"If the black community wants change, it has to look at itself too"
The Netherlands takes an interest in my message
Earlier this year, I was interviewed by the journalist Esma Linnemann for a profile in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant. I was delighted that Esma and the paper took an interest in my life and work, and I’m quite happy with the result. Here’s the original, which is in Dutch. For non-Dutch speakers, I’m providing an English translation below.
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Glenn Loury: ‘If the black community wants change, it has to look at itself too’
White Americans are not responsible for everything that is wrong in the African American community, says Professor Glenn Loury. Continuing to insist on racism stands in the way of real change.
by Esma Linnemann
May 21, 2021
Glenn Loury (72) doesn't like to say it either. He loves his people. And he's also no longer that smart-ass Harvard professor of the 1980s who judged the shortcomings of the African American community so harshly.
But Loury - a professor of economics and social sciences at Brown University - has to say: ‘African Americans still take too little responsibility for their own community. I thought that then, and yes, I think it again now.’
Loury made a big impact in the mid-eighties with his ideas about pathological flaws in African American culture; the absence of committed fathers, the high crime rates. That was the real enemy within the community, coined by Loury as ‘the enemy within’. But this enemy was hardly addressed. All attention was focused on the enemy without: white racism in the US.
And now, to Loury's frustration, the arrows are once again, or still are, aimed at the white Americans. White racism is at the root of all problems. Since George Floyd's death, the focus has been on police brutality against African Americans. ‘But it is ridiculous to say that the US police force is the greatest threat to the physical integrity of black people. It is a demagogic and explosive discourse.’
Loury shares his sharp political analysis on his online program The Glenn Show. There he has regular discussions with kindred spirit John McWhorter, African American linguist at Columbia University. Loury and McWhorter call themselves the wokebusters and criticize the anti-racist discourse of the Black Lives Matter movement. Yes, African Americans are more likely to be killed by the police in proportion to their share of the population. But blacks are also much more likely to be poor - and as unfair as that may be, ‘being poor attracts the cops’. In addition, African Americans are also more likely than whites to be criminals. Why, Loury and McWhorter wonder, does no one include these variables in the equation?
In the video ‘The fake narrative about police and race’, Loury raises his hoarse voice (he contracted the coronavirus and is still recovering) when he talks about Maxine Waters, the California congresswoman who told a crowd of protesters in early April to become `more confrontational' in the event of an acquittal of police officer Derek Chauvin. Loury, furious: ‘Nowhere - except in right-wing media - I have read a critical note about her demagogic incitement to violence.’
Almost a month later, the professor's voice is still hoarse during the Zoom connection when we talk about the anti-racism debate in the United States. At his home in Rhode Island, Loury is contemplating a memoir about his life. ‘I’m thinking of the title: Changing My Mind. My son Glenn Jr. thinks it's a stupid title, but I've changed my mind a lot.’ Just recently, he did it about Trump. ‘I initially thought we should debate his ideas, not his person. But then came the 2020 election and Trump refused to admit his defeat. The person Trump turned out to be the danger to our democracy that critics feared all along. I was wrong.’
Glenn Loury is the epitome of the American dream: a young man from poor South Chicago who has what it takes to make it to the top of the academic world, but his girlfriend gets pregnant. An academic career seems to have been nipped in the bud. But Loury does not give up, he works night shifts as a clerk in a printing company to support his family and takes classes during the day at a local college. His teacher urges him to enroll at a real university: Northwestern University. There he emerges as a mathematical genius, an elegant wizard of equations. A PhD at the prestigious MIT follows.
And then there is the ultimate accolade to his intellectual endeavors: Glenn Loury becomes the first tenured black professor on Harvard's faculty of economics at the age of 33. ‘For me, that was a tremendous pressure, I was so afraid of failing. Not long after, I transferred to Harvard Kennedy School, a public administration faculty. That's where I really found my voice.’
That voice turns out to be remarkably conservative and was shaped by Detroit, the city he often visited when he taught at the University of Michigan. The ‘Motor City’ was in the grip of crime and decay in the 1980s, white families all moved away. Loury: `A social economist will be quick to say: “Detroit was a victim of globalization, the car industry could not compete with the global competition, and that came with great social consequences.” But I also saw something else: a black community in crisis.’
In 1984, Professor Loury publishes ‘A New American Dilemma’, a polemical essay that hurls him into the innermost circles of America's conservative elite. In this essay, Loury argues that ‘the social upheaval among poor blacks, the lagging academic achievement, the alarmingly high rate of mutual crime and the alarming increase in unmarried young mothers are emerging as the primary obstacles to progress.’
You met a lot of resistance with your analysis. During one of your speeches, Martin Luther King's widow, Coretta Scott King, was crying in the front.
‘I think she felt very disappointed. I was a Harvard professor, the face of a new generation, and then I came up with this criticism. It was heresy to say that the African American community also had a responsibility of its own. I was a traitor in their eyes. I was shut out, but I enjoyed being the bad boy.’
You impressed a different crowd, though, with your analysis.
‘Certainly, I was embraced and praised by a conservative white elite. In 1987, I was even nominated as undersecretary in the Department of Education in Reagan's second term. I was well on my way to becoming someone like Clarence Thomas (African American Supreme Court Judge, ed.).’
But it turned out differently. Because all that time Loury led a double life. ‘I took pride in being a code switcher; to be able to fit in, both on Harvard as on the streets. I liked to smoke marijuana and became addicted to cocaine and crack. I loved to pick up women on the street. Maybe I did it to blow off steam, I was under a lot of pressure at Harvard. But I did it just the same. There was an enemy within Glenn, which is probably why I was so fierce.’
One of his then-girlfriends sued Loury for domestic violence after a fierce argument (‘I did not violate that woman, but I treated her badly’). She dropped charges, but Loury had to withdraw from the position. Not long after, he was arrested for drug possession. ‘Looking back, you may wonder whether I actually wanted that job. Anyway, I did everything I could to screw it up.’
Loury went into rehab, joined a church with his - forgiving - wife Linda (he would later leave the church and declare himself an atheist). He threw himself into his original love: microeconomics. It was not until 1995 that he published on the subject of race again, in a milder tone and full of self-reflection. Loury got his teeth into America's prison system with the acclaimed book Race, Incarceration and American Values, in which he concluded that African Americans were disproportionately represented in a merciless, inhumane prison system. Loury was back, arisen from the ashes as a moderate thinker on the left.
But then, after 2010, came the police killings of African Americans like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The Black Lives Matter movement got wings and wrote its political manifesto. The subject of race was back as never before, but Loury was not impressed with the quality of the arguments of these new breed of thinkers and protesters.
You retraced your steps?
‘Yes, essentially I have the same opinion that I expressed in “A New American Dilemma”. This new anti-racism movement, too, pretends that the civil rights movement has made no progress. But we've had a black president for eight years. We have black billionaires. We have Oprah Winfrey, we have LeBron James. Black athletes are gods in our country. Hip-hop is currently the most dominant music movement in our culture. Then there is also a large African American middle class, universities and big companies are fully committed to diversity. I just don't believe that inequality in the United States in 2021 can be attributed to racism.’
But is a fact that African Americans are killed by the police about 2.5 times more often than white Americans.
‘Yes, but African Americans are also hugely disproportionately represented in violent crime rates, from rape and armed robbery to murder. Take a look at the homicide figures: every year about 15,000 people are killed, 8,000 of them are black victims and in 95 percent of the cases the perpetrator is also black. Then the analysis ‘it’s the police’s fault’ simply falls short. There are just young men who cause mayhem on the streets with their gangs and violence.’
Some people will argue that this violence is the result of racism. That it is is the result of the destruction of social structures by a history of slavery followed by racial segregation.
‘And I agree, of course it is: the culture of black lives in poor areas of America is the product of a history that goes all the way back to slavery. But what I am saying: all these external influences do not relieve you of the responsibility to take good care of your children, to take care of your own life. If we want change, we also have to look at ourselves.’
You argue that anti-racists with their demands actually empower white people whilst infantilizing black people. What do you mean by that?
‘Black Lives Matter activists make an appeal to the white majority: acknowledge your privileges, apologize. In doing so, they make the white American the moral agents: they can decide to do the right thing. At the same time, poor black people are the product of history, they are helpless victims of their circumstances. I wish more autonomy for my community to seal their own destiny and not depend on white Americans for justice.’
Given the tense relationship between African Americans and the police, is it not understandable that people took to the streets in droves after the death of George Floyd?
‘Yes, and I don't want to tell people how to feel. But in absolute numbers, far more white people are still being killed by the police than black people, and there is also a white example for every George Floyd. Think of someone like Tony Timpa (a white, mentally unstable man who was murdered by police officers, ed). There is so much interaction between policemen and civilians every day, and then when something terrible happens to one person, like George Floyd, people become angry and take to the streets - not only to demonstrate peacefully, but also to loot and destroy. I was shocked to see angry mobs outside the courtroom demanding that Derek Chauvin be convicted. They intimidated the jurors, they undermined a fair process.’
In The Glenn Show, you even argue against the progressive claim of voter suppression - Republicans making it harder for African Americans to vote through laws and regulations. But isn’t that exactly what’s going on in Georgia at the moment?
‘Some legislative changes proposed by Republicans will affect African American voters more. But that is mostly pragmatical party tactics of the Republicans, aimed at more power - black communities are simply more likely to vote Democratic. There is no racist motive, for me that is an important difference.’
‘Besides, some of thew new voting requirements are not unreasonable. I don't know about your country, but I don't think it's strange to have to identify yourself when you cast your vote. The solution is neither to just cry out “racism”. Everyone should get ID, it makes life better for black Americans in other ways, too.’
Is this the Glenn Loury of yesteryear, who enjoys being the bad boy? What do you think is at stake?
‘I'm just not optimistic about the course of my country. There is a large group of voters - not least poor white Americans - who feel completely alienated from the Black Lives Matter discourse. Ultimately, the monster is white identity politics. I fear that social justice warriors will overplay their hand, and that this will result a backlash, in anti-black sentiments.’
How do you think America should proceed if not along identity lines?
‘I’d like to refer to my fellow economist Robert Reich, who calls for cognitive empathy. We must learn to see the world through the eyes of another. You don't have to agree with one another, not at all! But there is so little understanding now for one another, which is difficult in a country that is the home to both Christian fundamentalists and liberals. The point is, we have to live together. The way we talk about race now, the proliferating identity politics, increases alienation and distance towards one another.’