting development bias—in which the opportunity to be economically productive citizens is denied—they instead confront a bias in which reward for their economic efforts is limited in a variety of ways by a racial stigma of “otherness” that white Americans project onto blacks. Loury describes this as a difference between discrimination in contract and discrimination in contact.
Loury traces the stigma to blacks’ degraded condition under slavery, and builds his analysis on Erving Goffman’s Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, which defined stigma as a discrepancy between the understanding of one’s identity as constructed “from the inside” and that imputed to one “from the outside.” Loury presents what he regards as various manifestations of the stigma in question, including the fact that only 2 percent of black women have white husbands, the reluctance of many nonblacks to adopt black babies, and especially the failure of mainstream Americans to view the large numbers of blacks living in inner cities or penned into prisons as the national tragedy that it truly is. As he writes,
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 about what had gone wrong, not only with them, but also with us. “What manner of people are we to produce such an outcome?” would become a key question.
Finally, appalled at conservatives’ call for blacks to “get beyond” race and view themselves as free–acting individuals, Loury stresses that the American tradition of liberal individualism, however attractive in theory, neglects historical context. Above all, it ignores the fact that the stigma against African–Americans determines individual interactions so profoundly that blacks cannot and should not attempt to see themselves as ahistorical individuals. For Loury, race–blindness in a policy can be a good thing, but what he terms “race–indifference” never is.
Take, for example, the University of Texas’ policy of admitting the top 10 percent of students from all schools in the state. The policy is technically race–blind, addressing differentials in school quality across the state. Yet the policy, obviously developed to maintain representative levels of black students and acknowledge that disproportionate numbers of them have limited access to top–quality educations, is not race–indifferent, according to Loury, but rather what he calls race–egalitarian.
In the end, Loury sees race–blindness as appropriate only to the realm of “civic construction”: “building monuments, constructing public narratives, enacting rituals, and, most generally, pursuing policies that have an inescapably expressive as well as directly instrumental effect.” In other words, race–blindness should be confined, in our moment, largely to symbolic realms tangential to achievement or opportunity. Beyond this, the ideological purity of liberal individualism will have to wait. Loury defines his treatise as “an exercise in ‘racial apologetics,’” intending a parallel to the Christian theological virtue of defending “the reasonableness of the faith.”
While many black conservatives no doubt see Loury as a Prodigal Son whose guilt about having abandoned the reigning faith of his people has led him to proclaim it anew, there is actually much of value in Loury’s new position, at least in its foundations.
For one thing, he admits that formal discrimination against blacks has become so marginal and readily prosecuted that it no longer warrants serious attention in discussions of race. Loury has no patience with the claim, heard so often today, that decades after the Civil Rights Act, black Americans still live in an overtly racist purgatory where “white supremacy” continues to reign. Loury consistently resists the temptation to employ the word “racism” as a moral bludgeon, as many on the black left have come to do, and this shows good judgment as well as moral fiber.
Moreover, Loury is right to note that, even though the notion of race is a scientific fiction, the concept so determines our experience and understanding of the world that it cannot be dismissed as a mere “figment of the pigment.” On this matter, many white and black conservatives would disagree, wishing to deny the reality of race. But such a view is almost willfully naive. The history of blacks in America renders raceless individualism a formal, civics–textbook abstraction that helps us little in our quest to develop effective social policies. Loury’s book is an articulate and compelling elucidation of the subtle persistence of racial thinking in America.
The problems arise when Loury begins to draw practical conclusions from his solid foundations and ends up articulating a view that suffers from a weakness typical of left–wing proposals. “Apologetics” can easily evolve into excuse–making. Although Loury wants to believe that his new ideology can be used as a guide to change, it ends up providing legitimation to the view that history is destiny for black people. Articulately rendered as it is, this position ends up resembling more a static cri de coeur than a dynamic blueprint for progress.
It is in elevating “stigma” to the central problem in black America that Loury’s argument drifts from prescription into posture. According to Loury, what we really need to be talking about is less the figment of the pigment than “the enigma of the stigma.” The phrase’s evocation of Jesse Jackson’s rhyming oratorical style is not an accident. A quiet endorsement of leftist positions can be detected throughout the text, at least to the extent that Loury implies that such positions express a higher morality, whose virtue could only be denied by those lacking adequate information or guilty of hard–heartedness. While I respect Loury’s elegant presentation of his argument and sympathize with his sincere desire to improve material conditions for blacks in America, I cannot accept the underlying assumptions of his view as self–evident.
For one thing, Loury bases his analysis on a highly questionable version of black history, especially in light of his earlier work. He asserts repeatedly that pathological behaviors among poor blacks are direct legacies of slavery and its aftermath, arguing that “the self–limiting patterns of behavior among poor blacks are not a product of some alien cultural imposition on a pristine Euro–American canvas. . . . [They] evolved in tandem with American political and economic institutions.” The result is that “opportunity to acquire productivity is unequally available to the members of distinct racial groups.” The implication here is that the underclass both developed and persists because of the “enigma of the stigma.”
Loury’s concern with the underclass is certainly justified. Even in his earlier work, Loury was never one to dismiss the ills of the ghetto with impatient calls for its residents to get up, brush themselves off, and “come early and stay late.” In retrospect, the eventual parting of the ways between Loury and Shelby Steele is unsurprising given Steele’s comparative lack of interest in the underclass question in The Content of Our Character. But at the same time, I always cherished Loury’s earlier work for his rejection of the notion that because of the occasional passing “racist” slight, “the tragedy of black America” encompassed the lives of the legions of middle–class black people like myself, whom the civil rights revolution had granted an existence unthinkable to my ancestors. At some points in his new book, Loury holds to his past views: “I have no need here for the exaggerated and indefensible assumption that stigma hampers social advancement for all blacks—universally and to the same degree.”
In other words, most blacks have managed to better their economic and social condition, despite racial “stigma.” Yet Loury’s historical analysis of the underclass misses the implication of this admission: namely, that the stigma, though it is real, is not as decisive a problem as he claims. It won’t do to dismiss most of black America as an “exception.” More likely, some factor beyond the stigma has been at work with those left behind, and the job of black intellectuals and academics today must be to venture beyond blaming residual racism to identify this underlying factor.
When Loury writes that the behavior of the underclass in the ghettoes of America is a result of “structures of human development that are biased because of a history of deprivation and racial oppression,” he implies that the violence, illegitimacy, crime, and desolation of today’s inner cities can be traced back directly to slavery and Reconstruction. Yet as he surely knows, the poor black ghettos of pre–1965 America were largely stable communities. There were certainly drugs (as depicted in Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, for example), but they hardly dominated and decimated the inner cities until the 1970s. Loury considers Orlando Patterson’s linkage of inner city illegitimacy rates to patterns etched under slavery as “persuasive.” But the two–parent family, while by no means universal, was the norm even in poor black communities until the 1960s. Meanwhile, black employment rates nationwide were on the rise in the 1960s, before welfare policies were expanded.
Loury is certainly aware of these facts. But his new ideological commitment seems to have distracted him from what these facts indicate: that the unique horror of today’s inner city is due less to slavery’s legacy than to the rise of the New Left in the 1960s.
Black Power ideology taught many blacks that opposition to mainstream norms was a mark of authentic “blackness,” while whites, now guilty about the past, mistook pity for uplift and tempted black America with free rides (expanded AFDC policies) and lowered standards (racial preferences) that discouraged millions of black people from trying their hardest, or even from having any way of learning what serious effort entails. Thankfully, millions of black people transcended the new culture of pity and now constitute a large and growing black middle class. But human individuals vary in aspiration and capability, and so it is no surprise that a substantial number of blacks came to believe what the New Left told them and became trapped in the culture of poverty unintentionally produced by social programs constructed by guilty whites. The result was the black “underclass,” which now perpetuates itself, as cultures are wont to do.
This suggests that what stands between the underclass and achievement today—why these people are so disinclined to “come early and stay late”—is less a stigma imposed from the outside than cultural resistance to positive engagement with American society. Such an interpretation was once a cornerstone of Loury’s writings. He persuasively argued that white pity had reinforced the problems it had intended to solve, and that while the government owed blacks some assistance in bettering themselves, the underclass would be forever lost without rekindling the self–direction and inner strength of its members.
But that was then. In his new book, Loury limits acceptable explanations to social obstacles:
One can show that the rewards accruing to the members of the disadvantaged group, given their productivity, are lower than the rewards garnered by others. Or one can show that, owing to processes unrelated to their innate capabilities, members of the disadvantaged racial group lack opportunity to realize their productive potential.
Acknowledgments of the conservative philosophy he once espoused are rare and dismissive:
Hence, while there may be a grain of truth in the insistence by conservatives that cultural differences lie at the root of racial disparity in the United States, the deeper truth is that, for some three centuries now, political, social, and economic institutions that by any measure must be seen as racially oppressive have distorted the communal experience of the slaves and their descendants.
One longs for Loury to seriously address the conservative positions he once espoused, if even to refute them. Instead he says:
We would never tell the antagonists in a society divided by religion to desist from worshiping their false god. But this, in effect, is what many critics today are saying to black Americans who simply refuse to “get over it.”
But isn’t the greatest of all false gods the assumption that a people can only achieve in the absence of “stigma”? After all, stigma has not held back most black families since the Civil Rights Act. It is also germane that the underclass, a highly segregated community, interacts much less frequently with whites than middle–class blacks do and thus would presumably be less subject to the subtle effects of “discrimination in contact.” Nowhere does Loury demonstrate that the attempts of poor blacks to better themselves are thwarted by “reward bias.”
The view that a residual and covert racism is as urgent a tragedy as the overt and legally sanctioned discrimination of the past is based less on facts and evidence than post–1960s ideological faith, as Elizabeth Lasch–Quinn so brilliantly showed in her sadly underacknowledged Race Experts, published last fall. Loury often dismisses the liberal individualist argument as “simplistic,” but I fear that his approach to history is subject to the same charge.
Equally problematic is Loury’s related claim that stigma is maintained through low expectations of blacks becoming self–fulfilling prophecies. This analysis applies flawlessly to the position of blacks under slavery, and even for the hundred years following their emancipation. But applied to modern America, it generates as many questions as answers. Loury gives the hypothetical example of an employer who presumes that blacks are less competent and thus takes special notice of the mistakes of black employees. The excessive negative feedback in turn teaches blacks that hard work is unrewarded. Hence they learn to underperform, which only serves to reinforce the stigma. The same kind of pattern applies in the instance of taxi drivers in New York City routinely passing by black men for fear of being robbed. As a result, law–abiding black men stop riding in cabs, thereby increasing the percentage of riders who hail cabs in order to rob them. Thus the stigma is reinforced, and so on.
This analysis of racial stigma is nimble but no more than suggestive; it begs for careful, extended argument. I was at first intrigued, and anticipated that Loury would provide scholarly, or even journalistic, support to back up his claims. But instead he presents these and two other cases of stigma as mere hypotheticals of his own fashioning. This is especially problematic given that liberals frequently attack the use of mere “anecdote” in the arguments of black conservatives. This is a charge frequently leveled at my Losing the Race: Self–Sabotage in Black America, for example. And indeed, one of the best things about Loury’s past work is that he usually avoided sensationalistic stories in favor of sober, rational analysis. I am thus disappointed to see him basing one of the linchpins of his argument on speculative surmises of this kind.
The stigma may have begun with unjust preconceptions of Africans and slaves on the part of whites, but today we are a long way from Dred Scott, and current circumstances for black Americans are simply more complex than Loury allows. Today, blacks themselves contribute in important ways to reinforcing the stigma by embracing a post–civil rights “oppositional identity.” To be sure, blacks would not have taken so readily to this emotional crutch if they had not been brought here as slaves and treated wretchedly for centuries, and the trope has been sadly reinforced by public policies and social conventions motivated more by pity than respect. But the fact remains that the troubles of inner–city blacks cannot so easily be reduced to an analysis of white bias.
For instance, Loury believes that the prosecutorial focus on drug sales among poor blacks is merely a product of stigma. His evidence is that drug enforcement officials pay less attention to drug use among white middle–class youth. However, the fact remains that the sentencing laws on drug sales were toughened as a response to the hideous violence that plagued the drug trade in the inner cities during the 1980s—and that at the time the change was heartily supported by the Congressional Black Caucus. When it comes to drug policy, there is a significant difference between white teens selling each other drugs to use in their parents’ basements and gun–toting hoodlums terrorizing their neighborhoods in drug–trade turf wars.
Yes, the punishment for possession has proven overly punitive in some cases. But surely Loury doesn’t mean to argue that inner city black–on–black homicides have any substantial connection to “discrimination in contact” with whites. Most residents of inner cities wish the police would come down even harder on the dealers infesting their neighborhoods and have little interest in seeing limited law–enforcement resources redirected to suburban high schools in the name of equal treatment. Stigma, it seems, is considerably less crucial than Loury supposes. Do we not risk a certain self–indulgence in focusing so steadfastly on white attitudes when it is black people who are preying upon one another with such abandon in urban ghettos with nary a white person in sight?
Regardless of the many possible objections to his doing so, Loury focuses on the stigma throughout his book, and this leads to his most serious lapse. I have suggested that Loury’s argument is more a description than a prescription. Yet he wants it to be something more: he intends it as a new paradigm that will lead to future improvement for blacks. The problem, however, is that the notion of the stigma leads him to advocate self–contradictory proposals.
On the one hand, Loury argues that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for individuals to free themselves from group–based preconceptions. We are all, as he deftly puts it, “‘cognitive prisoners’ inside a symbolic world of our own unwitting construction.” Hence the inescapability of the stigma for black Americans. Yet on the other hand, Loury also believes we must attack and move beyond the stigma. But how can we do so when we are trapped in our “cognitive prisons”?
Loury proposes racial preferences in university admissions as an important element in any attempt to eliminate or at least diminish the stigma because it supposedly forces whites to interact with black students in high–achievement settings. “Teaching that ‘not all blacks think alike’ will be much easier when there are enough blacks around to show their diversity of thought,” he counsels. But surely Loury is aware that black opinion on college campuses rarely strays from the far left and that entire university bureaucracies exist for the sole purpose of inculcating the view that black people are eternal victims. Today there are few better ways for a white person to learn that all blacks think alike than to spend four years at a university. Moreover, Loury himself uses the current situation on college campuses as yet another illustration of the stigma in action; apparently colleges expect less of black students, which leads the students not to try as hard, which, in turn, only confirms the expectation. How continuing or expanding current policies will remedy this situation is somewhat less than clear.
The same dynamic affects his other practical proposals. Loury is incensed that America is so unmoved by the numbers of black men placed in prison by the so–called War on Drugs. But would it diminish the stigma if these men were allowed to stay on the streets plying their violent trade? Loury criticizes welfare reform for leaving poor blacks at risk of suffering unduly in recessions. But does he really mean to imply that the stigma would be less punishing if welfare had gone unreformed, and single women continued to be paid to have children out of wedlock? In his controversial review of the Thernstroms’ book, Loury memorably assailed the authors for blindness to the “pathos” of the black condition, and he has described his ideological conversion as stemming from a sense that his earlier writings did nothing to help his own people. But does he really believe that the mere exploration and acknowledgment of this pathos constitutes, in itself, a solution to black problems?
A New York Times Magazine article on Loury last January posed the important question of whether there was any ideological continuity between the old Loury and the new one. Having searched through his new book for a point of contact between the two positions, I have failed to find one. Nor can I identify any events over the past ten years to explain why he would find his new views more appropriate or constructive. On the contrary, virtually everyone acknowledges that welfare reform has contributed to improving underclass lives. Moreover, the proportion of blacks who are poor shrank constantly through the 1990s. Even the rates of black admission to UC Berkeley have risen every year since racial preferences were abolished there.
At the end of the day, I fear that Loury’s new position makes sense only in personal or emotional terms. I write this not to dwell sensationalistically on the ad hominem, but rather to give Loury his due. If it is true that neither recent developments in America nor any fundamental defect in Loury’s earlier work can provide an explanation for the significant changes in his views, we are left with two possibilities. Either Loury’s leftward lurch is an example of opportunism, or, as is much more likely, it arose from his inability or unwillingness to live with the vicious and persistent attacks by prominent members of the black community that black conservatives have to face on a daily basis.
I recall a party I attended several years ago, where there were several middle–class, college–educated blacks. As happens so often in such settings, the conversation drifted into race issues. When I brought up Shelby Steele’s book, a charming forty–something man with some involvement in black community affairs asserted that “the idea that the problem with black people is black people themselves—I’m sorry, but I just can’t accept that.” And, indeed, he couldn’t: throughout the rest of the conversation he refused to budge from the usual cavils about sentencing discrepancies regarding crack versus powdered cocaine, O. J. Simpson’s interracial marriage having been what rendered his murder case so riveting to America, Rodney King, and so forth. These aperçus were and are typical, and Loury has no doubt spent much of the past two decades enduring constant attacks from people of this persuasion for being a sellout to his race, for encouraging whites to “take us back to the past.” Nothing infuriates such critics more than the thought that an educated black man of influence would stray beyond the accepted script of reminding whites that “America is still a deeply racist country.”
My sense that Loury’s new line has been constructed to assuage precisely this sort of person is based on the fact that he now carefully avoids engagement with any obstacle to black achievement rooted in black culture itself. Such avoidance is the hallmark of mainstream black writing and scholarship and so would normally warrant little attention. But Loury once thought, and wrote, differently. In lieu of a substantive explanation for the change, we can only assume he has capitulated to his critics.
I find it hard to believe that Loury, with his crystal–clear capacity for perception and argument, is unaware of the fragilities in his reconstructed stance. More likely, he has made a decision to split the difference between intelligent engagement with the facts of the black American experience and his own hunger for social belonging.
To be sure, Loury presents his new ideology as an academic social scientist rather than as a polemicist. He writes that stigma begins with “rational statistical inference in the presence of limited information,” which results in “feedback effects on the behavior of individuals,” followed by “a resulting convention.” Nor does he follow the leftist agenda slavishly; he is, for example, opposed to reparations to blacks because of slavery.
But at the same time, there can be no denying that Loury’s new position will appeal primarily to the legions of black academics, community leaders, school board members, journalists, and ordinary citizens who orient their lives around an all–encompassing suspicion of “The Man,” and who will treasure The Anatomy of Racial Inequality for “telling it like it is.”
It is primarily these people who, for over three decades now, have done their best to convince black America that its most urgent task should be to teach whites that black problems are entirely a function of historical legacy and that residual racism does as much, if not more, harm as overt discrimination once did. But this position, which Loury so cogently countered in his earlier work, has produced little but blustery rhetoric. In the real world of America today, black success stories are legion, and for the most part they come about through good old–fashioned hard work and inner strength. They certainly do not have the character of a victory snatched out of the jaws of defeat. For most of these everyday heroes of everyday life, residual white racism is a minor nuisance that they overcome by keeping their eyes on the prize; it is not an omnipresent force that occupies their every waking hour. While the left continues to wait for the redemption of total revolution, most blacks continue to rise through the ranks of American society, thriving in spite of black activist ideology, not because of it.
None of this is meant to suggest that blacks ought to adopt a hard–right ideology. Rather, what we need is black intellectuals to chart a coherent and constructive pathway between ideological extremes. That the leftist position alone will not help us seems clear from how little the likes of Jesse Jackson and Maxine Waters have done to improve the lives of the blacks who need it most, not to mention the devastation that open–ended welfare policies have wrought in cities across the nation. Instead, we must combine the ideologies of the right and left to fashion creative solutions to concrete social and cultural problems. The manifest success of welfare reform should serve as a model, since it managed to combine the liberal insistence on a basic economic safety net with the conservative demand that individual initiative be fostered by strict time limits designed to encourage people to enter the work force.
Loury himself claims that his new position represents a moderate, “independent” view. But this is frankly unconvincing. A theory of race fixated on the subtle “stigma” from which blacks are forced to suffer has, inadvertently or not, adopted a core assumption of the ideological left. It has chosen to proclaim the impotence of individuals and emphasize the determinative force of social conditioning. And it has done so while dismissing the most useful arguments on the right for insufficient racial sensitivity.
I sincerely believe that in a hundred years the peculiar obsession of late–twentieth–century American scholars of race with black “stigma” will be seen for the unfortunate and distracting detour that it is. By then black thinkers will, one hopes, have come to see that, while the pigment is not a mere figment, African–Americans possess far more power as individuals than they do as a group fixated on the injustices of the past. Regretfully, Glenn Loury’s new book does little to promote this much–needed shift in thinking toward political synthesis. I genuinely hope that in his future projects he might temper his current fixation on historical obstacles to black progress with the considerable wisdom—not to mention the courage—contained in his earlier writings. It should go without saying that few scholars in America are better equipped for the task.
ohn McWhorter is Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Losing the Race: Self–Sabotage in Black America and The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language.
Glenn C. Loury
In The Anatomy of Racial Inequality I aim to do three things: outline a theory of race applicable to the social and historical circumstances of the United States; sketch an account of why racial inequality in our society is so stubbornly persistent; and offer a conceptual framework for the practice of social criticism on race–related issues that might encourage reflection among our political and intellectual elite, and in this way promote social reform. These objectives are subsumed, respectively, in successive chapters of my book entitled “Racial Stereotypes,” “Racial Stigma,” and “Racial Justice.” Jorge Garcia takes issue with me at every step of this program. Although I am convinced that he is wrong and I am right about the points in contention, I am profoundly grateful to Professor Garcia for his close reading of, and intellectually serious engagement with, my text.
Any theory of race, it seems to me, must explain the fact that people take note of and assign significance to superficial markings on the bodies of other human beings—their skin color, hair texture, facial bone structure, and so forth. This practice is virtually universal in human societies. Scientists have conjectured that it has a deep neurological foundation. So this is the point of departure for my analysis. I refer to a society as being “raced” when its members routinely partition the field of human subjects whom they encounter in that society into groups, and when this sorting convention is based on the subjects’ possession of some cluster of observable bodily marks. This leads to my claim that, at bottom, “race” is all about “embodied social signification.”
Let us call this the social–cognitive approach to thinking about race. It may be usefully contrasted with an approach derived from the science/art of biological taxonomy. There one endeavors to classify human beings on the basis of natural variation in genetic endowments across geographically isolated sub–populations. Such isolation was a feature of the human condition until quite recently (on an evolutionary time scale), and it permitted some independence of biological development within sub–populations that can be thought to have led to the emergence of distinct races. When philosophers such as Jorge Garcia or Anthony Appiah deny the reality of “race” they have in mind this biological–taxonomic notion, and what they deny is that meaningful distinctions among contemporary human subgroups can be derived in this way. Whether they are right or not would appear to be a scientific question.1 But, whatever the merits of this dispute, it is important to understand that the validity of racial classification as an exercise in biological taxonomy is conceptually distinct from the validity (and relevance) of my concern with racial categorization as an exercise in social–cognition.
Moreover, and this too is absolutely critical, to establish the scientific invalidity of racial taxonomy demonstrates neither the irrationality nor the immorality of adhering to a social convention of racial classification. We can adopt the linguistic convention that when saying, “person A belongs to race X” what we mean is that “person A possesses physical traits which (in a given society, at a fixed point in history, under the conventions of racial classification extant there and then) will cause him to be classified (by a preponderance of those he encounters in that society and/or by himself) as belonging to race X.” This is a pragmatic judgment on my part, not an a priori logical claim. That is, I hold this view because the social convention of thinking about other people and about ourselves as belonging to different races is such a longstanding and deeply ingrained one in our political culture that it has taken on a life of its own. Thus, for students of the history and political economy of the modern multiracial nation–state like me, the logical exercise of deconstructing racial categories by trying to show that nothing “real” lies behind them is largely beside the point.
This point of view is supported by the theory of “self–confirming stereotypes” that I advance in the book. My point here is a subtle one, and I am not sure that Garcia grasps it. Imagine people who believe that fluctuations of the stock market can be predicted by changes in sunspot activity. They might do so because, as an objective meteorological matter, sunspots correlate with rainfall, which influences crop yields, thus affecting the economy. Or, solar radiation might somehow influence the human psyche so as to alter how people behave in securities markets. These are objective causal links between sunspots and stock prices. They can be likened to grounding one’s cognizance of race on the validity of a race–based biological taxonomy. But suppose that no objective links of this kind between sunspots and stock prices exist. Even so, if enough people believe in the connection, monitor conditions on the sun’s surface, and act based on how they anticipate security prices will be affected, then a real link between these evidently disparate phenomena will have been forged out of the subjective perceptions of stock market participants. That is, belief in the financial relevance of sunspot activity will have been rendered entirely rational.
Similarly, no objective racial taxonomy need be valid for the subjective use of racial classifications to become warranted. It is enough that influential social actors hold schemes of racial classification in their minds and act on those schemes. Their methods of classification may be mutually inconsistent, and they may be unable to give a cogent justification for adopting their schemes. But once a person knows that others in society will classify him on the basis of certain markers, and should these acts of classification affect his material or psychological well–being, then it will be a rational cognitive stance—not a belief in magic and certainly not a moral error—for him to think of himself as being “raced.” In turn, that he thinks of himself in this way, and that his societal peers are inclined to classify him similarly, can provide a compelling reason for a newcomer to the society to adopt this ongoing scheme of racial classification. Learning the extant “language” of embodied social signification is a first step toward assimilation of the foreigner, or the newborn, into any “raced” society.
I thus conclude that races, in the social–cognitive sense, may come to exist and be reproduced over the generations in a society, even though there may exist no races in the biological–taxonomic sense. So while I accept Garcia’s point that calling attention to the social practice of racial classification cannot resolve a scientific dispute on the existence of races, I continue to insist that, for the purpose of understanding how race operates in the American social hierarchy, my “embodied social signification” viewpoint is both logically coherent and analytically useful.
I suspect the foregoing will not convince Garcia, and I think I know why. He is an ethicist, keen to move from the cognitive to a normative discourse. He wants to say, I infer from his argument here, that there is something “wrong” with seeing others (or, for that matter, oneself) in racial terms—with preferring to associate with people because of their racial identities, with feeling obligated to co–racialists, and so on. Just as one might think it wrong to punish people (witches) for the crime of being “the devil’s handmaiden” when in point of fact no people actually are, so too one might think it wrong to condition one’s dealings with others on the basis of “race” when, in point of fact, there are no (biological–taxonomic) “races.” If there are no races, then what possible justification can there be for the embrace of racial identity? My view is that the existence of races (in the biological–taxonomic sense) and the ethics of the practice of racial classification are largely distinct problems. What is more, I do not think we can get at the latter problem by interrogating the human heart, one person at a time. It is a mistake, in my view, to judge the propriety of social conventions in terms of whether individuals behave virtuously or viciously when they elect to comply with those conventions. To be taken seriously, an ethical critique of race–based thinking must get beneath (or behind) the cognitive acts of individual persons and investigate the structure of social relations within which those individuals operate.
This brings me to the topic of racial stigma—the central innovative concept in my book. Garcia charges that I am unclear about my meaning here, and John McWhorter sees me as reiterating, in a slightly modified form, the tired liberal charge that blacks do not succeed because whites are guilty of moral malfeasance. Both charges are groundless. To reiterate, my basic approach to the problem of racial inequality is cognitive, not normative. I eschew use of the word “racism” not to avoid sounding like an outdated civil rights leader, but because the word is imprecise. More useful, I think, is my core concept—“biased social cognition.” McWhorter certainly, and Garcia to a lesser extent, misunderstand my intent here. Racial stigma is not a bludgeon with which I hope to beat “whitey” into political submission. It does not refer to “sinister” thoughts in the heads of white people. Nor is it an invitation to passivity for blacks. Rather, what I am doing with this concept is trying to move from the fact that people take note of racial classification in the course of their interactions with one another to some understanding of how this affects their perceptions of the phenomena they observe in the social world around them, and how it shapes their explanations of those phenomena.
Given the evident sensitivity of racial discourse, it is perhaps best if I make the point with a nonracial example. So consider gender inequality, disparity in social outcomes for boys and girls, in two different venues—schools and jails. Suppose that, when compared to girls, boys are overrepresented among those doing well in math and science in the schools, and also among those doing poorly in society at large by ending up in jail. There is some evidence to support both suppositions, but only the first is widely perceived to be a problem for public policy. Why? My answer is that it offends our basic intuition about the propriety of underlying social processes that boys and girls do differentially well in the technical curriculum. Although we may not be able to put our fingers on exactly why this outcome occurs, we instinctively know that it is not right. In the face of the disparity we are inclined to interrogate our institutions—to search the record of our social practice and examine myriad possibilities in order to see where things might have gone wrong. Our baseline expectation is that equality should prevail here. Our moral sensibility is offended when it does not. And so, an impetus to reform is spurred. We cannot easily envision a wholly legitimate sequence of events that would produce the disparity, so we set ourselves the task of solving a problem.
Gender disparity in rates of imprisonment, on the other hand, occasions no such disquiet. This is because, tacitly if not explicitly, we are “gender essentialists.” That is, we think boys and girls are different in some ways relevant to explaining the disparity—different either in their biological natures, or in their deeply ingrained socializations. (Note that the essentialism with which I am concerned need not be based solely or even mainly in biology. It can be grounded in [possibly false] beliefs about profound cultural difference as well.) As gender essentialists, our intuitions are not offended by the fact of vastly higher rates of imprisonment among males than females. We seldom ask any deeper questions about why this disparity has come about. And so we see no problem.
Now, we may be right or wrong to act as we do in these gender disparity matters. My point is simply that the bare facts of gender disparity do not, in themselves, suggest any course of action. To act, we must marry the facts to some model of social causation. This model need not be explicit in our minds. It can and usually will lurk beneath the surface of our conscious reflections. Still, it is the facts plus the model that lead us to perceive, or not perceive, a given circumstance as indicative of some as yet undiagnosed failing in our social interactions. This kind of reflection on the deeper structure of our social–cognitive processes as they bear on the issues of racial disparity is what I had hoped to encourage with my discussion of “biased social cognition.” And the role of race in such processes is what I am alluding to when I talk about “racial stigma.”
To show how the argument goes, I would like to invoke a thought experiment not unlike the ones I analyze at length in my book. For some reason, McWhorter thinks that these are “anecdotes,” and he accuses me of playing fast and loose with the facts. He grossly misunderstands me. Hypotheticals and counterfactuals are commonplace in both philosophy and social theory; they convey general conceptual distinctions in the context of a larger analytical development. That is how I use them in my book.
So, imagine that an observer (correctly) takes note of the fact that, on average and all else being equal, commercial loans to blacks pose a greater risk of default, or that black residential neighborhoods are more likely to decline. This may lead the observer to withhold credit from blacks, or to move away from any neighborhood when more than a few blacks move into it. But what if race conveys this information only because, when a great number of observers expect it to do so and act on that expectation, the result (through some possibly complex chain of social causation) confirms their beliefs? Perhaps blacks default more often precisely because they have trouble getting further extensions of credit in the face of a crisis. Or perhaps nonblack residents panic at the arrival of a few blacks, selling their homes too quickly and below the market value to lower–income (black) buyers, and it is this process that ends up promoting neighborhood decline.
If under such circumstances observers were to attribute racially disparate behaviors to deeply ingrained (biological or cultural) limitations of African–Americans—thinking, say, that blacks do not repay their loans or take care of their property because, for whatever reasons, they are just less responsible people on average—then these observers might well be mistaken. But because their supposition about blacks is supported by hard evidence, they might well persist in the error.2 Such an error, persisted in, would be of great political moment, because if one attributes an endogenous difference (a difference produced within a system of interactions) to an exogenous cause (a cause located outside that system), then one is unlikely to see any need for systemic reform. This distinction between endogenous and exogenous sources of social causation, I am arguing, is the key to understanding the difference in our reformist intuitions about gender inequalities in schools and in jails. That is, because we think the disparity in school outcomes stems from endogenous sources, while the disparity of jail outcomes is tacitly attributed in most of our “causal models” to exogenous sources, we respond to the disparities in different ways.
So when I talk about “racial stigma” and employ an apparently loaded phrase like “biased social cognition,” I do so because these terms allow us to see how the disadvantageous position of a racially defined population subgroup can be the product of a system of social interactions and not some quality intrinsic to the group. I reiterate that it hardly matters whether those intrinsic qualities mistakenly seen as the source of a group’s lowly status are biological or cultural.
href="#text3">3 What matters, I argue, is that something has gone wrong if observers fail to see systemic, endogenous interactions that lead to bad social outcomes for blacks, and instead attribute those results to exogenous factors taken as internal to the group in question. My contention—and neither Garcia nor McWhorter offers argument or evidence to refute it—is that in American society, when the group in question is blacks, the risk of this kind of causal misattribution is especially great.
I believe the disparate impact of the enforcement of anti–drug laws offers a telling illustration of the value in this way of thinking. Garcia disagrees. The sellers of drugs are more deeply involved in serious crime than are buyers, he says, and anyone with a moral sense knows that serious criminals deserve incarceration. Without necessarily disputing either of these claims, here is what I actually believe on this question: there can be no drug market without sellers and buyers. (Just so, there would be no street prostitution without hookers and johns.) Typically, those on the selling side of such markets are more deeply involved in crime and disproportionately drawn from the bottom rungs of society. When we entertain an alternative response to the social malady reflected in drug use (or in street prostitution), we must weight the costs likely to be imposed upon the people involved. Our tacit models of social causation will play a role in this process of evaluation. To ruin a college student’s life because of a drug buy, or a businessman’s reputation because of a pick–up in the red light district, may strike us as far more costly than to send a young thug to Riker’s Island, or to put a floozy in the slammer.
One consequence of racial stigma, I suggest, is that because those bearing the brunt of the cost of our punitive response to the broad social malady of drug usage are disproportionately black, our society is less impelled to examine possible bias in this area of policy, and to consider reform. I could be wrong about this, but the speculation is certainly not implausible. How “serious” a given crime is seen to be in the minds of those who through their votes indirectly determine our policies, and how “deserved” the punishment for a given infraction, can depend on the racial identities of the parties involved. This, I am holding, is human nature. There need be nothing “sinister” in any of it. But if we want to analyze what is going on around us, and not merely moralize about it, we will want to take such possibilities seriously.
That is what I see myself as doing. I use the theory of biased social cognition that I have just sketched to argue that durable racial inequality can best be understood as the outgrowth of a series of “vicious circles of cumulative causation.” Tacit association of “blackness” with “unworthiness” in the American public’s imagination affects cognitive processes and promotes essentialist causal misattributions. Confronted by the facts of racially disparate achievement, the racially disproportionate transgression of legal strictures, and racially unequal development of productive potential, observers will have difficulty identifying with the plight of a group of people whom they (mistakenly) think are simply “reaping what they have sown.” So there will be little public support for egalitarian policies benefiting a stigmatized racial group. This, in turn, encourages the reproduction through time of racial inequality because, absent some policies of this sort, the low social conditions of many blacks persist, the negative social meanings ascribed to blackness are thereby reinforced, and so the racially biased social–cognitive processes are reproduced, completing the circle.
What is more, I argue that this situation constitutes a gross historical injustice in American society. Again, Garcia disagrees. He thinks we act legitimately to reduce racial equality only when we are moved by a desire to promote comity and community, but not when we are pursuing “racial justice.” He praises me for my opposition to slavery reparations, but takes me to task for seeing racial inequalities on the scale so evident in contemporary American life as a problem of justice. Yet these two positions are very closely linked. In my view, present racial inequality is a problem of justice because it has its root in past unjust acts that were perpetrated on the basis of race. I see past racial injustice as establishing a general presumption against indifference to present racial inequality.
To see why this matters, suppose it could be shown that a posture of official public indifference to racial inequality would enhance our comity and community. (So, it would seem, many advocates of a “color–blind” America believe.) Even if this were the case, I would still urge that some efforts to reduce racial inequality would be warranted. However, those efforts should not be conceived in terms of “correcting” or “balancing” for historical violation. This is what leads me to reject reparations. In my view, although the quantitative attribution of causal weight to distant historical events required by reparations advocacy is not workable, one can still support qualitative claims.
Reparations advocates conceive the problem of our morally problematic racial history in compensatory terms. By contrast, I see the problem in interpretative terms. That is, I seek public recognition of the severity, and (crucially) the contemporary relevance, of what has transpired. The goal is to encourage a common basis of historical memory—a common narrative—through which the past racial injury and its continuing significance can enter into current policy discourse. What is required for racial justice, as I conceive it, is a commitment on the part of the public, the political elite, the opinion–shaping media, and so on to take responsibility for the plight of the urban black poor, and to understand this troubling circumstance as having emerged out of an ethically indefensible past. Such a commitment should, in my view, be open–ended and not contingent on demonstrating any specific lines of causality. Again, I could be wrong about this, though neither Garcia nor McWhorter gives argument or evidence to disabuse me of this view. And should a critic agree with my judgment here but prefer not to use the word “justice” in reference to it, that would be a matter of little consequence.
I turn now from the argument of my book to a consideration of the larger political context into which my argument has been injected. John McWhorter thinks The Anatomy of Racial Inequality marks a “coming out” for me as some kind of leftist after my many years of faithful service on the conservative side of this question—the side that he favors. This, I fear, is a gross mischaracterization. This book is an exercise in social theory, not in polemics, and anyone who spends five minutes perusing it will see as much. My goal with this exercise has been to understand something of how race, racial identity, and racial classification work in the social life of this nation. Any such endeavor self–consciously undertaken as an expression of political ideology is bound to fail. There are literatures in economics, sociology, and social psychology to which I hope to contribute with this work. I cannot be sure I have succeeded—this is up to my scholarly peers to decide. But the one thing I am certain of is that in the writing of this book I have had no political agenda.
McWhorter perceives a harrowing psychodrama in which the “good” (conservative) Loury becomes “possessed” by some “bad” (left–leaning author of this book) Loury. If what the Loury writing in 2002 has to say about racial inequality differs from the views of Loury writing in 1985, McWhorter can envision only two explanations: either the latter–day Loury is an opportunist shifting his views to curry favor and advance his career; or, he is an emotional wreck, exhausted from doing battle with the civil rights establishment. McWhorter has the temerity, the audacity, to write: “By the late 1990s, a series of personal crises began to lead Loury to question his earlier views.”
How on earth would he (or anyone, for that matter) know that, and what is such uninformed psychological speculation doing in a book review? I very much regret that John McWhorter has drawn me into such an ad hominem discussion, in the pages of a journal of ideas on whose editorial advisory board I have served for nearly a decade, but so be it. The “crises” to which he refers occurred in the 1980s, fifteen years before the publication of this book, and many years before I left the conservative camp. I have been speaking publicly and writing critically on race–related matters since 1982. If the heat of controversy was going to prove too much for me, why didn’t this happen in the early 1980s when I aligned myself with the Reagan Administration, or in the late 1980s when I was publicly humiliated by “personal crises,” or in the early 1990s when a centrist Democratic administration might have opened its doors to me? In short, McWhorter’s narrative is an irrelevant piece of fiction that tells the reader a good deal more about him (the happy warrior, hacking away on the frontlines of the Kulturkampf), and about the movement of which he is now a part, than it tells about me.
Moving along, what are we to make of his reaction to my argument? In a word, it lacks cogency. Item: I do not argue that people view others in society through the lens of the scientific paradigms made famous by Thomas Kuhn. Rather, I hold that people adopt modes of learning about the underlying causes of social outcomes that, in their lack of a fully rational cognitive foundation, may be usefully likened to what Kuhn proposed about the way scientific communities assimilate new theories. Item: I do not say that people form their beliefs based on their desire to belong to one community or another. Rather, I hypothesize that if we are to understand how people acquire the mechanisms of symbolic expression peculiar to the communities in which they are embedded we must consider the meaning of their relations with others in those communities. Item: I do not suggest that the tendency toward social generalization leads blacks to suffer from “reward bias.” To the contrary, I explicitly state that such bias is no longer a major factor in accounting for black disadvantage.4 On the evidence at hand, I am forced to conclude that McWhorter does not comprehend the argument of my book.
Despite these misunderstandings, he thinks my theory “solid,” and perhaps I should be thankful for small favors. But the honeymoon is short–lived! He turns sour on Chapter Three, where I give racial stigma a central role in my thinking, thereby promoting the idea, he thinks, that “history is destiny” for black people. But this is just more confusion. It is an empirical question answerable by social science as to whether or not the racial stigma that I have discussed here is an important impediment to blacks’ social advancement. In contrast, it is a moral and philosophical question—even an existential/spiritual matter—answerable by reference to the values and traditions of black American people as to whether this or any other obstacle we might encounter along life’s path should be seen as fundamentally determining our destinies. An analysis of the social–structural factors impeding black progress need not be a counsel of passivity. To the contrary, such an analysis is the essential first step in any program of rational action.
McWhorter accuses me of quietly endorsing leftist positions because he imagines some leftists may agree with what I have written. He actually thinks this is a reason to reject my argument. Continuing in this vein, he tars me with the brush of association with the hated Jesse Jackson (why not up the ante and make it Al Sharpton?) simply because I used a phrase with a pithy rhyme, as Jackson is wont to do. He thinks that I have forgotten what I used to know about the history of black people, and particularly about the origins of the underclass. And what is this forgotten truth? It is that the tragic conditions in today’s ghettos are “due less to slavery’s legacy than to the rise of the New Left in the 1960s.”
I most certainly have not “forgotten” this purported truth about black American history. I never knew any such thing, for the good and sufficient reason that it is not true. Black power ideology led to an oppositional culture in the ghettos, McWhorter says. Guilt–ridden whites gave the black poor free handouts with AFDC programs that paid them to have children and lured them into dependency. Racial preferences kept black students from ever learning what serious effort entails. Concerning this cartoon version of American social history, my reaction is best captured in the phrase made famous by Howard Beale, the “mad prophet of the airwaves” in the film Network: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!”
Indeed, it was this kind of mindless sloganeering about the serious problems afflicting poor black people that drove me from the conservative ranks in the first place, in defense of my own intellectual integrity. Missing from McWhorter’s underclass morality tale are a few factors that most social historians rightly find to be significant: deindustrialization in the “rust belt” cities; a huge, relatively low–skilled immigration quickening competition at the labor market’s bottom rungs; fierce resistance by working–class whites to housing and school integration for decades after segregation had been legally proscribed; technological innovations such as the birth control pill, which helped to alter sexual mores across the class structure, and crack cocaine, which, along with the easy availability of guns, changed life in inner cities across America; the demolishing of low–rent housing through slum clearance and replacement of these units with massive high–rise public housing projects sited exclusively in black residential districts. One could go on in this vein, but this should suffice to make my point: he who thinks the underclass is the product of a bunch of 1960’s moral relativists knows not what he is talking about.
Were McWhorter to take a glance at the wealth of historical scholarship on the roots of social decay in American cities (Tom Sugrue’s prize–winning study of Detroit in the quarter century after World War II, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, is a good place to start), he would discover just how superficial and tendentious his characterization appears. The greatest of the “black power ideologues” was the Nation of Islam’s Malcolm X—a puritan on cultural matters. If the family values, work ethic, and concern with self–improvement on display at the 1995 Million Man March give any indication of what an “oppositional culture” can produce, then such “opposition” can hardly explain poor social performance among black people. Real welfare payments fell continually for a quarter century between 1970 and the advent of welfare reform, even as the size of the ghetto underclass constantly grew. If paying women to have babies led to black welfare dependency, then did they elect to increase their “supply of babies” as the pay rate fell? Race preferences at the college level affected a minuscule fraction of black students until well into the 1980s, and even now reach only a minority (since three–fifths of American colleges and universities admit all who apply and meet minimal qualifications). How, then, could this set of policies account for the behavior of millions of black students?
Having gotten that off my chest, let me now make a confession. I think I know where the animus in McWhorter’s review is coming from, and I admit that I am partly to blame. He, along with many of my former comrades, is disappointed in and confused about my current position, and for good reason: I seem now to be contradicting some of the most powerful arguments that I advanced against racial liberalism in the past. Thus, ten years ago, in the pages of this very journal, I wrote the following:
It is time to recognize that further progress toward the attainment of equality for black Americans, broadly and correctly understood, depends most crucially at this juncture on the acknowledgment and rectification of the dysfunctional behaviors which plague black communities, and which so offend and threaten others. Recognize this, and much else will follow. It is more important to address this matter effectively than it is to agitate for additional rights. Indeed, success in such agitation has become contingent upon effective reform efforts mounted from within the black community. . . .
The [key] point . . . is [that] progress such as this must be earned, it cannot be demanded. . . . When the effect of past oppression is to leave a people in a diminished state, the attainment of true equality with the former oppressor cannot depend on his generosity, but must ultimately derive from an elevation of their selves above the state of diminishment. It is of no moment that historic wrongs may have caused current deprivation, for justice is not the issue here. The issues are dignity, respect, and self–respect—all of which are preconditions for true equality between any peoples. The classic interplay between the aggrieved black and the guilty white, in which the former demands and the latter conveys recognition of historic injustice, is not an exchange among equals. Neither, one suspects, is it a stable exchange. Eventually it may shade into something else, something less noble—into patronage, into a situation where the guilty one comes to have contempt for the claimant, and the claimant comes to feel shame, and its natural accompaniment, rage, at his impotence. (“Two Paths to Black Power,” FT, October 1992)
How, I imagine McWhorter, Garcia, and a great many others must be asking, can the man who wrote those words make racial stigma the central organizing principle of his “anatomy of racial inequality”? This is neither the time nor the place for me to fully address that question, but I can offer this partial reply. It is not inconsistent to hold that black parents are responsible for the values embraced by their children and simultaneously to hold that the nation also bears some responsibility for the suffering of the ghetto poor. Nor is it a contradiction to assert, at one and the same time, that profound behavioral problems afflict many black communities and that these maladies are no alien imposition on an otherwise pristine Euro–American canvas, but instead arise from economic and political structures indigenous to American society. Both can be true. And if both are true, the question becomes one of emphasis. While my emphasis has definitely changed, I have not repudiated my earlier claims.
The deeper issue, though, is the difficulty of coherently and effectively voicing both truths when one endeavors to practice social criticism in a “multiple audience” context. Whenever a black critic advances an argument for any kind of reform, he faces two audiences—a communal one and a civic one. The passage from 1992 quoted above was an exercise in social criticism directed, ironically, at black American intellectual and political leaders. (This is ironic because the piece was surely better known among and more widely cited by whites.) And my recently published book is an exercise in social criticism directed at the broad American elite as a whole. In 1992 I was preoccupied with the questions of dignity and self–respect for black people. These are inherently communal questions, which is not to say that only blacks can speak of such matters, or that blacks must speak only among themselves about them. But it is to acknowledge that, for the most part, they are matters where blacks must take the lead in defining the goals and managing the processes of moving toward them. But questions of social justice and fair opportunity are the fit subjects of a broader public discourse. And where the historical echoes of the racial subordination of African Americans continue to bear on such questions, we must not shrink from saying so.
The ultimate difficulty here is that, while self–development is an existential necessity for blacks as an ethnic community, its advocacy by black social critics in the larger civic discourse often undercuts the pursuit of racial justice, because people are authorized to see a problem of black culture instead of a problem of racial justice, when in fact both problems are there. (And, conversely, advocacy for racial justice can undercut communal reform by leading blacks to not see the culture problem.) This difficulty is reflected in the dual meaning of “we” implicit in the signature question I raise in my book: “What manner of people are we who accept such degradation in our midst?” There are two implied imperatives—getting the “cultural trains to run on time” in black communities, and addressing the structural legacy of generations of racial oppression—and they rest on very different grounds. Whereas the first draws on ties of blood, shared history, and common faith, the second endeavors to achieve an integration of the most wretched, despised, and feared of our fellows along with the rest of us into a single political community of mutual concern.
This problem is closely related to the age–old conundrum of reconciling individual and social responsibilities. We humans, while undertaking our life projects, find ourselves constrained by social and cultural influences beyond our control. Yet if we are to live effective and dignified lives, we must behave as if we can indeed determine our fates. Similarly, black Americans are constrained by the residual effects of an ugly history of racism. Yet seizing what the iconic black conservative Booker T. Washington once called “freedom in the larger and higher sense” requires that blacks accept responsibility for our own fate even though the effects of this immoral past remain with us. But our doing so cannot be allowed to excuse the nation from acknowledging a basic moral truth—one that transcends politics—which is that the citizens of this republic bear a responsibility to be actively engaged in changing the structures that constrain the black poor, so that they can more effectively exercise their inherent and morally required capacity to choose.
So, I was on a moral crusade in 1992. I am on a rather different quest now, but they are complementary, not contradictory, endeavors. Then I was sure that the biggest obstacle to incorporating the ghetto poor into the commonwealth was that their leaders had the wrong ideas. Now I think that was a mistake and I am laboring to correct the error. (Of course, some of these leaders still have bad ideas, but they are not alone in this.) As I say in the conclusion of my book, the role of a responsible black public intellectual today is to keep in play an awareness of the need for both communal and civic reforms, finding a way to make progress in either sphere complement that in the other.
Still, playing that role credibly is not easy. The larger currents of American public life inhibit nuance in discourse about race and social policy (by commentators of all races). Moreover, there is something inevitably emblematic about the role that a prominent black intellectual like myself plays in such discussions.5 This role of “tacit testifying” that black dissenters inevitably play when they publicly break ranks from their co–racialists accounts for why we tend to be so easily pigeonholed in, and are so willing to remain confined to, one ideological camp or the other. And it also helps to explain why when we change our minds, many people—liberals and conservatives alike—think they smell a rat. They are wrong.
1It is worth noting here that a number of distinguished modern scientists disagree with them. Steven Pinker of M.I.T., in his forthcoming book, The Blank Slate, stresses that races are not discrete, non–overlapping categories but nevertheless argues that what we perceive as race has some biological reality as a statistical concept. A similar position is adopted by geneticist James Crow and zoologist Ernst Mayr, both Fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, writing separately in the Winter 2002 issue of Daedalus.
2Oddly, Garcia chastises me for introducing the possibility through these thought experiments that there might be truth to stereotypical beliefs such as “black neighborhoods tend to decline.” He thinks the relevant analysis of racial stereotypes must expose the lack of virtue of those who persist in holding false generalizations about some group. But this is a willful misreading, one which I find difficult to understand since I write explicitly in my book (on page 24) that, while the common parlance definition of “stereotype” has a connotation of unreasonableness, a “stereotype being a false or too simplistic surmise about some group: ‘blacks are lazy,’ ‘Jews are cunning,’ and so on, this crude over–generalizing behavior . . . is not my subject. Rather, my model of stereotypes is designed to show the limited sense in which even ‘reasonable’ generalizations, those for which ample supporting evidence can be found, are fully ‘rational.’ I argue that such generalizations often represent instances of what I will refer to as ‘biased social cognition.’” Surely there is nothing shocking about this, nor can there be any doubt as to the relevance of my analysis of stereotypes (in the sense that I use the term) for understanding the problem of persistent racial inequality.
3Thus, Garcia’s distinction in this regard—between Charles Murray (who, he says, may be an essentialist, since Murray thinks blacks are intellectually inferior for genetic reasons), and Dinesh D’Souza (who, he says, couldn’t possibly be an essentialist, since he simply thinks that blacks are uncivilized)—is largely beside the point.
4McWhorter gets this part of my argument exactly backwards. According to him, I think development bias is no longer a problem for blacks, and believe a stigma–induced reward bias now limits black life–chances. Has he read the book? Here is what I write there: “Another name for the reward bias argument is discrimination. . . . I am not enthusiastic about this concept; I argue here that it should be . . . dislodged from its current prominent place in the conceptual discourse on racial inequality in American life [because of] . . . my conviction that racial discrimination, as an analytical category, cannot reach the problem of development bias. . . . And yet I see the development bias argument as the more promising one . . . for two reasons. In the first place, it explains the extent and durability of current racial inequality more effectively. But more important, the dilemmas of public morality created by racial inequality in the United States . . . can be fully illuminated only when the development bias problem is placed at center stage.” (Pages 93–94, emphasis added.)
5Consider how the race of the author has contributed to the credibility of the arguments in books like McWhorter’s Losing the Race: Self–Sabotage in Black America and Randall Kennedy’s recent Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. The importance of the authors’ race in these cases is due not so much to the possibility that he has access to inside information. Rather, the key point is that the argument’s legitimacy, not its accuracy, can be enhanced by an author’s race. (“Even some blacks can see that . . . ”) But legitimacy depends on what a reader can safely assume about an author’s motives. As a result, social criticism on race–related topics by black writers inescapably entails an ad hominem element.
Glenn C. Loury is University Professor, Professor of Economics, and Director of the Institute on Race and Social Division at Boston University.