Here’s my talk with Brown University economist Glenn Loury, a self-professed “contrarian” on ‘woke’ culture, for which he was recently profiled in The Wall Street Journal.
Last month Loury challenged a public letter from Brown University President Christina Paxson, which he complained reflected the “the Black Lives Matter view of the world.” He doesn’t “think universities should have official policies about contentious political issues.”
Loury told The Journal that as a 71-year-old tenured professor he’s not worried for himself, but he’s worried for many others threatened and silenced by cancel culture.
Identifying as right-of-center politically, Loury recalls he was born again at age 40 and baptized into the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He since has lost his faith and says he’s now “apostate.”
Of course, I’m praying he returns to faith and Methodism, where he’s much needed! He’s candid about his views, and our wide-ranging conversation is fascinatingly timely.
Rough Transcript of the Conversation:
TOOLEY: Hello, this is Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, DC, and also editor of Providence, a journal of Christianity and American foreign policy. And today I have the great pleasure of talking to Dr. Glenn Loury, professor of economics at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, recently featured in a wonderful profile in The Wall Street Journal, and someone who is not averse to controversy and who has much to say about our current national moment. So, Glenn, thank you for joining this conversation.
LOURY: You’re welcome Mark, I’m very glad to be here.
TOOLEY: You can do it much better than I, but would you mind summarizing who you are, your career, and your own philosophical and spiritual trajectory—where you have landed.
LOURY: Okay, well, as you’ve mentioned, I’m Glenn Lowry, I’m an economist, a professor of economics at Brown University. I was baptized a born-again Christian at the age of 40 at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston. I’m right of center politically, relative to other academics who concern themselves with race and inequality issues, which is one of my issues. I have been outspoken of late of some of the problems that I see with the way that our national discourse is trending on questions of race and equity. I call myself a contrarian often for that. In addition to teaching my classes and doing research, which I’ve been doing for 40 years—I completed my PhD at MIT in 1976, that’s a long time ago—in addition to that, I’m a podcaster, and I have a platform. I call it The Glenn Show, at Bloggingheads.tv, where I interview people and talk about issues of the day. So, that’s me.
TOOLEY: Well, we at IRD and Providence have been trying to find thinkers and writers who can address our current moment theologically and spiritually and often, we’ve had a hard time doing so. Many theologians and other religious thinkers seem to be just rehashing, echoing all of the other talking points that permeate our culture right now. So why are we in this situation and how should we be addressing our current moment more capably, more effectively?
LOURY: I think that’s a hard question Mark, and I want to say here at the outset that I am not any longer a practicing Christian, actually I’m apostate. I’ve lost my way, a person might say. I’ve had a struggle with faith issues that goes back a while, and if you were interested, we can talk about that, but I want to try to respond to your question about the moment. I simply say that I don’t regard myself speaking with theological authority as I now respond to your question.
Here’s what I think is going on. I think that we have failed as a country to make the best of the transition, the transformation, in structures of American society that occurred between the Second World War and the end of the Vietnam War—1945 to 1975. I guess that’s an arbitrary time bracketing, but monumental shifts in the structure of American society regarding the status of African Americans, and equality of opportunity, and so forth, occurred in that period of time. There were changes of law, but there were also changes of social norm and attitude. And we’ve made some errors. I think that the result of that failure—and there’s enough blame to go around. I think there are failures within African American leadership and society; I think there are failures within the Democratic Party; I think there are failures within the conservative movement; I think there are failures of governance in the large urban areas. There’s a lot of blame to go around. I think educational institutions in the main that serve the least advantaged of our population haven’t really performed in the way that we would hope. I think that our reaction to the problem of maintaining order in society—I’m talking about law, crime, punishment, policing, drug war, et cetera—hasn’t always been wise, and has at times has been excessively punitive, and at times has been excessively lenient, and at times has been a kind of futile effort to control aspects of social behavior, like drug use, that are probably best treated therapeutically and not punitively, and so on. So, there’s plenty of failure, and I’m just touching on the things that occur to me right now. There’s plenty of failure to go around.
Bottom line is that thirty percent or so, one-third of the African American population that you will find over-represented in the prisons, and on the welfare rolls, and in the public housing projects, and in the corners of society, haven’t really been incorporated into the amazing engine of opportunity which is the American political economy. We still have pockets of America that are like another America. This was Michael Harrington in the 1960s talking about poverty in America, and we still have exclusion, we still have marginalization, we certainly do see it in our prisons and in our streets. And we have allowed the discussion about these issues in the mainstream venues of public deliberation to be dominated by two different strains of fun. I think one of them that is dismissive of the folks who suffer these conditions and relatively indifferent to their plight. I don’t mean to cast dispersions, but I think it’s fair to say that people who complain about anti-black racism and so on are not making it all up, and that some of the right wing of American politics really is relatively hostile or indifferent to the aspirations. I think that’s probably not an inaccurate thing to say. But it’s not the main thing in my view. The other piece of it is that the left have evolved—and we see it now most recently in these public demonstrations, and the things that are being written in the media, and the things that people who have positions like mine in the academy, especially in the liberal precincts, are saying—they’ve elaborated a theory of the case that is getting things completely wrong. They don’t talk about values; they don’t talk about families; they don’t talk about behavior; they don’t talk about norms; they don’t talk about responsibility; they don’t talk about duty, in reference to African Americans. They talk about systemic racism; they talk about structural racism; they talk about white supremacy. This has become a kind of pseudo-religion. And they enact these rituals of guilt, and shame, and reparation which don’t address the underlying realities that are desperately in need of being addressed.
So, what am I talking about? So, two or three black kids are raised by a mother without a husband present. It’s become impossible to even call attention to this fact in reference to any kind of social problem in certain quarters of society. You will be presumptively dismissed as a racist. So, the homicide rate that affects African Americans is an order of magnitude higher than that which affects other Americans. The level of violence in some of these communities—in Baltimore, and St. Louis, and Chicago, and Philadelphia, and New York City, and other places that one could name—the level of violence is unspeakable. And yet, there is barely a murmur outside of Fox News Sean-Hannity-types, barely a mention of it. The suffering, the human suffering, attendant to this slaughter that is ongoing. I didn’t use the words black-on-black crime. Of course, it is mostly crime committed by black people against other black people. I don’t regard that as the most important thing. They are people first. Their blackness isn’t especially significant in the context of what I’m saying here, except that it stands at the end of a long historical development that I’m trying to give some description of. But the level of suffering, the funerals that people are having, the memorials, shrines that are being spontaneously stood up in memory of these 16, or 18, or 22-year-old young people who have been gunned down. The pathos, the loss, the agony. And yet, I see barely any reflection of that in the popular media. I see very, very, very little attention in the people who write the scripts for the movies that are made in Hollywood, and the people who write the op-ed pieces for the major newspaper organs and such, the people who decide who comes on cable television to talk about the events, but they, the political candidates and parties, especially left-of-center, don’t attend to this. So, I don’t want to ramble here too long; what I’m trying to say is I think we’ve lost our way. There is failure; there is the stitch of failure in the air. And people don’t quite know what to do about it. Their false gods—I use the words advisedly, but I mean those words—their false gods have failed them. They look now for a mobilization against racism to solve all of these problems, and it’s not going to happen. So, I think there’s frustration; I think there’s anger; I think there’s rage. There are many, many dimensions of this.
Let me just mention one. So we’re now, in higher education, locked into the affirmative action regime in which highly competitive positions, which are generally awarded only to people who exhibit excellence at the right tail of the distribution of human performance—I’m talking about getting into one of these universities and so forth—they’re being allocated to what they call people of color. We could interrogate this language, but let’s not waste our time, let’s just go with the language. They are being allocated on different criteria. You don’t have to have the same level of excellence in order to get in. You’ve got a lower standard. That’s just a fact. It’s an institutionalized fact of the way that business is practiced. Now, beneath that fact is the reality that, while the test scores and other criteria that you use to select people are not a window on the soul—they’re not a Rosetta Stone, they don’t tell us exactly what a human’s potential is—they are nevertheless informative about how people are going to perform. So it’s predictable, that if you select from the right tail of the distribution of human performance into some activity that requires virtuosity, and if you use different criteria for selecting people of color and others, that you’re going to get different performance after the fact of selection on the average in these populations. Otherwise, why would you have used the test scores and the grades as the criteria of selecting anybody in the first place? So now we have the difference in performance. I’m just going to say it flatly. What we have in elite institutions where affirmative action has become institutionalized is, on average, difference in the rate of performance of the students who have been selected into these venues. Not every single student, but on average. And it’s an inescapable statistical necessity that this be true. Because we’re using different criteria, and the criteria that we use are correlated with performance after the fact. So now what do we do? Do we institute remediation? Do we acknowledge the difference in performance? Do we give honest grades? Do we fork people out when they don’t quite cut it? You could say “Give people a chance, but if they don’t measure up…” No that’s not what we do. We lower the standards. We obfuscate. We lie. We say there are no differences in performances there.
When law professor Amy Wax, of the University of Pennsylvania, said on my podcast three years ago that in her experience, in the law school at the University of Pennsylvania, which is an elite law school, in her first-year classes that the black students on the whole were not doing that well, she was set upon by Twitter mobs, people demanding her head on a platter. The dean of the law school suspended her from teaching the required first-year course that she’d been teaching for many years, because he said the students of the school should not be required to present themselves before a professor who would dare say something like that. Now what did she say? She simply stated a fact. She stated a fact about the performance of students in her school, a fact which is predictable. Given that the law school admits students of color with a different criteria, you would expect that they might not write as well, they might not be as competitive in the classroom, if they came in with lower LSAT scores and less distinguished college records. So, we now have a regime where simply reporting the facts about student performance is met not with a slap on the forehead, “Oh my God, what have we done? Look at the situation we’ve created for ourselves, how shall we remedy it?” But rather, with a denial of the facts and an effort to excommunicate the person who brought them to our attention. And this is just one of many things that I could say.
The jails are overflowing with young black men in this country. Perhaps our sentences are too long. Perhaps there shouldn’t be a drug war. Perhaps you should decriminalize some things. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. But the fact of the matter is that the jails are overflowing in part because too many of these young black men are committing offenses against society that require some kind of punitive response. Where is a discussion of that?
I can recall—and I’ll stop—not long ago when Obama was president, the Department of Education sent around a letter, practically a directive, to local school districts telling them that if they were suspending black kids at a higher rate than white kids, they were in danger of losing their federal funds because they were presumptively practicing discrimination in school discipline. Nowhere in the ladder is the possibility entertained that, for a variety of reasons that we could spend a long time talking about, including those fathers who are not present in those homes, the behavior patterns of some kids of color in some schools were disruptive and needed to be dealt with through discipline. Nowhere do they entertain the possibility that the problem might not be racism of the school, but the problem might be the fact that kids are coming without the social discipline—some of them, from some of the homes—which causes them to be disruptive, and they then have to be dealt with because of that disruption. I’m not making an argument for suspension as such. I’m saying that the alarm bell from the racial disparity might have been different development of our youngsters requiring us to focus on the root cause of their behavioral problem. It might have been that, but instead, reflexively, the reaction was—and this wording, by the way, has been rescinded by Betsy DeVos at the Education Department under President Trump—might have been—this is a canary in the coal mine kind of thing. Disruptive behavior of these kids in school is an indicator of problems of social development in some communities that are required to be addressed on their own account. And blaming the school district for the fact that it has to deal with kids who are disruptive is not exactly being honest about what the problem is.
But anyway, here’s what I think, and I’ll stop. I think we’ve talked ourselves into a corner here. It becomes impossible to actually address the substantive, functional root of some of the racial inequality. All racial inequality has to be a result of a failed system, and so, the natural concomitant of such an intellectual predisposition is for rank, afoul people in the streets, confronted with the realities of such inequality, which will sometimes result in incidents like the one that led to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota a couple of months ago, that those realities lead to people acting in the way that they have acted, reacting in the way that they have reacted.
I’m only telling one side of the story. I’m not explaining why it is that perfectly comfortable and relatively secure whites would be kneeling down and begging black people to forgive them for racism for 400 years. That’s a psychological problem, I’m probably not the best person to try to—maybe you can explain that to me. I’m not sure I understand that.
But I think on the side of the activists and the anti-racists from the African American community, a lot of it is a frustration at the bitter fruit of a half century of incomplete and inadequate incorporation of African Americans into the body politic here and into the political economy, some of the responsibility from which has to be laid at the feet of African Americans ourselves.
TOOLEY: So, is the crux of the issue at hand basically an overwhelming denial of personal responsibility and replacing it with an almost exclusive focus on systemic and institutional injustice?
LOURY: I think so. Certainly, from the point of view of the well-being of African American people, I believe this is a fundamental issue. I’ve written about this. My pithy way of putting it is, “Nobody is coming to save us.” What I say to fellow African Americans when I’m talking about this issue and I’m trying to exhort people to think about personal and communal responsibility, is that it a fool’s errand to at one in the same time point your finger at the man, the white man, white society—whatever that means—and to say “You’re racist,” and yet on the other hand, expect that they’re going to somehow deliver you from the circumstances into which you have fallen. I mean you ask your oppressor, your petition is to your oppressor to stop being racist? “If only we can have a conversation about race?” That seems delusional to me.
But moreover, I also argue that much of what needs to be done, like raising our children, can’t be done by anybody other than the community itself. There’s no social program that’s going to substitute for a wholesome environment in which children are taught, socialized into, inspired, equipped to be successful in life. So yeah, I think a big part of the problem is a presumption that the locus of the difficulty lies outside of the individual and the community.
And the demand—that’s how it’s being phrased now, it’s a demand. “We demand. We demand that there be more black professors at Brown. We demand that there be fewer people in prison. We demand that income and wealth be more equal. We demand. We demand.” As if wealth fell from the sky. As if wealth inequality were simply the fact that some people got it and some people didn’t. What about creating wealth? What about starting businesses? What about taking risk? What about saving? What about cultivating the habits of mind in a practice that are associated with success? No one can do that for you.
Of course, we’re not islands here. We’re not individuals isolated one from another. Of course, there are responsibilities in any decent society to provide a basic safety net and a structure of opportunity for people, including those who are most disadvantaged. But nobody can teach your kid to read. No one can make sure that the kid at 10 o’clock at night is at home in a safe place rather than wandering the streets. No one can guarantee that the child is going to do his homework for you if you’re not paying attention to what the child is doing. No one can supervise who he’s spending his time with, or she, that might be a bad influence, and so on. There’s a lot of responsibility that falls on the shoulders of we African Americans, which I think people are loath to assume.
TOOLEY: Is America systemically racist currently, and if so, what does that mean exactly?
LOURY: I have no idea what it means. Again, I spend my time these days writing pieces and giving interviews and speeches where I say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about when you say, ‘systemic racism,’ could you please be more specific?” Now if they had said, “America is a capitalist society; I’m a Marxist and I think that the search for profit is inevitably going to impoverish the working man and leave the fat cats better off,” I would have at least understood what they were saying. Okay, because that’s a well-developed doctrine. It’s not a doctrine of Marxism that I embrace, but it’s a well-developed, perfectly intellectually coherent doctrine. When people say structural racism, I have no idea what they’re talking about.
I think I know what they mean though. They mean shut up. When they say structural racism, what they mean is, “Stop blaming the victim.” What they mean is, “Don’t talk to me about their behavior.” What they mean is, “It’s your fault, not my fault. It’s your fault.” Sometimes said in precisely that trembling tone of voice.
I think I could probably give a more sympathetic account of what they mean. They mean that race emerges out of a history of slavery and domination of African Americans, which in this country of the land of the free and the home of the brave, and all persons created equal and endowed with their Creator with certain inalienable rights, could only have happened by constructing the image of the negro, of the black, of the colored, as somehow less than fully equal. They had to be seen as less than human to enslave them while at the same time signing off on the Declaration and all of that. And that that history got itself insinuated into the bone, and the sinew, and the texture, the structure of American life, and has carried itself forward even to this day, so that the fact of slavery, the fact of Jim Crow segregation, of de jure segregation, of Amos ‘n’ Andy and Stepin Fetchit, and all of the stigmatizing images of blacks, that fact still exists in the interspecies of American society, it’s still somehow exerting itself.
I think you can find evidence. You’re going to find racist police departments. You’re going to find legislators who have given speeches in which they’ve said—you’re going to find political campaigns in which dog whistle racial epithets or insinuations might be communicated. You’re going to find segregated cities. You’re going to find businesses that have relatively few blacks in the front office, and so on. Some of this will be a reflection of discrimination, much of it, I dare say today in the year 2020, most of it will be a reflection of the fact that people, groups of people, are different in their skills and aptitudes. You don’t see the NFL or the NBA looking like America. It looks like the people who are best at the things that they champion. There’s no reason I should think why every venue of American society necessarily has to have a demographic composition that’s perfectly reflective of the population. But I think what they mean is that America is somehow permanently tainted by this history. And the history accounts for the unevenness of opportunity and of success that we observe by racial categories today.
Frankly, I must say as a social scientist, I think it’s a very thin argument. I think it’s more wishful. People just assert that there’s a connection. So how do you explain the condition of the African American family, assuming that you’re willing to talk about it at all? I’m talking about those two and three kids born to a woman without a husband. I’m not necessarily making a moral judgment here, wagging my finger at the woman that she doesn’t have a husband and she has a child. That’s not my point. My point is that the developmental consequences of family structure of that sort could be very profound. It might have a lot to do with some of the difficulties that we see in terms of undisciplined adolescent males in the cities getting themselves into trouble. How do you explain that based on structural racism? I suppose you can make an argument, but it’s not a very serious historical and sociological argument, it seems to me. How do you explain that non-white non-blacks who come to the country, some of them with very little, are nevertheless able – many—to penetrate into all of the venues of American life with relative success, and African Americans lag behind. I suppose you could say, “Oh well they’re different, they’re not whites, but they’re also not blacks, and there’s a special stigma that attaches to anti-black racism,” and so forth and so on. But the arguments look pretty thin to me. So, I think it’s a rhetorical—I’ve said this in something I wrote recently—I think the use of structural racism is a rhetorical move. It’s not a social scientific move at all. They don’t really intend to explain anything. They’re trying to control the conversation by placing blame on people who don’t see the world the way that they do.
TOOLEY: You mentioned white people on their knees pleading for forgiveness. Are we in part witnessing the attempted construction of a new religion that in part echoes Christianity? It wants repentance, it wants atonement, but there seems to be no forgiveness there or any ultimate culmination to the cycle?
LOURY: Yeah well, I remember enough about Christianity to know that this ain’t Christianity. But it does have quasi-religious aspects to it, it does seem to me. It has its rituals; it hunts for heretics and apostates; it’s got a catechism; it’s got a party line. My conversation partner in my podcast, John McWhorter, is given often to using this religion metaphor in reference to the mania of ending the crusade against racism, the anti-racist. I don’t like the metaphor because I think it’s a discredit to religion, to compare religion to these people. I think it doesn’t take religion seriously. Religion is not just the rote recitation of mantra. Religion is not just the blind following of whatever the doctrine is that’s handed down. Religion is not only, or even mainly, hunting for people who don’t believe so that you can call them out and cancel them. But yeah, there is an aspect. I mean it feels a little bit more to me like hunting for witches; I don’t know if you call that religion. Is Salem religion? Burning people at the stake—is that religion? It does have connections to some religious movements that have lost their way, but it’s not the heart and soul of religion I would say.
TOOLEY: Your colleague you just mentioned, McWhorter, wrote a very powerful critique in Atlantic of a very popular book right now called White Fragility.
LOURY: Yeah, I saw it.
TOOLEY: Is there anyone out there writing good things on this topic right now?
LOURY: Yeah, I think so. I even think there are people on the left who are writing good things—maybe I shouldn’t put it that way—but there are people who I think… So I’ll name one; he’s not on the left; his name is Thomas Chatterton Williams he’s a writer, young African American writer, book called Losing My Cool, which is a memoir of his growing up in his late teens and twenties and finding his way out of the mind ghetto of black teenage culture into the big broad world. He lives in France now; he’s a fluent French speaker. He’s travelled the world; he’s a cosmopolitan. But he began with this very narrow, kind of hip-hop centered, kind of social life, and he describes how he grew out of that. He happens to be biracial. His mother is white, his father is black, and he’s married to a French woman. I guess that counts as white.
So, he’s written a book called Unlearning Race. And he basically poses the question, “Is my daughter black?” His daughter, whose mother is white, both of whose grandmothers are white, she has three or four grandparents who were white. She has curly hair and light, light, light brown skin. And she could be Italian; she could be Spanish; she could be a lot of things, but the first thing that you think of is not to call her black because she doesn’t look like that. And he goes through a kind of agonizing reflection about identity, because he thinks he wants his daughter to be black. He starts out thinking he wants his daughter to be black. And then he realizes, “What am I doing to my daughter? Why am I imposing this binary categorization on her? Out of what reason, out of what commitments am I doing this? Why is this necessary?” He begins to ask. And he develops a whole book. Unlearning Race is the name of this book. It’s brilliant, in my opinion. He’s a very thoughtful guy.
He by the way—this is just [inaudible] of nothing in particular, but he was one of the driving forces behind the “Harper’s Letter,” this famous letter published a few days ago, maybe a week ago, that collects signatures from many, may, many prominent American writers to decry the cancel culture that’s emerged in progressive circles for people who don’t entirely hew to the party line. An editor at New York Times Magazine being forced out because he ran an op-ed piece from Senator Tom Cotton, making an argument that you can agree or disagree with, but it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to say: If the local authorities can’t keep the peace of the cities we need to bring in the feds. Now I’m not saying I agree or I disagree with that, but there’s nothing crazy about that. That’s a thought that a person could have. You could make an argument about why that may or may not be a good idea. A newspaper runs a sitting American senator’s article and people in the newsroom have a fit because it takes the wrong position? It agrees with President Donald Trump about something? How dare you do that? And this guy is out. He’s out. And there are many like him who are out. The editor at the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma, gave space in the magazine for someone who had been ‘Me Too’d,’ a guy that had been defenestrated because he had ran across some line. And the guy had a story. There was another side. He wanted to tell his side. Ian Buruma gives him space in the New York Review of Books to tell his side. The next thing you know, he’s out. Buruma is out, as editor at the New York Review of Books, because how dare he give time to a “rapist” to write in the magazine. And there are many, many examples of this. And Thomas and a number of others have had enough of it. And they put a letter out.
Anyway, so you asked me whether people—he’s one of them I would name. McWhorter, there are others. There’s the young Coleman Hughes, just graduated from Columbia University with a degree in philosophy. We’re going to be hearing a lot from him. He’s extremely talented, intelligent, passionate, courageous. The YouTube video of him debating with Ta-Nehisi Coates about reparations before the US House of Representatives is priceless. It’s already got, I don’t know, a quarter million views, but they should have 250 million views if you ask me, because that’s just a very important issue and Coleman is saying things to my mind that are very sensible about it. There are others.
TOOLEY: Dr. Glenn Loury, professor of economics at Brown University, thank you very much for a fascinating and provocative conversation, and we’ll be praying that you get back to church soon sometime.
LOURY: Thanks. Have me back and I’ll tell you my story. Maybe you can save me man, it’s not too late.
TOOLEY: Okay, I’d love to do that. I’ll insist that we do that sometime soon.
LOURY: Okay Mark.
TOOLEY: Thank you Glenn.