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Black American Identity, Family, and Religion: An Interview with…

Reprinted from Public Discourse

In his remarkable January 2022 essay “The Case for Black Patriotism,” Glenn Loury—the Brown University economist and one of the most important and insightful public intellectuals discussing race relations in America today—argues that the fundamental question for black Americans is “not how to end our oppression” but “what we will do with our freedom, what we will make of the enormous inheritance that is our birthright citizenship in history’s greatest republic.”

Loury’s essay, along with much else he has said and written in recent years, is a striking critical response to the cultural voices who claim that the repudiation of American identity and nationalism is the only rational response of black Americans to their experience in their own country. 

I sat down (via Zoom) with Glenn recently to talk to him about the ways in which two institutions dear to Public Discourse readers—the family and the church—must play a central role in addressing both racial disparities in our society and the weakening of the American social fabric across all racial groups.

Alexander Riley: Your First Things piece makes a case for black patriotism. Let’s talk a bit about the practical necessities of getting the country to the place where more Americans of all racial and ethnic groups think outside of the identity categories that have become the first way many people think about who they are. How do we move toward “All of us Americans, together, with a common project and common goals we’re trying to get accomplished?”

Glenn Loury: You’re asking me for solutions, and it’s much easier to diagnose than it is to cure.  I’m not sure I know the answer. It’s a big question. It seems to me that the puzzle here is why there isn’t more of a class-based framework for aggregating a progressive or liberal or reformist sentiment that unites the interest across racial lines of working class and lower middle class and struggling people.

For example, the Democrats now are playing this “election integrity versus ballot access” card and they color it in racial terms. They say, “Martin Luther King, John Lewis, freedom to vote.” They say, “Unless we have elections with a certain amount of lead time for early voting and a certain amount of liberality of access to the mail-in ballots, we are not getting racial justice.”

That strikes me as a problem crying out to be addressed. Isn’t it interesting that they frame it that way? We could quibble about who should have an ID when they cast a ballot. I think some of these questions are arguable. It’s far from clear to me that it is a violation of the spirit of our ideas about equality of access to the ballot to require identification. But be that as it may, they frame it as a racial affront. How is it that it has come to that?

I think there’s a huge vested interest in the left-of-center political establishment in mobilizing people to vote Democratic based on a perception that their vital political interests as persons of color are best protected in that way. Their vital political interests, recognition of their membership in the polity. And I think that promotes identity politics.

I’m just in a way crudely trying to rephrase Mark Lilla’s argument in The Once and Future Liberal. He says identity politics is Reaganism for lefties. That’s a quote from that book that I really love. He means that Reaganism is laissez faire. It’s every tub on its own bottom. It’s “I got mine, **** you, Jack.” And the left’s version of that is: “I’m black, you’re gay, I’m trans, you’re a woman, and each of us is going for our own ethnic or racial or identity interests as opposed to going for some broader conception of our social interest as members of an economic class.”

George Floyd gets killed in Minneapolis. He’s a black man killed by white police officers, and there’s a lot of different ways of narrating what happened there. Police with too much power, citizens without access to mental health care, accountability structures that no longer incentivize the right kind of action, etc. But it gets narrated as Emmitt Till! How did that happen? That was a sleight of hand that it behooves us to reflect on for a moment.

There’s a huge amount that’s at stake there. Cities ended up burning because of the way that that event was narrated. There are some people who are doing the statistics to argue that it’s costing thousands of black lives because of police reaction and the change in the way in which order is being maintained or not maintained in urban areas and the amount of violent crime that is being committed. That was a very consequential thing that happened there.

Now who had agency? I’m talking about the press, I’m talking about political leaders, I’m talking about freelance demagogues, I’m talking about lawyers who are bringing lawsuits against municipalities. These are key players in the framing of the whole thing. I would look to something like that as a source of an explanation for the stubborn persistence of this kind of politics.

AR: You also touched in that First Things essay on the Tocquevillian question of the role of mediating institutions in addressing some of the problems that we’re facing. Two specific examples you discussed were religious institutions and the family. How do you see the weakening of these two mediating institutions contributing to problems of racial disparity and also to broader social dysfunction in American culture? What role can religion and family play in helping fix existing social problems?

GL: Here I follow James Heckman, the economist at the University of Chicago, and human capital theory. In an old Daedalus essay from 2011, Heckman asked what we know about the structures that facilitate the acquisition of the skills and the habits and the orientations that allow people to be successful in life. You might measure success by educational attainment or by occupation and income or by avoiding certain negative outcomes like imprisonment. What seems to be the pathway that successful individuals follow?

Education is a part of that, and also the acquisition of, if you will, civilizing habits of self-discipline. There’s a literature in the social sciences on this, and Heckman is prominent in it. He pulls together the numbers and shows that family matters, not just for income and the acquisition of hard skills, but also for soft skills like self-restraint that he believes are important to determining later life success. This is the context in which a person’s developmental roots get sent down, and in which the framework for their maturation is built, their acquisition of skills, orientations, and habits that are of value to them in their adulthood.

We see a number of things today with family structure—out-of-wedlock births, mother-only households, multiple-partner paternity. My friend and colleague Robert Cherry, the economist emeritus from Brooklyn College, shows it’s not just a problem of single parenthood. He says that multiple-partner paternity is a big deal. The woman has children by more than one partner, so she may be not living with any of the partners and so the investment that the father might be inclined to make in his child is attenuated by his anticipation that some of what he supplies at least in terms of financial resources might not redound to his kid. So he doesn’t know whose child is getting the benefit of his contribution.

That’s a very economistic way of looking at it, and I’m not married to it. But the family is the context within which early development of human potential is undertaken and that problematic character of structure in African American families in comparison to others is certainly part of the account you’d have to give for persisting racial inequality. That’s an argument I’ve been making.

And it’s a fair point that, as you hint in the question, there are problems in the family more broadly. Divorce is up historically, the norms of marriage before reproduction have weakened, women are working, feminism. Go back 75 years and there’s one kind of regime in terms of division of labor within households. Fast forward to 1970 and things have really begun to change quite a bit. Norms have weakened, expectations are different. A question that has been asked since the 1960s has to do with whether the liberation of women from the constraints of conventional assumptions about their roles especially within households has been good or bad for children.

These are empirical questions and I’m hesitant to speak of them without knowing the data very well. But we have liberation at the personal level, freedom from the burden of conventional constraints about roles and behavior regarding sexuality and sexual identity, and also regarding gender, obligations to children, and marital stability. What does that imply for children? “I’m gonna do my thing no matter what, I’m gonna do me!” I don’t know how that’s good for kids.

So the racial disparity here becomes a glaring thing, but it’s nested within a larger question. You could make the point that the real driving forces here are far larger than “black culture.” Racial disparity is really only a derivative result of the larger social abandonment of a set of norms which manifests itself most immediately and most severely in the African American population, but which really is a larger atmospheric that’s developing for all of us.

AR: What about religion?

GL: The reason the church is important is because we’re trying to govern individuals at the normative level. We’re trying to get them to embrace ways of life. And that’s just politically and ethically infeasible for a state to do in a pluralistic society. So we need centers of authority that have enough leverage to be able to reach people and, as it were, train them or form them in ways that you can’t do in the public schools or through the tax policy. We have a certain neutrality, and we can’t affirm any particular way of life, but it’s critical that people embrace particular ways of life. They don’t have to be the same. They don’t have to be reading from the same hymnal, but they need some sources of authority that are robust enough to allow for a shaping of these persons who are going to be breadwinners and parents and citizens.

Participation is voluntary, so that helps to ease the problem, but in the absence of that intermediate structure of authority, you get a very thin framework. It has to accommodate every different possible perspective and hence it doesn’t have very much traction at all. How am I going to keep a kid from getting pregnant? What am I going to teach them in sex education? Just the mechanics of the biological processes? I can finger wag about using condoms, but I can’t teach him anything that’s really strong, that gets them in embracing it to withhold from impulse because they are trying to adhere to an understanding about what right living is. An understanding about right living can really only be effectively conveyed through the mediating structure.

AR: In your responses to all these problems of American culture, you’ve been remarkably consistent in noting a central truth about them: while blacks are perhaps inordinately negatively affected by familial decay or the drop in real religiosity or the increase of criminal violence, these are American problems that have harmed all groups in the US. You have also frequently noted in your writing and other public interventions that this makes possible a recognition by folks with profoundly different ideological orientations that there might be robust ground for cooperation across ideological lines precisely because the problems are shared in this way and not limited to just a racial lens. Could you say a word or two about that?

GL: I’ll give you a concrete example of this. I have cited Adolph Reed, a formidable thinker on the far left, in defense of my position against framing social inequality issues in explicitly racial terms. I’ve been chided by some friends for this. Now, Reed and I do not share the same political philosophy. I am not a Marxist. Indeed, being a more or less orthodox economist who thinks markets work reasonably well most of the time and who appreciates the role played by property rights, self-interest, and incentives in promoting economic prosperity, I am probably guilty of some affinity for what many (including Adolph Reed!) refer to derisively as “neo-liberalism.”  Still, Reed’s attachment to historical materialism in the tradition of Karl Marx notwithstanding, one can understand his critique of anti-racism politics without embracing Marxism.

I wish to call your attention to the work of the sociologist Rogers Brubaker, particularly his monograph Ethnicity without Groups. There, detailed attention is given to the incentives of racial or ethnic entrepreneurs to manipulate identity concerns for their own careerist and ideological interests. He focuses on the decision about whether to frame multifaceted social conflicts in racial or ethnic terms, and explores the implications of such framing decisions. Brubaker’s way of thinking about the racial advocacy enterprise provides a non-Marxian conceptual foundation for Reed’s (and my) criticism of identity politics. It views claims about racism critically, not as the natural and inevitable reaction to some overarching and inexorable historical racism, but rather as the ongoing, politically and socially constructed consequence of the choices made by strategic actors who elect, for their own benefit, to use “race” as the defining framework for understanding social problems and mobilizing political action.

Thus, to give but one example, I wish to note that twice as many whites as blacks are killed by police in the US each year, many of them under some of the most egregiously unjustifiable circumstances, circumstances that would rival the most celebrated cases of black victimization.  My point is this: building the current movement for police reform in explicit and predominantly racial terms is not a natural historical inevitability. Rather, it is a mistaken strategic choice that has had profound consequences.

What is more, doing so while insisting that people must also ignore racial disparities in rates of criminal offending and intra-racial violence, lest they risk being accused of racism, is an especially consequential “framing” move—one that I believe is, ultimately, not in the interest of black people, properly understood. Black activists calling attention to the race identities of a cop (white) and an unarmed young man (black) caught in violent confrontation invite other racial frames to be employed when (white) people turn their attention to matters of law, order, and policing, etc.

I could give other examples, such as framing the immigration policy debate in racial terms, with those wanting stricter enforcement against the unauthorized entry of low-skilled migrants being accused of “racism.” This obscures the complex and multi-dimensional nature of black Americans’ interests in relation to this issue.

So there is no contradiction between my being a “neo-liberal” economist, and my appreciating the trenchant criticisms that Adolph Reed provides of the dead end that is today’s racial identity politics. Plenty of room for common ground here.

AR: That’s a wonderful example. Glenn, thanks very much for taking some time to chat with me today.

GL: It was nice to talk to you, Alexander.

Alexander Riley

Alexander Riley is professor of sociology at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania and a senior fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. His Substack newsletter can be found here.

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Glenn C. Loury

Glenn C. Loury is Merton P. Stoltz Professor of Economics at Brown University. He holds the B.A. in Mathematics (Northwestern) and the Ph.D. in Economics (M.I.T). As an economic theorist he has published widely and lectured throughout the world on his research. He is also among America’s leading critics writing on racial inequality.

He has been elected as a Distinguished Fellow of the American Economics Association, as a Member of the American Philosophical Society and of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, and as a Fellow of the Econometric Society and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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