‘We Teeter On The Brink Of Catastrophe’
Yu: Hundreds of thousands of people are protesting George Floyd’s death, as well as broader issues having to do with the structure of American society. On June 1, President Christina Paxson wrote a letter to the Brown University community indicting the structures of racism and prejudice that she and most on the left claim to lie at the heart of American society. A few days later, you wrote and published your challenge to this letter. Why?
Loury: If my dear colleague, Christina Paxson, professor of economics, as well as president of this university, were simply to have said, “Dear colleagues, I have been pondering the events of the last few days and weeks, and it has brought me to a set of conclusions that I want to share with you from my heart,” and then she proceeded to do so, I would not have written to my friend, nor would I have made public what I wrote, which was printed in City Journal. I wouldn’t have done it because she’s entitled to her opinion. But that’s not what happened.
What happened was a letter signed by the president and cosigned by the provost. It was signed by the senior vice president for administration, by the senior vice president for finance, by the person in charge of advancement and development for the university. It was signed by the university’s general counsel, by the vice president for diversity and inclusion, and by every other functionary all the way down the line to the dean of the School of Public Health. They signed a political letter.
These events don’t speak for themselves. Americans disagree about Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter is not axiomatic. The group represents a thrust in American politics. We can talk about it. I’m not without sympathy for the struggle for racial justice, but I have disputes with people when it comes to interpreting what’s going on in American cities. The letter doesn’t mention the fact that it’s dangerous on the streets of many inner-city neighborhoods where police have to operate every day, that there are a lot of weapons out there, or that the homicide rate is extraordinarily high and that most of the people committing the homicides in these places are black.
Now, imagine that I wrote not a Left letter, but a Right letter: “I think the blacks are complaining too much.” Suppose I wrote that letter and I had everybody in the administration sign it. So it’s a political statement. It may be a very sympathetic and a very persuasive statement, but it’s political! Universities ought not to be political in this sense. When I received that letter, signed by everybody on the payroll of this university who gets paid above $400,000 a year, I thought: “This is thought-policing.” They’re telling us what to think. They’re saying that this is what “Brown values” require one to think. They’re speaking about a “We” with a capital W, and it’s including everybody.
Well, it didn’t include me! So, I object. I object to the soft tyranny of having political postures put forward as self-evident truths to which every decent member of this community should subscribe. I object to that. That’s the last thing that a university should be doing. It’s malpractice. It is administrative malpractice of this precious institution to be swept along by political fad and fancy, and then demand the assent of every administrator, in lockstep, without any dispute among themselves. This is horrible, I thought. I thought the propagation of such groupthink at our university was just horrible.
I know this will seem a bit hysterical, but I felt violated by the letter, because it was trying to tell me what to think. And not only that. It was also, in effect, telling me what I can say in my classes without contravening “Brown values.” It was telling me what I can and cannot write, what I can and cannot pronounce in my public statements if I wish to remain a member in good standing in this community. That is an outrage, in my opinion.
[Loury:] Structural racism, by contrast, is a bluff. It’s not an engagement with history. It’s a bullying tactic. In effect, it’s telling you to shut up.
Take structural racism’s narrative of incarceration. It’s supposed to be self-evident that if there’s a racial disparity in the incidence of punishment from law-breaking, then the law is illegitimate. Well, an alternative hypothesis is that, for reasons that we could perhaps spend lots of time pursuing, behaviors are different. Behaviors that bear on lawbreaking are different between races, on average. Violence is one behavior, but it’s not the only one I’m talking about. People have tried to do these studies. They’ve examined whether policing practices can accommodate disparity in arrest rates. They’ve examined whether court dispositions are somehow structurally biased, finding blacks guilty when whites would have been found innocent; whether judges systematically pronounce longer sentences for blacks than for whites. The net finding was no.
I don’t know if you saw my piece in Quillette about the looting and the rioting, but I pick up these pieces published in the New York Times, respectable left-wing journals. I’m reading them, and the writer is saying, “America was founded on looting. What did you think the Boston Tea Party was?” Or, “You’re talking about looting when George Floyd lies dead? Oh, I see, black lives don’t matter as much as property.” These are, to my mind, incomprehensibly idiotic. I don’t mean that to cast aspersions. The civilization that we all enjoy rests upon a very fragile foundation. Look. I’m in my backyard. It’s very nice. I’ve got a lot of space. There’s a fence. The birds come. I have a lawn. It’s mine!
Now, if a homeless person comes and squats in my backyard, I call the police. I have him removed, forcibly. There should be no lack of clarity about whether George Floyd’s death somehow excuses or justifies burning a bodega to the ground that a Muslim immigrant spends his whole life building. Being confused about that, equivocating about that, splitting the difference about that—I don’t understand how we’re going to have a reasoned discussion. My thoughts go back to, protect civilization. Again, I know how that sounds. It’s hyperbolic. It’s exaggerated—but only a little! My gut response is that this is not the time for argument. This is the time to protect civilization and protect institutions. When people start toppling statues of Abraham Lincoln and spray-painting on statues of George Washington, “a slave owner,” things fall apart. The center cannot hold. We teeter on the brink of catastrophe.
Finally, on the fact that we are going to have to learn to live with racial disparities in institutions, as the cost of freedom:
Yu: If there’s no available policy intervention, and there’s also no way we can change people’s minds, then is it hopeless? Is disparity always going to be the case?
Loury: Yes. My answer is it’s hopeless. But let me rephrase the question, and I’m channeling Thomas Sowell now. You have two alternatives. You can live with disparities, or you can live in totalitarianism. Again, hyperbolic, I know. No, I’m not talking about Eastern Europe circa 1960, but look at it this way: there can’t be a disparity without somebody being on top. People don’t recognize this.
What groups are on top? What about the Jews? You could say, “There are too many Jews in positions of influence.” If there are too few black lawyers who are partners in big law firms, doesn’t it follow that are too many Jews who are partners at these big firms? If there are too few blacks who are professors of mechanical engineering at places like Carnegie Mellon, why aren’t there too many Korean professors at these places?
If the system is structured to deny the potentiality of black humanity, then the system is structured as to affirm the humanity of the particular groups that are overrepresented in the prized venues of American life. People don’t realize that they’re playing with fire when they take these disparities as ipso facto evidence of systemic failure. They insist on wholesale interventions into people’s exercise of their liberty in order to enact a reduction or elimination of disparities, yet a world without any disparities is a world where you don’t have so many—name your group—who’ve got so much money or so many prizes. There are only so many positions. There is no under-representation without over-representation. This is arithmetic.
What is the nature of the world that we live in? Why would I ever expect that there would be parity across the board between ethnic, racial, cultural, and ancestral population groups in an open society? It’s a contradiction because difference is a very fact of groupness. What do I mean by a group? Well, it’s genes, to some degree; it’s culture; it’s networks of social affiliation, of intermarriage and kinship. I mean the shared narrative, the same hopes, the dreams, the stories. I mean the practices of parenting and filial piety and whatever else there might be.
A group is a group. It has characteristics. Those characteristics matter for whether you play in the NBA. They matter for whether you learn to master the violin or the piano. They matter for whether you pursue technical subjects or choose to become a humanist or a scientist. They matter for the food that you eat. They matter for how many children you raise and how you raise them. They matter as to the age when you first have sex. They matter for all those things, and I think everyone would agree with that.
But now you’re telling me that they don’t matter for who becomes a partner in a law firm? They don’t matter for who becomes a chair in the Philosophy Department somewhere? Groupness implies disparity because groupness, if taken seriously, implies differences in ways of living life. Not everybody wants to play the fiddle. Not everybody wants to dunk a basketball. Not everybody is frightened to death that their parents are going to be disappointed with them if they come home with an A-minus. Not everybody is susceptible to being swayed into a social affiliation that requires them to commit a violent crime in order to prove their bona fides. Groups differ. Groups are not evenly distributed across society. That’s inevitable. If you insist that those be flattened, you’re only going to be able to succeed by imposing a totalitarian regime that monitors everything and jiggers everything, recomputing and refiguring things until we’ve got the same number of blacks in proportion to their population and the same number of second-generation Vietnamese immigrants in proportion to their population being admitted to Caltech or the Bronx High School of Science. I don’t want to live in that world.
Read it all. It’s terrific. Thank God for Glenn Loury — and John McWhorter, and Thomas Chatterton Williams, and other black public intellectuals who are not surrendering to the mob.
My belief is that the institutions in this country — political, academic, corporate, and otherwise — are going to err on the side of tyranny to achieve an egalitarian outcome. The younger generations are very much to the left on these matters. We who are not have to fight it with all we have, but in a democracy, we are fighting a long defeat, at least in the short run. This is why I wroteLive Not By Lies: in the short term, we are going to have soft totalitarianism imposed on us, and many people will welcome it. We who do not welcome it are going to have to find the courage and the means to resist.