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Systemic Racism at Brown?
A campus controversy that never truly ended
Back in 2015, a Brown University student writing under the name M. Dhzali Maier published two opinion pieces in the Brown Daily Herald, the college’s student newspaper. These pieces, “The White Privilege of Cows” and “Columbian Exchange Day,” took controversial—but by no means indefensible—stands on the origins and consequences of group differences and colonialism throughout history. Students at Brown took offense and demanded retractions and apologies from the Herald, claiming that Maier’s columns were irredeemably racist and pro-colonialist.
I disagreed with the students’ objections, but given the famously progressive leanings of Brown’s student body, I didn’t find them all that surprising. I did find what happened next both surprising and disturbing. The Herald placed a long editor’s note at the top of web version of “The White Privilege of Cows” claiming that the piece “did not meet the Herald’s standards for writing and clarity” and expressing regrets that it was ever published, due to its purportedly disproven claims about race and biology. “Columbian Exchange Day,” though, was removed from the Herald’s site entirely. In its place was a note claiming the piece had been “removed after it was unintentionally published due to an internal error.” The note described the piece as “racist.”
Some Brown faculty members also had a response to the incident. A few weeks after the student uproar, several dozen professors signed a statement decrying “the structures of white supremacy found in our national institutions including in our most cherished universities and colleges.” The statement voiced support for students who called for the articles’ retraction and claimed that concerns about freedom of expression were misplaced because the protesting students were acting in “self-defense” against what I can only suppose was the “harm” inflicted on them by reading an opinion piece with which they disagreed.
The idea, implied by the faculty statement, that Brown University was, in the year 2015, a site of deeply entrenched structural racism struck me as beyond absurd. These were well-compensated Ivy League professors with vast resources and protections at their disposal, which allowed them to live comfortable lives and to pursue their intellectual interests more or less as they pleased. I ought to know: I was one of them! There is no definition of “oppression” that could plausibly describe their situation, or mine.
I had to say something. But then, I was “the black conservative” who had recently shifted back to the political right. I knew my objections could be written off as an ideological reflex. So I decided to remind any would-be detractors that I wasn’t just some pundit. Nor was I trying to curry favor with white right-wingers. I had spent decades studying race and inequality in America, so when I said that there was no sinister “systemic racism” lurking within Brown, I knew whereof I spoke.
Below I present my response to the faculty statement in the Herald. Perhaps I ran (and run) the risk of self-aggrandizement, but I needed to make my bona fides explicit. Moreover, I knew there were others at Brown who felt, if not outrage, then bemusement at the idea that their university was, despite all evidence to the contrary, racist. They might have feared—not without reason—that speaking out would brand them as racists in turn and so render them persona non grata among their colleagues and peers. They needed to know that they were neither racist nor crazy.
The Herald controversy, post-George Floyd, now seems almost quaint. At least nobody started a riot over it. I don’t think, in 2015, that I imagined such statements as the one I present below would still be necessary more than a half-decade on. But in 2023, they seem more urgent than ever.
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Summary of Scholarly Contributions of Glenn C. Loury, Black American Economist and Public Intellectual, on the Subject of Racial Inequality
Because I am an African American whose politics lean conservative, some critics have questioned my bona fides. “Who is this Glenn Loury? What kind of black man would take the stands that he does—against BLM, against CRT, against affirmative action, against reparations for slavery?”
Here is my answer:
Over the course of my academic career I have published dozens of scholarly articles in economics journals, scores of essays and reviews in the leading venues for commentary on American politics and culture, an edited volume on race, ethnicity and inequality in the US and the UK, and two well-received monographs based on distinguished lectures series that I have presented at Harvard (DuBois Lectures in African American Studies) and Stanford (Tanner Lectures on Human Values). A major focus of this work has been to address the root causes and ongoing consequences of racial inequality in American society. I have published in other areas of economics as well—on the economics of exhaustible resources; on informal credit associations; on the theory of industrial organization; on urban economics; on sociolinguistics; on game theory—but I focus here on that part of my corpus most relevant to the question, “Just what kind of ‘scholar of color’ is Glenn Loury?”
An early contribution was my 1977 essay, which appeared in a conference volume, entitled “A Dynamic Theory of Racial Income Differences.” This work, still being cited, addressed the question, “Is Equal Opportunity Enough?” It explained how, even in the very long run, “equality of opportunity” would generally not be sufficient to generate “equality of results” between racial groups, given a history of discrimination and the ongoing segregation of important social networks.
This was followed by “Intergenerational Transfers and the Distribution of Earnings,” which appeared in the economic profession's most prestigious journal, Econometrica, in 1981. There I advanced our understanding of the theory of income inequality via a novel application of stochastic dynamic programming techniques, and of mathematical results on the asymptotic behavior of continuous-state/discrete-time Markov chains. That paper, too, continues to be cited now, more than three decades after it first appeared.
My 1993 article in The American Economic Review, “Will Affirmative Action Policies Eliminate Negative Stereotypes?” (with Stephen Coate of Cornell) was a path-setting game-theoretic analysis of the phenomenon of “self-confirming racial stereotypes.” It has become a foundational reference in labor economics textbooks. My 2013 Journal of Political Economy article, “Valuing Diversity” (with Roland Fryer of Harvard), provides a pioneering, rigorous analysis of the relative efficiency of different approaches to the problem of implementing affirmative action programs. My 2004 Journal of Political Economy article “The Distribution of Ability and Earnings in a Hierarchical Job-Assignment Model” (with Robert Costrell of the University of Arkansas) likewise breaks new ground by showing how inequality of abilities is translated via the market into inequality of wages under alternative structures of production. These technical contributions, based on over four decades of my scholarship, have exerted a profound influence on my field. These theoretical papers are read and cited by scholars, of various colors, in Hungary (where I received the John von Neumann Prize in 2005), in Argentina, in Colombia (where I have taught classes on racial inequality in summer school), and in Korea, Ghana, Indonesia, Nepal, India and South Africa (where I have lectured), etc.
I have also written insightful analyses of racial inequality issues in the US that are accessible to a general audience. My 2002 monograph The Anatomy of Racial Inequality (Harvard University Press, reissued with a new Preface in 2021) deploys the concepts of “racial stigma” and “racial stereotypes” to develop an original account of the persistently disadvantaged status of African Americans in the post‐civil‐rights era. Drawing on my ideas first elaborated in my 1976 MIT PhD thesis, this work stresses the role in the reproduction of racial inequality of what I there called “social capital.” I was the first social scientist of any color since Jane Jacobs to use that term, and have been credited by the late sociologist James S. Coleman and the noted political scientist Robert D. Putnam as an early progenitor of the concept. I used the concept of social capital to capture the fact that “human capital” investments to enhance an person’s productivity differ from other kinds of economic investments: To some extent, the opportunity to invest and return from having invested varies with a person’s location inside of the many networks of social affiliation—families, residential communities, peer groups and “imagined communities”—that constitute the social life of a country.
My 2008 monograph Race, Incarceration, and American Values appeared years before Michelle Alexander's text. It described and denounced the injustice of mass incarceration in the US.
I have thus helped, through my scientific work, to modify and enrich the standard story economists tell about inequality among individuals and between groups. At the same time, in my public intellectual work, I have used this conceptual framework to construct critical, anti-racist policy arguments over the future directions that advocacy for justice and equality in America might most fruitfully take. My work on these varied aspects of the problem of persisting racial inequality in the US is noteworthy for combining intellectual rigor (it has advanced with the support of formal mathematical models), with a broad interdisciplinary reach (it draws on research in sociology, social psychology, history, and politics), and with artful and incisive writing. My 1995 book, One by One from the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America, which collects many of my popular essays, won both the American Book Award and the Christianity Today Book Award in that year.
Over the course of 15 years of teaching at Brown, I have influenced many graduate students of all colors and from every continent on the planet, except Antarctica. I have found the university to be an extremely warm, welcoming, supportive and open environment to undertake my work, its conservative temper notwithstanding. I know well the people who run this institution, and the notion that they are racially insensitive is a shameful slander with no basis in fact. My colleagues in the economics department and elsewhere at Brown have shown themselves to be open-minded, decent, and, on the whole, politically progressive scholars. The administration has lavished resources on me and has enthusiastically supported any number of initiatives that contribute to promoting a just and decent society, both within the United States and throughout the world.
The notion that Brown (or any other elite American university, for that matter) needs a revolutionary reshaping in order to become hospitable to “students of color,” the idea that “anti-black pedagogy” at Brown needs to be countered with some mandatory indoctrination of faculty, the proposal that external student committees should review purportedly “racist” departmental appointment processes, the initiative of creating “specialty positions” in academic departments to ensure their openness to hiring “faculty of color”—all of which have been proposed in recent years—these are all mischievous intrusions on the academic prerogatives of a distinguished faculty which no self-respecting scholar of any color should welcome. They are steps, now well-advanced, onto the slippery slope that slides down into intellectual mediocrity, and I will have nothing to do with them.