Against the Commodification of Blackness

with Bari Weiss

Recently, Bari Weiss was kind enough to have me as a guest on her podcast, Honestly. We had a wide-ranging conversation that covers my path to academia, my personal struggles, my work as an economist, education, and of course, race in the US.

Bari is a sharp interviewer and a fierce thinker in her own right, so I highly recommend that you subscribe to her newsletter. She’s generously allowed me to post an excerpt of the discussion below. You can find more excerpts and a link to the entire episode here.

BARI WEISS: Glenn, if one really cared about black lives and one wanted to insist on a movement that actually fulfilled the promise of black lives mattering, what would be the top three priorities of that movement?

GLENN LOURY: I think self-determination and some sense of what we mean by taking responsibility for our lives. That's in the Shelby Steele ballpark that we started this interview talking about. I'd say education. I'm sorry, and this is partisan, but the public school unions are poorly serving—on the whole, in the places where black students congregate—the intellectual needs of those students. Now, there are other people to be faulted as well. Opening up that system to innovation is absolutely imperative to improving the quality of black life in this country.

And people are going to dismiss me. They are going to say I'm anti-union, and they're going to say I'm a right-wing ideologue. I'm going to say I'm looking at failure. I'm looking at multigenerational failure and the public safety piece of this narrative that the police are out to get black people, this contempt for law, the lawlessness of the George Floyd protests, the celebration of that lawlessness, the silence in the face of it.

Patriotism, and by that I don't mean blind loyalty to a flag salute. I mean seeing yourself as an integral part of the American project. This is our country. We don't stand off from it. There is no United Nations where black claims will be negotiated. We must make our peace with our fellow citizens here. That has corollaries. Two national anthems is a terrible idea. Reparations for slavery is a mistake. It wrongly places the nature of the moral problem. It creates these parties as between which a negotiation and a deal is being cut. There are not two parties here. There's only one party.

I have to say, on the last one, I feel very, very torn about the issue of reparations. Because I feel, in lieu of some kind of organized government-run reparations program—and let's put aside the incompetence of the government and the rest—instead, what's happening is a kind of piecemeal hand-to-hand patchwork reparations program that is actually stoking incredible contempt and suspicion and tension among racial groups right now.

Oh, gosh, that's such an interesting point. And I’ve thought about that. You have a point and it actually is not inconsistent with my point. My point is that if you bundle it up in a package and put it on the table and you have an act of Congress and a couple of hundred billion dollars move, then you will have executed the transaction and the Negroes will have been paid, which is another unkind way of putting what you just said. That is, we can have that ceremony, we can do that deal, and then we'll be done with all of this genuflecting and virtue signaling and so forth and so on.

But my point is: No, no, no, no, no, no. This is organic. Everybody has to own this together. And we don't commodify this. We don't make this into an arm's-length deal. This is not what we should be doing. Which, by the way, means that the corporations genuflecting in virtue signaling is also not good because we're all in this together. We got to be solving the problem, not showing ourselves to be on the right side of history.

Well, what Shelby would say if he were in this conversation is that the reason reparations are bad for all the reasons you've said, but also because no amount can ever stand in for the injustice and the root and the brutality and the pain of that original sin of this country.

Yeah, I agree with that. It's not a commodity. It's not like 30 pieces of silver or 300 billion pieces of silver are going to get that done. 

Glenn, you mentioned public safety and the fact that during the protests of the last summer, we were not allowed to say things that we were seeing with our own eyes. We weren't allowed to acknowledge the truth of the nature of, not all of these protests, but some of them as being violent. And there's this chyron from CNN that was unbelievably memorable to me, where you have this anchor standing in front of a conflagration, the whole background is fire. And the words at the bottom of the screen are “mostly peaceful protests”. Where do you think that fear of acknowledging the truth, or really just the inability to say it out loud, where is that coming from?

This is like a question you asked me previously about why Ibram X. Kendi was taken as seriously as he is, because it's a really important question. I think it says a lot about our culture. I'm not sure I've got an answer. I mean, at some level, your guess is as good as mine. But I can try.

I mean, I could blame Donald Trump to a certain degree. Right? Contrast the reading, the narrative, the narration of the civil disorder associated with the George Floyd riots, which were many billions of dollars in which dozens of lives, and which shook the foundation of our social cooperation. If I lived in one of these cities, if I were somebody who supported Donald Trump—I'm sorry to say this, but they actually exist in our country, and I would contrast how the mainstream organs of public communication treated the “insurrection” of January 6 with what they had to say about the civil disorder attendant to the George Floyd protests—it would cause me to lose faith and trust in basic institutions. I would think that people are lying to me. There's a lot at stake here.

So this idea of what’s really happening versus the narrative being spun about what's really happening. To me this comes out most starkly in the debate over elite public schools in cities like New York and San Francisco. In both of those cities, and many others, there are these famous specialized high schools like Stuyvesant in New York and Lowell in San Francisco, and they produce some of the most impressive and successful members of our society. They are called gifted schools or high achieving schools, but they’re public schools.

The way that you get into these schools is by taking one test. A test that is free to everyone. The idea is that you don’t need to be connected to get this test, or know anyone, there is no such thing as legacy admissions. It's not for the rich, it’s not for the connected. It’s just whoever does great on the test. Historically, this has been a pathway, especially for children of immigrants in lower income residences of a city like New York, to make their way up in the world.

But there has been a lot of focus and stress about the fact that, for example, in a school like Stuyvesant, the makeup of black students in the school is far below the proportion of the city that’s black. And so despite the fact that these schools are some of the most diverse schools in the country, there is something often like 70% Asian, also incredibly low income. The majority of kids are low-income. They have somehow been labeled as segregated, including in the New York Times. And that test that I described, that’s open and available to everyone, has been painted as a tool of white supremacy.

And to me, this gets back, Glenn, to this idea about the distortion of language. Imagine being an immigrant parent from Pakistan or Korea or China, trying to comprehend that huge swaths of the elite media [are] calling your family a tool of white supremacy, and the school that your child goes to, as segregated. 

Yeah, well, this is your wheelhouse. This is not your first time speaking to this issue, I think you have your finger on something that's really very important. Again, I remind everybody of George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 1984. The Asians are nonwhites. The Koreans, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, they're not white people. White supremacy, if it means anything, will apply to them just as much as it would apply to anybody else. They're not white adjacent. That's playing with words. They have cultural inheritance and it’s specific. You can look at it.

There's this book that I admire very much called The Asian American Achievement Paradox by Min Zhou and Jennifer Lee, two Asian American women, sociologists who interview these families in Southern California, trying to find out how these kids get into Dartmouth and Cornell and Harvard at such high rates. The filial piety and the extreme emphasis on hard work and the valuation of achievement and et cetera. That is at the root of the achievement of these young people.

This is America. This is the story in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century. Yet again, the vitality of our society. Now, to call their overrepresentation and the concomitant underrepresentation of black people, or they would have said “people of color”—excluding Asians—as segregation is, of course, a bait and switch. It's a trick. It's a rhetorical move. They're trying to appropriate the moral authority of the overcoming of Jim Crow on behalf of a completely different program, which is the anti-meritocratic leveling impulse to compensate for the lack of performance in the African American population by pulling down the standards. That's what's happening, white people are nowhere to be seen in this picture. It's New York City, it's an immigrant town. This is an old story. It was Jews before it was Asians.