Color Schemes

Can affirmative action be reconciled with liberal individualism?

The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, by Glenn C. Loury, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 226 pages, $22.95

Glenn Loury is an intelligent but angry man with a mission: to explain both the origins and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Loury, a professor of economics at Boston University, was once that rarest of beings, a black conservative intellectual, with a strong belief in self-reliance and a deep suspicion of affirmative action. In recent years his ideology has changed. His migration to the left has been marked by brushes with the law, attacked as "disingenuous" by Norman Podhoretz in Commentary, and chronicled in bemused detail by Adam Shatz in The New York Times Magazine.

Although The Anatomy of Racial Inequality sheds some light on his conspicuous change of heart, Loury, to his credit, does not dwell on his personal odyssey. He is much more intent on laying out his argument that the "analytic and the philosophical resources of liberal individualism" fail in addressing the situation of black Americans. "Succinctly stated," he writes, "my problem with liberal individualism is that it fails to comprehend how stigma-influenced dynamics in the spheres of social interaction and self-image production can induce objective racial inequality, decoupled from contemporaneous discriminatory acts of individuals, carrying across generations, shaping political and social-cognitive sensibilities in the citizenry, making racial disparity appear natural and nondissonant, stymieing reform and locking in inequality."

Having concluded that the appeal to color blindness is a dangerous distraction from the lingering effects of prejudice, Loury calls for major structural remedies to speed up progress toward racial equality. Most prominently, he adamantly and impatiently defends the affirmative action programs widely used in American higher education. He sees affirmative action as a means of propelling blacks into positions of influence, thereby changing social attitudes ingrained by many years of private and institutionalized bigotry. "What is required," he says, "is a commitment on the part of the public, the political elite, the opinion-shaping media, and so on to take responsibility for such situations as the contemporary plight of the urban black poor, and to understand them in a general way as a consequence of an ethically indefensible past." While there is some merit to Loury's observations about the inadequacy of color blindness, his explanation of racial inequality is only partly successful, and his critique of liberal individualism misses the mark.

Loury finds the persistence of race-based social differences something of a mystery because in his view race is only a "marker" that is easy to observe and difficult to alter. In and of itself a racial marker contains no reliable information about important biological differences between individuals because, quite simply, there are none. Such markers are, however, frequently invested with a "social meaning," whereby individuals both within and outside the racial group attribute certain characteristics to its members. When individuals act based on these social meanings, they construct feedback loops that appear to validate the false assumption of natural differences that people tacitly accept in their everyday lives. When these global impressions recycle, they create a longstanding racial stigma that becomes nearly impossible to shake, even over the course of generations.

One of Loury's instructive examples of "self-confirming racial stereotypes" involves a group of employers who start out with the belief that blacks are less likely to work hard than their white peers. These employers are quicker to fire blacks, because they believe they need less evidence to confirm their original low estimation. Black workers in turn understand that they are under harsh scrutiny and thus invest less energy in doing a job they think they are unlikely to keep. The upshot, according to Loury, is that they exhibit a higher rate of failure, which appears to confirm the false initial assumption about their lesser capacities.

A similar feedback loop operates at night on the streets of any major city. Let cab drivers think that young black males are more likely to commit crimes than white ones, and these drivers (of both races) will gravitate to white customers. Honest black males therefore will exit this market, so that the black fares that remain will be in fact more dangerous than the white fares, even when the two overall populations are equally law-abiding.

In these and similar cases, Loury's critical insight is that mistakes in perception lead to mistakes in judgment that reinforce the initial social stigma. Because each actor occupies a small competitive niche, it does not pay him to correct his errors. He can do little to alter the larger, entrenched patterns of social behavior, and he has no incentive to do so, given that his filtered observations are consistent with his assumptions.

In Loury's view, the upshot is clear. Although slavery has been banished since 1865 and the last vestiges of Jim Crow were eliminated more than three decades ago, racial inequality persists. Even without contemporary prejudice, Loury claims, pernicious feedback loops continue their work "indefinitely" unless and until some conscious and determined effort is made to break them. Loury rejects the pious claims of liberals who think market economics or Kantian theorizing, with its emphasis on the universal self-realization of autonomous individuals, can make a dent in these powerful but hidden mechanisms. Attacking such thinking for its "sociological naiveté," he concludes, "I cannot abide the imposition of abstract strictures of neutrality upon a game in which systematically nonneutral practices [i.e., past discrimination] have left so many raced and stigmatized outsiders with so few good cards to play." He insists that the rules need to be changed, at least for the time being.

Loury's account is ingenious, but he goes astray at several points. As a contemporary of Loury, it seems clear to me that he greatly understates the level of racial progress in the United States during our lifetimes. Loury berates the historians Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom for their belief that affirmative action programs in the United States only reinforce the racial differences that wise social policy should seek to eliminate. But he does little to counteract their impressive compilation of data indicating major shifts in racial attitudes and behavior during the last 50 years. The level of social integration across races is greater than it has ever been, and socioeconomic differences have shrunk dramatically. In 1960, the Thernstroms note, 38 percent of black adults were high school graduates, compared to 64 percent of white adults. By 1995 the gap had virtually disappeared: 87 percent of blacks had graduated high school, compared to 88 percent of whites. The Thernstroms report that in 1940 the median black income was 41 percent of the median white income among men and 36 percent among women; by 1995 those ratios had changed to 67 percent for men and 89 percent for women.

To be sure, the economic progress of many blacks has been slower than one would have liked, but feedback loops probably have had little to do with this. I doubt that large institutional employers are ever trapped in the sort of feedback loop Loury describes, given the extensive management systems they use to measure and correct racial discrimination. And if these loops were as powerful and pervasive as Loury suggests, it's hard to see how the dramatic changes of the last half-century could have occurred.

Where else to look? Putting aside the woeful state of public education for inner-city students, much of the difficulty in labor markets could be due to regulations that hurt the people they're designed to help. I speak here of one curious omission from Loury's field of vision: the basic prohibition, in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, against discrimination based on race in the terms and conditions of employment. This sort of legislation has ambiguous economic consequences: Blacks who find jobs will receive some protection against dismissal, but at the same time that protection will make employers, fearing litigation, more reluctant to hire black workers in the first place. One would therefore expect that once Title VII swept away the explicit racial classifications common in the United States before 1964, progress through employment discrimination laws would be slower than many hoped, which has been the case since 1975 or so. Rather than an overall improvement in black wage levels, the result of Title VII would be a higher variation in the income of black workers, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, which seems to be part of the trend.

Loury not only misses the unintended consequences of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; he fails to note that the statute epitomizes the color blindness he deplores for its obliviousness to real social differences. The justification offered by Hubert Humphrey and the law's other leading defenders was that it would prevent employers from being distracted by racial prejudice. Instead they would hire workers based on a pure, disembodied conception of individual merit -- the sort of standard that Loury attacks with great vigor and some success.

Columbia University law professor Michael Sovern's 1966 defense of the law, Legal Restraints on Racial Discrimination in Employment, stated explicitly that employers were free to make head-to-head comparisons between black and white applicants, disregarding the social and historical handicaps that blacks bring to the hiring hall. The law's supporters believed that eliminating formal discrimination in labor markets would bring about approximate employment equality as the social effects of prior discrimination dissipated with time.

Loury likewise overlooks the fact that the 1964 Civil Rights Act actually slowed down private adoption of the affirmative action programs he defends. Title VII made it unlawful to discriminate against "any individual" on the ground of race, and it took nearly a decade and a half for the Supreme Court to perform the legal legerdemain necessary to reconcile racial preferences for blacks with this clear prohibition against affirmative action.

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