One By One From the Inside OutBy Glenn C. Loury
Free Press 332 pages, $25
Subtitled “Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America,” this is one of the most refreshingly, albeit painfully, candid books on race to have appeared in many a year. (Two of the major essays appeared first in the pages of First Things .) Perhaps a book such as this could not have been written before now, before a critical mass of articulate black thinkers began to express their spirited dissent from the racial orthodoxies of the last thirty years. Not that Loury, a professor of economics at Boston University, can be easily subsumed into the category of “conservative black thinkers.” He is not conservative in the vein of, for instance, Thomas Sowell or Walter Williams. Nor is he a liberal pegged as a conservative because he dares dissent from political correctness in the manner of Shelby Steele or Stephen Carter. Glenn Loury is very much one of a kind.
About the time this book appeared, the New Yorker ran a long profile on Loury, asking whether he is the appropriate messenger of the gospel of self-help to black America. The question of Loury’s appropriateness, in the mind of the New Yorker , is at least twofold. First, he has for a number of years been known to be giving aid and comfort to that energetic band of intellectual entrepreneurs called neoconservatives. Second, there is the matter of his sordid personal history and, again in the mind of the New Yorker , his even more offputting convictions as a born-again Christian. This Loury person is not easy to peg.
Mickey Kaus of the New Republic has appreciatively reviewed the book while complaining that Loury seems caught in some of his own contradictions. For instance, says Kaus, Loury wants blacks to accept responsibility for their lives as individuals and not as members of a racial tribe, while he at the same time calls on middle-class blacks to act as though they are responsible for the tribe, especially those members of the tribe who are in the urban underclass. For another instance, says Kaus, Loury criticizes neoconservatives for not being committed to government programs aimed at helping those in poverty, while at the same time he brilliantly analyzes the futility and even iatrogenic harm of such programs. There is an element of justice in the points raised by Kaus and others.
To read carefully One By One , however, is to learn that such criticisms fail to get to the heart of who Loury is and what he is attempting to do. In some ways, Loury has recapitulated in his own life the ordeal of black-white tensions in our society. A bright kid with robust appetites, he found himself at an early age with a full professorship at Harvard, without even having published a book. Affirmative action? Of course, and Loury knows it, and knows that in the view of many it does not jibe with his stringent attacks on affirmative action as an utterly wrongheaded effort to achieve a discrimination-free society by practicing racial discrimination. Without wading too deep into psychological analysis (although Loury gives permission to do so), these inner conflicts had everything to do with a Harvard professor who, feeling simultaneously condescended to and omnipotent, was doing drugs, was keeping a mistress whom he violently abused, and was generally living outside the rules binding upon ordinary mortals. After the great and (in retrospect) inevitable crash, he was lifted up from the bottom by amazing grace. Far from this discrediting him as a messenger, Glenn Loury can speak to blacks in trouble with the credibility of one who has been there. Or at least he speaks to some blacks in trouble.
To black academics, for example, and those who still go by the antiquated job category of “civil rights leader” Loury’s passionate concern is for the young men and women caught in the underclass, and his passionate anger is directed at putative leaders who refuse to acknowledge the trap, and thus strengthen its grip. He writes:
Since the late 1960s black American intellectuals and politicians have fallen prey to what amounts to a conspiracy of silence about the social and moral condition of the black lower classes. We have tolerated incompetence in the social and political institutions serving this population, because its source has been black. We have made excuses for and sometimes even glorified the supposedly rebellious actions of thugs, although those thugs have made poor black people their victims. We have strained our imaginations, and our fellow citizens’ credulity, to find apologies for the able-bodied, healthy, and intelligent young men who father children and then walk away from the responsibility to support them. We have listened in silence, or sometimes with enthusiastic encouragement, to middle-class young black men and women, at the best colleges and universities explain . . . their failure to make full use of the opportunities presented to them. In the name of racial loyalty, and in an effort to keep alive the sense of oppression that fueled the revolts of our youth, we have engaged in an almost criminal abdication of responsibility.
That is not the kind of talk likely to win an award from the NAACP. It is likely to earn, and indeed it has earned, Loury a reputation as an Uncle Tom in some circles-but people in those circles are increasingly on the defensive today. Loury knows it, and slowly but surely they are coming to know it. They have gone beyond straining the credulity of their fellow citizens. Their habit of attributing every black failure to white racism has made them appear both mendacious and unimaginative. Movies glorifying the Panthers and other assorted thugs still have a constituency, but it is small and growing smaller. White liberal guilt is a cultivated taste, and fewer people are making the effort. The black radical shuffle no longer intimidates, or at least it does not intimidate enough people to make it politically effective.
Yet weaving in and out of One By One is the author’s palpable anxiety that he not be misunderstood. There are racists out there, and he is determined not to give them aid and comfort. He does not want to be associated with conservatives (neo-or otherwise) who have, in his view, simply given up on black America, or at least on the bottom third of black America. It is an awful tangle in which he finds himself, but he must say what he must say:
Blacks have something to prove both to themselves and to white onlookers, many of whom may appear not to be particularly sympathetic. This is not fair; it is not right; but it is the way things are. Some conservatives are not above signaling, in more or less overt ways, their belief that blacks can never pass [the test of achievement by merit], and that there is little point in the rest of society bearing guilt for blacks’ failures. Some radical black nationalists are not above saying, increasingly more openly now, that blacks can never make it in “white America”-and so we should stop trying, go our own way, and maybe burn a few things down in the process. At bottom these two parties agree that the magnitude of the challenge facing blacks in this post-civil rights environment is beyond our capacities. What Shelby Steele and others (myself included) have been saying is that blacks can and must meet this challenge. In proving our capacity to do so we deserve the support of our fellow citizens, but petitioning for it cannot be the highest order of business for us when we are confronted by the more urgent task of developing ourselves, our families, and our communities in this new era of opportunity. It is for saying this that the barons of righteous social thought on racial matters, black and white, have condemned writers such as Steele [and, of course, Glenn Loury].
In One By One and his other writing, Loury is petitioning the rest of us for support. Almost certainly, more whites than blacks will read this book. But what precisely are we to support? That is the question of the above-mentioned Mickey Kaus. There is a better answer to it than Kaus suggests. Certainly Loury does not want us to support more of the same, or even the same, in terms of government interventions. But, if I read him rightly, Loury wants us to support his efforts and those of others who are speaking truth to the still dominant powers among black intellectuals and politicians. Such efforts give the lie to what is accurately described as the racist slander that black Americans are incorrigibly incapable of facing the truth about their situation, are perpetually parasitic on the larger society, and have no other strategy than to exploit white guilt in order to continue the free ride that blacks are getting on the wagon that others pull (to use Senator Phil Gramm’s ugly image). In short, Glenn Loury is saying that there has to be a better way and, even though he is short on details, the sheer saying of that is of inestimable importance for blacks and whites who know that we must live together and, please God, can maybe flourish together in one American society.
One By One is, then, a frankly moral argument. Yes, there are analyses and proposals, always framed in language that is elegant even when angry, but finally Loury’s is a convincing argument that our present circumstance is morally intolerable. Both whites and blacks should find it intolerable. That finding is a beginning of no little importance. Whether out of guilt or ignorance or simply because they do not want to hurt the feelings of blacks, whites are notoriously inept when it comes to talking with blacks about blacks. Whether in movies, college classrooms, rap music, or books, most blacks assume and most whites assume that blacks talk and whites listen.
Glenn Loury does not assume that. He is liberal, in the old-fashioned sense of that word, in insisting upon a conversation. Even if he does not know what, if anything, the conversation will produce, conversation is an inherent good and essential to our being human together. Although he does not use the term, Loury’s argument is driven by what might be described as a Christian humanism. After all is said and done, after all the old racial ploys and tactics are exhausted, we share a common humanum created in the image of God. Those who are ready to join the conversation made imperative by that fact would do well to prepare themselves by a thoughtful reading of One By One From the Inside Out .
Janet Marsden is a writer living in New York City.