Thank you all for coming out tonight.
It is a real pleasure to be able to introduce somebody
I'm sure many of you have already
gotten a chance to know even if you're not in his institute.
One of the really truly brilliant minds
in public intellectuals of our age in the United States today.
Glenn Loury is the Merton Stoltz Professor of Social Sciences
and a Professor of Economics here at Brown.
He has an incredibly storied and illustrious career.
I'm just going to give you some of the highlights
that I picked out.
His work is in economics, primarily
micro-economic applied theory, game theory,
industrial organization, natural resource economics,
and the economics of race and inequality.
He's a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,
which for those of you who don't know the United States,
is one of the great honors that any scholar in the United
States can have.
He's been the Vice President of the American Economics
He's won all sorts of prestige his awards, including
the Guggenheim Fellowship.
Among his many publications, I'll
name a few books One by One From the Inside Out:
Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America,
The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, Ethnicity,
Social Mobility, and Public Policy:
Comparing the US and the UK, and Race, Incarceration,
and American Values.
So in order to allow Glenn to speak as quickly as possible,
I'll leave it there.
The plan is, I think, Glenn's going
to be talking for about an hour.
And then I would love to have as much time for discussion.
I know everybody will be eager to get out and get a bite
to eat for dinner.
But I promise you that this will be a very stimulating hour,
hour and a half.
Thank you very much, Glenn Loury.
Thank you very much, Matthew.
I really appreciate the introduction, so generous
And I'm delighted to see you all assembled here.
Thank you for coming out.
Usually, when I'm giving a talk I have a bunch of slides.
I have my data.
I got my model.
And I I'm presenting my results.
And I kind of ad lib it.
You know, I don't have a script.
I just kind of take you through the process
of thinking and my analysis.
But this is going to be a different kind of talk.
I do have a script.
And if you'll forgive me, I'm going
to adhere to it, because the nuance of language
is important to what it is that I have to say.
You'll see what I'm getting at in a moment.
I also have pictorial accompaniment.
And the function of this image will be clearer in due course.
Though, I tell you now that that's my mother, the bride,
and my father, the groom.
The year is 1948.
The place is Chicago, Illinois, USA.
And therein, lies a tale.
We'll get to it.
So let me get started.
As a prologue to my lecture this afternoon,
which I have to warn you is going to have a personal tone,
I ask you to consider the following imaginary dialogue
between two social scientists.
One of them, a mathematically oriented economist
rather like myself.
And the other, an ethnographically oriented
sociologist with radical political leanings,
rather like my Marxist friend [INAUDIBLE].
These are two guys having a little dialogue.
Bear with me, OK?
The economist, he's chanting, but otherwise
sitting very still saying, relations before transactions,
relations before transactions, relations before transactions.
And the economist enters with a start, what's wrong, my friend?
Why are you saying that?
Are you the culprit who pilfered my copy of [? Baudrillard ?]
The economist, no, I'm not.
And who's [? Baudrillard ?] anyway?
One of those airy French sociologists
you're always fawning over I'll bet.
It's my mantra.
It's very calming.
You ought to try it sometime.
The sociologist says, man, I meditate all the time.
I'm the one who belongs to a profession
fraught with anxiety, remember?
But what's your excuse?
The economist, well, I've been having
a recurrent nightmare lately.
I want it to stop.
My shrink thinks that meditation could help.
The economist, oh, it's this black guy.
He was my roommate back at Swarthmore, brilliant dude.
Works a lot with gunshot victims,
inner city types involved in the gang and drug trade and so on,
thinks they're making passive suicide attempts,
writes books about the stuff, self-loathing,
hopelessness, fear of falling into an existential abyss.
He cites Freud and Nietzsche and de Sade.
Strange guy, but brilliant.
He gave me the mantra, promised it would help,
said I should repeat it slowly while sitting very still
and taking deep breaths.
The sociologist, perhaps, my friend.
But remember what I told you about those pizzas, not such
a good idea after midnight.
And did you say de Sade?
Anyway, anyway, tell me.
What's the dream?
The economist, it's awful.
I'm back in grad school.
I'm sitting in my usual place right in front of the class.
The professor has posed what he says is an important question.
He's invited one of us to the board to work out an answer.
I get there first.
And I proceed to fill the board with the equations.
Finally, I arrive at what must be the solution.
My derivation is far too elegant not to be true.
I turn to explain myself to the rest of the class.
And just then, I realized I've forgotten
the original question.
I wrecked my very large brain.
But for the life of me, I can't recall it.
The class begins to snicker.
They are a ruthless bunch when they smell blood.
The guffaws and cat calls grow louder.
It's humiliating, just humiliating.
And the economist's begins to tremble uncontrollably.
The sociologist comforting his friend says, yeah, man, I
can see that.
It's got to be tough being the smartest person in the room,
but without a clue as to what's the point.
You ought to stick with that shrink though.
Dreams can be very revealing, you know.
But I'm not sure I get the mantra.
And what was the professor's question anyway?
Oh, he had asked us to explain how durable racial inequality
in the United States can be squared
with the princes of modern economic theory
without making any assumptions of innate racial inferiority
and without postulating any unexplained preferences
for own group association?
The sociologist pauses for a moment.
And then he says, that's a damn good question.
And it's a tough one, too.
You mean to tell me you ran to the board to take that one on?
Fools jump in where angels fear to tread.
The economist, well, to be honest with you, in the dream
I always start to the board before he
finishes posing the question.
Happens the same way every time.
I can't stop myself.
And the trembling returns.
The sociologist says in a brighter tone
hoping to shift to a happier subject, so tell me
what was your elegant solution anyway?
And the economist responds, I'd love to tell you, my friend.
But it's hopeless.
You'd never understand the mathematics.
At that, the sociologist takes offense and storms off angrily.
The economist yells after him, besides, I'm
not sure I believe it anymore myself.
Anyway, my shrink gave me this mantra,
and it seems to be helping.
And so he returns to his chanting, relations
before transactions, relations before transactions.
That ends the dialogue.
And now, I move on to my lecture.
The purpose of this opening gambit
should become clear in due course.
I invite you to try to understand my problem here.
Over these last 40 years, yeah, 40 years,
I have expended considerable effort
trying to explain to myself and to the world why
the subordinate status of African Americans
persists within the United States.
Some of this thinking was summed up
in my monograph, The Anatomy of Racial Inequality,
which was published by Harvard University Press.
That book sketched a theory of race
applicable to the social and historical circumstances
of the United States speculating on why
racial inequalities persist.
It advanced a conceptual framework
for thinking about social justice in matters of race.
It was one part social science, one part social criticism,
and one part social philosophy, themes
that were pursued in successive chapters
that I called racial stereotypes, racial stigma,
and racial justice.
Those derived from a synonymous series of lectures
that I had presented at the Dubois Institute at Harvard
the year before.
I wish to fix ideas for today's presentation
by briefly reviewing some of those arguments.
Because I believe, along with the great UCLA sociologist
Rogers Brubaker, whose book Ethnicity Without Groups has
much impressed me, that one ought
not to invoke racial aggregates as the subjects
of social analysis ureflectively.
Race is a deceptively dangerous category of social analysis,
It must be handled with care.
And so please bear with me.
I know you've come here to hear me talk about race and crime
and punishment in America and so on.
But I want to assure you that the relevance
of this introductory conceptual excursion
will be clear soon enough.
A theoretical discussion of this kind
probably starts with an account of the phenomena of race
Why do people take note of and assign significance
to skin color, hair texture, bone structure
in the face of other human beings?
How have the superficial markings on human bodies
taken on such social significance to the extent
that people routinely partition the field of human subjects
whom they encounter into groups with this sorting
convention based on these subjects possessing
some observable bodily marks?
This is a universal feature of human societies.
But why should this be so?
I proposed in my book, acknowledging in advance
that there was no great originality on my part in doing
so, to conceive of race as a social construct,
a conventional, not a natural category.
For me, then, the term race refers
to indelible, inheritable marks on human bodies
of no intrinsic significance in themselves,
which nevertheless have through time been invested
with social expectations that are more or less reasonable
and social meanings that are more or less durable.
Of particular interest to me is the possibility
that powerful and derogatory social meanings can even
be internalized by persons identifying
with the stigmatized racial group,
even by people like me, who might
hope to study such matters more or less scientifically.
How does one achieve the objective observer's stance
while enmeshed in the tangled web of identities, fealties,
and conflicting narratives, which
is the nature of racial discourse in America today?
This is a problem that has bedeviled me for decades.
Note well here, we are dealing with two processes,
categorization and signification.
Categorization involves sorting people
into cognitively manageable subsets
on the basis of bodily marks, while differentiating
one's dealings with such persons accordingly.
Whereas, signification is an interpretive act
that associates certain connotations or social meanings
with those categories.
Both informational and symbolic issues are at play here.
Or as I like to say when speaking about race, what we're
really talking about is embodied social signification,
a self-conscious awareness that the marks one bears
on one's body convey profound significations to those one
encounters in society, can be an impediment
to one's psychological health, particularly
in a country like mine where, because of the need
to justify chattel slavery in a nation which self-consciously
defined itself as the land of the free, the mark of blackness
has been infused with long enduring
This social cognitive concept of race which I'm advancing here
can be contrasted with acts of biological taxonomy
in which one sorts human beings based
on some presumed variation of genetic endowments
across a geographically isolated sub-populations.
Such isolation was the human condition
until recently on an evolutionary time scale.
And it may be thought to have led
to the emergence of distinct races.
As we all know, the use of the term race in this way
is controversial, particularly so
when one aims to explain social inequalities between groups.
And so when scientists like the noted population geneticist
Luigi Cavalli-Sforza or social critics like the noted
philosopher Anthony Appiah deny that the term race refers
to anything real, what they have in mind
is this biological taxonomic notion.
And what they deny is that meaningful distinctions
among human subgroups pertinent to accounting
for racial inequality can be arrived in this way.
I'm not arguing this point.
Although, I think it's probably an arguable point
within the scientific discussion.
But what I wish to emphasize here
is that the use of race as a category of social cognition
is conceptually distinct from the more dubious use
of the concept for the purposes of biological taxonomy.
To establish the scientific invalidity of race
demonstrates neither the irrationality
nor the immorality of invoking racial classifications
as acts of social cognition.
It is in this socially constructivist spirit
that I shall be using the concept here
with an emphasis on negative interpretive symbolic
connotations attaining to blackness in the United States.
Fundamental to my approach in that book
was a distinction that I drew between racial discrimination
and racial stigma.
Discrimination is about how blacks were treated,
while stigma is about how blacks are perceived.
I argued that what I called reward bias is now
a less significant barrier to the full participation
of Black Americans in US society than what
I called development bias.
Reward bias pointed to the differential treatment
of persons based on race and formal transactions,
thereby limiting the rewards blacks might receive
for the skills and talents that we presented to the market.
By contrast, development bias reference impediments
that block the access of persons in the subordinate racial group
to the resources that are essential to develop skills
and refine talent.
So reward bias rests on a foundation of racially
But development bias, in my mind,
is rooted in a racially stigmatized relations,
since many of the resources that foster human development only
become available to persons as the byproduct of informal race
influenced social interaction.
Obviously, these two kinds of bias
are not mutually exclusive.
Of course, skill acquisition can be blocked
by discriminatory transactions.
And moreover, a regime of discrimination
in the marketplace that's under pressure
due to economic competition may require
to maintain itself employing the instruments
of informal social control.
Still, the distinction I want to say
is useful for whereas the moral problem presented by reward
bias is a straightforward one, and it
calls for an uncontroversial remedy via laws
Development bias seems to present a subtler, more
insidious, moral problem and may be
difficult to remain in any manner likely to garner
majority authoritarian support.
This difficulty has both a cognitive
and an ethical dimension.
From a cognitive point of view, many observers
may find it difficult to distinguish
between blocked development opportunities on the one hand
and limited capacities or distorted values in the group
on the other when trying to understand a group's
poor social performance.
In terms of ethics, many citizens
who find transactional discrimination against blacks
associated with reward bias to be noxious
may be less offended by the often covert and subconscious
relational discrimination that underlies development bias.
That is, in plain English, they may
object when white police officers treat black youths
unfairly, but say nothing at all when white families move away
from a racially integrated residential community because
of their imagined fears of the threat of black crime.
So now, perhaps you can see what I'm
after with that opening mantra, relations before transactions.
I'm pointing toward the idea that blacks' supported position
in the American economy should be thought
of as deriving from our stigmatized status
in the society and not the other way around.
Stigma inhibits blacks access to those networks
of social affiliation where developmental resources
are most readily appropriated.
Today's problem, I hold, is not so
much a race influenced marketplace
or administrative state that refuses to reward black talent
or to accord blacks an equal citizenship
as had been the case in decades past.
Rather today's problem in the 21st century, I wish to claim,
is mainly a race tinged psychology
of perception and valuation that at some level
withholds from blacks the presumption
of an equal human worth.
A racial group's stigmatized status
in the social imagination and in its own self-understanding
may be reinforced, justified, and socially reproduced
as a result of that group's subordinate position
in the economic order that creates a vicious circle.
Here we have a world where notions
of racial dignity, racial inequality,
racial subordination, racial inferiority, racial honor,
racial pride, and shame resonate powerfully.
Such has been my world over these past four decades.
For those very notions of honor, dignity, equality, pride,
and shame have been central to my own biography.
Permit me to explain.
I'm inviting you now to join me on my journey of reflection.
I want to tell you about the day I made Coretta Scott
King the widow of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. weep
The year was 1984.
And the place was a meeting of Black American leaders
in Washington DC.
This consortium of officials for a major civil rights
organizations would periodically come together
to consider matters of mutual interest.
I was there, because a graduate school mentor of mine,
a black woman named Phyllis Ann Wallace, had so arranged.
Phyllis had been a professor at MIT's Sloan
School of Management.
And I had been a doctoral student in MIT'S economics
That's how we met.
She knew of the errant thoughts that I had been putting out,
my criticisms of the civil rights program of that day.
I had shown her an early draft of an essay of mine that
would appear later in the year in The New Republic
magazine, a prominent political organ here in the United
States, under the title "A New American Dilemma."
Phyllis had been alarmed by this draft and basically said to me
that it would be great if I could sit down
with some of our leaders and share my concerns with them
and listen to theirs in return, to have some dialogue.
And so she had me added to the agenda
for this high level meeting of the civil rights coalition.
And I showed up and gave my spiel.
It was a hot summer day to be sure.
But I was perspiring more heavily
than the heat required in anticipation
of how people might react to what I knew I had to say.
We met at the Urban Institute in a not especially distinct grey
stone office building in Northwest Washington DC
and a seminar type room without a podium.
There was just a long table with chairs all around it.
There was some additional seating
away from the table along the room's wall.
Maybe a dozen people were sitting at the table.
A dozen more perhaps were scattered at the periphery.
And I just stood there at my seat to speak.
I spoke without notes.
I had four or five points that I wanted to make.
My draft article had already circulated,
so I emphasized my main points.
They were attentive and didn't show the impatience
that they may have felt. Perhaps they
were just a bit patronizing.
Here I was at that time 35 years old
named a professor at Harvard just two years prior.
And I'm proposing to put this article out
in Martin Peretz's New Republic magazine, which was not
necessarily a popular venue for many left-liberal African
At that time, I was riding high.
As the first black person to attain tenure
in Harvard's economics department,
they saw my achievement as the fruit of the civil rights
struggle, opening up doors for black people to march forward.
I was the new generation.
I was the future.
So there was the sense of despair
I think for these leaders to be confronted by someone like me,
a product of their efforts they thought,
who had gone so far off the rails.
But they were polite, even cordial.
And they had numerous questions at the end.
I was nervous, but I was also excited and in a way maybe even
a little bit arrogantly assertive
with an edge in my voice, with the words coming too quickly,
with my emotion, my anger showing through as I spoke.
I knew that what I was saying would
fly in the face of what they believed.
Still, I wanted to emphasize that I thought
they were off the track and that I wasn't hesitant to say so,
to shout it out to the whole world if necessary.
I wasn't hiding from that or apologizing for it.
On that particular day, I was pretty
sure that what I had to say to them that I was right about it.
And I still am.
Looking around that room, I saw some familiar faces.
There was the head of the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People.
There was the head of the National Urban League.
There was the President of the Joint
Center for Political Studies.
There was a famous historian named
Roger Wilkins, a famous politician named Julian Bond.
And there was Mrs. Coretta Scott King
herself, of the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference, but also more importantly,
representing the King legacy.
My mentor Phyllis Wallace looked on apprehensively.
There were others.
Looking out in their faces, people
whom I had seen on the evening news, our leaders,
I felt proud to be there at that moment.
Clearly, this was a key moment in my career.
Important people wanted to hear from me.
So yes, I felt a certain pride and a certain trepidation.
Might they be angered by what I had to say?
Even so, truth be told, I was more than a little bit
titillated by that prospect.
Because from my perspective, I was the town crier.
I was the fellow declaring the emperor has no clothes.
I was bringing the truth to light.
I was certain that I had seen something important
which others had overlooked.
Or if they had seen it, they lacked the courage to say so.
I spoke extemporaneously.
I'd given the same talk on more than one occasion previously.
We stood there in the summer of 1984.
President Ronald Reagan was completing his first term.
And he was destined to be re-elected in a landslide
later that year.
We could all see that coming.
Two decades had passed since the heyday of the civil rights
achievements of the 1960s.
It was time to take stock.
Where have we blacks gotten ourselves to?
High up in the speech throwing down the gauntlet
came my signature declaration, the Civil Rights Movement
is over, I asserted.
I claimed that the problems of the lower
classes of African American society
plagued by poverty and joblessness
where, at the end of the day, not
remediable by the means which had been
so effective in the 1960s of protest and petitioning
for fair treatment.
What we now faced, I suggested, was a new American dilemma.
The formulation I ultimately settled
on contrasted an enemy without, that
would be white racism, with an enemy within black society.
Sure, I allowed that racism continued to hinder our people.
But I thought it was much abated and constrained
by civil rights legislation.
By contrast, citing a long list of statistics,
I characterized the enemy within black communities,
an enemy limiting our capacity to seize
upon the opportunities that were now opening up
for us, single parent families, early unwed pregnancy,
criminalized youth, gang activity,
low academic achievement, absence from the labor force,
and so on.
This litany was about what I willingly
labeled social pathology in the so-called black underclass.
Those were the words I used.
I concluded that this social pathology needed
to be addressed and, crucially, that the methods
of yesteryear's civil rights protests
would not be an effective means of doing so.
Then a remarkable thing happened.
Mrs. Coretta King started weeping
just as I was ending my talk.
This was shocking and alarming to me.
The tears welled up in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks.
Some others among the assembled had direct questions.
Professor Loury, don't you think some of these pathologies,
I mean, what you're calling pathologies are themselves
the consequence of our people having been denied equal rights
and victimized by discrimination?
Professor Loury, can you not see that the things
you're saying here are precisely what
the conservative Republican racists can
be heard to say in their derogatory stereotypic
renderings about African American life?
Professor Loury, don't you realize it's
more complicated than that?
But Mrs. King's extraordinary silent commentary
was simply to offer her tears.
Think about it.
Here was the widow of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr., a woman who more than any other single person
embodied the black freedom struggle in America.
No, she was not a thought leader, not a political actor
in any meaningful sense, not a strategist, not
an intellectual, but still, she was an enormous figure.
And so though I didn't take her response
to what I had to say as probative
at the cognitive level, I didn't conclude, oh,
if she thinks this, then maybe I'm wrong
and had better go back to the drawing board,
didn't see her as a serious public intellectual.
Still, I surely took her seriously as Dr. King's widow.
This, I thought, is an iconic person
who represents something sacred in a civic sense.
Her husband while serving his people
and his country had been murdered at the age of 39
only a few years older than I was standing there
at that moment.
Here's sits widow.
I should, and I did, feel honored to be in her presence.
And by the way, her seat at the table was just next to mine.
I had only to look down into her face to see those tears.
So I stood there by my seat surveying a table
with maybe 10 people sitting around it.
And just to my left, as it happens, sat Mrs. King.
And as I wound up my argument to the effect that the Civil
Rights Movement was off the track,
that the protest era was basically
over, that the primary obstacles to the attainment of equality
for African Americans were internal barriers having
to do with our own behavior, how we organized
our communities, how we were raising our children,
and so forth, and that this desperately
needed saying at precisely this moment when
the conservative Ronald Reagan sought
a second term as President of the United States,
I turned to see this woman, this iconic figure,
this symbol of civil rights martyrdom, weeping.
She offered no arguments.
She didn't specify what I had said that was wrong.
This alarmed me, of course.
But it also befuddled me at the time.
Weeping about what?
What in the argument I just offered
could have brought her to tears?
Frankly, it did not occur to me at that moment
to think, oh, my god, man.
You've made this woman cry?
You had better reflect a bit on what you're doing
and what you're saying.
Not necessarily in interest to being right about this or that,
but to better understand the role that you're
speaking in this way plays within some larger
This is the difference between being right about the movement
and being helpful to it.
In those years, I had not even begun
to consider which of those alternatives
might be more important to me.
I had few second thoughts and even less self-awareness
at the time.
With the benefit now of more than 30 years hindsight,
the lesson seemed clear enough.
But at the time, it didn't occur to question myself at all.
I now offered in the paper I have here a brief excerpt
from my essay that didn't appear in due course in The New
Republic magazine in December of 1984.
And I won't reread it, because our time is short.
But it details with statistical specificity
precisely the charges that I had made in general terms
before, describing the state of African American family life,
the level of criminal participation,
the low level of participation in the labor force,
and other such patterns of behavior among our people
that I said was implicated the enemy
within in our backward status.
What I see now as I speak to you, but was blind to then,
is that while all that I said there was undoubtedly
true at the time as a matter of statistics,
those statistics could just as easily
have been read as an indictment of American society
rather than of black society.
That is, the most fundamental questions
are ones of interpretation not description,
of values not merely of facts, of political
and not just personal or social morality.
So anyway, it seems to me today as I
survey the social landscape of my country today, which
continues to be despoiled by stubbornly persistent
But then why could I not see this much in 1984?
Why did I construe the sorry state of black social life
in terms of the failings of blacks
and not of American society more broadly?
Why do I sometimes think so even still?
Today, as I'm working on a memoir that's my project
this last year and I've been reflecting
on that essay from the mid-1980s,
I asked myself what was I really feeling when I wrote it?
I can tell you, I was angry.
I was also ashamed.
And I was afraid.
I was angry at what I took to be the dishonesty of the discourse
from these leaders to be sure, but also from the media
and the liberal commentariate.
Because I didn't think I was saying anything,
when citing those social conditions of lower
class African American communities, that
was not commonly known to everyone concerned
with these issues.
And yet, I felt there was a conspiracy of silence
about the real problems.
I knew that conspiracy did not extend
to the pews of a black church where a pastor might sermonize
lamenting the nature of life on the streets of his city.
Many a sermon decrying the ill effects of loose living
was in fact being preached to African Americans.
But on the talk show circuit, in the lecture halls,
at the podiums where political speeches were given,
and in the demands and representations
of black leaders, it seemed to me
that no honest assessment of these conditions
was being made, except when it might
serve to indict white society for what
had gone so horribly wrong.
I felt that these conditions also
constituted an indictment of ourselves
as African Americans about how too many of us were living.
And this angered me.
But I must also say at that time 32 years ago,
I felt ashamed for my people.
I can see now that I was trumpeting how bad things were
in part as an antidote to the feeling
that, oh, my god, what do most people really
think of us-- and therefore, of me--
when gazing upon the disorder that I described?
Well, at least I'm ready to call a spade a spade,
I would tell myself, to tell it like it is.
At least I have the courage to look reality in the face
without flinching, I would tell myself.
In retrospect, I can see that my blustering public indictment
of my own people was my way of compensating
for the shame I felt for my community and, at some level,
for myself due to being associated with, embedded in,
possessed by what I was calling black social pathology.
Moreover I must admit that I was feeling a bit of fear.
Where would the future take us?
What would happen to these communities,
like the one I grew up on the South Side of Chicago 20
What would become of the people living in those housing
projects that I knew all so well?
And what would become of the kids dependent on schools
where they weren't learning how to read or to do algebra?
What would the future bring?
I feared then in 1984 that if we blacks didn't get it right,
we would find ourselves dealing with these very same issues
two or three generations down the line.
And so looking around America today, it would appear we have.
Nowhere is this plainer to see that in the country's prisons
and jails, which are filled to overflowing mostly
with people of color.
It's enough to make a grown man cry.
What I wish to ask here are an intellectual's responsibilities
in the face of the situation.
For instance, as everyone knows, America's prison system
has grown into a Leviathan unmatched in human history.
I've lectured on this just this morning.
There's no need for me here to review the grim statistics
That incarceration on a massive scale
has become a central component of social policy
in this country is a preeminent moral challenge to be faced,
not merely a technical problem to be solved.
We are not dealing here with mere policy analysis.
The very nature of the country is at stake.
And our integrity is on the line.
Here we are, the United States, with great armies deployed
abroad under a figurative banner that reads freedom,
while harboring the largest custodial infrastructure
for the mass deprivation of liberty on the planet.
For poorly educated black and Latino men,
coercion is now the most salient feature of their encounters
with the American state.
More than mere law enforcement, more than locking up
bad guys in the name of public safety,
incarceration has become a modality of governance
in my country.
It is social policy writ large.
And no other nation on Earth does it
quite the way that we do.
As a second line of defense, if you will,
American punishment policy deals with individuals whose human
development has not been adequately fostered
by other societal institutions.
This is my key point.
Prison operates in conjunction with and interacts powerfully
with social welfare, education, employment, and job training,
mental health, and other social initiatives.
It is a site for the reproduction
of social stratification for the reinforcement
of various social stigmas and for the reenactment of powerful
and uniquely American social dramas.
And yet, the ubiquity of prison as a fact of life
in poor urban neighborhoods has left families in these places,
families like mine, less effective at inculcating
in their children the delinquency resistant social
controls and pro-social attitudes that insulate
youths against lawbreaking.
As the criminologist Todd Clear, concludes
from a review of the evidence, and I quote him briefly,
"deficits in informal social controls that result
from high levels of incarceration
are, in fact, crime promoting.
The high incarceration rates in poor communities
destabilize the social relationships
in these places and help cause crime rather than prevent it."
Here we have another horrific vicious circle.
Put differently, the relationship
between prison and public safety is
complicated in view of the fact that what happens in a place
like San Quentin doesn't stay in San Quentin.
What are the responsibilities of the black policy
intellectual in this situation?
What are my responsibilities?
This is an urgent question.
For punishing criminals is not just more or less
effective instrumental state action.
It is also expressive.
Americans these last decades have wanted to send a message.
And they have done so with a vengeance.
We have, in effect, answered the question
who is to blame for the maladies which beset
our troubled civilization.
And intellectuals have played a key role in this process.
For instance, any cost benefit analysis of our historic prison
build up needs to specify, at least implicitly,
how one reckons the pain imposed upon imprisoned people
and those with whom they share social affiliation.
The failure to consider collateral damage of this kind
and the development of policy has implicitly
discounted the humanity of the thieves,
drug sellers, prostitutes, rapists, and, yes, of those
whom we unceremoniously put to death.
Yet, it is clear that choosing the weight, if any,
to place on a thug's well-being or on that
of his wife or his son is not a scientific question.
Nor do the data tell us how to weigh any additional costs
borne by the offending classes against the purported benefits
of increased security and peace of mind for the rest of us.
The data can only take us so far in our quest
to identify ideal institutions.
And then we must start thinking for ourselves
using moral reasoning.
This is something that intellectuals
ought not to shy away from.
Not counting the cost imposed upon offenders by institutions
of punishment, it's a political, not a scientific, decision.
We intellectuals, too many of us,
have become handmaidens to a massive internal mobilization
that our work has helped to justify and to implement.
This is serious business.
Punishment is violence.
Prison institutionalizes the necessary, though problematic,
violence routinely undertaken by the state
on behalf of its citizenry in the interest
of order maintenance.
Social control and the management of the unruly
are the primary functions served by such institutions.
But social affirmation, the construction of a virtuous we,
is a less celebrated though no less central function.
And this violence is not only physical.
There's also a violence of thought and conception,
a symbolic violence of ideas, if you will.
Key to this violence of ideas is mystification.
The mystifying process by means of which
exercise of might on this scale and with this degree
of inequality comes to seem natural, inevitable, necessary,
Rather than becoming cheerleaders in this process,
my view is that responsible policy intellectuals
must strive to demystify.
That is to say, as [INAUDIBLE] I'm sure
would be happy to hear me say, to lay bare
the underlying ideological terrain.
The social formation of race plays a central part
in all of this.
Slavery, of course, is a distant memory.
But the racial subordination accompanying African slavery
casts a very long shadow.
Urban districts like North Philadelphia or the West Side
of Chicago or the East Side of Detroit or South Central Los
Angeles, these are man made structures
that were created over the generations
and have persisted due to a complex of forces
and of interests ranging far beyond those communities
Anti-social behavior by people embedded
in such social structures may reflect personal moral deviance
on their part.
But it also reflects shortcomings
of the society as a whole.
As a result, the rise of the mass imprisonment state
has opened up a new front in the historic struggle
for racial justice.
That struggle, most decidedly, is not over.
I'm afraid I'm going to have to insist on this point.
Racial disparity and punishment reflects
explicit and tacit racism.
These policies have garnered support at times, because of
and at other times despite their having
a disproportionate negative impact on blacks.
As a matter of social causation, the structure
of our cities with their massive racial ghettos
is implicated in the production of deviancy
amongst their residents.
As a matter of ethical evaluation,
the decency of our institutions depends
on the extent to which they comport
with a narrative of national purpose
that acknowledges and seeks to limit and to reverse
the consequences of history's wrongs.
This argument has an important philosophical implication.
Namely, that an ethic of personal responsibility
could never come close to justifying
the current situation.
Accordingly, I have taken up the task as a black intellectual
in the age of mass incarceration of advocating
greater social responsibility, even for the wrongful acts
freely chosen by individual persons.
It's important to understand what I'm saying here.
I am not saying that a criminal has no choices.
Rather, what I'm saying is that society
is implicated in his choices, because we've
acquiesced in arrangements that work
to his detriment and our benefit and that
shape his consciousness in such a way
that the choices he makes which we must condemn
are nevertheless compelling to him.
In saying this, I rely upon a conception
of durable social inequality that I associate
with Charles Tilly, where enclosed and bounded structures
like racially homogeneous urban ghettos
foster context within which pathology and dysfunction can
However, these behaviors are not intrinsic to the people caught
in these structures.
Neither are they independent of the behavior of those of us
who stand outside of them.
This is what I failed to grasp on that hot summer day in 1984.
But saying all of this does not exhaust
the black intellectual's responsibilities.
I want you to consider this two week old-- I'm
talking about two weeks from today-- two weeks
old story, a newspaper report from my hometown, Chicago.
I want you to bear with me just for a moment,
because the details matter.
We have to look him squarely in the face.
I quote from the Chicago Tribune.
"Six people were killed, including a 15-year-old girl
and at least 63 others were wounded
in shootings across Chicago over Memorial Day weekend."
That's one city.
That's one weekend.
"The total number of people shot during the weekend this year
surpassed the 2015 holiday when 55 people were shot,
12 fatally over the Memorial Day weekend that year.
The most recent homicide happened late Monday
in the Washington Park neighborhood on the South Side.
Officers responding to a call of shots fired at 11pm
found James Taylor--" he has a name.
He has a name.
Can we say his name?
"James Taylor lying on the ground near his vehicle
on the 5100 block of South Calumet Avenue
according to the Chicago Police and the Cook County Medical
Taylor lived about a mile and a half
away at the 6500 block of South Ellis.
He had been shot in the chest and was pronounced dead
at the scene, authorities said.
Witnesses at the scene were not cooperating with detectives.
About the same time, a man was shot to death--"
I continued to read from the news report--
"in the West Rogers Park neighborhood on the North Side.
Officers responding to a call of shots fired at about 11
PM found 39-year-old Johan Jean lying
in a gangway in the 6400 block of North Rockwell,
Jean, who lived in the 100 block of North Ashland in Evanston
was shot in the neck and taken to the Presence St. Francis
Hospital in Evanston where he was later pronounced dead,
Police said he was 25 years old.
A source said the shooting stemmed
from a dispute between two women.
One of them has a child with the man.
And the other was his girlfriend.
The women were armed.
And the man was eventually shot during the argument.
No weapons were recovered from the scene.
Finally, about 5:20 PM on Saturday, a man
was shot to death in the Fuller Park neighborhood
on the South Side.
Gavin Whitmore, 27, was sitting in the driver's seat
of a vehicle with a passenger, 26-year-old Ashley Harrison,
in the 200 block of West Root Street when someone walked up
to the vehicle and shot him in the head
according to the police and the medical examiner's office.
Whitmore, of the 5800 block of West 63rd Place,
was pronounced dead at the scene at 529 PM, authorities said."
63 shot, 15 dead, one weekend, one city.
Urban violence on such a scale involving
blacks as both perpetrators and victims
poses a dilemma to a black intellectual like myself.
On the one hand, as the Harvard legal scholar Randall Kennedy
has observed, we elites need to represent the decent, law
abiding majority of African Americans who cower fearfully
inside their homes in the face of such violence.
And we need to do this not simply
to enhance our group's reputation as
in some politics of respectability,
but also as a precondition for our own dignity
On the other hand, we elites must counter the demonization
of young black men in which the majority
culture has for some time now been feverishly engaged.
Even as we condemn them for degrading their community,
we cannot but view with sympathy the plight of the many poor
youngsters who are not incorrigible,
but who have committed crimes.
We must wrestle with the complex historical and contemporary
causes internal and external.
to the black experience that account for this pathology.
I mean, there's no way around it.
This is pathology.
This is not OK.
This behavior is not OK.
The fact that you can educe sociological and psychological
explanations of it does not resolve the moral question.
Where is an intellectual supposed to stand?
Where is a self-respecting black intellectual supposed to stand?
Am I simply a mouthpiece for a movement's propaganda that aims
at fighting white supremacy?
Or do I have anything to say to my own people
about how we are living?
Is there any space in the public conversation
for a nuanced and complex moral engagement
with these questions?
Do they merely become fodder for partisan argument?
I'm asking you a question.
Because I don't know the answer to it.
But I know that those victims had names.
I know that they had families.
I know that they didn't deserve their fate.
So we have to wrestle with the complex historical and
contemporary causes internal and external to the community.
But at the same time, we have to insist
that despite these causal factors
each black youngster has the freedom
to choose a moral way of life.
And we have not to lose sight of what a moral way of life
This, too, is necessary for the black community's dignity
This dilemma is made all the more difficult by the reaction
of the wider public to the threat
posed by young black males in the cities.
Many are frightened by and disgusted
with the violent criminal behavior
that, with reason, they associate with inner city
Their fear and disgust have bred contempt.
And that contempt has, in turn, produced
a terribly remarkable degree of publicly expressed disrespect
It is no exaggeration to say that black youngsters
in the central cities have been demonized in the popular mind
as have no other group in recent American history.
What was once whispered is now openly shouted.
One conservative critic could even
be heard recently to declare about white opinion
"the criminal and irresponsible black underclass represents
a revival of barbarism in the midst of Western civilization."
Whatever objective basis there may
be for such a harsh statement, there
is more than a hint of racism in the relish with which some
have taken up this newly liberated discourse.
No reflective Black American, certainly not this one,
can fail to be alarmed by such Rhetoric
What, for example, might the majority
be expected to do having discovered
a malignant barbarism in its midst?
There can be little doubt that blacks, even those living
in dangerous communities, are deeply
ambivalent about the trend toward increased incarceration
of young black men.
Those wreaking havoc are the brothers, lovers,
and sons of law abiding residents
in the same districts.
For most residents of such communities
the desire for retribution is tempered by identification
with the perpetrators.
There, but for the grace of God, go I, or my husband, or my son.
Thus, we find urban jurors voting
to nullify criminal charges against guilty defendants
and justifying their actions by saying
they couldn't bear to send another young brother
And we find liberal politicians from the highest crime areas
who are black arguing against punitive criminal justice
policies, even though their constituents
would gain enormously from an improvement in public safety.
Those jurors are not fools.
Those politicians are not knaves.
It is a safe assumption that these
are deeply conflicted people caught
on the horns of an impossible dilemma.
The relatively muted response of inner city residents
and of their representatives to their own victimization
constitutes one of the few checks
on the severity of contemporary criminal justice
policy in America.
Were the residents of America's ghettos
to demand in the name of justice and civil rights protection
from the predations of criminals who just happened to be black,
then their cries would powerfully
compliment the trend toward law and order
that has produced the mass incarceration state around us
It would be arrogant to attribute,
as some do on the right, these people's reticence to false
More plausible, more tragic, more ironic
is the view that this muted response
in the face of victimization is a direct and powerful
reflection of their ambivalence toward an identification
with the perpetrators of these crimes.
Viewed in this light, one can perhaps better appreciate
the tragic moral dilemma in which these people, in which we
people, are trapped.
I am reminded of this delicate and perplexing dilemma
from an interview that I did with a young black lawyer
of many years acquaintance who served once as prosecutor
for the juvenile division of the District Attorney's office
in my hometown of Chicago.
This young woman-- I'll call her Elaine, because she didn't want
her identify publicly disclosed--
when first entering law school never
dreamed that she would become a prosecutor.
Like many of her peers, she just assumed that the black struggle
could best be pursued as a member of the defense bar
keeping young brothers out of prison.
However, one summer's work as a public defender,
as an aid in a public defender's office, changed all of that.
"I realized," I quote her, "that all of our clients were guilty,
some of them of the most heinous offenses."
Shaken from her naivete, she applied
for an Assistant District Attorney's position
upon graduation thinking that she'd
serve her community by protecting the good people
from the predations of the bad.
After a brief apprenticeship, she
assumed responsibility for a large number of juvenile felony
cases that came into the District Attorney's Office.
Elaine describes her experience as difficult and frustrating.
She talks derisively of quote, "those little gangbangers,"
every one of them black or Hispanic, who
are both defendants and victims in the endless stream
of shooting cases that come across her desk.
Quoting her, "it seems that there aren't
that many good guys out there.
Most of these kids involved in gang related cases,
both the victims and the defendants, are bad guys,"
Especially troubling to her is the extent
to which the gangs use criminal justice system
as a mere extension of their street activities.
A victim in a case one day becomes a defendant the next,
walking right out of the court to seek revenge
against the assailant gang.
Or a witness one day disappears the next,
as a sudden truce between the warring gangs,
leads him to forget what it was he claimed to have seen.
So Elaine, while she began thinking
that she'd help the community protect them from bad people,
she had begun to wonder, especially
when dealing with gang violence, whether this was an impossible
She's begun to question how her office handles gang
And I could go on in this vein, but our time is limited.
Elaine gives further testimony, including a description
of gruesome scenes of criminal participation in victimization,
a bunch of kids who bludgeoned their parent to death
with a baseball bat.
Another group of young teenagers would lure somebody
into a hallway, and then shoot them in the head and rob them.
They're 14 years old.
One kid, she finds, had been neglected by the parents.
The mothers had gone off for three days
binging on whatever the thing it was they were doing.
And the kids were left unattended.
And so the neglect case came to her attention.
And then six months later, the very kid
that was in the neglect case is a defendant
in her court accused of a murder.
He goes to a juvenile detention center and hangs himself.
These are descriptions that I have here
that she gives of the horrific cases
that she had to deal with on a daily basis.
What manner of people are you who live like this?
The question is unavoidable.
It may be true that Black Americans are diminished
and have survived against the horrible history.
That's not, of course, the only truth.
Blacks are a resource people, a people
of ingenuity, and creativity, and courage, and beauty,
For most Black Americans are quintessentially
an American people.
But the historical scar tissue, so
evidently manifest in the lives of these poor black urban
masses, makes their circumstance special.
Intellectuals have the responsibility
to tell the truths as they understand them,
even unpalatable ones, or especially unpalatable ones.
It does no good to say that criminals are
a minority of all black people.
Of course, that's true.
It does no good to say that there are good and sufficient
reasons for their troubling behavior.
I can list those reasons all night long.
It does no good to say that others who are not black
have also fallen short.
Of course, that's true.
These are truths, but voicing them changes nothing.
There needs to be a communal as well as a national response
to this crisis.
I repeat, there needs to be mobilization
on the ground on a national scale
with as much resources, energy, and commitment,
and organizational skill as has been mustered to bring cops
into the dock when they misbehave organized
around reacting to this behavior,
insisting that it is not going to be
acceptable in our community.
This is not a cause and effect argument that I'm making here.
I want to be very clear about that.
I'm not saying if you do this, then anything will follow.
I'm saying somebody needs to stand up and insist
that this contemptible behavior is
incompatible with any notion of blackness
that is worthy of being defended period.
Of course, that's not enough.
By itself, it's not enough.
I'm not saying it's a solution to the larger problem.
Of course, there needs to be social mobilization.
Somebody is going to say, don't we need more health care.
Somebody is going to say, shouldn't there
be work for people who are looking for work.
Somebody is going to tell me that the housing situation is
Somebody is going to point out that the schools are
I want the schools more adequately funded.
I want the housing situation addressed.
I want resources invested in this community.
I'm talking trillions of dollars over a period of years
invested in this community.
I want a reorientation of our public policy.
But that's not the only thing I want.
That does not exhaust the discussion here.
There is a stilted, distorted, stick figure,
simplistic reaction to these events
that points a finger everywhere except inward.
And it needs to stop.
That's what I'm saying.
I'm not asking you to agree with me.
My guess is that many of you don't agree with me.
Right now, I feel compelled as a black intellectual
to tell you what I'm saying.
Refute me if you will.
But silence me, you will not.
I wish to conclude.
Let me conclude on an even more personal note.
I believe it is very important to bear in mind something
that I know from firsthand experience.
And that is that the incarcerated,
the ghetto dwellers, this class to which I have been referring
of people and their families, are not
passive in their alienation.
They're not without resources.
They are not simply automata at the end of a puppeteer string.
Rather, they construct meaningful worlds
for themselves amidst the storm.
They, we, truck up to prison to visit a kid or a parent
or partner going through a rite of passage that
soon enough becomes familiar.
They, we, bail somebody out of the clink knowing
that the money could be lost.
To save our own hides, we may turn in loved ones to the cops.
They, we, live with relatives who steal from them.
They, we, are at one in the same time
victims and perpetrators of criminal acts.
They know that this phony political dichotomy of us
versus them, of the virtuous and the venal, is morally fraught,
is a phony dichotomy.
given the fact that any one of us falls depending on the day
or the hour of the day to one side
or the other of that divide of virtue and venality.
A biographic life will have been lived
on both sides of the line.
But in retrospect, having staggered back and forth
across that line many times over its course, one's imagined life
can still be constructed as unified in its righteousness
and justified in its condemnations.
I know what I'm talking about here from personal experience.
As it happens I have passed through the court
room and the jailhouse on my way to this distinguished podium.
I've sat in the visitors room at a state prison.
I've known personally and intimately
men and women who live their entire lives with one
foot to either side of the law.
In my mind's eye, I can envision voiceless
and despairing people, perpetrators and victims
alike, who would hope I might represent them
on an occasion such as this.
I know that these revelations may discredit me
in some quarters.
Some may assume that I'm siding with the thug
and not with innocent victims of senseless violence.
Truth be told, some would assume this about me
no matter what I might say here is, so deeply entrenched
is this binary opposition in the American public mind.
So I'm not even going to bother to try to refute the charge.
Some time ago, I was honored to deliver the Tanner Lectures
on Human Values at Stanford University.
These lectures marked an important moment for me
on the long and ongoing trajectory
that has joined my lived experience to my scholarship
and my politics.
Racial Stigma, Mass Incarceration,
and American Values was the title for a pair of lectures
that brimmed with moral passion and with what
I hoped was seen to be rigorous analysis.
The lectures asserted what I have said here today,
that the number of black men incarcerated in US prisons
and jails reflects the social honor to which African
Americans are still subject today,
a dishonor with its roots in our history of slavery.
I have not recounted in any detail the substance
of that argument here.
And my talk, along with some commentaries,
was published by MIT Press in a small book
that I believe is being made available to at least
the Ethnicity Conflict and Inequality Workshop.
What I wish to declare here at this August
gathering on this fine Thursday afternoon,
speaking only for myself, is that I have indeed
committed myself to doing something about this.
That is how this particular Black American intellectual
has chosen to react to the spectacle
of racialized mass incarceration in my native land.
In addition to my teaching and writing,
I've testified before Congress.
I've helped to organize studies at prestigious academies
of social inquiry and so forth.
I won't go into the details.
I discussed this this morning.
I see this work as discharging a personal responsibility.
This issue has propelled me once again
into a role I flirted with throughout my career, that
of public intellectual.
Of course, as an economist my primary work
is to crunch numbers or at least to be
on intimately familiar terms with the work of those who do.
But what those numbers has revealed
has triggered my moral outrage.
At this I make no apologies.
Mathematical modeling is not all there
is to the intellectual life.
I am now determined to reach beyond science and policy
analysis within the limits of my abilities and gifts
to address deeper questions.
My journey to the issue of prisons
has taken unlikely twists and turns.
It has involved not just the court house and the jail house,
but my many years as a conservative pundit.
It has included a religious rebirth
followed by a repudiation of that religion.
And then as if to prove that God has a sense of humor,
a re-embrace of it again.
And it has brought me finally further
to the left of the political spectrum
than I would have ever imagined possible, though I am sure not
far enough to please my Marxist friend [INAUDIBLE].
I am the eldest of two children raised after an early divorce
by a single mom.
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago
in the 1950s and the 1960s.
Although the neighborhood was rough,
my family was comfortable enough.
My father who was the groom depicted there-- he's
18 years old in that photograph-- ended up
a high level administrator with the Internal Revenue Service.
And my mother, the bride pictured there in May of 1948.
I was born in September of 1948.
So I'm in the picture, too, you can't see me.
But she had a job with the Veterans Administration.
I had cousins who became doctors and lawyers.
I also had relatives who died of a drug overdose who spent years
In his book, Code of the Streets,
the ethnographer Elijah Anderson describes two broad categories
of social orientation in the inner city,
what he calls decent families who
tend to be working poor rather than unemployed
and who value self-reliance, hard work, education,
and church, and what he calls street families, who
turn to lawlessness to make ends meet
and violence to settle their Conflicts
my family had a little bit of both
sometimes in a single person.
I'm thinking, for example, of my Uncle Mooney.
He was a legitimate small business
man and barber and dry cleaner.
But he sold marijuana out of the back of his barber shop
I'm thinking of my Aunts Cammy and Aunt Rosetta,
who are depicted in that photograph to your far left.
Those are my great aunts, my mother's
Aunts Cammy and Rosetta who fenced stolen goods
as a regular course of events.
They had young women who were shoplifting clothing
and foodstuffs from retailers.
And then they'd give those girls $0.20 or $0.30 on the dollar.
And the aunts kept big freezers in their basement,
so that whenever you had a family affair,
you knew that you didn't go to the market
to buy your ham or your turkey.
You went to Aunt Cammy or Aunt Rosetta,
and you got a better price.
These are church ladies wearing the big hats.
They were the salt of the Earth, these people.
But that's what they did.
The book I'm currently writing is a memoir.
It paints a vivid picture of my upbringing in Chicago
in the 1950s and '60s with characters
like my mother, Gloria.
There she is so gorgeous, so beautiful.
Her nickname was Gogo.
I had been enrolled in five different elementary schools
before completing the fifth grade.
My mother was always on the move.
My Auntie Lois, who is there, the third person
to the right of my mother, is my Auntie Lois, her sister,
who rescued my sister and I from our itinerant life
by bringing all of us into her household.
Their brothers, my Uncles Alfred,
who can be seen over my father's right shoulder, and
[? Atlert, ?] who can be seen over my mother's left shoulder.
My Auntie Lois's husband, Uncle Mooney-- I used to call him,
Uncle Call Me When They Start Integrating The Money Mooney.
Because that's what he always said about Martin Luther King
He said, I don't want to live next no white people.
You just call me when they start integrating the money.
That was my family, and my great aunts
and uncles who had initially migrated north from Mississippi
after World War.
I loved that life.
I can recall the hustling, the rent parties,
the strangers to whom rooms were sometimes
let in our house, the jazz music,
the blues that were everywhere.
Likewise, I can recall premature death, rampant adultery,
hipsters and gangsters with style,
and enormous social vitality.
The bare facts of my upbringing are not without interest.
There will be no need in the memoir to embellish.
I was born to these working class African American
parent early in the post World War II baby boom.
I was educated in public schools graduating high school
at age 16.
I attended the Illinois Institute of Technology
for about a year where I failed to study mathematics.
I studied at a community college that
met in one wing of a large vocational high school.
I then transferred to the elite Northwestern University
on the shores of Lake Michigan just north of the city,
where I studied mathematics and philosophy mainly, but minored
in economics and became acquainted
with the German language.
I became a father at the age of 18, 19, and 21.
I finished my formal education at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, where earned a PhD in economics at age 27
from what was then the best department of economics
in the world.
It was a remarkable transformation.
Fatherhood forced me to become a college dropout at age 18.
I worked full-time as a clerk in a printing plant for five years
before I went off to MIT and was a full-time student
as well for the last three of those years at that community
college, and then at Northwestern University.
I was serious about my studies.
I completed my graduate studies brilliantly.
And by age 33, I had become a tenured professor
of economics at Harvard, indeed the first black person
to hold the position.
I remarried at 34, became an in-patient
in the McLean Psychiatric Hospital at 39,
and was baptized a born-again Christian at age 40.
You're going to have to buy the memoir to get the full story.
The Chicago of my youth exuded beauty and brilliance amidst
compromised standards and awful pain.
My Uncle [? Atlert, ?] seen there
over my mother's left shoulder, drank himself to death.
Our close family friend Boo Boo was a brilliant student,
but he had to watch his father fatally shoot himself
in the head while sitting on my mother's living room couch.
A kid nicknamed Pig, a grade school bully who tormented me,
ended up with a life prison sentence for killing a cop.
I knew that kid.
The quiet boy down the block, Paul Shumpert,
who was a brilliant Little League shortstop,
overdosed on heroin at age 18.
My cousin Ronnie was also strung out.
He'd often stop by our house to get something to eat.
And he'd steal from my mother's purse, which
she would knowingly permit.
The kid Stevie, whom I'd known since I was 12 years old,
bled out on his mother's basement floor
after an accidental gunshot wound to the stomach playing
with along with his friends with a pistol.
A gay man with whom I had worked at the printing plant, Chuck,
was found bludgeoned to death in his apartment, the place where
I would often spend Saturday mornings after a long Friday
night third shift shooting the breeze with my friend Chuck.
My Uncle Alfred, seen there over my father's right shoulder,
lived a polygamous life with overlapping families fathering
22 children all together.
The brilliant Uncle [? Atlert ?] graduated
at the top of his class from Northwestern University Law
He went to law school with Harold Washington,
the late Harold Washington who was the first black mayor
of the City of Chicago.
That was my uncle.
He was a brilliant man.
But he ended up getting disbarred,
because he got caught up in some shady family deals
with the great aunts.
And yet, I vividly remember my Uncle [? Atlert's ?] stunning
I recall my Uncle Alfred's charm,
his physical beauty and grace, and his absolute devotion
to his children, all 22 of them.
I can remember my mother's sweetly melodic voice
and her giving heart and my Uncle Mooney's grit,
his enterprise, and his fierce independence.
And I remember my Auntie Lois' steadfast and sacrificial love
I recall her elegance and her ambition.
I can still see the impressive style
with which the great aunts adorn their homes, Rosetta
and Cammie, the operators, their silverware, their linen
tablecloths, their ivory and mahogany
and crystal, their Persian rugs, lace curtains, the furniture,
their cars, the mink, and the fox,
and the chinchilla fur stoles, their stylish shoes
and hats, and precious jewels.
I can recall watching my mother dress for Saturday night, Gogo.
She was getting ready, the stockings, and girdles,
brassieres, and garters, and power, and painted nails,
and hair dos, and several colors,
the forest of bottle perfumes, colognes, creams, lotions,
and oils that covered the top of her dresser.
I can recall men's conked hair dos, Sunday socials, fashion
shows, teas, bid whist card games, cookouts, feasts,
and parties on every holiday or no holiday at all.
It was a world of close knit kinship,
mutual aid, gossip, envy, betrayals, domestic violence,
incest, hustling, a world with characters
like the fictional Pimp Iceberg Slim competed for my attention
with the very real cadres of black Muslim devotees who
hawk their newspapers, Mohammed speaks,
to passersby at crowded intersections.
Racial identity was of primary importance
in the Chicago of my youth.
White flight had turned many of the city's neighborhoods
into African American enclaves.
And the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements
had fired the imaginations of young people, myself included.
Even as my political approach to the race problem
has veered sharply from left to right to center and back
to the left again, my foundational belief
has remained consistent.
I am a black American intellectual.
And I must stand with my people.
Perhaps then you can understand why
it is that I have spoken to you as I have done today.
[INAUDIBLE] you'll take some questions?
We're taking questions.
I'm just going to make myself comfortable here,
because my back hurts.
There are microphones in either aisle.
If anyone has questions, feel free to approach the microphone
and pose your question or comment.
I guess you don't want to go to the microphone.
And I'm happy to hear you from where you are.
[INAUDIBLE], I want to thank you for the [INAUDIBLE]
You seem inspired, so--
Yeah, great idea.
Let me come again by saying that I want to appreciate Professor
for the brilliant speech.
I want to really sympathize with the left side of the story,
so awful, touching, and drowning.
All the same, I want to say that we should be happy
that thorns can bear roses.
Here you are, professor.
Though some are still languish in jail.
But I want to say that Africa continent where you belong
is still waiting for you.
So I want you to include this clause
in the book you're writing.
That sounds like a high compliment.
I appreciate it very much.
Let me just say you're not going to get me killed over there
in Lagos or whatever, man.
I in enough trouble already.
Can somebody get that man a microphone,
get these people microphones?
Just pass them around.
Because otherwise, I won't be able to hear.
Thank you very much.
My name is Patrick.
I come from Uganda, which is in Africa.
I'm a little bit anxious.
Your position or thesis seems to be not really mainstream
position of most academics.
At least, the story has been different.
And I'm just wondering how are you
intending to use this non-mainstream narrative
to change what is existing?
I don't know that I've made my point.
No, it's not a mainstream narrative.
That's for sure.
It's not without some echo even within the African American
It's not that there aren't people religious and secular
who say similar things.
But I think there's a great concern just
as in that meeting back in 1984 when people were saying,
Professor Loury, do you know who's hearing you now?
I mean, you're not just talking to us.
You're talking to the world.
You put that in a magazine, you give aid and comfort
to the enemy.
You give ammunition to the critics of our people.
It's unhelpful politically.
Don't do that.
And I mean, that's the dilemma.
The dilemma here is what does integrity consist in?
I'm not a kid anymore.
In 1984, I was young and immature.
And I was all full of myself.
And I was just strutting.
I was just so glad to be able to say
something interesting and important and get people riled.
I've been around for a while, OK.
I've been observing this situation for a while.
We are now pretty far down the line.
It's a half century since the 1960s.
I think I go to call them the way that I see them.
I'm open to critique, correction,
being informed, being educated.
I'm not afraid of a conversation with people.
But I feel like I have to call them like I see them.
And I'm saying all that to say, I
have no political calculation.
I don't have a strategy about how
I'm going to change the world.
I feel like I have to stand up for what I believe is true.
I think nuance is a virtue.
I think complex moral and social and political problems warrant
to be treated exactly as that, complex problems
to which slogans and bumper stickers do not
I have tried at one in the same time
to affirm the imperative that the state has
to act on behalf of providing a decent life to its people,
all of its people, including black people,
and at the same time to insist that our community while we are
busy protesting against the state's inadequate actions
have also in the interest of affirming our dignity
and ultimately of asserting our equal status in the society
to denounce, marginalize, and condemn
behaviors among ourselves which are contemptible and worthy
I don't see why that's a contradiction.
So you ask me, I'm telling you.
Other people may have other responses.
But I see no contradiction between this.
No, it's not a mainstream message.
I'm not a mainstream guy.
I'm OK with that.
There was someone up here.
My name is Jose.
So my question is how about so you
were talking about prisoners and the situation of felons.
So what do you think about these current attempts, for example,
in Virginia to enfranchise again former felons?
Do you think that will be a helpful step
Or what do you think about that?
I believe you are talking about Proposition 47 in California?
I think it was Virginia, like one month ago
or something like that?
Where felons could vote again.
Oh, I see.
That's a different--
Former felons [INAUDIBLE].
Oh, I'm definitely in favor of that.
Civic excommunication is an inappropriate punishment
in a democracy.
That's what I would say.
If I have to confine somebody to punish them for a crime,
that's one thing.
When they have paid their debt to society and are released,
why ought they not be invited back into the citizenry?
They never should have been excluded from the opportunity
to vote in the first place in my opinion.
So I believe that that-- I didn't actually
know about that-- in Virginia is a very good thing.
There have been careful studies done
of the implication of felon disenfranchisement
for the composition of American politics.
So for example, the Senate majority leader,
his name is Mitch McConnell, he's
a Republican Senator from Kentucky.
These guys at Northwestern Sociology Department
ran the numbers calculating in his close election
the first time around what would have
happened if formerly incarcerated people had
been able to vote.
It wouldn't have even been close.
That cat would have never gotten elected to the Senate.
George Walker Bush would have never
become President of the United States
if people formerly incarcerated in the State of Florida
had been permitted to vote.
The very shape of our politics is
affected by this declassifying people or delegitimizing them
as members of the polity.
Why should their offense, which has already been duly paid
for by service of time in prison,
exempt them for participating in our public life?
We don't want to hear from them?
Their opinions are of no weight in the calculation
of what we do?
This is back to what I was saying
at the start, which is these are human beings that we're
And if we won't count their welfare in the social calculus,
we basically discount their humanity.
I just want to say in conclusion to this that California
has done something a little bit different,
but I think also very important.
They passed the ballot initiative
in which nonviolent criminal offenders who
had felonies and had served their time
were going to be eligible to apply to have their offenses
reclassified as misdemeanors and not felonies.
And so all of the social encumbrances
that attend a felony record, like lack of eligibility
for housing and other public assistance
and educational assistance, would be restored
to these people if they went through the process
and applied and had their cases reviewed and had their felonies
This and other things are going on around the country, which
are move in the right direction.
And I say this not only because of the benefits
that it would generate for black people,
but the benefits that would accrue
to anyone who is subject to the criminal justice system.
So reform is in the air.
What you talk about is a good thing as far as I'm concerned.
Yes, just take that microphone.
I see other hands up.
Perhaps, the microphone can be passed on that side
to the other gentleman.
And Matthew, you're going to tell me when this is over.
We'll go through--
I can stay here all night.
So who's going first?
Thank you very much.
I really appreciate your very powerful speech.
I'm really touched.
And when I'm listening to you, I cannot help thinking about
the other group, the Chinese Americans,
the so-called the model ethnic minority in the US.
So they seem to put down policies
or, you know, discrimination, just
try to bury their head in getting a good degree,
going into the good schools, and getting
become doctors and lawyers.
But it seems that even they try to stay away
from crime, trying to establish a middle class life.
It doesn't receive the kind of like ecostatus in America
So I wonder how would you compare the two groups.
And the second question is when you're
talking about people of color, it
seems that there is not that much-- I'm not
that familiar with American politics.
But it not that much alliance between Chinese American
and African American.
So it seems that there's little consensus of kind of alliance.
So I just want to hear your comment.
Well, you say how would I compare.
And I don't know that I could compare,
that I would try to compare.
You mention model minority.
And certainly, one part of the Chinese American story,
if I dare to speak to it at all, is the combination
of being othered, being seen as an other.
Where were you born?
Tell me where you were born.
Oh, I was born in Chicago.
Where did you say you were born again?
This kind of thing and racial discrimination
of one kind or another together with the fact, as you say
of many people.
This is at least a myth about immigrant families,
putting their noses to the grindstone, working very hard,
making sure their kids get prepared going to the best
schools, scoring high on the entrance exams,
and so on and so forth.
I would not call it a myth that Chinese and Korean
American students are doing extraordinarily well.
That's not a myth.
All you have to do is go to the math department,
go to the chemistry department and take a look at who's there.
That's not a myth.
I think the idea that success proves
that anybody can do it is a very overly
simplified piece of analysis.
We know that migration is selective.
Migrants are not a random draw on the home country.
They're the people who are the most ambitious,
the most willing to take risk, et cetera, et
cetera, and so on.
I think it's complicated.
I think one thing worth watching in terms
of the arc of assimilation or transition of the position
of Chinese American persons in the society is intermarriage.
The rates are actually pretty high.
I don't know the numbers right off the top of my head,
but they're really quite high.
You know, I'm talking 35%, 40% of the women who
are Chinese Americans who are married
are married to non-Chinese descended people.
That's a pretty high rate of intermarriage.
So over time, I think we'll be sitting here
50 years from now thinking quite differently about this.
I think 50 or 75 years ago, it could
have been said about Jewish Americans many of the things
that one says about Chinese Americans today.
That might be a more appropriate analogy
than to make an analogy with African Americans.
But all of this is speculation.
And it's hard to know.
I think some of the dilemmas that Chinese Americans, who
are people of color after all, confront
given the turmoil of our time with all of this protest
and uprising are just wrenching dilemmas.
I don't know how these kids decide what
solidarity will mean for them.
There's this case-- this is not about colleges-- the police
officer in New York City who shot someone.
He happened to be a Chinese American.
They've indicted this guy.
And he's going to be subject to potential criminal penalty.
His gun went off by accident, he says.
And the bullet ricocheted down the hallway,
and it killed a black man.
I wouldn't assume that he intended to do it.
But nevertheless, there you are.
Perhaps, he was negligent.
There you are.
His head was being demanded on a platter
by the black community who insisted.
I couldn't blame a Chinese New Yorker for saying,
oh, the white guys who choked Eric Garner to death
over in Staten Island got off.
But now you're going to hang out the Chinese guy to drive,
because he's just a Chinese guy, et cetera, et cetera.
You will know about those lawsuits that
are being brought on behalf of Chinese applicants
to Harvard and elite other institutions
claiming that they're being discriminated against,
because they are rejected with scores
that are higher than the scores of whites
who are being admitted.
But if you're running a university
and you want to admit groups who are underrepresented
and whose scores might be lower, and you also
want to admit whites, something's
got to give somewhere along the line.
I mean, all those sums have to add up
to one at the end of the day.
You raise one of them, you're going
to have to lower another one.
So it's tough.
It's a very interesting set of issues.
I don't claim any real expertise about it,
but it's very interesting.
Is there one more--
Perhaps, one more question then?
My name is Christian.
I'm from Nigeria.
Prof, having listened to you in the morning
and listening to you this evening,
I think it calls for revisiting of the 1964
Bill of Rights of the US.
Because what is race here is what
is ethnicity in my [? clime. ?]
And we know the danger it poses to a nation
to have people been discriminated,
because of a particular issue.
I'm saying that given the position of America
in the global politics that it would be nice for America
to allow the [INAUDIBLE].
Because looking at America now, you
discover that there is a kind of gradual division
in the political realm.
I mean, like having the kind of division
between in the area of race, black, black Americans, white,
I mean maybe [INAUDIBLE] having something maybe Republican
being white Party, Democrat being maybe non-white party.
I mean, it doesn't speak well for a nation like America.
And we're [INAUDIBLE] we look at the history of the rise
and fall of kingdoms, you discover this kind of crack.
Little by little, the crack continues to widen and widen
and anything can happen.
I think there is need to revisit that policy at least
to ensure that there is proper inclusion of all race that
make up America.
Thank you, sir.
Thank you for your comment.
I don't know that I have a lot to say about it.
If I understood you correctly, I think
you're worrying about the fragmentation of the American
Society that comes from all these classifications of people
into the different groups.
And all I have to tell you is that the Pandora's box, if you
will, has been opened, and the spirits are loose in the land.
Getting them back in the box is going to be-- I
don't know if you saw Raiders of the Lost Ark.
That's one of the fun movies back in the day.
But you open the box, and those guys come out.
It's very hard to get them back in the box.
I don't know how you push on the string and undo it.
So many interests have now become
developed around the categorization
in a differentiation.
And a person who says post-racial, not as
a description, but as an aspiration, who
says we should strive to be post-racial,
is very likely to be laughed out of court in most conversations.
We'll see what's going to happen.
I mean, one of the things-- I tipped my hand here
a little bit back here at Brown--
I've been on leave at Stanford University for the last year
while my home university has been undergoing
a massive re-ordering of its priorities
in the interests of diversity and inclusion.
One of the things that I would like
to try to contribute to that conversation
is, OK, we've got our people in these different groups
and these different boxes of identity.
That's how they come to us, male, female, black, white,
Latino, Native American, cisgendered, et cetera.
That's how they come to us.
Is that how we want to leave them?
Do we simply want to take that as given, and then double down?
Oh, I see you're fitting in box 3A.
Let me see what we've got for box 3A.
You're in box 2B.
Let me see what we've got for the box 2B.
Or do we want to think about our pedagogic mission?
I'm talking about the university not about the politics,
just about what you do when you're trying to educate.
Do we want to push a little bit against the grain?
We want to say, yeah, I hear you, I see you.
You came from that neighborhood.
You went to-- but you know what?
The world's a big wide place.
The world is really more then looking backwards.
You are at Brown University, one of the most privileged people
on the planet.
Anything is possible for you.
Don't limit yourself by what you know.
Challenge yourself by what you could possibly learn.
Learn from someone who's different from yourself.
Yes, you're a this.
But you're 12 other things beside.
We're not any one of these little things.
Our humanity transcends our categorization.
This is the kind of thing that I would want to say.
But I'll see if anybody's willing to listen to it.
Thank you all very much.