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-0benefit 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.
John 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 taxo