Reviving the Spirit of Free Inquiry
From the 2023 Keynote Address at the MIT Free Speech Alliance Conference
Last month, I had the honor of delivering the keynote address at the MIT Free Speech Alliance’s first conference. I received my doctorate in economics from MIT back in the 1970s. At the time, it was probably the best economics department on the planet. An atmosphere of unfettered inquiry was key to MIT economics’ success in those days, just as it is key to the survival and thriving of any ambitious intellectual enterprise. There were no questions you couldn’t ask, and the legitimacy of your answers to those questions depended solely on their ability to withstand the scrutiny of your teachers and peers.
That is as it should be. But as we’ve seen, the spirit of free inquiry is now too often hampered by the censorious impulses of campus culture warriors in the student body, faculty, and administration. The search for knowledge about the world cannot proceed under that condition. When the people pursuing new ways of understanding the world must constantly worry that their legitimate research will uncover information that will get them canceled, the big questions don’t get asked.
This state of affairs cannot continue, and most people know it, even if they won’t say so. As I say in my address, our job is to call ‘em like we see ‘em. I encourage you to listen to that address, but I wanted to bring particular attention to the Q&A session that followed the speech. I think it’s a particularly rich example of the kind of exchanges that are possible when no one is looking over their shoulder and worrying that their good faith questions will land them in hot water. I think it’s still possible for the academy to move back toward that ideal, but we’re going to need more folks like the Free Speech Alliance to get it going.
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QUESTION 1: I'm going to get in trouble. I just had to disagree with something you said, and I can't not say it. You said our Americanness is more important than our blackness. This is untrue. Our blackness is our Americanness. And our Americanness is our blackness. We made this country. We are Americans. There are no more American people than the black people of the United States. We defined freedom. The struggles of our people in this country to find freedom, not just for Americans, but for the world. Those people in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East, they sang “We Shall Overcome.” They hearkened to us. Black people. We play a historical role.
Black Americans, we are a new people. I'm married to an African woman. I have African children. I'm not African. I'm American. We made this country, because it is the black people of the United States of America who taught the world what it means to be free. Simple as that. Without black people, you do not have the America as we know it. You don't. You just don't. We are Americans. That's all I wanted to say.
GLENN LOURY: Well, I'm going to take that as a friendly amendment, because I don't find anything to take issue with there. And I appreciate the passion of your profession of Americanness. No problem. It's all good.
QUESTION 2: Professor Loury, Steve Carhart, Class of '70. Is there some way that we could begin to talk about our cultural heritage apart from our racial heritage? Because I think this is where it is going. And talk about white culture or black culture, if we could see our culture independently of what our genetics would be, is there any way we can begin that conversation? It seems to me that's where your thoughts are going.
Well, yeah, that's certainly compatible with my thinking. You didn't say the word “class,” but you might have said that as well, as a different dimension along which to compartmentalize and analyze the kinds of disparities that we're concerned about. The evocation of race, of course, carries with it a presumption of, in the context of the history of American anti-black racism, as they say and as I suggested, it brings to mind a causal analysis. Which is the disparity in question has happened because of some race based enmity, discrimination, exclusion, denial of opportunity, mistreatment. And I think that may have been true at mid-twentieth century. It's certainly considerably less true today.
Moreover, I think that race is pretty flexible. It's not as if we're talking about a location on the human genome where we can differentiate amongst individuals. We're talking about constructed social conventionality about how people are classified in our interactions with them. In our country, it's got to be very dynamic because the country is very dynamic. We're a country of immigrants. The mid-'60s civil rights revolutions also saw a revolution in the liberalization of immigration laws, and scores of millions of people have come to the country in the last half-century from ports of call that are not Europe and are making their lives here.
Race is dynamic—interracial marriage and so on—and so there's every reason to try to be moving away from thinking about these things in terms of race. You mentioned culture specifically, and yes. I mean, if I want to know why some families are sending their kids to the exam schools in New York City or Boston at so high a rate, I might wanna inquire into what's going on in the homes, what the parents emphasize, how much time is spent on homework. What is regarded as a dignified way of living? How do people spend their time? These are cultural things. So if I want to get to the root of inequality … And I was talking about educational achievement, but I could have also been talking, on the other end of the spectrum, about criminal behavior and acting out and so on.
I mean who's raising kids? I mean where's the supervision? What models are being set for how to comport oneself in the world? These are cultural things. These are real things. Try to get a sociologist to talk about those things. Try to get a sociologist to say that the family structure matters in terms of the resources available for the raising of kids. If you wanted to try to calibrate what was going to be the outcome from the child rearing process, the structure of the family, the nature of relations between the adult men and women that gave rise to the progeny, are absolutely fundamental. Try to get a sociologist to take that seriously. Some do, but very, very few do. There's a downplaying of cultural influences and an emphasis on economic and, in the case at hand, racial issues which I think is excessive.
That's how I'd respond. But you ask me how to, and I don't know how to. How do we change the conversation to be this instead of that? I can say, I think the conversation should be this rather than that. But it's a little bit above my pay grade to figure out how to undo this consensus. Somebody used the term “the left.” I understand that. “The woke,” I've used that term. There's a consensus sensibility that's going to be hard to disrupt.
QUESTION 3: Hi, Professor Loury. Thank you so much. Caleb Capoccia, Harvard College. I have two quick questions. One is, how do you think it would be possible to challenge this pernicious racial essentialism as a non-black student? I've, in conversations, discussed issues related to these and been disregarded as coming from a place of privilege. It's not my position to speak about it or talk about it.
And my second question is, do you believe it is possible to achieve a post-racial society, like someone like Kmele Foster or Coleman Hughes might advocate for or hope for?
You know, we economists are sometimes called the dismal science. And the reason is because we're the bearers of the bad news that there's no free lunch. People want to do something. They want to solve a problem or whatever. And we're there to say, well, there are no real solutions. There are only trade-offs. You have to balance against competing ends, because resources are limited. I'm sorry.
And I'm here to tell you, there's no such thing as free speech, either. Not literally free. There's unfettered and unrestricted expression, but if you speak in a particular way and others hear you speak that way, they're going to have a reaction to you, which you're just going to have to deal with if you want to speak. You can't expect to be exempted from the consequences of people hearing you speak and then reacting to you in a certain way. Which is about my way of saying it—and it's very easy for me to say, because I'm 75 years old and I'm a long way from a college frat house—you have to have the courage of your convictions. You gotta front people. You gotta tell them, “You're not gonna bully me here. This is a view. If you've got an argument, I'm open to it, but I'm not gonna be shamed out of taking a reasonable position until you disabuse me of it by providing evidence and argument to the contrary.” You gotta be the kid that says the emperor has no clothes, and you gotta roll with the punches. Sorry.
As far as post-racial America is concerned, I mean, “I Have a Dream.” And not to make fun of the great Martin Luther King Jr.'s great speech, 1963, August, Washington Mall, Lincoln Memorial. He had a dream. I have a dream. My dream is that, a hundred years from now, you'll be talking about race, blackness, and so forth in the same tones that one talks about being Irish or Italian. Today, a hundred years ago, being Irish or Italian was a very thick identity. It came with all kinds of things, both internal, in terms of “my people,” and external, in terms of “those people.”
And it ain't like that no more. I mean, there is St. Patrick's Day, et cetera. But it is a different dimension altogether. I don't see why we can't be hopeful about evolving in that direction. But we're a long way from it.
QUESTION 4: I'm very taken by the example you used, the worker shot in Wisconsin, the black guy killed a group of white people, and also George Floyd, you know, vice versa.
So, in other words, there are underlying similarities, disregarding our skin color. If I may, I want to share with you one example I myself experienced. Years ago there was a cow disease. Mad cow disease in the US. The beef, everything had to be reexamined. At that time, in East Asian countries, everybody cheered up. Because they said, “Oh, Americans, they eat divine cows. Now they got punished by God.” So they cheered up.
And then in American, many Americans and Europeans think, you know, “East Asians, you guys eat dogs. You're barbaric, uncivilized. So you need to be punished.” And the East Asians said, “You eat beef. You're barbaric, you're uncivilized.”
So cultures are different, skin colors are different. However, the underlying similarities are very striking. In the case of George Floyd and the Wisconsin case, on the surface, it's the same thing. But there's underlying similarities.
So my question to you is, why are we so trapped by the surface differences, such as skin color and physical attributes? How can we overcome that in order to see the underlying similarities, to testify that actually we're more similar than different? What would you undertake to overcome this epistemological trap?
That's a good set of questions. “I don't know” is my honest answer. But I'll say a couple of things.
Let me first ask whether you can agree that this is not so much a political as it is a spiritual issue. It's about how we understand ourselves in relation to other human beings. And I'm not trying to proselytize by offering any particular religious take. I'm just saying, transcending this impulse, resisting what feels warm and comfortable and soothing and natural, and standing above it. When we're called to do something like that, spiritual resources can be important. So that's not really an answer. It's certainly not a program of action. But it's a suggestion that I don't think the political structures are up to the task.
We were talking about Wisconsin. So in Kenosha, somebody named Jacob Blake was shot by a police officer, and the city burned down. It was a big deal. I don't want to parse the details of the case, but let me just say that Blake appeared to be stealing his girlfriend's car and kidnapping her children. He had a knife in his hand. He refused police directives. He was tased and was unresponsive to the tasing. And he turned, wielding the knife, when he was shot. He was in the process of turning with the knife in his hand. This is all documented fact about the case. He became a car celebre. He didn't die. He was crippled by the bullets in the back, gravely wounded but in the hospital recovering.
I recall that there was a presidential election going on in 2020. I recall that the Democratic candidates for president and vice president phoned the hospital room of Jacob Blake, spoke to him. Now they could have done that, fine. They could have done that. And then gave a press conference about having done it.
As we used to say back in my neighborhood, what's up with that? In other words, the political interests—I give one example—were not to deracialize. They were to hyper-racialize. They were to make worthy of presidential attention a miscreant. I'm sorry if I offend anybody, but when you steal your girlfriend's car, kidnap her children, and attack a police officer, that's what you are. Because he was black, and because there were people on the margins of either voting or not voting who might have been moved to vote and pulled the lever in the correct direction if his blackness had been emphasized. I hope that we are able, as a people, American people, to rise above the sectarian pettiness and to see ourselves in our full humanity and to outgrow some bad habits.
But I'm not counting on politicians to lead us there.
QUESTION 4: I just want to add, [after] the Blake incident, Kenosha formed the Racial Equity Commission, and I was elected on that commission.
Ah, how about that.
QUESTION 5: To use the example of “The Emperor's New Clothes,” in that story, the people know the truth but they're too afraid to speak it. Is it possible in these cases where people over-blame racism for problems, that people actually believe that, or is it that they're more like “The Emperor's New Clothes”? They know they're incorrect, but they say so anyways.
I'm really glad that you asked that question, because I started out calling attention to my long conversation with John McWhorter, and this is one of the things that we disagree about.
He says he doesn't think people are as cynical as I think they are. See, I think everybody knows that 70 percent of kids being born to a woman without a husband is a sociological disaster, that a community characterized in that way is fundamentally crippled, and that nothing is going to get better until something is done about that. I think people know that. And yet they, the sociologists that I was giving reference to, they elect not to say so in the interest of maintaining the fiction. John thinks, “Don't be so sure that they know it. They actually think that they are doing right and they're doing good and they're on the right side of history. Their thinking is muddled and their acquaintance with the evidence is casual, but they really believe what they're doing.”
And I say, no they don't. I think the demagogic ambulance chasers whom I called out a moment ago—the ones who show up in front of the microphones anytime something happens and wave the bloody shirt of racism—know exactly what they're doing. I think Al Sharpton knows exactly what he's doing. I think Benjamin Crump knows exactly what he's doing. They're playing with fire, and they know they're playing with fire.
John, my friend, thinks, “Oh no. They think they're crusaders. They have a cause. They really believe in the cause.” I think there's nobody who's confused about the fact that if you have carjacking 15-year-olds running around in D.C. or Baltimore or Cleveland or Chicago or St. Louis or New Orleans or Philadelphia jacking people's cars, that eventually it'll kill the city. People who can move will move. Businesses will not expand. The tax base will go bad. You're spinning in a spiral down the drain. I think people know that.
So, my answer to you is that some of this stuff ... mass incarceration is structural racism? I don't think anybody really, really, really believes it. I mean, I just might be giving them too much intellectual credit, because it seems pretty obvious to me that you don't get the racial disproportion in incarceration that we have in this country without a huge behavioral disparity in the law-breaking behavior of the people who are members of these respective populations.
Now, that doesn't have to be the end of the discussion. We can talk about what the causes and remedies of that are. But the fact that this is some kind of racist conspiracy visited upon black people? It's absurd on it's face to me. I don't see how anybody could believe it. Not really. Thank you.
QUESTION 6: What's been your experience at Brown University holding the views that you do?
I've been there since 2005. That's 18 years. So it's been a while. My views have not always been exactly as I am stating them here. I have moved to the right, I'm just going to tell you, by the force of events over the period of Trayvon Martin, which was 2012 if I'm not mistaken, Michael Brown, which was 2015, if I'm not mistaken. Stuff has happened that has moved me.
But I'm notorious and controversial. My colleagues outside of the economics department pretty much shun me. There are massive enterprises at Brown devoted to the subject that I've been talking about here today, and I've yet to be invited to address or participate in any of them. And I'm okay with that. You know, the Center for the Study of Slavery and Social Justice, the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Inequality and whatnot. I could be on another planet. I might as well be an alien.
But my classes are oversubscribed. We have to turn them away at the door. And the kids are coming not because they agree with me but because they want a breath of fresh air. They are tired of being indoctrinated. They want to hear these issues—controversial issues—genuinely engaged. I think. I speculate. So I'm teaching “Race, Crime, and Justice” to 100 undergraduates. And they write papers, I give lectures, they take issue, they passionately express themselves in class. They feel free. I make sure they know that they're free to disagree with me as well as with each other. And I'm okay.
So it's something of a mixed bag, is what I'm saying. In the economics department, I'm respected. I mean, I'm in my 70s. I'm not exactly at the cutting edge of the research dynamic of the department. But I have a distinguished academic record and people are happy to see me among their company as a member of the department. But outside the department, I'm that guy.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Well, you made the cover of Brown Alumni Monthly a while back.
Oh yeah. So the editors of the Brown alumni magazine saw fit to send an able correspondent around to interview me and then made a cover story out of it. I was the same guy from the interview that you've seen before you're here today. So kudos to them.
Now, I will say that some aging alumni have been writing in to the Brown alumni magazine for years saying, “How come you haven't done a piece on Professor Loury? How come you haven't done a piece on Professor Loury?” So the editor might have felt like he had to do it. I'm not saying he did or he didn't. He might have also been enthusiastic about doing it. But they did it.
QUESTION 7: Two quick comments and a serious question. I'm very happy to hear your comment about the students at Brown being very interested in what you have to say as opposed to the faculty. Comment number one.
Comment number two, I can tell you from personal experience dealing with Al Sharpton that he knows exactly what he's doing, up close and personal.
So we have, particularly in the South, an attempt to balance the racial makeup of Congress by gerrymandering districts on the basis of race. Maybe that made sense at some time in the past, maybe it makes sense today. I'm curious about your view on that. Or should we assume that black folk like President Obama can get elected by white folk? Do we need racial gerrymandering in this day and age?
Yeah, these cases are in the air. I think it's Alabama, isn't it, where there is a redistricting battle going on. And people are saying that the Voting Rights Act requires that if you can draw a majority-minority district, you should draw it in the interest of giving African Americans a maximal chance to elect representatives of their own choosing.
I have to preface my answer by saying this is sacred ground for many people. This is the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that we're talking about here. Whenever a debate about this question, whether it's what the Supreme Court wants to do or what a politician wants to do or a state legislature wants to do, they're going to invoke the Voting Rights Act. They're going to say, “You're trying to limit people's voting rights.”
You asked my opinion, I'm gonna tell you my opinion. I think this is as profoundly wrongheaded a theory of representation in a democracy as you could possibly have. To equate a person being represented by the fact that the sitting member has the same race as they do. Is that what we mean by representation? We're representing races? Why is it that a white Democrat can't be every bit as effective, if you are a Democratic voter, in putting forward a set of policies—most of which have nothing to do with race—as a black? How is it that your representation is, in virtue of that fact alone, manifestly enhanced when the constituents' racial identity and the racial identity of the representative coincide with each other?
That's just me. That's just my theory. I was very influenced by the work of the late Abigail Thernstrom, a political scientist whose book Whose Votes Count?—I remember the book from like 1987, 1989, something like that—took up this issue and, with a careful parsing of the cases and of the legislation, argued for an interpretation of the Voting Rights Act that would wean us away from this kind of racial representation view.
I was also impressed by a book by a political scientist named Carol Swain called Black Faces, Black Interests, in which she made the following observation. Take a state like Georgia. It's got however many congressional districts. I don't know how many, 13, 16, whatever. And you mass the blacks into the maximum number of districts that you can mass them into to get them to be 50 or 60 percent of the electorate. Which means you take them away from all the other districts. The other districts become more white, more conservative—it's Georgia, after all—more Republican. So you end up with a congressional delegation that's got more black people in it and more Republicans at the same time. Have you advanced the interests of the black representatives residents of that state, or have you not done so? It's very unclear whether you have or you haven't.
Now, I'm not a lawyer. I'm not an expert on the jurisprudence of this kind of thing. But my understanding is the Supreme Court has acted in cases which have limited the interpretation of various sections of the Voting Rights Act, like the preclearance provision, which requires a local jurisdiction to go to a federal court to get an okay before they can do things like change the location of polling places or other kinds of ballot related procedural matters, on the assumption that, in the past, such discretion had been misused in order to deprive black people of the right to vote, even though that's a historical relic which is no longer relevant to the contemporary circumstance of those states.
And the Supreme Court has said no. And people like my friend Randall Kennedy, the law professor at Harvard, an African American, and a relatively sensible guy of liberal persuasion, he says, “No, no, no. The court is wrong about its interpretation of the voting rights cases, and Congress has, in effect, said that the same historical conditions that elicited the Voting Rights Act in 1965, to a greater or lesser degree, continue to be present in those areas, and so we need to stay vigilant.”
But my view is that it's all resting on a theory of representation that is also mid-twentieth century, and that is not suited anymore, in my opinion—it's just my opinion—to our contemporary situation. But, as I say, politically, it's sacred ground. People are going to invoke voting rights. They're going to invoke African American equality at the ballot box. And you know, if you're not a conservative Republican and you have to run in a constituency where that kind of thing has traction, you may not want to be on the wrong side of the progressives on that. It's my view.