Man of the West: An Interview with Glenn Loury

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Glenn Loury has taught economics at numerous universities, including Northwestern, Michigan, Harvard, Boston, and presently Brown, where he has been a professor of economics since 2005. He is the author of The Anatomy of Racial Inequality (2002).

The following conversation comes from an interview with Glenn earlier this year.

Alex Riley (AR): What are your thoughts on the racial politics behind something like The New York Times’ “1619 Project?”

Glenn Loury (GL): I look at the “1619 Project” and at the spirit behind it, Hannah-Jones and the others, and I say this: Okay, the country is flawed, sure, but we have the benefit here at the start of the 21st century of being birthright citizens in this great republic. That’s a huge entitlement. Why would you stand apart from that? We’re practically an indigenous population here now, centuries on in the United States. How do you expect that you are going to get anywhere politically if you stand apart from it?

Your interests are much more effectively served by finding ways of joining your project with the American project. Isn’t this what King and company do with their “magnificent promissory notes” and their “I have a dream that one day my children,” etc., and with their strategy of embarrassing the country by exposing Bull Connor for what he is, and in calling us all to the higher ground? Join your project to the national project, which means affirm the national project, which means acknowledge the nation.

So when it comes to border control—and I don’t take a position here about who should or should not have asylum—I simply say that this set of issues cuts across the issues of African American membership within the American nation. You want to join up with the people from Central America and label us all in an intersectionality move as “non-whites,” and then call these guys who want a border on the Rio Grande “racist”? They’re not racists, they’re nationalists. And by the way, they’re nationalists on behalf of the same project that you should be affirming.

The brownness of those people is so superficial. That’s a racially essentialist move. You black advocates—and I’m speaking about practically every single member of the Congressional Black Caucus—you are making a racially essentialist and politically counterproductive association between the centuries-old historical claim of African Americans on the attention of the nation and that of people who want to walk across the border into the country without authorization.

AR: And the other group there whose interests those advocates are supporting with open borders are the business elites who are harming economic outcomes for poorer Americans while they save money on their labor force.

GL: Isn’t that ironic? They’re not planters on plantations anymore, they’re agribusiness. But they still need their crops picked!

AR: This reminds me of that wonderful interview you did several years ago with Harvard’s George Borjas on your podcast. Borjas wrote what is in my view one of the most important books on immigration for a general audience, We Wanted Workers. The two of you talked about this profound political problem, that it’s so demonstrably obvious that our current immigration policies are not helping the poorest Americans, which include a disproportionate number of blacks, and yet it’s nearly impossible to find black public figures on the left who even recognize the point you and Borjas were discussing.

GL: And by the way, that podcast discussion comes 15 years after I first met George Borjas, when he was teaching in the economics department at the University of California, San Diego. I remember sitting down with him and his telling me, “You are the only person in the profession who can say this.” That’s not quite literally true, but he was saying “Youre black, I’m Cuban, and they’ll cancel me, but would you please say it because the numbers are telling me that it’s a very serious issue.” And that was in the ’90s.

Roger Waldinger’s wonderful book, How the Other Half Works, has data from Los Angeles on all these different industries—hotels and restaurants, hospitals, furniture manufacturers, construction—and it has interviews with employers and workers. Part of what he’s documenting is how new employees are recruited through social networks that are heavily influenced by connections between Mexican employees and new immigrants. So a Mexican immigrant Manuel who came from a certain village knows someone already employed at the site, or it’s his second cousin from that same village and so Manuel ends up with the job. The book also looks at what language is spoken in the workplace. Frequently, it’s Spanglish, or large amounts of Spanish, and black workers are disadvantaged linguistically and they’re kind of displaced. It’s more than just the aggregate statistical stuff that Borjas does. It’s much more descriptive of the actual processes that are at work.

An interesting point Waldinger makes is that if you’re in a hotel room, you’re in your underwear, and the maid knocks on the door, if she is a woman who’s 5’2” who speaks little or no English, who has brown skin and came from a village in Guatemala, you don’t mind opening the door and letting her clean your room. But if she is a sassy African American woman from South Central LA, you’re damned sure not opening your door. Not because you are afraid she’ll rob you. It’s because you don’t want to lose face. This is a face to face sociology at work—it’s Erving Goffman—with someone you recognize as in the same social group you’re in. I thought this was a brilliant insight.

AR: [laughing] You know she’s going to say something! “What the hell are you doing, man?!”

GL: Exactly!

AR: “Get some drawers on!”

GL: Right.

AR: You have a profound paragraph in the First Things essay in which you call yourself a man of the West. You say, Tolstoy is mine, Dickens is mine. Newton and Maxwell and Einstein are mine. This whole set of intellectual and moral and religious discourses that made the West are yours. Given that much of the economic and cultural elite in the country no longer sees that as central to our project as Americans and that the same elite exert a tremendous influence over the culture, how can they be opposed?

GL: It’s a hard question. I agree that elites have lost confidence. It’s not just that they don’t any longer embrace and propagate this sense of pride or ownership of the Western civilization that we inhabit. They don’t even recognize what it is and what is unique about it. My God, slavery is a constant of human experience for thousands of years! What’s new is emancipation en masse as a result of a movement for human rights. That’s a completely new idea in human history before the 18th century. And where does it come from? We could go through the pedigree, and certainly Christianity is going to be part of that. That’s 2000 years plus of the evolution of our social and moral thought, but we don’t want to embrace the Christian foundations of our civilization.

I didn’t say that everybody had to be a Christian. I’m not now propounding a government religion. I’m acknowledging the intellectual history of the West. I don’t know where to start with the exegesis on the origin of this divergence. Is it Vietnam? Is it our loss of the belief in the righteousness of the American project in the global context? Did we miss our chance, and should we have taken our revolution and joined it up with the anti-colonial movements? Would people look more kindly upon the heritage that we have? Is that the beginning of it?

Do we look to the 1950s and the 1960s, where you get this triple whammy of feminism and racial liberation and anti-colonialism all coming together in a brew that leaves the enlightened college graduate or intellectual or journalist or teacher in 1970 looking askance at the project, as opposed to saying, as they might have said in 1945, something much more affirmative? “Hey hey ho ho Western civics got to go!” Jesse Jackson was leading that chant on the Stanford campus. The athletes at the ’68 Olympics who did the black power salute—they’re heroes now. No one would ever say of them “How ungrateful.”

I am a man of the West. What else would I be? I’m not just talking about my mother tongue being English. I’m saying I inhabit the civilization. What else would I be? I’m a person without a country if I eschew that.

Everything else is made up. Kwanzaa, with great respect, is a poor substitute for Christmas. And not because Jesus is Lord but because you made Kwanzaa up yesterday in a vain attempt to bridge a chasm that will never be bridged, a chasm that was created by the Middle Passage. This is a windmill tilt, the idea that you can reinvent. You can’t. Your heritage is in the spirituals. It’s in the slave quarters of the 1840s and 1850s in Mississippi and Alabama and North Carolina where, as many cultural historians will tell you, the root of the black church was forged. That’s your heritage.

We’re so rich, we’re so powerful. They say white supremacy and white America stole the land from the Native Americans. Certainly the native population was decimated and was dispossessed. I don’t dispute that. I would observe, though, that this is the story of the development of human civilizations going way, way back. That’s not a new thing. I grant that it happened. Hindsight is twenty-twenty. It’s retrospective morality when we use the experience of the last 200 years that has created the world that we now live in and project our values back onto people 200 years ago, and then judge them based on their race.

We stand on the result of all of that historical development. African Americans are rich and powerful, we have a long life expectancy, and our children can dream of anything. What are you talking about that we’re not people of the West, but Africans? That’s infantile, in my opinion. Eugene Genovese, in Roll Jordan Roll, and Sterling Stuckey, in Slave Culture, show that it’s all about what happened in 1820 and 1830 and 1840, as best they can figure out. That’s where the story begins for African Americans.

AR: The thought that came to my mind as you were talking about that heritage was of an experience I had the first time I was out of country for an extended period of time. I went to France as a grad student to do archival research. And I spoke French very imperfectly at the time. Linguistic difference always immediately makes you understand that you’re not in the in-group. I felt very depressed that my language skills were so bad and that I was faring so terribly in other ways as well. On French television, I happened on a program about American jazz, and turned it on just during a bit on John Coltrane. It was not just hearing him play. They had some interview footage, and when Coltrane spoke, I heard my language, American English, coupled with that musical tradition that I loved.

GL: Yeah.

AR: It immediately just flooded through me: “There are my people!”

GL: [laughing] Yeah.

AR: “Those are my people, and they’re still there, and I can go back across the ocean, and I can find them again after this harrowing experience that I’ve had here across the sea.” Across the sea in a place, by the way, surrounded by a bunch of people who looked like me but were of another group. And then looking at an image on a screen of a guy who looked quite different than I, but whom I immediately recognized as a member of my group.

GL: Good story.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Glenn Loury (Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan, CC BY-ND 2.0)

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