A Review Of Glenn Loury's The Anatomy Of Racial Inequality


Friday, Mar. 01, 2002

Glenn C. Loury, The Anatomy of Racial Inequality (Harvard University Press 2002)

Glenn Loury's new book, The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, is the latest entrant in our incessant national dialogue about how we can all get along better. The book is occasionally insightful and always provocative, but it is generally fair to say that what's good in it is not very new, and what's new is not particularly good.

In the preface, Loury states that the book comes out of the W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures he delivered at Harvard University in April 2000. Ironically, in many respects Du Bois's classic The Souls of Black Folk--even though it was published almost a century ago, in 1903--does a better job of dealing with the problems now addressed by Loury.

Loury versus Du Bois on the Vicious Circle and Setting Standards

Du Bois addresses the same vicious circle that is the central focus of Loury's book: Prejudice limits what blacks can achieve, and black underachievement reinforces white prejudice.

But Du Bois's approach to breaking the circle is very different from Loury's. Du Bois wrote: "I insist that the question of the future is how best to keep these millions [of African Americans] from brooding over the wrongs of the past and the difficulties of the present, so that all their energies may be bent toward a cheerful striving and co-operation with their white neighbors toward a larger, juster, and fuller future." In contrast, ignoring Du Bois's advice, Loury's book broods over these very wrongs and difficulties.

If so, Du Bois stands accused. He urged that society must "[d]raw lines of crime, of incompetency, of vice, as tightly and uncompromisingly as you will, for these things must be proscribed ...." Rather than advocating lowering standards, Du Bois was insisting on upholding them, and urging other African Americans to strive to meet them.

The Role of Lingering Stigma in Remaining Black-White Disparities

Loury acknowledges, as he must, that overt and conscious discrimination have dramatically declined over the last generation. Acknowledging this progress, Loury notes that the principal problem facing blacks today is not disparate treatment in "rewards" but disparities in "development." He also focuses not on discrimination in "contract" but differences in "contact."

But Loury also argues that, despite the progress that has been made, African Americans still suffer a "racial stigma." They are viewed by whites as "damaged goods" and treated accordingly, Loury contends, and this attitude is ultimately traceable to slavery. Of course, this means that there is still bias and discrimination, so it's unclear how much Loury's concept of "racial stigma" adds to the discussion.

In any event, what portion of black-white economic disparities and other inequalities can be ascribed to this stigma, and what portion is the result of poor decisions and choices by some African Americans--to have children out of wedlock, not work hard in school, commit crimes, or use drugs? Loury, while acknowledging both possibilities, refuses to measure the relative importance of each.

Flawed Prescriptions, Focusing Too Much on Government, and Forgetting the Law

Like Du Bois, Loury acknowledges that pathologies breed prejudice, which reinforces the pathologies. Yet Loury does not have a realistic (or even legal) prescription for breaking this self-perpetuating pattern.

Loury focuses too much on government policy. He acknowledges that there is a tension between honoring individual autonomy and subjecting people to "political or bureaucratic manipulation" when they are biased, but does not consider that bias can be fought by ways other than government edict. And because the urban pathologies that retard black development and feed white bias frequently involve immoral behavior--illegitimacy, crime, drug abuse, and so forth--the critical role that inner-city churches might play is obvious.

Loury asserts that social policies must be evaluated, not just for wisdom, but for their racial impact. But what lesson does he think whites will draw if legislation, for instance, has to be watered down or rejected because, as good as it may be, legislators decide that it sets standards too high for blacks? That approach will hardly diminish racial stigma.

The law is currently--and rightly--quite hostile to government actions that are aimed at helping or hurting this race or that race. Any proposal for policy change must take those constitutional constraints into account.

Forgetting the Costs of Racial Preferences and Race-Conscious Decisions

In the end, Loury fails as an economist, too, forgetting to calculate the genuine costs of racial preferences and race-conscious decisionmaking. Those costs may actually result in the retardation of racial progress. Moreover, the "far-reaching structural reform" Loury wants will in all likelihood jeopardize other social values and institutions.

The self-help and striving endorsed by Du Bois--and, of course, his contemporary and rival, Booker T. Washington--combined with a policy of race neutrality rather than racial preferences, will succeed far better than Dr. Loury's prescription. We should think less, not more, about race, which is long overdue for a period of benign neglect.

Loury believes that if racial progress is to continue, it is crucial that there be more racial integration in elite institutions. Yet he ignores the costs to such progress if the integration is achieved by employing a racial double standard. Mutual respect is more important than integration, and there can be mutual respect only if everyone knows that all are being measured by the same yardstick.

Roger Clegg is general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Sterling, Virginia.

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