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‘A New Era in The Long, Historical Struggle of African Americans For Equality’
CSS's Benjamin Crocker interviews famed intellectual Glenn Loury for UATX
Now that the United States Supreme Court has struck down race-based affirmative action, where does black America go? What is the future of multi-racial America? What are the pressures of speaking truth in the face of social disapproval? Is intellectual honesty under siege?
One day after the court’s affirmative action ruling, Common Sense Society research fellow and University of Austin (UATX) academic programs manager Benjamin Crocker sat down with famed intellectual Glenn Loury to ask these questions and more. Here’s what they had to say:
In Washington in late June, the Supreme Court ruled six-three against affirmative action. In an unusual move underscoring the importance of this decision, Justice Clarence Thomas read his opinion from the bench, saying,
The court sees the university's admissions policies for what they are: rudderless, race-based preferences designed to ensure a particular racial mix in their entering classes. Those policies fly in the face of our colorblind constitution, and our nation's equality ideal. In short, they are plainly and boldly unconstitutional.
Do you agree with Justice Thomas?
Yes. I'm not a lawyer, I'm not a scholar of the Constitution, but I find very congenial the outlook that is characteristic of the opinion that Justice Thomas has rendered. This is not a new question. This is a question that's been around for a half century. Justice Thomas has, from the very beginning of his career, been raising serious doubts about the appropriateness of the racial affirmative action policies, about their legality and about their utility. And I share some of those concerns. So unlike many of my fellow black intellectuals, I am not disquieted by the challenge to African Americans and to the country which the Supreme Court's decision in this affirmative action case poses. I think that we are entering a new era in the long historical struggle of African Americans for equality, and I much prefer to do it on a level playing field, without racial preferences being a part of the picture, at least as far as college admissions is concerned.
BC: Have you seen negative repercussions of affirmative action either inside or outside of the academy that you can speak to?
GL: I have experienced the negative repercussions of affirmative action within my own life. I have also experienced some positive consequences of affirmative action. I dropped out of college when I was quite young. I graduated high school at 16, so I was somewhat precocious and I went off to college and my girlfriend became pregnant. We married, we started a family, I had to go to work. So I dropped out of college and took up part time studies at a community college while I was working full time.
My community college had a wonderful teacher, a calculus teacher, Mr. Andres, I recall. And he saw that I had talent and thought that I would do well at an elite university. Northwestern University, near Chicago, which is my hometown, was looking for African American prospects. The year was 1970; that's fifty-three years ago. And I ended up being invited on full scholarship to come and study at Northwestern University. I don't see any way that you can't think of that as affirmative action. I was not a typical prospect at Northwestern. My paper trail was checkered: I had pretty good test scores, but I had dropped out of college. They took me in; I flourished there.
A postcard shows MIT, Boston, and the Charles River in the 1940s, Tichnor Brothers. Boston Public Library/Wikimedia.
I ended up at M.I.T., I did a Ph.D. in economics at M.I.T. And I began an academic career. So I benefited from affirmative action early in my career. You mentioned… that I was the first black, tenured professor of economics at Harvard. That appointment came in 1982, six years after I completed my Ph.D. When I had a few pretty good papers that have stood the test of time published in academic refereed journals, I was on a good career path. But I probably was pushed a little bit ahead of the natural evolution of my career by Harvard's desire to have an African American economist come and join the faculty there. I was jointly appointed at Harvard, in economics, and what they called at that time Afro-American studies. That appointment almost destroyed me, because I had a crisis of confidence: I'm in this great economics department, I am this young whippersnapper who has not yet earned his spurs.
And I kept thinking that everybody was looking at me, with their arms folded across their chest, with their toes tapping, wondering when I was going to prove that I was a deserving recipient of their beneficence. I didn't need that. I didn't handle it very well. I had real psychological stress in that job, and I ended up leaving the economics department after only two years and moving to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where I was a full professor of public policy and economics, and where I flourished.
I'm sure I would have been okay if I had just been left alone in my natural arc of my career. But the stress associated with the being put in that very demanding position earlier, perhaps more than I was prepared for—it was one of the things that has caused me to raise questions about whether affirmative action has always been beneficial for the targets who are the beneficiaries of it.
BC: You entered academia in 1976, and then throughout the Reagan era you become known… as a black conservative intellectual.
Your views have evolved (your Ph.D. thesis argued in favor, somewhat, of affirmative action). Your positions haven't stayed the same in the whole trajectory of your career, either as an academic or as a public intellectual. Can you step us through how they've changed and how you've come to be the Glenn Loury of today?
GL: And I'm to do that in a brief comment, am I? Well, on affirmative action, I was for it before I was against it before I was for it, before it was against, you know, I'm against it now. It's where I've come out. I became a Reagan conservative in the early-mid 1980s.
I trained in the economics department at M.I.T., which in the 1970s, was a relatively Democratic-leaning, liberal institution. But they believed in the market, they believed in capitalism, they believed in prices, and free exchange and things of this kind and the efficiency of resource allocation under the influence of private property, profit seeking and so on, as did I. So when the critique of big government policy that emerged from Ronald Reagan came to my attention, I was amenable to it, I was open to it. And I became persuaded about high taxes, about government debt being a burden, about entrepreneurship and free enterprise being a source of dynamism in the economy. And I found myself keeping company with conservative and neoconservative economists and other social scientists, and eventually, politicians and policymakers.
A 1970s postcard showing Harvard Square, Fred Jellison Jr. Wikimedia.
So I went through that period. But I had a number of challenges in my life. I've mentioned one, which was the professional challenge of measuring up to my own expectations and what I imagined others expected of me when I took the position at Harvard. I also developed a serious drug problem when I was in those years in the 1980s. And I had a scandalous extramarital affair that became public, very messy, and I found myself in a low, low place. It led me to church, I heard Winston Marshall [(formerly of Mumford and Sons)] say something the other night that I thought was very moving when he said that he came into the church on his hands and knees, seeking hope and restoration and comfort and faith. And so did I.
And I think in that period of my life—we're now in the late 1980s—Reagan is no longer president. And I'm finding myself having some second thoughts about some of my political positions, as well. As a conservative, I found myself alienated from the community, from the African American community; I was an outcast. And I didn't handle that very well, either. I didn't handle the emotional stress of being the, what one of my colleagues called a pathetic black mascot of the right. I wanted the comfort of affirmation from my co-racialists even within my own family. My uncle, my beloved uncle Alfred, once took me aside. I'd been at Harvard maybe five, six years, and he says: "Son, we could only send one from the South Side of Chicago off to the M.I.T.s and Harvards of the world. We sent you. And we don't see us in anything you do." He said to me: "We ain't no Reagan conservatives around here on the South Side of Chicago," was my uncle's message to me. And I didn't handle that at all well, either.
President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at Camp David in 1984. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library/Wikimedia.
And so I found myself both under the influence of my new Christian faith, as well as under my seeking of, what do they say, “you can't go home again,” and I wanted kind of to go home, I wanted to go home. And I found myself reexamining some of my views and broke with my conservative friends, and broke publicly with them and would never own up to the fact that I was drifting left. But in fact, I was. This is in the ‘90s now, and I occupied a sort of centrist Democratic kind of political posture for a number of years. But the last ten years or so I've found myself without regrets, reverting to my moderate, right of center, especially on economic policy issues, but also on social-policy-issues posture, which is where I am today.
BC: The University of Austin students you’ve spent the past week with asked you what advice you can bright, young people coming up in the world, and you said: "Don't float down the river of life going along with what you think others want you to do. Don't deceive yourself. You must speak the truth, as you're given to know it."
What is the truth? Is there truth? We do believe that you can find it. Why did you give that advice and not, “Work hard, be on time”—the more practical advice that maybe kids are hoping to take right there?
GL: Because if I have any regrets, it's that I have sometimes adopted a pose, taken the easiest path, and am then driven by what I expect others to expect from me. And we were just talking about my move from right to left, and now back to right again. And I think my move from right to left was one of those points in my life that I genuinely regret. I regret it because I know now in honest reflection that my motivations were not noble. They were not dignified. They were not in good faith. I wasn't really following my light. I was shuttering my light on behalf of conformity and social approval.
I'll tell a story: so I had a friend growing up as a kid named Woody. He was my best friend for many years. In the late 1960s, when we were in late adolescence and in our early 20s, he and I would do a lot of things together. And one of them was we would go to community meetings and rallies. And we found ourselves at one in the year 1970, where the Black Panther Party in Chicago was holding a meeting in a basement. One of their members, Fred Hampton, had been killed by authorities in a shootout. Most of the shooting had been the authorities shooting in, and there were one or two rounds that had been fired out, it looked like it was probably an instance of police brutality, and the community was outraged.
Woody, my friend, is very fair-complected. He thought of himself as a black man, as a Negro, but a person seeing him on the street might be forgiven for mistaking him for being white. And he and I had been friends since early in childhood, and I've known him for fifteen years. We're at the meeting, and he wants to speak. The room is crowded. It's a church basement in Woodlawn, the neighborhood here in the University of Chicago, on the South Side of Chicago. Woody raises his hand to speak and one of these Dashiki-clad brothers in charge up in the front of the room stops him mid-sentence and demands that he give an account of himself. "What are you doing in this hall, you white boy, you're spying on our deliberation here. Who can vouch for him?" It's a room full of black people. He's the only white person in the room. He's my best friend. I've known him all my life. I don't vouch for him at that moment, in that meeting. I stay silent when he's been confronted, and then on a racial basis, told that he doesn't belong. I know that he's quote unquote, "black in spirit" as well as in his own self-understanding. I don't vouch for him because I'm afraid that there's no one to vouch for me. And because I want to be regarded as a brother by the other blacks in the room.
My sense of racial identity and my desire for affirmation by my co-racialists overrides my commitment to and love of this individual. I deeply regret that moment when he was asked to leave the meeting and did so without protest. And I knew the moment that he walked out the door that I had made the wrong choice. And yet, and this story I'm telling is, in a way, emblematic of the more general point that I'm trying to make, which is I should have stuck by my guns, notwithstanding the fact that I would have probably drawn the opprobrium of the crowd just as much as he would have done. And perhaps we would have both been asked to leave. But at least I would have been, as it were, telling the truth with my actions rather than adopting a pose. There are a lot of things like that, that I could say about my journey, but here now in my 70s, I'm thinking, time is short, and commitment to living with integrity and good faith is the most important thing. And so, when asked by the students what advice I could give, that's what came to mind.
BC: You point us to the overwhelming problem young people face when they're making their way in the world, particularly young people who are going to be involved in politics or involved in the life of ideas in the country. Let me ask you, though, Glenn Loury, famously independent thinker, if it was difficult or impossible at times for you in that climate? Do you fear for the way the political climate around higher education is going? Or do you think these things have always been pressure cookers? Where do you see that the upbringing and the climate that you grew up in as someone entering public life in a way and what students are facing today? Are there points of difference? Is it the same? Is it harder? Is it easier?
The dome at MIT at night. Photograph by Fcb98, edited by Thermos. Wikimedia.
GL: I think it's much harder. I think my students are terrified to say what they actually think. I think social media is a big part of it. You tweet the wrong thing, it's out there forever, and it could destroy your life. I find in my classroom that I have to practically cajole and shame my students into saying what they actually think because they fear they will say something that will be regarded as inappropriate, racist, homophobic, transphobic, Trump-loving; that they will be in bad odor with their peers based upon what it is that they say. I have found in the five days that I've been here at this forbidden courses Sunday school at UATX, with a group of students who are heterogeneous, not only in terms of race and ethnicity, but also in terms of their substantive views, that there's been much more conflict—respectful, polite, but nevertheless, real difference of opinion, where they were able to confront each other and argue about those things than I'm used to seeing in my classrooms where I have to, as I say, practically whip them into standing up straight with their shoulders back, as Jordan Peterson puts it, to have the courage of their convictions and to be willing to confront one another when they disagree.
So I find my students overly cautious. I find them conformist. I find them self-censoring. And I think this is a much more widespread phenomenon in our time than certainly was the case when I was their age. That was a half century ago–but even a quarter century ago. And I expect that everyone's got the world in their hands. Everyone's got instant communication. Everyone's got access to a log or kind of archive of what’s been said and what's been thought. But I'm not a socio linguistic or social psychologist, so I look to others to give chapter and verse on the analytics of this, but that's my impression.
BC: I think our students have been inspired by having great teachers around. But in closing, you mentioned the openness of intellectual inquiry we've been able to have here this week. I noticed that you've made your way down to the debate chamber, after our seminar sessions each day. As the day turns into the night, you've been sitting there, yourself, in a way, being a student. We've had atheists speak, we've had Christian conservatives speak. We've talked about science, we've talked about religion, the state of the world, transgenderism. You seem to be very engaged in this for your own sake of learning. Is that something that, as you mentioned, the hour is late? Is that something you're looking forward to as retirement approaches, perhaps returning to being a student a bit more again?
GL: Well said; that is indeed what I'm looking forward to. I had a teacher when I was an undergraduate at Northwestern University named Jonathan Hughes—an economist, economic historian. And he inspired me. He says, "Economics is more than just equations. It's also history. It's also psychology and sociology and politics." He said, "Don't be narrow, open your mind, read outside of your discipline, talk to your colleagues and teachers outside of the economics department and become an intellectual; become a real intellectual, not just a technical specialist—but someone who engages the big questions in a broad way." And he set an example in that respect. When I came back, my first job out of graduate school was assistant professor at Northwestern where I had been an undergraduate student, and John Hughes was still around.
And he took me under his wing again, and the first thing he said to me was: "When you go to lunch at the Faculty Club, don't sit with the economists, sit at the big table with the philosophers and the historians, and the physicists and exchange views with them, learn about what they do. This is a university—a university is a place where you can really grow and learn and whatnot, read novels, and follow what's going on in the New York Review of Books, and the magazines and so on." Again, he said: "You have much too fine a mind to go down this rabbit hole of specialization." And I have tried to live that way in my own intellectual life. So when I see some of the interesting themes that are being taken up in these conversations in the debate theater, I'm inspired to come and see what I can learn. And yes, in my dotage, I expect that I will have more time and leisure and I think there's a lot that I can learn. There's a lot under heaven and earth that hasn't been dreamt of yet in my philosophy.
BC: Well, Glenn Loury, we'll gladly welcome you as a student at UATX anytime. We're taking our first class of undergraduates next year. But I hope we'll actually see you as a teacher again, as well. Thank you very much for joining us this weekend and for your time today.
GL: My pleasure.