In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris talks to economist Glenn C. Loury about racism, police violence, the Black Lives Matter movement, and related topics.
Glenn C. Loury is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics at Brown University. He has taught previously at Boston, Harvard and Northwestern Universities, and the University of Michigan. He holds a B.A. in Mathematics (Northwestern University, 1972) and a Ph.D. in Economics (MIT, 1976).
Professor Loury has published mainly in the areas of applied microeconomic theory, game theory, industrial organization, natural resource economics, and the economics of race and inequality. He has been elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Econometric Society, Member of the American Philosophical Society, Vice President of the American Economics Association, and President of the Eastern Economics Association. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Carnegie Scholarship to support his work.
As a prominent social critic and public intellectual, writing mainly on the themes of racial inequality and social policy, Professor Loury has published over 200 essays and reviews in journals of public affairs in the U.S. and abroad. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a contributing editor at The Boston Review, and was for many years a contributing editor at The New Republic. Professor Loury’s books include One by One, From the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America (The Free Press, 1995 – winner of the American Book Award and the Christianity Today Book Award); The Anatomy of Racial Inequality (Harvard University Press, 2002); Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy: Comparing the US and the UK (ed., Cambridge University Press, 2005); and, Race, Incarceration and American Values (M.I.T. Press, 2008).
Glenn Loury hosts The Glenn Show on Bloggingheads.tv, and he can be reached on Twitter at @GlennLoury.
Books and articles discussed in this podcast:
Ta-Nehisi Coates. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic. June, 2014.
Thomas Chatterton Williams. “Loaded Dice.” The London Review of Books. December, 2015.
Benjamin Wallace-Wells. “The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates.” New York Magazine. July, 2015.
Jill Leovy. Ghettoside. Spiegel & Grau. 2015.
Roland G. Fryer, Jr. “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force.” National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. July, 2016.
Glenn C. Loury. “Ferguson Won’t Change Anything. What Will?” The Boston Review. January, 2015.
This is a lightly edited transcript of a recorded conversation.
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Welcome to the Waking Up podcast. This is Sam Harris. Well, there are a variety of housekeeping issues I could engage at the start of this episode. ISIS just released a fairly amazing document titled “Why We Hate You and Why We Fight You.” This is bizarre. It’s as though they’ve been watching my skirmishes with obscurantists who deny the religious roots of jihadism, and they just thought, Enough is enough. We’re just going to close every loophole that people like Scott Atran and Karen Armstrong and Robert Pape and Noam Chomsky and all these other confabulators on this issue seem to find in their desperate attempts to implicate everything other than our heartfelt religious beliefs.
And that’s what they did: They spelled out, with utter clarity, their motivations for doing what they do. But I might just do a separate podcast on that, because I’d rather not delay the conversation we’re going to bring you today, which strikes me as especially urgent. So I’m going to pivot directly to today’s guest.
As always, if you like what I’m doing on the podcast, you can support this work at samharris.org/support. Your support is, in fact, what makes conversations like this possible. This podcast is ad-free, and I’m happy to keep it that way. But that makes you my only sponsor, and your support is much appreciated.
Today I’ll be speaking with Glenn Loury. Glenn is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of Social Sciences and a professor of economics at Brown University. He has taught previously at Boston and Harvard and Northwestern and the University of Michigan; he holds a BA in mathematics from Northwestern and a PhD in economics from MIT; he’s a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a former Guggenheim Fellowship recipient; and he has published widely and has written several books that I will link to on my blog. I discovered Glenn through his bloggingheads.tv podcast, where he’s been having some extraordinarily candid and clarifying conversations about race and racism with the linguist John McWhorter, from Columbia, and I highly recommend you check out that podcast.
Again, I’ll provide a link to that on my website. The purpose of my conversation with Glenn today is to dive headlong into these controversial waters of race and racism and violence in America—as though my work weren’t controversial enough already. But I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, because these issues are so consequential and politically divisive. I’ve been worried about doing this for obvious reasons. I raised the topic in my podcast with Neil deGrasse Tyson, you may recall, but he didn’t want to touch it—which I understand. He didn’t feel the time was right to weigh in on these issues personally.
But for some reason I’ve been feeling that the time is right for me. It’s really been bothering me that so much of what I hear about race and violence in America doesn’t make any sense, and the fact that I’ve been worried about speaking about these issues in public was also bothering me. In fact, the implications of speaking about race in particular caused me to cancel a book contract I had last year: It seemed too much of a liability. But I have since stiffened my spine, and I was left wondering who I could talk to about these things. My goal was to find an African-American intellectual who could really get into the details with me, but whom I also trusted to have a truly rational conversation that wouldn’t be contaminated by identity politics.
As you probably intuit, I think identity politics are just poison—unless your identity at this point is Homo sapiens—but I found what I was looking for in Glenn. He’s just so good on these topics. And as you’ll hear, he spends a fair amount of time giving the counterpoint to his positions on each topic: steel-manning rather than straw-manning the views of his opponents. Anyway, I found this conversation extremely helpful. It felt like Glenn and I could have gone on for much longer—and many thanks to him for being so generous with his time.
If you find this conversation as useful as I did, I encourage you to spread it around and follow Glenn on Twitter, @GlennLoury, and please tell him that you appreciate what he’s doing. And again, check out his podcast on bloggingheads.tv.
Sam: Glenn, thanks for coming on the podcast.
Glenn: Sam, my pleasure.
Sam: I’ve really been excited about having this conversation, probably irrationally so, because the topics we’re going to cover—race and racism, and police violence—can’t help but bring us some measure of grief. So thank you for doing this, and I think most of the grief will come my way, probably.
First, I want to say that your podcasts on Bloggingheads TV, especially the ones you’ve done with John McWhorter, whom I also greatly admire, have been fantastic. It’s so rare to hear two people talk about these topics honestly.
Glenn: Great. Sam, can I tell your audience that you’re referring to The Glenn Show, at bloggingheads.tv, and all viewers or listeners are welcome.
Sam: I’ll put a link to your page on my blog so that people can find it.
What I’m noticing now, and it’s really been in the past year or so, is that there’s a culture of censorship and identity politics and a kind of addiction to being outraged—and a resort to outrage in place of reasoned argument, especially among young people—that is making it impossible to have productive conversations on important topics.
This is happening on topics other than race, of course—it happens on religion and terrorism and gender—but race is obviously one of those hot spots. You’ve been illuminating this topic on your show in a way that’s really unusual—just cutting through confusion like a laser. So it really is great to be talking to you.
Glenn: I appreciate that. I think one of my motivations—and John McWhorter can speak for himself, but I think this would apply to him, too—is that in the face of this addiction to outrage (that’s an artful way of putting it), and a kind of moral certitude and intolerance of argument that doesn’t check the right boxes, because I care so much about these questions of race and equality and justice, I felt really compelled, in the face of pushback and vitriol and contempt, to keep challenging and keep raising questions. I don’t think I’m due any kind of heroic celebration for doing it—it just seems like the right thing to do. But that’s a big part of my motivation.
Sam: Before we dive into this topic, perhaps you can say a few words about your background and your areas of focus intellectually. How do you describe what you do in general?
Glenn: I’m a professor of economics here at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island. I’ve been here for 10 years. I’ve taught economics at a number of other universities: Harvard in the 1980s, Boston University in the 1990s. I’m a quantitative social scientist: I was trained at MIT in the 1970s, took a PhD in economics there, and for much of my early career focused on mathematic modeling of various economic processes in the labor market and industrial organizations. Competition, research and development, natural resource economics, economics of invention and exploration—things of this kind. Game theory. Information economics.
I became a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and got very much interested in public policy after taking up that post. I began writing essays and reviews and commentaries on issues of race in the United States particularly, and was a Reagan conservative during the 1980s. Quite rare for an African-American. I moved away from that political identity toward the center of the spectrum a bit, and I think of myself now as a centrist or maybe mildly right of center Democrat. Though that’s not an identity that I cling to with any particular intensity.
Sam: Obviously your background, in mathematics, statistics, and social science, makes you perfectly well placed to have the kind of conversation we’re going to have. Race and racism is a topic of such huge consequence, and it’s a topic that attracts a fair amount of logical and moral confusion, which renders people unable to reason with each other.
This is not just a problem across racial lines and it’s not just a problem in public. I have white friends whom I can’t have this conversation with because they become so emotionally hijacked. From my point of view, they don’t realize that almost everything that is coming out of their mouths makes no moral or logical or historical or psychological sense. This really worries me, because I view the maintenance of civilization and our moral progress as a species as a series of successful conversations.
I’ve said this many times before on my podcast and in writing. It seems to me that we live in perpetual choice between conversation and violence. So when I see conversations reliably fail like this, I start to get worried. I noticed the exchanges you’ve been having with John McWhorter, and I realized that I had met John at a TED conference. So I got in touch with him, and he suggested that I speak with you. So you are my Virgil who’s going to guide me through this wilderness of error.
Glenn: Hope I’m up to the task here. It’s a tall order, actually.
Sam: I guess as a final preliminary point, I feel the need to offer a disclaimer up front, because I think you and I are going to agree about many things, and I’m a little worried that my staking out some of these positions as a white guy is going to rub many of our listeners the wrong way. I don’t want to be in a defensive crouch as we have this conversation, so I think I should acknowledge up front a couple of things that should be obvious. The first is that the history of racism in the U.S. has been horrific. No sane person could doubt that. And there’s no doubt that racism remains a problem in our society today. Just how big a problem is something I want us to discuss. But I can check my privilege at the outset here. I have no doubt that I have reaped many advantages from being white, and I have no idea what it’s like to grow up as a black man in our society. So I get that I don’t get it. And if there’s any way in which my not getting it seems relevant to the issues we’re about to touch, I certainly hope you’ll point that out to me.
But as we drive toward points that many of our listeners will find fairly incendiary, especially coming from a white guy, I just have to make it clear that it is obvious how horrible white racism and its consequences have been in the past. And I am fully prepared to believe that the shadow of slavery and Jim Crow still hangs over our society to a degree that I don’t understand, certainly not from my first-person experience. But my goal in this conversation is to get an accurate picture of race and racism and police violence as it occurs now so that we can think about how to move forward.
I wanted to erect that bulwark—however ineffectual it may prove to be—because I have no doubt that we’re about to say some things that will lend themselves to selective quotation. I’ve learned through cruel experience that some people listen to this podcast just for the pleasure of quoting me out of context in misleading ways. So I wanted to put forward that caveat, which may do me no good whatsoever, before we dive into the details.
Glenn: I think your caveat is well taken as far as it goes—and that speaks well of you, I would say—but it’s such a pity that it’s necessary for you to make that kind of elaborate, preemptive move here. It speaks to how closed and tortured the environment is in which we’re having the conversation. I mean, I’m black, all right? I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s and the 1960s from a working-class background. I’ve had many a run-in with American racism, all across the board, and I descend from people who were slaves in the United States.
On the other hand, we sit here in the year 2016. 1863 is a century and a half in the past. Jim Crow segregation is a distant memory. Barack Hussein Obama is about to step down having served two terms, winning comfortable national elections to the highest office in the land. The commissioners of the police, in many of the cities in which police and black community relations are most troubled, are themselves African-American, as often are the administrative officers running the governments of those cities. We are 50 years past the advent of affirmative action. This is not 1910, 1950, or 1985; this is the year 2016, and the idea that white privilege is such a stain on the country that an otherwise rational and intelligent person who happens to be white needs to give an elaborate preamble to a conversation about race relations in this country… That the unwillingness to hear something that one doesn’t agree with without imputing invidious motives to the person who’s expressed that view is so rampant that a person like yourself needs to apologize in advance for having an opinion—that’s awful, that’s poisonous, that’s… That’s just Glenn Loury spouting off, and I don’t know how that’ll leave me in the minds of some of your listeners who might want to take what I’ve said out of context as well. But that’s where I’m coming from here.
Sam: Needless to say, I agree with you. But unfortunately, I think it’s still necessary, because again, even my conversations in private suggest that this topic is so radioactive that it’s very difficult for people to even hear what is being said, much less trace the implications. So I want to start with a deceptively simple question: What is racism?
Glenn: All right, this is not necessarily a scientifically precise response; this is a more off-the-cuff response. I would say it is a contempt for or devaluation of the humanity of another by virtue of their presumed racial identity. Racism is the suspension of rational faculty and a disregard for and derogation of, a perception of unfitness for intimate relations, a presumption about intelligence, an imputation of bad character—this kind of thing—vis-à-vis another person or a group of people by virtue of what one understands to be their racial identity.
Sam: Okay, so given that definition—which I agree with—who is the evil genius who first convinced the world that being able to honestly say, “Some of my best friends are black” is not an adequate defense against the charge of racism toward black people? If the path forward toward some colorblind utopia doesn’t entail having best friends or even a spouse who is from a different race, if that doesn’t represent an adequate surmounting of the problem of racism—I’m speaking personally; we can leave aside institutional or structural racism for the moment—but if having one’s closest, most intimate friends be of another race isn’t an adequate defense against what you just described as racism, what is?
Glenn: Well, it’s funny that you used this phrase “Some of my best friends are,” because I once wrote an article—it’s been over 20 years now—called “Self-Censorship in Public Discourse: A Theory of Political Correctness.” It was published in the journal Rationality and Society in 1994, and in it I develop an account of political correctness, which I could go into in greater detail should you be interested, but I can say this much about political correctness:
A regime of political correctness is a moral signaling equilibrium in which people who don’t want to be thought of as being on the wrong side of history will suppress an honest expression of what they believe about some controversial issue because people who are known to be on the wrong side of history are prominently saying the same things. For example, if back during the day when the fight for independence of blacks in South Africa was going on, a person thought that boycotting South African businesses was not a good policy, and that constructive engagement with those businesses was a better policy for trying to help the blacks in South Africa.
If a person thought that, they might not be willing to say so in public because other people who were criticizing sanctions were basically supporting the apartheid government. The apartheid government itself was putting out the line that sanctions were not as helpful as constructive engagement with the South African society, so a person might not want to say that because they don’t want to be thought to be on the wrong side of history. With that understanding of what political correctness might be thought to be, I was making the observation that once a regime of that kind comes into existence, it’s very robust and difficult to dispel.
And in particular, declarations of “I’m not really racist. Some of my best friends are black” —the sincerity of such declarations is called into question because who’s going to say such a thing except for somebody who has the positive view that is being sanctioned by common opinion, which they want to avoid being sanctioned for by making a declaration. Talk is cheap. Anybody can say it. So there was a time in American history, I think, and American cultural and social history—maybe the 1940s, 50s, maybe even into the 60s—when a person could say sincerely and be taken at face value, “Some of my best friends are gay, but I’m against gay marriage.”
“Some of my best friends are black, but I think that affirmative action is really a very poor policy.” And that would have some kind of weight. But once the convention of value signaling, in which correct positions on sensitive issues—in the case at hand, affirmative action or homosexual marriage—are a way of signaling moral virtue, the cover that one might have otherwise gotten from making this declaration, let’s say it’s verifiable, “Some of my best are…” no longer covers enough. What did Shakespeare say? “Methinks he doth protest too much.”
The guy who’s saying, “Some of my best friends are…” protesteth too much. That guy is seeking an exemption from the moral judgment of others for having what he knows the others know would be unacceptable positions, so he’s declaring some kind of fig leaf here. But we see it for what it is, a fig leaf, and we don’t take it seriously. Something like that.
Sam: In your definition of racism, I think we have to distinguish between the mere harboring of certain biases and a commitment to enshrine those biases, or a sense that those biases are good or shouldn’t be corrected for. Racism can’t merely be a matter of harboring biases, it can’t be merely that you fail to be perfectly neutral on the Implicit Association Test, because if that’s the standard, almost no one will escape hanging. Even many black people will be convicted of racism against blacks in that case.
Glenn: I think that Mazarin Banaji, the psychologist at Harvard, who was one of the founders of the implicit bias literature, would agree with that. I don’t think she would claim an equivalency between implicit bias, as measured by one of her tests, and racism. Or in the case of gender differences, implicit bias about women’s roles in society—which can be detected in almost every population of people who take these tests—and misogyny. I think she would want to draw a distinction between those two.
Many African-Americans will also score positive in terms of the detection of implicit bias about race in American society on these tests. That doesn’t make them racist; it just means that their cognitive processes implicitly incorporate certain presumptions or stereotypes about racial roles or racial behaviors that are a part of our culture and that are shared across racial lines. So I agree with what you just said.
Sam: I should briefly describe the Implicit Association Test (IAT) so that people know what we’re talking about. Mazarin is one of the founders of this test, and she has used it probably for 20 years. The purpose of the test is to expose beliefs and biases that people hold that they’re either unaware of, so can’t report, or that they know to be socially undesirable, so won’t report. It’s been shown that, for instance, many white people will be faster at associating negative concepts with black faces than positive ones, and will show the opposite bias for white faces. And this is interpreted as meaning that they harbor a preference for white people over black people.
It’s easy to see why people would view this as either a source or a consequence of racism. And, as you’ve pointed out, you can do this kind of test with other things: You can do it with cats and dogs, or flowers and insects—you can do it with anything, really. But let’s stipulate that most people will show an in-group bias on the IAT, and we can even go further and accept that this underlying psychology has something to do with racism. Let’s say it’s the cause or the consequence, or both. But racism as a social problem to be condemned and eradicated has to be something else. Showing white bias on the IAT doesn’t make you a racist; racism is the endorsement of norms that support that bias. It’s a person’s understanding that he’s biased and his further claim that he’s happy to be that way, because he believes that society shouldn’t correct for such biases because white people really are better than black people. He wants society to be unfair based on the color of a person’s skin because he thinks that skin color is a good way to determine the moral worth of human beings. That is something quite distinct from just harboring these biases, however they got there.
There’s no question that such people exist, but they must be a tiny minority in our society at this point. The rest of us—people of goodwill and moral enlightenment who may or may not be biased to one or another degree—clearly support laws and policies that seek to cancel that kind of racism. As you say, we’ve elected our first black president, who’s finishing his second term. This isn’t tokenism. The people who voted for Obama with enthusiasm, whatever an IAT would have shown about them, are people who have canceled their personal racism in the form in which any real racist worthy of the name would practice it.
Glenn: I think that’s true, although I know that many people, if they were to hear this conversation, would object to that. You’ve just more or less cleverly defined racism out of the picture, because there wouldn’t be very many racists left if we were to have such a strict definition. So I’m challenging myself right now to think where the problem might be, and while I don’t have an internal coherent development here, let me just make an observation.
Suppose someone observes that the homicide rate is very high in certain quarters of our society that can be distinguished by race. You know, so many people in Chicago have been killed in past years: A disproportionate number of both victims and apparent perpetrators are black, the homicide rate in terms of whites perpetrating the crime is much lower, and therefore there seems to be something going on in terms of black proclivity to resort to violence in settling disputes, or something like that. Suppose someone says that. Suppose someone says, “No wonder the police are so afraid when they encounter African-Americans on the street. Have you taken a look at the crime statistics?”
Somebody says, “Yes, it may be that blacks are more likely than whites to be shot by the police in terms of the rate per number in the population. But after all, blacks are also overrepresented among violent criminals. So who can be surprised that they are overrepresented among the people who are shot by police officers?”
In all of these cases, these are statements that in some way or another could be consistent with a person who might have certain kinds of implicit biases but who wouldn’t endorse the norm that those biases are justifiable in some sense, or are not a problem, or are in no way indicative of any kind of malady that needs to be addressed. They would still nevertheless be thought to be racist.
Someone who says, “The Asians are all over the sciences and the engineering departments in our best universities, and the blacks are as scarce as hens’ teeth there” simply makes an observation about the facts. That would be thought by many people to be an act of racism, and yet it couldn’t be so classified given the definition that we’ve just been developing.
Sam: But, hence my definition, because I would argue that while it’s possible for racists—real racists—to make precisely those observations, those observations themselves are, to my ear, quite factual. I’m going to make observations of that sort with respect to crime in a minute. If that is the signature of racism—merely reporting statistics—then we can’t even talk about the problem.
Glenn: Well, yeah. Again, I can imagine what a pushback might be—something like “Look, talking about this problem is not something that’s going on in the abstract on the moon, unconnected to anything else. It’s embedded within a structure, the legitimacy of which is up for debate. A casual conversation of that sort, merely a recitation of facts. You call that merely a recitation of facts without laboring to place those facts within a context and discipline our enunciation of those facts with a sort of deeper understanding of what history and contemporary social structure have wrought in terms of racial hierarchy, in terms of white supremacy? In terms of the comfort that we have in enunciating those facts, in terms of the political consequences of so many people enunciating those facts, not taking that on board abets, reproduces, reifies, legitimates, etches in more firmly hierarchical structures of racial domination. So the word racist, or racism, is entirely appropriate, no? Maybe it doesn’t, in these cases I’m describing, identify a kind of classical antipathy on the basis of race, because we’re no longer living in 1955, and yet the disparities and inequalities by race of wealth, power, privilege, opportunity, and comfort in this society are very, very great.”
So it’s laissez-faire racism, what Larry Bobo, the sociologist at Harvard, calls it. In opinion surveys of populations, if you ask people things like “Would you be willing to see your daughter or son married to someone of the opposite race?”—a black person, if the subject is white—they’ll say yes at high rates; if you ask them, “Do you think blacks are inferior?” and they’ll say no at high rates. Whereas old, classical racism would dictate the opposite response.
But if you say, “Are white people disadvantaged by affirmative action?” and they say, “Well, yeah, because my kid didn’t get into Harvard, and some black kid with a lower score got in,” well, some white kid with a lower score also got in, but you focused on the black kid. You see, you think you’re not a racist because you’re willing to see your son or daughter married to someone who’s black; you’re willing to stay in the same neighborhood if a black neighbor moves next door, but you interpret your son’s rejection at Harvard as a consequence of racial affirmative action.
Well, Harvard accepts only 1 in 15 applicants, and a lot of people got in ahead of your son who are not black and who had lower scores. So maybe I’m trying to make the definition of racism more elastic than makes sense, but I think some of the proponents of a more capacious definition would say, “In the 1950s, your definition was fine. In the year 2016, we need to have a more subtle and expansive understanding of how this American disease is currently functioning.”
Sam: Let’s make it as capacious as possible. I want you to define what is often called structural or institutional racism. It seems to me that people talk about this in a way that you were just doing, even in such a way that people can participate in a structure that is de facto racist, and perpetuating unfair treatment of people based on race, and yet the people operating in this structure may not, in fact, be racist at all. Let’s say everyone passes Mazarin’s test, nobody is harboring any bias, yet structures and institutions could still be deeply unfair.
Glenn: I want to say at the outset that I personally am not a big fan of the current fad to invoke “structural racism” as a meaningful category of social analysis. I often don’t know quite what people are talking about beyond observing that blacks come out on the short end of the stick by many measures of social achievement or status. Let me give incarceration as a case in point. Blacks are 12% or so of the American population, and 40% or so of the people who are behind bars.
Now, that’s a complicated, big social phenomenon, and you could do a very elaborate social scientific investigation of what all the sources of that disparity are. But simply put, the weight of the state, the violence of the state, where the police come and drag you away in handcuffs and lock you up… Where you’re guarded and surveilled, you’re pursued by agents of the state, you’re stigmatized, you’re civically excommunicated, you’re held in contempt, you’re treated badly… Such a large disparity exists in the society in incidents of that kind of treatment by race.
That is sort of ipso facto an indication of structural racism: The state stands up police forces, they build these cages, they corral people in them—and look at the impact this is having on the black community. In some cities, the proportion of young men who are incarcerated or have a criminal record who are black is a third, or 40%. It becomes a normal way of life. Young women go to the prison to try to find mates and pen pals. Kids see the role models of ex-cons with their tattoos and their buffed up bodies coming in and out of prison. It becomes normative in these communities.
We have a school-to-prison pipeline, because discipline of youngsters in schools seems to be somehow connected to their subsequent development into criminals. We have a prison-industrial complex, because indeed, there is money to be made in the provision of the services associated with incarceration, and it’s being made by private corporations and so on. I think many people would say this is a prime example of structural racism. The structures of law enforcement come down like a ton of bricks on people who are situated in the society at the margins because of our history of racism.
And by the way, if the same forces had been coming down with the same degree of severity on white people, the structure would be able to reform itself. Questions would arise. Three strikes and you’re out would look very different if most of the people suffering under that kind of punitive regime were white. But because they’re black and brown, we can write them off. We don’t question ourselves. Business as usual seems acceptable when the people who are bearing the cost of it are black. So I’m not sure I’m answering your question…
Sam: You are.
Glenn: This is one of the reasons why I think the term “structural racism” is so compelling to many people. But I, a social scientist, find the evocation of that kind of one-size-fits-all narrative—structural racism—inadequate to getting an account of what’s actually going on.
It’s not as if there’s a bunch of white people meeting somewhere deciding to make the laws in order to repress blacks. And it’s not as if the outcomes that people are concerned about—in the example at hand, disparities in the incidence of incarceration—are independent of the free choices and decisions that are being made by people, in this case black people, who might end up finding themselves in prison. They made a decision to participate in criminal activities that were clearly known to be illicit and perhaps carried the consequences that they are now suffering, didn’t they?
Sometimes the decisions they make have enormous negative consequences for other black people. Do we want to inquire about what’s going on in the homes and communities and backgrounds from which people are coming who are the subjects of this racial inequality? Or are we to assume that any such deficits or disadvantages that are causally associated with their involvement in lawbreaking, and that are related to their own community organization, structures of family, attentiveness of parenting, and so forth, are nevertheless themselves the consequence of white racism? Black people wouldn’t be acting that way if it weren’t for white racism. If there were greater opportunity, if the schools were better funded, if it hadn’t been for slavery, the black family wouldn’t have… So forth, and so on.
If that’s what you mean by structural racism, which is to say, every racial disparity is almost by definition a consequence of racism, either because it reflects contempt for the value of black life, and the neglect of the development of black people, or because to the extent that it is a consequence of choices that black people are making themselves, they are making such choices only because of the despair, the neglect, the lack of opportunity, etc., that they have experienced, then it seems to me that that’s a kind of tautology that says, “Any disparity by race is, by definition, a reflection of structural racism.”
That’s a tautology that, as a social scientist, I don’t want to embrace. And as an African-American, I’m profoundly skeptical of it because at some level, it seems to me, it kind of surrenders the possibility of African-American agency, saying that everything that is of a negative character, that is a reflection of inequality, of disparity, in which blacks are on the short end of everything, is a consequence of this history. How is it that blacks are unable to make our own lives notwithstanding whatever the history may have been?
Are there not variations and differentiations within the black population that one could identify and extol the virtue of—certain patterns of behavior and reactions to environmental conditions that seem to be effective and more life-affirming, more successful, than others? I don’t like structural racism because it’s imprecise, because it’s a kind of dead end. It leaves us, I mean African-Americans, dependent upon a kind of dispensation to be bestowed by powerful whites, who actually are moral agents, who actually do have the ability to choose or not various ways of life, including responding affirmatively to our demands for redress of our subordination.
Whites are powerful; whites are agents; whites can do the right thing or the wrong thing. Blacks are merely historical chips. We’re merely cogs, being driven by the fact of slavery, by the fact of Jim Crow segregation, and so on, and ultimately not responsible for our own and our children’s lives.
Sam: It’s a very complex picture. One thing I just got from what you said is that even if it’s true—even if you could draw a straight line from slavery and Jim Crow to the state of inequality and social dysfunction in the black community, as a matter of history and a matter of causality through time—that’s not to say that in the year 2016 the ambient level of white racism is the ongoing cause of these problems, and that if you could just get white people to be less racist, if you could wave a magic wand and literally dissect out all the racism harbored by white people on any level, that would magically correct for all the problems you just articulated.
If you really can trace that line—that 200-year-old line to the present —where does that leave you? It seems to leave you with something like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s picture of reality, where what we should be talking about now is paying reparations for slavery. I don’t know what I think about that remedy—but I know what I think about Coates’s style of talking about this issue, and the fact that I’m talking to you and not to him suggests where I think the more profitable and civil and rational conversation is going to be had.
At one point, someone recommended that I have Coates on the podcast, and honestly, I feel like the conversation would have been a disaster. His way of speaking about these issues just strikes me—to put this in starkly invidious terms from which he would want to defend himself—as not intellectually honest. There’s a kind of pandering to white guilt and black rage that never stops—where one can’t just talk about facts in a civil way—and that worries me.
Glenn: We can talk more about Coates if it suits you. And I’m happy to not do so. But I want to mention the name Thomas Chatterton Williams. He’s an African-American, maybe 10 years younger than Coates, which puts him in his early 30s. He lives in Paris, he’s a trained philosopher, graduated from Georgetown University, and I’m not sure where he did his graduate study, but I think he did some graduate study in philosophy as well.
He has an essay in the London Review of Books, a review essay of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me. Williams uses Coates’s open letter to his son—in which he advises his son that America is so thoroughly contemptuous of your value as a human being that you must not ever, ever relax. You must not trust these people or turn your back on them. They will rip you to shreds. There’s nothing more American than taking a guy like you, hanging you from a lamppost, and tearing your limbs off one by one. Don’t believe in the American dream. We are up against an implacable force. That force erases your humanity. It’s always been so, and it will always be so. (This is a paraphrase of the posture that Coates takes in Between the World and Me; I think it’s an accurate paraphrase.)—Williams uses it as a point of departure to say, “There’s no place to go from here for black people. This is an absolutely bleak landscape—and it is disempowering. It just surrenders agency. There is only one possible future here, and it’s a very bleak one indeed.” And Williams thinks that’s untrue of the actual socio-historical circumstances in the United States—it’s rather more complicated than that—but he also thinks it’s a soul killer. That it’s an essential surrender of one’s humanity to take such a posture.
I just want to mention that for listeners who might not have come across Thomas Chatterton Williams—who, by the way, submitted that essay to The New Yorker, I happen to know on good authority, and it sat on an editor’s desk for many months and was eventually killed. It’s an absolutely brilliant if controversial engagement with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book. Williams ended up taking it to the London Review of Books because it couldn’t get published in the United States, because the liberal cognoscenti, the ruling class of cultural mandarins, will not tolerate that kind of argument from an African-American contra the stance that Ta-Nehisi Coates is taking.
So that’s one thing I want to mention. The other, and I’ll be very brief, is Mitch Landrieu, former mayor of the city of New Orleans. At the Ideas Festival at Aspen a couple of years ago, Landrieu and Coates were paired up in a panel in which they were discussing race and inequality in America, and Coates was taking the posture that we know he would take, and Landrieu was armed with what he called “The Books of the Dead”—literally the casebooks from his police department in the city of New Orleans that recorded the details of as yet unresolved homicide cases in that city. There were hundreds of them.
And 90% or more of the victims in these cases were black people, and Landrieu was trying to say in response to Coates’s arguments about the implacability of American racism, and the erasure of black humanity, and the devaluation of the black body, that black people are killing themselves in very large numbers. He’s not a Sean Hannity conservative wagging his finger about black-on-black crime: This is Mitch Landrieu, a centrist Democrat, mayor of New Orleans, a scion of a political family of some prominence, Democrats in Louisiana.
And confronting Ta-Nehisi Coates in a debate about race and inequality in America, in which Coates had taken a position that we know he takes, Landrieu tried to gently call to the attention of the audience the observation that much of the threat to the integrity of black bodies and black life is coming from other black people, offering as evidence of that his so-called “Books of the Dead.”
Coates’s response to Landrieu was to dismiss him with the back of his hand—this, by the way, is written up in New York magazine. Search “New York Magazine, Coates and Landrieu,” and you’ll find a very long essay about Ta-Nehisi Coates that reports on this. Coates’s response was to give Landrieu the back of his hand: “There ain’t nothing wrong with black people that ending white supremacy wouldn’t fix. What do you expect people to do? They’re rats in a barrel, you’ve got the lid on the barrel. You open the lid and peek down in there and you find that they’re at each other’s throats. Well, what would you expect to happen? It’s the friggin’ barrel, man. You gonna blame the rats?”
Okay, that’s my metaphor and not what Ta-Nehisi Coates might have used, but it’s capturing this idea that the mayhem—the despicable devaluation of life attendant to people riding up and down the street in an automobile with heavy weapons, firing them more or less aimlessly out the window at their gang rivals, and killing innocent bystanders along the way, and this happening in the scores and hundreds within a year in a given city—that kind of mayhem, that kind of contempt for human life shown by black people toward other black people, is not relevant to assessing what it is that actually imperils black life, because those behaviors are the consequence of a system and a history of oppression.
Now, you can say this. You can say this with eloquence and style, you can say this with fury and anger, you can say this with economy of word and clever turn of phrase, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has been given to do. But that doesn’t make it a valid, moral argument. It seems to me, and I’ve said this before, that Coates was holding a pair of queens and looking at an ace face-up, and he was bluffing. In other words, he was daring Mitch Landrieu to come back at him and say, “What an absurdity. You’re telling me that people have to run up and down the street firing guns out of windows and killing their brethren because we didn’t get reparations for slavery handed over to you yet? Because somebody who was mayor of this city 10 years ago happen to be a racist? Because the police department has somebody who’s affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan in it? And you’re telling me that that explains or somehow excuses or cancels out the moral judgment that I would otherwise bring to bear in any other community in which I saw this happening? You’re telling me that the history of slavery and Jim Crow, now essentially in the past, is responsible for this lived experience on a daily basis of African-Americans? You’re beneath contempt to talk in that way. You’re the one who has no real respect for the value of black life—you live in a bubble. Why don’t you get out of it and walk the streets of some of these places where people are dying?”
Then Coates would flash out, “Oh, well, I was raised in Baltimore, and I’ve seen enough gang activity, and I know what’s going on inside and out, and I’ve been there and whatever.” And Landrieu could say, “The body count continues to mount while your blather titillates the cultural elite in Washington, DC, and New York City and gives guilty white people an excuse not to feel so guilty. While you blather on, we’re actually burying the dead.”
Landrieu might have responded to him like that. He might have told him, “Get the heck out of here with that nonsense that attempts to intellectualize what any person with common sense can see is an absolute disaster. You’re blaming white people for black people living like barbarians? You’re blaming white people for that?”
Sam: Now you’ve convinced me that we need to stage a public debate between you and Coates and put it on prime-time television. That would be well worth seeing.
Let’s talk about the mayhem and get into the question of violence. So here’s the basic picture as I understand it: America is distinguished as one of the most violent societies in the developed world, as almost everyone knows—but this almost entirely due to the level of crime and violence in the black community. This is true even if you include all the mass shootings by crazy white guys. Violent crime in America is overwhelmingly a problem of black men killing other black men.
What I just learned in preparation for this podcast is that this has been a problem more or less since the end of slavery. I’m kind of embarrassed not to have had a complete picture of this problem before now. You recommended the book Ghettoside on your podcast, which I also recommend. I just learned that this disparity in violence didn’t start with the crack epidemic in the 80s, which is more or less what I thought and what I think many people believe. You can read newspaper editorials in the 19th century that give the predictable racist topspin to this, where they say, more or less, “This is God’s form of population control. Let the black man kill himself out of existence, that works for us.” But this problem of black men killing other black men is an old problem.
Again, I’m not saying that white racism or structural racism don’t have some role to play here. But the fact is that black men are killing other black men in overwhelming numbers. Violent crime in America peaked in 1993, and it has fallen precipitously since, perhaps with the exception of a recent uptick in major cities, which people fear is due to cops now being afraid they’ll be caught on cell phone cameras arresting black suspects. This has been called “the Ferguson effect.” Do you have an opinion at this point about whether the Ferguson effect is actually real, or is the jury still out on that?
Glenn: I think the jury is still out on it. I don’t think enough time has gone by with enough data for there to be a persuasive empirical argument. It’s speculation. You do have the accounts of some people active in law enforcement in cities around the country saying indeed morale is low, or everybody’s armed with a mobile phone recording device now and the cops are afraid to do their jobs. You have this kind of anecdotal evidence. Heather MacDonald, whose book The War on Cops has just come out recently, is a leading proponent of the Ferguson effect.
There is a guy, Richard Rosenfeld, at the University of Missouri−St. Louis, an expert criminologist, who has recently been saying that at first he thought the Ferguson effect was an exaggeration, but now, with the uptick in data of violent crime in cities and so forth, he’s not so sure.
So some people are big proponents of it, a lot of people are deniers of it, and Richard Rosenfeld—I’d place him in the middle as a relatively objective observer—is saying the jury is out, so I’m going to go with him and say, as far as I can tell, it’s not clear one way or the other quite yet.
Sam: These are facts that some might be familiar with, but many of the numbers I have now are plucked from that book, Ghettoside. At its peak—and again, this is 1993—the homicide rate for black men in their early 20s in a city like Los Angeles was 368 per 100,000 per year. That is 100 times higher than is normal in any civilized society that we would recognize. In fact, it’s probably 200 times higher than most cities in Western Europe, and don’t even think of comparing it to someplace like Japan. This rate of death by homicide was similar to that suffered by U.S. soldiers deployed to Iraq at the height of the war.
So you have young black men who are literally living in a zone, and they’re killing one another. The crime rate has fallen since, but it might not have fallen quite as much in the black community. The facts at the moment, as I understand them, are that black men make up 6% of the population and are currently 40% of those who get murdered. And they die, in the vast majority of cases, at the hands of other black men, who commit more than 50% of the murders in the country. Do I have my facts straight up to this point?
Glenn: I don’t have a book open in front of me to give exact numbers, but as far as I know, those numbers are accurate. Certainly qualitatively, they’re in the ballpark. I’ve seen the same kind of statistics.
Sam: I’ll put one other fact in play here: There’s been a problem of extraordinarily bad policing in the black community, and far too often by white cops. As you know, there have been some very visible instances of cops who’ve used inappropriate force in arresting or in defending themselves from black suspects, and the result is that the community believes itself to be unfairly profiled for crime, and that it suffers an inordinate number of lethal encounters with cops as a result. We’re going to talk about whether that perception is true, in terms of the level of lethality from encounters with cops, but there’s no question that a movement like Black Lives Matter is born of the perception that these things are true, and that white racism, whether it’s implicit or explicit, is the underlying cause of all this.
But one thing I got from Ghettoside—and you mentioned this already—is that there’s a lot of talk about how the criminal justice system disproportionately targets and incarcerates young black men. That seems to be true when you’re talking about petty crimes, or when you’re talking about the War on Drugs, which has been a disaster. But murders in the black community generally go unsolved, and the main reason is that witnesses refuse to testify. Obviously some of that reluctance is understandable, because witnesses afraid of getting killed. But it seems to me that this is a problem that can’t be pinned on police misconduct or white racism.
So, the problem is that you have murderers walking around unpunished. The state monopoly on violence just doesn’t exist in these neighborhoods, and so people either refuse to testify or take the law into their own hands, and it perpetuates the cycle of violence. Paradoxically, or seemingly paradoxically, the black community is suffering from too much application of law and order on petty crimes, and on nonviolent drug crimes (which I have argued that no one should be punished for) and too little law and order on crimes that really matter. If the Ferguson effect is real, it would be a terrible irony, because the solution to violence in the black community can’t be a matter of neglect from law enforcement.
Glenn: Okay, you said quite a bit there. There are a number of things I want to touch on in response; I hope I can remember all of them. Jill Leovy is the author of Ghettoside, this book you’ve been referring to. She does a great service with her granular, on the ground, detailed account of what homicide detectives trying to deal with the problems of killing in South Central Los Angeles are up against. And you’re right: One of the things they’re up against is the difficulty of persuading people who have the information necessary to bring a case effectively in court against someone alleged to have committed a murder to cooperate with the police.
Jill Leovy wants to underscore what horrible consequences follow from the fact that it’s possible to kill more or less with impunity. If people don’t want to come in to testify, the effect of that will be to reduce the likelihood that anybody who actually commits one of these offenses will ever be brought to account. The idea that you can kill with impunity makes it possible to really intimidate witnesses. You can see how this becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy or a self-reinforcing dynamic.
One thing I think sympathizers of Black Lives Matter and others would insist that I say here—and I don’t mind saying it—is that the unwillingness of witnesses to cooperate with the police is partly a reflection of their fear that they will suffer some reprisal, and also partly a reflection of their distrust of the police, which is itself a consequence of the historical practices of police in these communities.
So if the police have been bad actors—maybe only a few of them, but they get away with it—if the police are unsympathetic, they don’t know the community, don’t live there, if they treat people in their ordinary intercourse with citizens who are black with contempt, if they’re too quick to resort to violence in their encounters with black people, and in the extreme, if they’re prepared to use lethal force when it’s unjustified and the victims are black, who can blame the community for not wanting to snitch, not wanting to have anything to do with the police?
So in a way this cycle of violence could be traced, if one looks carefully, to the consequences of racism. And in the case at hand, alienation between the communities and the police is a consequence of racism affecting the police with the community in days gone by. The other thing I think I should say—and again, people would want to make this point, they’d make it right away—is that there can be no surprise that most of the murders with blacks as victims have been perpetrated by black people, because murder is the kind of crime in which more often than not, the person who was victimized and the person who commits the crime are connected to each other in some way.
They may know each other because they’re a part of the same social network, or they’re located in the same general geographic social space. People kill those who are connected to them in some way, and given the segregated patterns of social affiliation and residential location in our society, we can’t be surprised that most of the blacks who are killed are killed by other blacks. It’s also true that most of the whites who are killed are killed by other whites. That’s an argument that people will make. I don’t think it’s adequate to the problem that you’ve described, because it doesn’t account for the two orders of magnitude difference in the rate at which people are being killed.
It’s almost tautological to say that most people who are killed are going to be killed by somebody who looks like them, in the sense that they are of the same race. But that doesn’t speak to the issue of these killings occurring at so much higher a rate. So it still makes sense to talk about black people killing black people, not as a matter of emphasizing the race of the persons who are killed as much as emphasizing the qualitatively distinct character of the killing. Finally, I want to say something that my colleague and friend Rajiv Sethi, an economist at Columbia University, Barnard College, would insist that I say, and I think it’s a point worth making, which is that sometimes killing and epidemics of killing have a kind of logic of their own.
In the sense that if I think somebody is trying to kill me—suppose I have a dispute, suppose I step on this fellow’s shoe? The shoe was newly shined, he’s sitting on the bus with his foot slightly out, and now I walk past and I step on the shoe. He looks up at me and expects an apology, and I sneer at him and keep walking. Everybody sees it, and laughter breaks out somewhere in the bus. “Aw, man, he dissed you. He stepped on your shoe. You’re gonna let him do that?” So now we have a beef, right? He says to me, “You m-f, you dissed me like that? You step on my shoe and don’t apologize, I’m gonna friggin’ kill you.” He says it in exactly that tone, and then he gets off the bus.
Now, how do I know that tonight or tomorrow I’m not going to be sitting on my porch and that fella’s going to drive by with his homeboys, and they’re going to start blasting out the window, and I or somebody I love is going to be dead? I’ve got a beef. It’s not like I can go to the cops and say, “This man threatened my life,” and expect that anything effective is going to happen. I just might want to take preemptive action. I might want to make sure that I’m the one who’s doing the shooting and he’s the one who’s doing the dying.
So we have a situation where the fact that there is no dispute resolution mechanism on which I can rely, that will protect me and my person, protect my family and my household, leads me to want to take matters into my own hands. Suppose I know that if I go to the police—suppose a murder has happened, my brother is killed. There’s this now famous incident reported by Alice Goffman. Alice Goffman is a young sociologist whose book On the Run is an account of guys in Philadelphia who are being sought by the police authorities and who are on the lam, they’re trying to avoid being taken into custody.
And she lives among them and gets to know them very well, and writes an ethnographic study of what life is like in this quarter of our society among people who are being sought by the law. The book is called On the Run, and I highly recommend it. Alice Goffman is a very fine, very promising young ethnographer. But in any case, she gets to know these guys very well, and one of their number is killed in a gang dispute that leads to gunplay. And the surviving friends—and she’s close to all of them—decide that they’re going to take matters into their own hands and get revenge, because otherwise nothing will happen.
Given that there are so many unresolved homicide cases in America’s big cities, they know the chances that justice is actually going to be done are slim, and so they decide that they can’t let it stand. She actually records this in her book—she’s in the vehicle with the surviving buddies of this social group that she’s gotten to know, riding around looking for the assailant. She is driving them. And this became such a notorious thing because after all, she’s a scholar. She’s an academic. She’s a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin.
Sam: Did her grant money pay for the gas in that car?
Glenn: One wonders! And what would the institutional review board that’s supposed to supervise research involving human subjects have to say about this? But in any case, they don’t find the assailant, so she doesn’t actually become an accomplice to murder, but the anecdote underscores the fact that people may feel the need to take matters into their own hands, tit for tat, because they can’t rely on civil authority to resolve these things in a satisfactory way.
So both the strategic preemption element and th