The Tribute of Criticism
Ronald Ferguson's remarks at my festschrift
Earlier this year, my friend Larry Kotlikoff organized a conference at Brown University held in my honor. I had the pleasure of spending two days listening to old friends and colleagues I’ve made over the course of a half-century in the academy discussing my work, ideas, and impact. Among my most cherished memories from that weekend is my great friend the economist Ronald Ferguson’s remarks, delivered at dinner on the first evening of the conference. Ron and I have known each other since our first year of graduate school at MIT, where we were two of only a handful of black students.
Below I present Ron’s (very lightly edited) speech. As you’ll see, it’s not a breathless encomium but a mix of warm reminiscence and thoughtful critique. That may seem odd at an event meant to commemorate my contributions to economics and social commentary, but I feel, on the contrary, there could be no higher tribute than that of a brilliant colleague thinking hard about my ideas. Criticism, respectfully and honestly applied, can sometimes serve as a higher compliment than praise. It is entirely fitting that Ron, a man with whom I’ve learned, debated, and grown over the course of so many years, would take the opportunity not to sugarcoat his analysis of my views but to take them seriously. That’s all I’ve ever asked, and I’m lucky to have a friend who understands that about me.
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As everyone here knows, Glenn is the nation’s most eloquent opponent of the idea that structural racism is a barrier to black progress in America and that anti-racism strategies and reparations campaigns are leading in the right direction. In the next few minutes, I want to trace Glenn’s perspective on such matters to his grad school and early career days and pull the thread forward to the present.
Glenn and I met in September of 1972 when we started the PhD program in Economics at MIT. We had grown up during Civil Rights and Black Power movements and wanted to equip ourselves to contribute. We met on the steps of Dewey Library, next to Building 52 where our classes were held. He had a big bumper sticker on his briefcase that said, “Rise Above It.”
Especially during that first year, Glenn and I sometimes prepared together for exams. I recall retrieving our papers one day after a monetary economics exam on which we both gotten As. He looked at me and, with an inflection in his voice that I still remember, said, “We can do this!” as though any doubt had now been resolved. That sense that he could do this and rise above it grew as he worked one-on-one with world-class theorists Bob Solow and Peter Diamond. Glenn wanted to run with the big dogs, as he sometimes says, and every indication was that he could and would. Today’s convening, and the career that we are here to celebrate, are testimony to the fact that he has.
Bob Solow told Phyllis Wallace, then a professor at the MIT Sloan School, that a mind like Glenn’s comes along about once every ten years. Did Solow also tell the economics department at Harvard? Is that why they invited him back to Cambridge in 1982 to take a tenured appointment, before his scholarship was fully mature? Even if that was the explanation—in other words, “Grab this brilliant guy before anyone else does”—there was no way Glenn could believe it, especially when there was little if any fanfare around the appointment and the likes of John Kenneth Galbraith looked through him as if he wasn’t there.
In a 2019 interview by Evan Goldstein in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Glenn said,
When I went to my first faculty meeting, everybody at the table was famous. I didn’t know if I belonged there. I choked. I’m not blaming affirmative action for this. I’m not trying to make a political statement. I choked. I lost my way. I was afraid that nothing I could do was going to be good enough. It was a horrible ordeal, a crisis of confidence. It came to the point where I was almost afraid to go into my own office. It was a psychological black hole.
Goldstein asked, “You say you don’t blame affirmative action, but did it play a role?”
Glenn’s response: “Of course it did.”
This once-in-a-decade genius had been robbed of the opportunity to show the world in no uncertain terms that a black man—and by extension, black people—could achieve at the highest levels and under the same rules as anyone else.
At one point, around 1975, we had 13 black students in the MIT economics PhD program. We would meet every Friday to share the papers or dissertations we were writing, to debate, and sometimes argue. On one occasion, I brought in a paper I was writing to fulfill the economic history requirement. I was fixated on the institution of debt peonage, where workers borrow against the harvest and end up owing it all to the plantation owner at the end of the season.
Glenn interrupted and shouted at me: “You’re making excuses!” to which I replied, “Fuck you!” It’s like Glenn and the structural racism crowd: Glenn is saying, “You are making excuses!” and at least figuratively, they’re saying, “Fuck you!”
Just to be clear, I’m not advocating structural racism as a concept. I was in the room when Manning Marable proposed it to the Aspen Institute’s Roundtable on Comprehensive Community Initiatives. It was the mid-1990s, and I wrote a memo in response. I argued that the word “racism” in this context would produce the conceptual quagmire that we’re experiencing today. Specifically, blurring the distinction between past racism and present-day racism causes misdiagnoses that make it politically incorrect to speak publicly about problems we could otherwise do something about if we face them unflinchingly. Responses foreshadowed Ibram X. Kendi’s well-intended but misguided declarations that any criticism of black people is racism and that the achievement gap is a racist idea.
In a recent Glenn Show conversation, Stephanie Lepp pressed Glenn on the fact that he speaks a lot in opposition to people like Kendi but doesn’t offer an alternative strategic vision. She asked him about his purpose.
His answer: “Equal dignity, equal respect is the goal.”
It reminded me of the “Rise Above It” bumper sticker and the accusation that I was “making excuses.” It reminded me too, of that early tenure decision.
Stephanie responded that that goal seemed personal. Glenn responded,
I sense a looming disaster and I’m crying out in the wilderness. I don’t know if I want to be honest even with myself about it. I am deeply ashamed. My people have now fallen into this pathetic posture in the face of this fast-moving world. […] It’s all a pathetic self-prostration in front of a jury that you have already condemned as racist […] Failing to connect and being able to stand on its own two feet. […] Objects of failed contempt. […] Writing off whites who disagree. The hypocrisy, the lying, the excuse making, I have nothing but contempt for it, and my raison d’etre is to as effectively as I can give voice to that contempt. To etch it into stone, that contempt.
Stephanie then asked, “For what purpose?”
He responded, “If I were an artist, would my painting have to be in service of a purpose? […] I just want to speak my truth and let the chips fall where they may.”
On a different day, in conversation with John McWhorter, Glenn says,
I want black excellence in the same register that Jewish excellence is registered. They don’t have to talk about it anymore, because they are simply doing it. I want it in the same currency as Asian excellence is measured. They don’t have to crow about being Asian and having Asianness injected into anything, they simply master the material. I don’t want handouts. I don’t want to be accommodated and have people look the other way and not apply the same standards and judgement to me as they would anybody else. I want the referee report to be done blind without knowing who I am and when my article gets accepted in the journal, I want to be able to say, “There. I’m a player, just like anybody else. You don’t need to know my color to know that I’m here, and I’m making a contribution.” I don’t care if it’s not 12% African Americans at the university. It could be 5% or 3%. But if the people who are doing it are doing it in the way that anybody else is doing it, that’s what I want.
John McWhorter likes to select names for prototypes that he calls avatars. Omar is one of them. He recently said to Glenn, “Omar makes you angry, Omar makes me sad.” One of my students writes the following about a friend like Omar:
Loury claims that it isn't enough to solely petition society to end discrimination, but that the black community must also examine the enemy within. Why does Loury phrase it as such? Why did he use the word “enemy”? […] I grew up in a gang-ridden neighborhood and initially I thought they were all “criminals” and were just “bad” people. […] As we got older, my friend joined one of these gangs, I thought he was a “bad” person and just ruined his life forever. However, I later learned why he and so many others joined a gang—to feel a sense of community, make income to support his low-income family, and to feel protected from the threats we faced in our community. The entrance fee was to carry out these criminal acts to prove that he was one of them. His behaviors were a function of his circumstances.
Glenn says he is not making a “just pull up your bootstraps argument—pull up you bootstraps and everything is going to be okay.” Rather, he says, “I’m saying stand up straight with your shoulders back. Take responsibility for your life, for your community, for your future, for your children.”
“The systemic racism religion,” Glenn says, doesn’t have enough room for that “take responsibility” narrative.
“Everybody has winds in their face. You’re privileged. You’re rich. You’re empowered. You live in the United States of America. Of people of African descent on this planet, we are by far the most prosperous and powerful. Your ancestors actually did have a boulder on their shoulders. You don’t.”
Who is the “you” in this case? Does it include Omar? Does it include the bad boy Harvard professor from the late 1980s? Is it Glenn talking to Glenn? What does Glenn think would induce the Omars of the world to shape up? Telling them they are prosperous and powerful? That there is no boulder? Despite his anger at the circumstance, Glenn accepts no responsibility to help answer such questions in strategically practical ways.
I agree that the antiracism movement often overreaches, and I’m happy that Glenn, John, and others are mounting persistent counterpoints. But we also need a counternarrative, one with its own logic. A strategically nuanced narrative, focused on human development, the need for which no one has argued more forcefully than Glenn.
Harvard Education Press published my book Toward Excellence with Equity in 2007, and Glenn wrote a preface for it that included the following passages:
Given the problematic state of so much of American primary and secondary education today, what could be more obvious than the imperative—which is forcefully articulated here—to create institutions, mobilize the resources, and provide the leadership requisite to that end?
But, truth be told, systemic, deeply rooted structural processes are implicated in the achievement gap—huge income and wealth disparities; massive and racially homogeneous urban ghettos; public schools financed via local taxes; a powerful commercial ethos encouraging consumption at the expense of contemplation, and so on. Dealing with processes of this kind … is the responsibility of all citizens to pursue the structural reforms necessary to attain the goal of true equality of opportunity in any society.
Accordingly, Ferguson’s call for a social movement for excellence with equity is not only a call for cultural reforms in homes and communities. He is also appealing for a shift in our national culture, including our politics, so that we will grapple with fundamental, desperately needed reforms in our national consciousness and political commitments. Societal problems, and not merely local communal ones, lie at the root of low academic achievement; and these problems are embedded in our national political culture. …
Glenn concluded, “A movement for excellence with equity, as is advocated in the final chapters of this book, should target our political institutions as much as it seeks to influence our informal cultural practices. It is my fervent hope that readers will bear this admonition in mind as they engage with the extensive data and powerful arguments of this book.”
As much as we might have agreed with it, my editor and I decided not to use Glenn’s preface, because admonishing readers to bear in mind “systemic, deeply rooted structural processes” when the book was more about improving lived experiences (and thereby human development) in homes, schools, and peer groups notwithstanding such structural processes—a view closer to Glenn’s 2022 position—didn’t seem like a good idea.
In any case, it’s hard to believe that the Glenn of 2022 thinks the structural factors he wrote about in 2007 are entirely gone or that they are simply a wind in Omar’s face. Rather it is simply not rhetorically convenient for Glenn to talk about those factors when others might see that as endorsing the structural racism perspective.
But is anyone being fooled? This quote from one of my students is not unusual:
I am open to Professor Loury’s perspective and sympathetic to some of his points. I agree with his general proposition that we should be willing to discuss societal problems openly, even if they are uncomfortable. […] However, I can imagine that his critics object to his refusal to connect the dots, between policies systematically pursued by American governments, which he acknowledges have had adverse effects on African Americans, and the notion of structural racism, to which he seems so allergic.
I believe people would gravitate more toward approaches that Glenn might favor, if he more easily acknowledged the ongoing relevance of racism—not as an absolute barrier, but as an aspect of social dynamics that have impacts on social interactions—and became more specific about what he thinks people should proactively do.
Of course, that might require a more expansive purpose than honor and dignity—for example, human flourishing—and more circumspection about essentially empirical matters. Hearing the assertions Glenn sometimes makes, I can hear the echoes of our dear friend Linda Datcher Loury saying, “Glenn, there is no way you could know that.”
Nice to imagine, but not likely to happen. Glenn’s preoccupation with honor is very deeply rooted. Furthermore, he is convinced, perhaps rightly so, that there is nothing more important he could do than to push back single-mindedly against perspectives that focus on victimhood.
Let me close by acknowledging that Glenn is that once-in-a-decade intellect and that his contributions are unique. Moreover, his greatest achievements are the most obscure to the everyday world. Neither listeners to The Glenn Show nor ideological opponents have glimpsed his virtuosity as a mathematician economist. There is a depth and profundity to his theoretical contributions across a range of policy areas. They are where his brilliance shines most bright.
Fifty years ago, as a graduate student at MIT, nothing in my experience had prepared me to understand the importance of the work that Glenn was doing and preparing to do. I remember thinking the concepts of social capital and group-proportional equality that he talked about were interesting, but that it didn’t require a whole dissertation of mathematical proofs to convince me that social capital in segregated racial networks might, under some circumstances, preclude achieving group-proportional equality over the infinite horizon. I didn’t appreciate that mathematics and economic science were art—with value in and of themselves—and that Glenn was using that art to explore fundamentally important ideas.
I viewed myself as the practical one, looking for concrete, specific ideas about how improve black people’s lives, and Glenn as the math wizard seeking to “run with the big dogs” of the economics profession, far removed from the communities of our origin. But over 40 years of teaching at Harvard’s Kennedy School and helping design, implement, and write about real-world change efforts, social capital and group-proportional equality—concepts I first encountered during those Friday afternoon sessions when Glenn would talk about his dissertation—have been central to the vision I share with regular people who are trying to improve their schools and communities.
In addition, stigma, which Glenn’s work made more central in my thinking, plays a key role in a framework that I call “the predicament,” that helps frame my teaching on school and community ecologies of human development. Most recently, Glenn’s videos and writings have helped open my students face difficult issues. These are mostly professional-degree students in education, law, public policy, business, and public health, who—like I did fifty years ago—come to grad school seeking ideas they can use to change the world.
They say Glenn cherry-picks his facts—which he does—but they also trust his sincerity and respect his conviction. By saying things that are so politically incorrect, Glenn helps my classes, and I’m sure the world more generally, to break the silence around critically important but politically sensitive topics on which we really can make progress if we face them squarely.
The bottom line is that it’s been a privilege. Since that day in September of 1972, I have always been proud to call Glenn my friend and to bask, from time to time, in the glow of his brilliance.
May 6, 2022