One by One from the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America, by Glenn C. Loury, New York: The Free Press, 324 pages, $24.95
The great writer James Baldwin once observed, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced." But coming face to face with longstanding, unresolved issues of race remains a prospect that, for most Americans, whether white or black, causes considerable anxiety. Making these encounters even more distressing is a climate of political rectitude that persistently seeks to define the legitimate parameters of thought and speech on contemporary issues of race.
Whites and blacks are supposed to work things out, goes this line of thought, but certain topics are deemed too sensitive for mixed company and certain experiences can never be shared anyway. This orthodoxy, of course, only makes matters worse. It means that new ideas and solutions are beyond discussion even as the growing intractability of black poverty, the disproportionate rates of black out-of-wedlock births and black incarceration, and other race-sensitive problems demonstrate the failure of conventional thinking on these issues.
Glenn C. Loury, professor of economics at Boston University, ventures into this troubled milieu and shows no fear of engaging many of our nation's most sensitive and divisive racial issues (including the recent controversy over Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve). One by One from the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America takes a long, critical look at the methods by which we might genuinely achieve equality for black Americans in the post-civil rights era. Loury touches on the ascendant issues of African-American life: the dubious blessing of racial preferences, the dual identity of African Americans, the conflict of racial loyalty and intellectual independence, the family crises, and the vacuum of genuine black leadership.
One by One opens with a discussion of the "authenticity dilemma" faced by many African Americans: having to choose between living a life that will qualify one to be deemed "genuinely black" by other members of the black community and maintaining a sense of personal integrity. Loury points out that this conflict arises from the struggle to meet the demands of a "socially imputed" definition of what a black man or woman is "supposed to be" when that definition conflicts with the very personal definition of who one is as an individual.
Loury writes memorably of an early experience in his life which forced him to confront this question. When he was 18, he attended a political rally with Woody, his "best friend since Little League." The rally was a call to action against some "pending infringement of the white power structure" and those attending were prepared to resist by any means necessary.
Although Woody was among the most passionate there that day, he had a problem: "Though he often proclaimed his blackness, and though he had a Negro grandparent on each side of his family, he nevertheless looked to all the world like your typical white boy. Everyone, on first meeting him, assumed as much," writes Loury.
Woody's family, which had passed as white before the neighborhood became integrated, stayed on as the area went black, electing "to stay and raise their children among 'their own kind.'" But because some of Woody's relatives were passing as white, racial authenticity was a particularly compelling issue for him. "He desperately wanted to be black," Loury writes, "but his peers in the neighborhood would not let him."
At the rally, Loury faces a moment of truth: "Woody had an idea, and enthusiastically raised his voice above the murmur to be heard. He was cut short before finishing his first sentence by one of the dashiki-clad brothers-in-charge, who demanded to know how a 'white boy' got the authority to have an opinion about what black people should be doing. That was one of our problems, the brother said, we were always letting white people 'peep our hole card,' while we're never privy to their deliberations in the same way."
Loury tells us, "A silence then fell over the room. The
indignant brother asked if anyone could vouch for this white boy."
Loury refused to speak up for Woody, who was subsequently asked to
leave. Loury had compromised his friendship and his integrity in
his desire to be
accepted by the "authentically black" crowd. Only later in his life would Loury examine how this desire for "certification" had dramatically altered his intellectual and social pursuits, distorted his relationships, and censored his political thought, expression, and cultural interests.
By exploring his experiences, Loury examines the demands of being a genuine "brother." He writes that authenticity is based on the premise that being "really" black "involves in some elemental way seeing one's self as an object of mistreatment by white people, while participating in a collective consciousness of that mistreatment with other black people." Said more directly, being genuinely black means intimately linking one's personal identity with victimization.
While never ignoring the implications of growing up "black" in America (and pointedly eschewing "the libertarian ideologue's rhetoric about the glorious individual who, though put upon by society, blazes his own path"), Loury insists that the collective black experience of victimization is not the most significant aspect of his personal identity. He is adamant that he is "much more than the one wronged, misunderstood, underestimated, derided or ignored by whites."
Ultimately, what Loury prizes most is the right to define himself in broad, overlapping terms. For him, "self-definition" and "self-certification" are more important than receiving a stamp of approval from self-righteous, self-proclaimed arbiters of black authenticity. So who is Glenn C. Loury? He is "a child of God...a husband, a father, a son, a teacher, an intellectual, a Christian, a citizen." In none of these roles, he writes, "is my race irrelevant, but neither can racial identity alone provide much guidance for my quest to discharge these responsibilities adequately." Stressing that "racial conditions" are secondary to "human conditions," he argues cogently that to base personal identity primarily on racial contingency--something that both whites and blacks do--tragically limits our conception of what is possible and desirable.
Loury's thoughts on the authenticity dilemma set up the heterodox philosophical essays and reviews that fill out the rest of One by One. As in his analysis of identity politics, he is consistently nuanced, challenging, and probing.
In discussing the civil rights movement, for example, Loury asserts that its greatest challenge is to redefine an agenda suited to the "sociopolitical realities of the 1990s and beyond...and that this redefinition should be centered around an effort to...mitigate the worst conditions of lower-class black life." He quickly acknowledges that "many of the problems of contemporary black American life lie outside the reach of effective government action and require action that can only be undertaken by the black community itself."