Prof. Glen Loury: 'You can live with disparities, or you can live in totalitarianism'

Glen Loury is a professor of economics who teaches at Brown University. Yesterday City Journal published an interview with Loury conducted by one of his former students. Loury, who is black, had plenty to say about the current moment in our culture where “structural racism” has become an explanation for everything and disparities are seen not as signs of individual choices or group behaviors but proof of the need for more direct control over outcomes. We’ll get to his take on racial disparities in outcomes but first here’s his take on the tenuous moment for civilization we find ourselves in:

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.

Eventually the interviewer asks Loury if there is any hope of reducing some of the disparity of outcome we see between blacks and whites in America. And here Loury is very leery about what that might entail.

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…

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…

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.

There is a reason that Asians take up a disproportionate number of slots at prestigious universities and the reason is not because they are inherently smarter than anyone else. The reason is because there is a culture of (sometimes extreme i.e. Tiger Mom) pressure on Asian children to perform at a high level. As a parent with school age children, I’ve seen this up close in recent years. For some children, coming home with an A- really would be a life changing event. Collectively, all of those decisions to do homework and work hard rather than spend time in front of the television or with friends adds up. So the reality is that if we equalize the number of admissions to Harvard or Yale by race, that winds up inevitably punishing a lot of personal sacrifice and group effort made to earn those slots. Indeed, that’s arguably what has been happening at Harvard for a while.

Earlier this week I wrote about a NY Times feature which looked at the ideas that underpin some of the nation’s leading antiracist trainers like Robin DiAngelo. What the author found was an open hostility to individuality, rational thinking, the written word and even punctuality. Diminishing these things is seen by the proponents of antiracism as a needed corrective to help level the playing field for black Americans (other readers of DiAngelo’s book have said it’s simply a different type of antiblack racism, i.e. the soft bigotry of low expectations).

Near the end of that NY Times piece Harvard economist Ron Ferguson is quoted saying, “You can try to be competitive by equipping yourself to run the race that’s already scheduled, or you can try to change the race.” I think that really sums up the two camps on this question. Either you give up on the idea that excellence is possible for everyone and come up with some other way to achieve racial parity or you believe that excellence is real and results from individual and social effort to achieve it. I believe it’s the latter but that view is clearly out of fashion at this moment in time.