Race and Responsibility


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."

But Loury's analysis goes far beyond simplistic notions of "self-help." He argues that fault and responsibility do not necessarily go hand in hand. "It is absolutely vital that blacks distinguish between the fault which may be attributed to racism as a cause of the black condition and the responsibility for relieving that condition," he writes. Loury is correct in insisting that no people can genuinely be free if they believe their freedom must be delivered to them by others.

Fostering the commitment to the notion of self-help is a responsibility he places squarely at the doorstep of the established black leadership. He is justly critical of the inclination among black political, intellectual, and religious leaders to finger the "racist American society" for the general condition of the black underclass. Furthermore, he berates the notion that the problems of black poverty, unwed black teenage parents, and black crime will miraculously disappear when America "finally does right by its black folk." Loury persuasively argues that these positions dodge both the responsibility of individuals for their behavior and the responsibility of groups for the values embraced within a given community.

As a pragmatic matter, says Loury, any effective response to the problems of black Americans requires the "intimate involvement" of black institutions, black politicians, black educators, and black individuals. At the same time, however, Loury draws the line at asserting a race-specific collective responsibility for the black underclass. Rightfully so. It is generally accepted that a civilized society assists its members who cannot do for themselves, but to assign a race-specific onus to all black Americans smacks of a racial or cultural determinism that seeks to dictate behavior on the basis of group membership instead of individual free will.

Still, Loury seems to believe—and I agree with him on the point—that the black civil rights establishment, which has effectively monopolized leadership in the black community, has a special responsibility for the current decrepit state of individual values. By focusing almost exclusively on external contributors to the plight of the black underclass, organizations such as the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have helped erode black communities' historical commitment to self-reliance. As a result, we have now created an entire generation of black men and women who are convinced they can do little to improve their condition until white America changes.

Loury is aware of the political and social realities that inhibit black leaders from openly criticizing black behavior and he's afraid of "aiding and abetting" those who would use such critiques to advance racist notions of black inferiority. But he insists that the stifling of discourse has the much more deleterious effect of hindering development of new approaches to resolve the black community's increasingly intractable problems.

Hence, Loury welcomes the more recent pronouncements by black leaders acknowledging the central role of values in uplifting the black underclass, such as occurred last year during the annual meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus. Speaking to a primarily black audience, Jesse Jackson charged them to use the "power of character" to deal with the problems of teen pregnancy, drug abuse, and black-on-black crime—a decided shift from the traditional rhetoric of blaming these pathologies on white oppression. Loury also has only kind words for the growing number of programs offered by churches, benevolent societies, and social clubs within the black community to encourage responsible male involvement in parenting, prevent unplanned pregnancies, support young single mothers, and the like.

Loury's prescriptions are clearly recognizable as "black conservatism." At the core of One by One is the proposition that future black progress and, ultimately, genuine equality will be achieved only through a commitment at the "individual level" to embrace a specific set of values. Loury doesn't scant political activism, but he insists that the primary vehicle for empowerment is individual action. He is similarly adamant about the inherent superiority of two-parent families, the need for self-discipline, and the commitment to take the moral high ground, divorced from external considerations. Loury argues that only through exceptional moral and social conduct, along with an individual commitment to educational and professional excellence, will we as a society be able to bring about the conditions for uplifting the most troubled segments of the black community.

But Loury avoids being ideological to a fault: In his vision, self-help need not preclude financial and other aid from the state. For Loury, the principal way government can aid blacks is by providing them with a good education. If this means race-targeted and preferential spending on black education, so be it. He is unequivocal in his view that this may involve spending more on "public institutions that serve large numbers of poor black people."

I agree with Loury that such a policy is appropriate, with the proviso that the "quality" of education for blacks not be measured primarily in terms of relative dollars spent. Perhaps the greatest historical American transgression was to free slaves into a society in which they were ill-equipped to effectively survive. The legacy of poorly educated blacks remains one of the central issues in contemporary America's racial dilemma.

Loury offended my sensibilities only once, during a discussion of "social capital"—the associations, benefits, and support networks that characterize upper-class white experience, a kind of ready accessibility to other people who are going places, to people who will one day end up in powerful circles. Loury suggests that a black "adolescent with an aptitude and interest for academic matters" might have trouble finding the peer groups and larger social networks that engender upward mobility. Loury believes that government intervention can help offset the lack of social capital in the poor black community.

But are urban black communities so bereft of upwardly mobile individuals that social capital cannot be developed? I know of no neighborhoods, even among the poorest and most crime ridden, that do not have churches. Churches have routinely served as a meeting place for the best individuals a neighborhood has to offer and they continue to serve as a place for not just spiritual development, but personal and social development as well.

In fact, much of what I personally learned about navigating life, about presenting myself to a broader society, and about gaining entrance into upwardly mobile groups, I learned from a little inner-city church in a New York ghetto. As a product of the inner city, I find it inconceivable that an adolescent intent on finding a support group would be unable to do so.

This minor point aside, One by One from the Inside Out: Race and Responsibility in America is an insightful and elucidating work. Those interested in facing and solving the problems of this nation's black underclass will want to make sure they don't overlook these essays.

Errol Smith is a Los Angeles radio personality and businessman. He is the author, with Matt Ember, of 101 Reasons Not To Be a Liberal (St. Clair René Publishing).