Back in 2019, I was invited by the Institute for Freedom & Community at St. Olaf College to participate in their series “Discrimination and the Search for Justice and Truth.” The event consisted of an onstage interview conducted by Edmund Santurri, a professor of philosophy and religion at St. Olaf and, at that time, the director of the Institute, followed by a Q&A with the audience. Ed and the audience asked a series of penetrating questions that allowed me to expound at length on race, affirmative action, and my own history as a so-called “black conservative.”
The questions were so thought-provoking, in fact, that presenting a transcript of all of them and all of my responses would take up too much space here. (If you’re interested, you can view the full transcript here.) Below you’ll find some choice excerpts from the full conversation, as well as video of the entire event.
I post this now because Ed and the Institute for Freedom & Community were recently in the news. The Institute invited the extraordinarily influential philosopher Peter Singer to appear at an event earlier, which was protested by some St. Olaf students who objected to Singer’s controversial views on disability. Some protestors attempted to pressure the Institute into disinviting Singer, but to no avail, as the event did go forward successfully.
Unfortunately, Ed did not emerge unscathed. Last month, he was informed by St. Olaf’s president that Spring 2022 would be his last semester as the director of the Institute, even though his tenure in that position was not up until 2023. It seems inarguable that this decision was the result of Ed’s refusal to cave to the demands of protestors.
I think that St. Olaf has done Ed a great disservice, so John and I invited him on to The Glenn Show to discuss the matter. That conversation will be made available to subscribers tomorrow and to the general public on Friday. But for now, I hope you enjoy these excerpts from that 2019 event.
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ED SANTURRI: Glenn, a man named Christopher Alan Bracey, who is currently interim dean of George Washington University Law School, published a book entitled: Saviors or Sellouts: Promise and Peril of Black Conservatism from Booker T. Washington to Condoleezza Rice. In that book, Bracey—himself an African American, but a liberal—was trying to understand the phenomenon of black conservatism. He devoted a section of the book to Glenn Loury. He identifies you, among others, as a black conservative, though he noted some liberal turns in your views at the time that he was writing. [I]n fact, your historical relationship with conservatism has been, even since then, enormously dynamic and complex.
But more generally Bracey poses in the book the following provocative question—and I think it was intended to be provocative—and it is this: “What exactly does it mean to be a black conservative and why would anyone choose to become one?” I thought we might start in a similarly provocative fashion by putting to you a variation on Bracey’s question. With respect to matters of race, racial equality and inequality, pursuit of justice in racial matters, the pursuit of truth in these matters: What exactly does it mean to be a black conservative and why would anyone choose to become one?
GLENN LOURY: Okay, I think the first part of the question is pretty easy. What it means to be a black conservative, and by the way I'm not confessing to being a black conservative, is that you happen to be black and you are conservative. This is not complicated. Why anyone would choose to be one is a question that befuddles me. Why not? Are you saying that in virtue of a person being black, or perhaps what you mean is “authentically” black, perhaps the question is why would a truly black person be a conservative? Are you saying that in virtue of a person being black there's something problematic or paradoxical about them embracing conservatism? After all, I don't know 40% or something like that of the population of the country is conservative.
What would it mean for there to be no black conservatives? That would be, it seems to me, the anomalous condition. There’s a long history of conservative thought amongst African Americans going all the way back. The African American church is conservative—at least on cultural matters to a very substantial degree—and it's an important cultural thrust, an important stream of African American thinking in the history of black people in the country. Is conservatism the enemy of black people? That sounds to me more like a partisan, Democratic Party trope than a defensible socio–political position. Conservatism is intrinsically the enemy of black people? Black people have a vested interest in high taxes? Have a vested interest in abortion? Have a vested interest in making it hard to get across the border? [Or] illegally cross the border? These are all, I’m thinking liberal positions, and the idea that black people—somehow in virtue of being black—should be led to embrace those positions befuddles me.
Alright, I haven't really answered you. I’ve, in a way, questioned the question, but let me answer the question. If you're sitting, as I was in Chicago in the late 1960s as a young man watching what was happening in the early years after the Civil Rights Movement, if you're sitting in Detroit as I was as a young Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan watching what was happening in that city in the mid, late-1970s, or if you're sitting at the table when they're debating welfare reform in the mid–1990s watching what's happening to the African American family and so–on... It's entirely possible that you might think, “Hm, what the liberal Democrats are doing is not proving to be so good for my people. They’re fostering dependency.”
Suppose I thought that dependency on the government was a bad thing and that autonomy and self–reliance was a good thing. Have I betrayed black people by thinking that? I don't think so. Suppose I had some questions about affirmative action as a permanent institution to remedy the under–representation of African Americans at colleges and universities. Worried that—for example—by creating a different dispensation for assessing African American students, we were inviting a patronization of those students. That's a conservative view. Is it somehow not black? It could well be in the interest of African Americans.
Suppose I [am] worried about the consequences of criminal victimization in African American communities, worried about the security [of] person and property of my people and decided because of that, law and order wasn't such a bad thing for black people. Is there something anomalous or in need of explanation about that?
So, not every African American is going to find themselves being a conservative. Most African Americans are not going to find themselves being conservatives. Yes, the Republican Party has often stood against the interests of African Americans. But that no African American could ever be conservative in their basic instincts and political opinions? That, it strikes me, would be allowing identity—“I'm African American, loyal to African American–ness, having to be black, being authentically black, being black the way that I'm taught being black is supposed to be...”—it would allow identity to trump my rationality and my individuality.
I'm a human being first. I think about politics and I come to the conclusion[s] that I come to. It doesn’t stop me from being black. Sometimes those opinions are conservative. No apologies being offered for that here.
EDMUND SANTURRI: So, as I’m understanding what you are saying, affirmative action was justified if you could see a termination point. Is that right? That is to say it could foreseeably lead to a state of affairs under which it would no longer be necessary. But if there was any evidence to suggest that this is turning into a permanent process or it's not moving in the appropriate direction, then that's reason to reconsider this as a policy or practice.
That’s part of what I say I'm saying. Affirmative action in 1980 is one thing. Affirmative action in 2020 is a different thing. I'm saying affirmative action as a tool is one thing, affirmative action as a crutch is a different thing. I'm saying that the base issue is the development of the capacities of African American people to perform. To the extent that affirmative action is developmental in its orientation, that a special attention to youngsters, to give them the opportunity so that they can enhance their natural given talents and they have the experiences necessary to allow them to compete, that's one thing. I'm saying that affirmative action as a cover for elite institutions so that they can present the right optics in their yearbooks is a different thing entirely.
I'm trying to make a nuanced argument. Not affirmative action as a banner that I'm waving. “I'm for affirmative action! I’m for racial justice!” But affirmative action as a part of a more carefully conceived strategy for promoting equality of African Americans. Not titular headcount equality. Baseline performance equality. We’re not anywhere close to achieving that. The affirmative action that the elite institutions use, in order as I say for optics, may be coming at the expense of true equality for African Americans in the long run. That's the argument that I'm making. You know, have at me.
EDMUND SANTURRI: Shifting the emphasis a little bit, earlier on you made reference to a kind of change in your view on the category, or the value of colorblindness. You said that, you know, when I was young we were preached that there was a deep intimate connection between justice and blindness, impartiality, abstraction from color, etc., and so forth. Now the view is that, at least one view out there that is pretty prominent, claims or insistences on colorblindness represents a form of blindness in a way. One needs to attend in very explicit and specific ways to racial identity. A refusal to see race is in some sense to be blind to certain kinds of political realities, so there's been a major shift I think in public attitudes toward that value and concept.
Now I sense in your own trajectory, once again, that there has been a kind of development there that you started out with...a kind of maybe Martin Luther King-like commitment to colorblindness, and then you have shifted away, and now you're wondering whether or not that shift was the appropriate way to go. What's involved in that, if I've got you correctly?
In terms of colorblindness, I was against it before I was for it, before I was against it, before I was for it. In that dissertation that I described, I was against colorblindness. I was saying, “Look, history casts a very long shadow.” There's the formal sector where you're going to impose your colorblind norms, but there’s the informal sector where nobody is confused about that. Everybody knows what race their mate belongs to, and they are concerned about it. Adoption agencies know that the preference for adopting infants who are in need of parents differs based on the race, the people who are selling eggs for fertility treatment know that the buyer of those eggs are concerned about the racial characteristics, etc. So, what do you mean colorblindness?
That's where I was, then I became a Reagan conservative in the 1980s. Me and Clarence Thomas were buddies, and the catechism was, “Let's get beyond race.” And I bought that, and it was an idealistic position. It was both politically untenable, but I think at the deepest philosophical level it was inadequate, perhaps for reasons that you've hinted at. But, you know, I was swept up in the time and it was what it was, I'm sure that Bracey, you know, talks about all this amongst the black conservatives of that era.
I [found] myself going along with it until we got to 1996, the California Ballot Proposition 209 when I was involved with a conservative organization that then Justice Thomas was very friendly toward, something called the “Center for New Black Leadership”. We were asked to go out to California and join Ward Connerly. No one here will remember who he is, but he was a prominent businessman in California, an African American, who was stridently opposed to affirmative action, and who led the campaign for Ballot Proposition 209, which was enacted in California, and which banned affirmative action government contracting and in college admissions in that state. He was successful in that campaign in 1996, and we were asked, the Center for New Black leadership, of which I was the Chair, to go out and campaign for it.
I thought about it. I thought about it very hard. On the one hand, I was kind of believing the mantra that we should be a colorblind society. On the other hand, I was also trying to make our organization credible with the African American public more broadly. I was trying to give black people the opportunity to look at black conservatism in a different light. You know, I mean business development, and whatnot, strong family values, and whatnot. I mean that's not an anathema of black people. I saw it if I went out to California and campaigned openly for Ballot Proposition 209, I would destroy my credibility on any other issue with African Americans, and so I demurred, much to the chagrin of my colleagues.
I ended up having to resign as Chairman of the Board of this small organization. Small, but well–funded. Because the rest of the board were just very annoyed with me. Brother Shelby Steele, my friend, said, “I thought we agreed.” Well we didn’t agree. Justice Thomas, in the background, very annoyed at the fact that I wasn't on board with that. But I pulled back. I blinked, if you like. That was a part of a broader—this is about me, not that everybody's going to be interested—but that was a part of a broader evolution in my thinking where I started moving to the left on the number of different issues, culminating in that book Race, Incarceration, and American Values, in 2008, which was a full–throated denunciation of the mass incarceration regime that was so detrimentally affecting the African American population. I was moving left more generally, so this was a part of it.
But, for the reasons I have already given voice to, I was watching what was going on, in various institutions in the society, through the 90s into the current century and up to the present day, and I was concerned for reasons that I've already given voice to about whether or not the policy of racial preference was consistent with the aspiration of African Americans achieving equal status over the longer run.
So, I wouldn't take the principled position, even today, that we have to be colorblind. I think that's naive, and I think in the mouths of some people on the right, it's a trope, it's a move. They're really not interested in grappling with the problem of racial equality and they’re looking for cover. And so they repair to this posture, this supposedly idealistic posture, but ignore the reality of race going on in our lives. So I would say that.
On the other hand, I do think at the end of the day that, you know, African Americans here are Americans. That the biggest challenges that we confront, at least in terms of public policy, require 50% plus 1 in support in order to be enacted into law. The poverty that I think characterizes life for white people in, I don't know J.D Vance’s Southwest Ohio and Eastern Kentucky, or in the trailer parks in Milwaukee that Matthew Desmond describes, I think brilliantly, in his Pulitzer prize–winning book Evicted, or whatever. Opioid addicted people who are suffering and what not. Many of those people are white people, not just black people. And so I would say at the end of the day, the best way to frame social justice problems in the United States, for political reasons but also for principal reasons, would not be to frame mainly in terms of race. That's different from a stick–figure colorblindness that says, “Oh, race is over. Let's move on. I don't see color anymore.”
Okay, it's different from that, but it is a kind of principled colorblindness. I wouldn't want to use those terms, I would say “transracial humanism,” that would be the way that I would put it. I would say equal weight on the lives of all of our citizens. I would say all lives matter, but I would say it not as a rebuke of the social justice warriors who want police to stop shooting young black men. I want them to stop shooting young black men, too. I would say, rather, in the spirit of arguing, that if we want to frame policy questions in America so that we can get our hands around them and solve them, we are best off to frame them in transracial terms. That doesn't mean I'm unaware of the fact that there's such a thing as implicit bias that might cause a police officer to shoot an innocent black person.
EDMUND SANTURRI: You mentioned the book on incarceration. I take it there's a kind of debate that was spawned by Michelle Alexander's book, where she characterizes the current incarceration system with the disproportionate punishment of blacks as a new Jim Crow, and therefore a kind of systemic racism. That view has been to some degree, correct me if I'm wrong, challenged by Michael Fortner's work where he tries—he is an African American—he tries to argue that a good bit of the formation of drug laws during the Rockefeller period and so forth were motivated by members of the black community, and therefore it's a more complicated picture than Michelle Alexander makes it out to be. Do you have a position with respect to that particular debate now?
Yeah I do. Michelle Alexander’s book is called The New Jim Crow, as you noted. Michael Fortner is a political scientist at the City University of New York, African American, and his book I believe is called The Black Silent Majority, and it is a history of African American reaction to the drug problem in New York in the 70s and 80s and on to the present day, and the extent to which grassroots revulsion at the consequences of open drug trafficking in black communities ended up leading to support for the draconian Rockefeller drug laws that were enacted in that state. A lot of black people were on Rockefeller’s side, and probably those laws would have never been enacted into law if it hadn't been for the support from black communities. He thinks that's a story worth telling. We should probably also mention Foreman's book, James Forman the Yale Law Professor, Locking Up Our Own, I think it's what his book is called, which is a history of similar issues with a different intonation than Fortner. But nevertheless. Foreman is focused on Washington, D.C.
So, I think Michelle Alexander's intervention was obviously very influential and was important and raised the question of whether or not the extent to which the disparity in the hit of incarceration by race could be likened to, could be understood as another instance of a very old American story of black subordination. I think it was overly simplistic and a little bit rhetorical; although it was not without some evidence in the effort to support her view.
But I don't think it told the whole story. I actually think the subsequent scholarship, in not only these books that we’ve mentioned, points out that the story is more complicated than that. For example, Michelle Alexander downplays violence. She argues as if every African American who's locked up is locked up because they were caught with a joint in their pocket and the cops are looking for them to have drugs, and therefore locking them up. Most people who are in prison in this country are not in prison for the simple possession of drugs, they are in prison for having committed violent crimes. What about the effect of violence on black communities? There is not a word of that in Michelle Alexander's text.
Would a serious treatment of crime and punishment in America somehow manage not to discuss the implications of antisocial behavior amongst African Americans for other African Americans? Would a serious public policy discount those implications? I don't think so. She's telling part of the story, not all of the story. I think—this is Glenn Loury—I think our sentences are too long in America. I think there's so much plea–bargaining that courts never have a chance and juries never have a chance to adjudicate the cases that are ambiguous and are difficult and exercise some sense of judgment before they can sign somebody to 10 years or 20 years. I think three strikes and you're out, three felony offenses and we're going to throw away the key, 25 years to life, is unconscionable. I think having more people per capita in prison for life without the possibility of parole than does the country of Sweden have per capita in prison for any reason—the numbers are about 50 people per 100,000 in America are in prison for life without the possibility of parole, and that's roughly the incarceration rate in Sweden for any length of time—is despicable.
I also think that public order in urban areas where African Americans are concentrated is the first business of local government. I think that being carjacked at a gasoline pump at 1 o’clock in the morning by somebody who puts an automatic weapon in my face, nobody should have to live like that, and it's the State's responsibility to see that it's not so. I think gangbangers rolling down the street selling their piece by popping their pistols out the window and shooting 6 year olds sitting on their mother's lap is barbarity. And so somewhere between waving the bloody shirt of racism on the one hand and running around calling to lock them up and throw away the key on the other, is to be found a defensible morally and politically public policy that recognizes the humility of African Americans, both those who offend and those who are preyed upon. That's where I'm trying to locate myself in this debate.
ANTHONY BATEZA: First, let me say thank you to Dr. Loury for taking the time to join us here today. It was invigorating. It was insightful, and hopefully we get a lot of great questions from the audience today as well.
So, I'm a professor of religion. I'm not going to get into the numbers, I was told there wouldn't be math when I signed up to do religion, and I expect that to be the case. But I do have two kind of longish questions if you'll bear with me for a second.
So, my first question is this: I want to recognize and applaud the way in which you describe concerns about tests for authenticity being a real black, or a true black person, as a black conservative. And recognize that this comes from a place of personal concern and reality in the political situation we find ourselves in. But against that, many would argue, myself included, that a greater problem, perhaps, is with the authenticity of those on the so–called right. The authenticity of conservatives who, on the one hand, want to argue: they're open to a variety of viewpoints, they're trying to level the playing ground, they’re trying to divest control and authority to the states and local levels. When in reality, this is the same kind of language we've seen time and time again be used to disadvantage black communities, people of color, and other folks on the margins of society.
So, my question to you then is: To what extent does your attempt to offer more nuance and complexity, by counting yourself as a kind–of black conservative, only feed into the kind of narratives and exploitation that you yourself want to undermine in some way or some level? Put differently, while you're afraid of liberals tokenizing black folks, to what extent are conservative arguments just tokenizing you and others?
If you'd allow me, I could respond, but I'm willing to wait. If you'll allow me to respond because you got a point there. I'll acknowledge it. He says sincerity on the side of conservatives, he says authenticity. Do they really care? Might you not be a token? Could they be using you? I'm not putting words in your mouth, or am I? That’s what you’re getting at.
I can remember attending a conference, it's been years ago now, where I was the [only] black conservative in the room. And it was like an epiphany, it sort of hit me all at once: What am I doing here? Because I wasn't saying anything the other conservatives weren’t saying, but I was the black guy saying it. And I said, “Ah, you guys just want to hear a black guy say it, so you think you're going to get cover. You think somebody's going to not call you a racist because you got a black guy on your side. Is that what I am? I'm not your trick pony.” You know, it was like it hit me, I said, “I don't want to live like that.” And I don't want to live like that. So, yeah, there's some of that.
When Charles Murray published The Bell Curve in 1994—Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve—that's a book about intelligence and American social policy. Amongst the points that it stresses is that differences between the races and intelligence have something to do with the genetic inheritance of the different populations, or at least may, they say they're agnostic about the issue, but you know they put that out there.
I go to my conservative magazine editors at Commentary magazine. I'm talking about Norman Podhoretz and Neal Kozodoy, I'll name the names of the people. They were the editors, they've been happy to publish my pieces criticizing Jesse Jackson for hugging Yasser Arafat on the West Bank, or criticizing affirmative action, whatever it was. And I said I want to write a critical review of this book. I'm a social scientist. I’m a fellow of the Econometric Society. They can’t snub me with the stats. I'm not convinced by the argument. I think the book is injurious to a certain degree, and I would like to write a critical review of the book.
They said, “No thanks.” They said the liberals are attacking Charles, and we're going to circle the wagons. They didn’t say those words, but that's kind of what they said. And I said to them, “You know, if it was the Jews who were being attacked in an important intellectual forum”—this is Commentary magazine that I'm talking to— “you would expect me, you know, Louis Farrakhan is somebody, you would expect me to back your play.” You know, the answer was basically, “Tough. We're not doing that.”
That's 25 years ago. That was an opening kind of scales falling from my eyes kind of thing. So, I guess I gave one example, I could have given many examples. I’ve written this. When Norman Podhoretz—well, let me not just dump on Norman. When Marty Peretz, the publisher of the New Republic in the years when I was a Contributing Editor at the New Republic—Ralph Ellison dies. Ralph Ellison. The great Ralph Ellison. They give Shelby Steele the assignment of writing the intellectual obituary of Ralph Ellison. Now, I'm not an English professor, but I know that much. Okay? Shelby Steele ought not have been writing the intellectual obituary of Ralph Ellison in the New Republic. I know that much. That was Leon Wieseltier’s call.
I go to Marty, my friend Marty Peretz, and I say, “Man, c’mon man. What is your magazine doing? I mean, you know, I'm not saying it has to be a lefty, I’m just saying come on, this is Ralph Ellison.” And he won’t return my call, I can't get an answer. “Leon's writing the back of the book.” That was it.
Okay, so I'm telling tales out of school by way of saying I'm aware of the danger, I have experienced some of the downside of the insincerity of some of my conservative colleagues, and have been caused to wonder whether or not I was not allowing myself to be used. So I struck out in an independent direction, and I believe that—this is Glenn Loury, not all black conservatives—I think I can stand on my record over the last 25 years. It has not been perfect, it's not always been right, but it has been cognizant of the danger of insincerity on the right and of appropriation or misappropriation of my well–intended and sincere arguments for political ends that I could not endorse.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: Hi. Earlier on, you postulated that informal social relations hold a large role in perpetuating racial inequity. As a white person, I can see this. I see both subconscious racism in myself and in almost everyone I know, as embarrassing and uncomfortable as that is. Do you not believe that, without the mechanism of affirmative action, this kind of subconscious racism, both in its overt and, again, in its subconscious forms, could potentially lead to racism in the admissions process? Essentially, beyond just giving black students an advantage statistically, is affirmative action not a bulwark against the subconscious racism of admissions officers? Thank you.
Affirmative action as a bulwark against subconscious racism by admissions officers? Is that what you said? Okay, if I were teaching a class on affirmative action, one of the first distinctions that I would try to draw to the students attention is a distinction between affirmative action as an instrument of anti–discrimination policy.
If you look at the history of affirmative action, this was an important part of what was going on. Because if I say, “Don't discriminate against African American applicants,” but if I don't see every single transaction that the firm engages in, I end up, as an enforcement agent, necessarily in the business of comparing the rate of employment of African Americans in the firm to the availability of African Americans to be employed in the market. And if there is a numerical disparity of a sufficient size, I have to conclude, indirectly, that the firm must be engaging in discrimination. Therefore, my remedy well may be: Don't let your hiring rate amongst African Americans fall too far below the availability of African Americans to be hired, otherwise we're going to sanction you for discrimination.
A lot of people would call that affirmative action. That kind of affirmative action, in my opinion, doesn't raise the questions that I was concerned about. It's an instrument of anti–discrimination policy. I well might think that private employers, in this or that industry or in this or that city, are susceptible to engaging in discrimination against African American applicants for employment; and therefore want to use that kind of affirmative action. As an empirical matter, and I could be wrong about this, but I don't believe that admissions committees at selective universities in the United States are of the character that they would engage in discrimination.
What would we mean by subconscious racism of an admissions office? “Oh I see he’s black.” Or, “I think he might be black cause he's applying from an address in a zip code where most of the people are black. Let's not admit him, even though his scores are similar to someone else.” I don't think that's actually happening. I don't think admissions committees and colleges are racially biased in that way. I might think police officers are racially biased in that way. I might think district attorneys who are bringing cases to prosecute, plea bargaining them, discharging and what not, using their discretion in very various ways, are racially biased in that way. Where I have a strong a priori suspicion of racial bias, I will want to rely on some quantitative assessment of the performance of the institution, relative to some guideline or bar.
If you want to call that affirmative action, that would be a kind of affirmative action that I'm okay with. But using different standards for judging the performance of people, that's actually not implicit bias or explicit bias by an admissions committee, that’s explicit bias in favor of African Americans. That's what I've been raising a question about. Am I being responsive to you? Cause you can ask a follow–up.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: I just wanted to clarify when I was talking about subconscious bias, I'm not talking about an admissions officer saying, “Oh, I think this applicant is African American, and I'm not going to accept them.” I mean, obviously, I have not worked in admissions, I haven’t worked in a University setting, but when you're dealing with a large pool of applicants, most of whom are very, very, very qualified—especially at these elite universities—you have to make very fine tuned distinctions, from what I understand.
I think at a subconscious level, you can't make an objectively correct position, in a lot of instances. I think it's possible that at a very subconscious level, there might be connotations in white admissions officers, again based perhaps on the name or the address of the person, where in the very back their head that might lead them to be slightly less likely to admit a student they perceive to be African American. Not through any conscious volition or any desire to be racist, but just through the simple fact that we are prejudiced human beings living in a prejudiced society.
Okay, let me amplify my response to you then. Because I might think the following: I might think the admissions committee has refined certain instruments of measurement beyond the extent to which they are, you know, reliable predictors of who's going to be a good student.
So, for example, they may simply look at the SAT and not look at anything else. They may give a weight to the essay that discounts the extent to which I can learn how interesting and potentially creative a person is from the way in which they’ve produced their essay. They may not attend to the letter—the moving letter—the long, moving letter of recommendation that comes from a guidance counselor or a high school teacher, because they're just looking at the numbers.
When we are admitting people to the PhD program in economics at my university, that's one of my main beefs with my colleagues. They’re just looking at the GRE–Q, and if it's not way in the right tail, they want to say no to the student. I'm looking at the paper that the student admitted, which was their undergraduate research paper, and I say this is a really interesting and creative person. I’m not talking about race now, I’m just saying how do you assess the student.
If I thought admissions committees were overly emphasizing certain narrow measures of performance, and as a consequence African Americans were excluded, I well might want to urge upon the admissions committee a reconsideration of what they're doing. The African American exclusion might be, if you will, the miner's canary, the kind of early signal of something that was askew in the larger evaluation process and that needed to be addressed. But, I would be doing that in the service of making the evaluation process more effective at selecting people who could perform, including people who are not black. I wouldn't be doing it merely to increase the number of blacks who were in my ranks, although the consequence of me having done so could well be to increase the number of black people who are in my ranks.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Hi, Professor Loury. Thank you so much for coming, and thank you Professor Santurri and the Institute for hosting Professor Loury. So, I had two quick questions. First of all, you differentiated what you call the baseline equality from the sort–of optical equality that universities and colleges try to use when admitting certain students who might be a couple of standard deviations below on standardized test scores. How exactly would you define baseline equality? What do you mean by baseline equality?
Okay, so what I was getting at was, and maybe it's a little, you know, ungenerous to my friends in university administration, I was getting at the idea that they're concerned about covering their rears, with respect to the university's image in an environment in which there's a lot of social pressure to embrace inclusion and diversity as a goal of the institution. So, they can't have a photograph on the cover of the college magazine of the class of 2023, or whatever it is, that doesn't have enough black faces. And if they have a photograph on there like that, they're going to get flak and more. They're going to hurt [in the] long–run, and the president of the university is going to have a hard time moving up to being the president of a much bigger university cause his or her brand is going to be undermined.
So, they're concerned about optics, and I was perhaps a little bit cynical in saying their concern about optics might come at the expense of what I'm calling baseline equality. What do I mean by baseline? Well, let's not talk about college admissions for a minute. Let's talk about the general educational attainment of American students more broadly. There is something called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is an examination administered by the Department of Education on a national basis. This is numbers now, this is statistics, but I’m not going to go into it very deeply. Just to say to give this test the 4th grade, 8th grade, and 12th graders and they try to measure the acuity of the student in terms of their mastery over the relevant material in reading and mathematics at each of those three stages. And they report the results and they break them down by race. They have basic categorizations like below basic proficiency, basic proficiency, above basic proficiency in terms of student performance.
You look over a series of years at African American youngsters and where they come out on the [NAEP], the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and you'll find 25%, 30%, 40% depending on the year or the grade testing below basic proficiency in mathematics and reading. You’ll find very, very few at an advanced level. This is a nationally administered measurement of what the kids know. That's the baseline inequality that I wanted to address.
If we're not producing youngsters who are more effectively realizing their human potential, we're not going to be equal. And we can jigger the roster at a few places where the spotlight is shining, but we won't have achieved equality. So that's the kind of thing I’m talking about. Now you might say, excuse me, it’s not Harvard’s job to solve America's problem. And that's true. Harvard has its own job to do. They’re only one little small part of a much bigger picture. But I'm a public intellectual addressing myself to the broad questions that are confronting society, and I just want to put the emphasis in the places where I think it deserves to be put.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Sure, that actually leads me to a second question. So I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, a product of CPS schools, and I noticed that certain neighborhood’s schools are just funded so much better and getting so much more attention than other schools. Do you think that public policy ought to address these schools in a different way? What's your grasp on how these schools are operating, as an economist?
Yeah I do. I think there's a debate about how much funding is the critical issue, relative to other things. Okay, but let's just talk about funding. My position would be that the principal—so a lot of state constitutions have this provision in them that says that the funding available to schools should be equalized when schools are based on local property taxes, their budgets, the communities differ in the value of property, and differ in the resources that are available. That's substantial. The states commit themselves to rectifying that variation across communities and the resources by adjusting the amount of state transfer for education to the local district to try to equalize. The goal is equal expenditures per pupil across the districts.
So, the district in Chicago let's say, which might not have as much money, and a district in a wealthy suburb of Highland Park or something like that, they try to equalize. I would say that's not good enough. I would say equal effective educational opportunity ought to be the goal. If I have a school located across the street from a housing project with troubled families, a lot of disorder, and low income and poverty, and so forth and so on, it may well cost twice as much per student to provide those kids with the same opportunity as would be someplace else. Schools can't fully compensate for what's not going on at the home, but they can certainly partially compensate for that. So, yeah, differences in school funding would certainly attract my attention, if I were the czar in control of trying to produce more equality of opportunity.
Although I don't think it would be sufficient. I think if we’re talking about schools, we have to talk about the extent to which you know teacher performance is effective. I mean, I know this is really very controversial, we have to talk about the extent to which parents are engaged. We have to find instruments that hold schools accountable for delivering services to their youngsters. You know, and as I say, this is controversial and I don't mean to provoke unduly, but I don't think money is the only thing that we need to pay attention to.
Audience Member 3: Hello, I wanted to say that I love that you mentioned Evicted. It's incredible. I read it recently, it's incredible. Similarly, another piece of nonfiction that I've read recently that sort of pertains to the issue of affirmative action is Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. He sort of talks about in it that what institution you go to is significantly less important than what percentile you're in, in academics, in that institution.
So, he argues an individual going to a less prestigious school, but who's in the top 10% at that school is going to have a much higher access to opportunities than somebody who's in like the bottom 25th percentile at a much higher level of prestige school. He doesn't want to touch the issue too much in the book, but he sort of mentions that there is a chance that affirmative action, in bringing students of color to higher–level institutions in terms of prestige, are actually overall depriving them of educational opportunity. He's not an economist, so I've been very interested to ask an economist as to whether or not there is some statistical validity to that claim and that argument.
Well, I refer you to the excellent article in the Journal of Economic Literature last year by Peter Arcidiacono and David [Lovenheim]. It's about what they call the quality-fit trade–off. There's an article, you'll find it. You won't have any trouble finding it. You go to Google Scholar, quality-fit trade–off, and that article will pop right up. Because what they're talking about there is an empirical question.
The question that you posed, I don't know if Malcolm Gladwell has the ability to give a persuasive answer to a question that I think would require careful data analysis to effectively address, with respect to Gladwell. I haven't read the book, Gladwell's book, but I have read Arcidiacono and Lovenheim's review, their essay. They make a very strong case that, yes there is a trade-off.
Now, let me explain, if you'll allow me, what they mean by quality-fit trade–off. So, schools vary in their quality. But if you take a given kid, he may or may not be a good fit at a given school. Okay, so like you were saying, the kid might be in the 80th percentile of the student distribution in terms of their academic performance at a school that has a relatively low quality and in the 20th percentile at a school that has a very high quality, so they'd be a less-good fit at the high–quality school. Will they do better and worse in life?
That's the trade–off. If you can hold the fit constant and improve the quality of the school, the kid is going to be better off. If you hold the school constant and you improve the fit, the kid is going to be better off. But, if you have to trade-off higher quality for less-good fit, it's an empirical question as to whether not the kid is going to be better off. They argue that the evidence is not entirely definitive but suggestive of the fact that, at least within a certain range, there's a trade–off of the sort that Gladwell is alluding to.
They have a graph in their paper, which I can describe to you, and forgive me, I am an economist. Okay, so, on the horizontal [axis] is the quality of the school measured by the average SAT score of the students that were admitted to the school. On the vertical [axis] is the proportion of the student body at the school that is black. Okay, so as we move along the horizontal, we're getting higher quality schools. The graph looks like a “U.” It falls, and then when you get to the high quality schools it goes up again. Do you all understand what I'm saying? What I'm saying is the best schools, the most desirable schools, can outbid the intermediate schools for the attention of black students. Who would not want to go to Harvard or Princeton or Yale over a University of Illinois or Ohio State, with respect? But I mean most people are going to prefer the more prestigious school.
The U–shapedness of that graph means that the African American youngsters are allocated either to relatively low-quality schools, which are basically admitting everybody who applies, or to relatively high-quality schools, which are cherry picking the best African American applicants and competing them away from the intermediate schools.
Are African Americans as a whole better off because of that? I think there’s every reason to be concerned about that, but I'm not saying that the evidence is definitive in that regard. It's a relevant question. I’ll just add something the late Justice Antonin Scalia hinted at this question, much to the chagrin of many observers, when during oral argument in that case out of the University of Texas, the affirmative action case. He asked the attorneys defending the university’s practice of affirmative action, “Well, you know, might it not always be a good thing to try to get as many black students as you can at your fancy–dancy University? Maybe they'd be better off if they went to a less demanding school?” said Justice Scalia.
All hell broke loose, everybody started calling him a racist and what not like that. I interpreted him in his own inimical fashion, meaning to be provocative, as raising a first–order question. It's a scientific question, not a political question. So, I don't think the data are yet in to resolve it definitively, but there's every reason to be interested in that question.
Bravo! Substack comes through with another powerful free and paid voice!
Professor Loury seems to me to be a politically independent thinker who takes apart ideas and policies whether they skew right or left. And he raises important questions with no easy answers.
The colorblind issue is a good example. When blindness to skin color in admission or hiring or promotion is a policy issue, when optics and appearances sit at the core of policy, powerful (white) people benefit from setting up a set of statistics to make them “look good” no matter what the consequences. Let’s look at who gets off the hook and who gets the shaft.
When blindness to skin color means ignoring real differences in the real world (the United States has a long history of color-coded supremacy and oppression), unfair color-coded differences in life chances are enacted culturally and politically.
This is powerful stuff. Thanks to all of you who are making this happen.
I really enjoyed the interview. Thank you for sharing it.
Kudos and thanks to Professor Santurri for his stand. It will be because of people like him that we will eventually be able to move beyond the current illiberalism in our discourse on and off campus.