Art by Jia Sung
A co-production with the podcast Reckonings. In the 1980s, Glenn Loury was one of the most prominent black conservative intellectuals in the United States. He was selected to be a top official within the Reagan administration in 1987, but suddenly and unexpectedly, he withdrew his consideration.
Reckonings is a fantastic podcast about people who have a change of heart–produced by Stephanie Lepp.PLAYLIST
Artist – Title – Album
The Cinematic Orchestra – Everyday – Every Day
The Cinematic Orchestra – Child Song – Ma Fleur
The Cinematic Orchestra – Diabolus – Motion
The Cinematic Orchestra – Man With The Movie Camera – Every Day
The Cinematic Orchestra – Channel 1 Suite – Motion
The Cinematic Orchestra – Night of the Iguana – Motion
The Cinematic Orchestra – Durian – Motion
So Percussion – Fire Escapes – Amid the Noise
The Cinematic Orchestra – The Awakening of a Woman – Man With A Movie Camera
Yo La Tengo – Hyas and Stenorhynchus – The Sounds of the Sounds of Science
Sufjan Stevens – Vito’s Ordination Song – Michigan
So Percussion – February – Amid the Noise
N/A – Lord Help Me to Hold Out – N/A
Ursula Bogner – Fur Ulrich – Recordings 1969-1988
Glenn Loury – Economist
It was a hot summer day, I remember that, and I was probably sweating a little bit more than the heat required, because I was afraid of how people were gonna take what I knew I had to say.
It was a meeting of civil rights leaders in Washington DC in 1984 — The Civil Rights Coalition Leadership Council I think that’s what they might have called themselves, Leadership Council in Civil Rights. And looking out the faces of these, you know, you see them on the television, they’re on the news, they are quote “our leaders” closed quote. They wanted to hear from me so I felt a certain pride.
I did feel a little trepidation that people were going to be mad at me but at the same time I was a little bit excited at that prospect because I’m the town crier, I’m the fellow who’s saying the emperor has no clothes. I felt empowered by this idea that I’d seen something that was important, that other people weren’t seeing and I was there to announce it to the world.
And… I showed up and I gave my spiel.
[FROM ESSAY: The moral victory of the civil rights movement is virtually complete, and yet racial divisions remain. Since the 1980s we’ve been faced with a new American dilemma, one that is especially difficult for black leaders and members of the black middle class.]
And I draw a contrast between “the enemy without” and “the enemy within.”
“The enemy without,” which is white racism — sure, it continues to exist, but much constrained by the legislation of civil rights and voting rights and so forth — and “the enemy within” being problems in African-American society that ended up limiting our ability to take advantage of the opportunities that had been opened up with the successes of the civil rights movement.
[FROM ESSAY: The bottom stratum of the black community has compelling problems that can no longer be blamed solely on white racism, and that forces to confront fundamental failures in black society.]
And then I’d have a long discussion of the character of this enemy within. Families with fatherlessness and early unwed pregnancy and so on. Criminal behavior that made it hard to do business in certain neighborhoods and limited the life chances of the people who had to live there. Poor school performance, low attachment to the labor force. I would go down a litany of statistics about the so-called pathology of African-American social life, especially in the lower classes, and conclude that these are matters that needed to be addressed directly, and that the instrumentalities of civil rights protest were not effective.
[FROM ESSAY: To admit these failures is likely to be personally costly for black leaders, and it may also play into the hands of lingering racist sentiment. Not to admit them however is to forestall their resolution and to allow the racial polarization of the country to worsen. If the new American dilemma is not dealt with soon, we may face the possibility of a permanent split in our political system along racial lines…]
We were standing in the early 1980s. Ronald Reagan had been elected president; we were within two decades of the end of the civil rights big achievements of the 1960s, and so there was a kind of taking stock idea. I was trying to say: Where are we? Where have we gotten ourselves to? The civil rights movement is over.
Looking around the room, who did you see?
Well I’m standing here in my seat, you know, at a table with ten people around it, and sitting on my left as it happens is Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King’s widow, and I’m winding up my argument to the effect that the civil rights movement is off the track… So I look down and I see that this woman, this iconic figure, the symbol of civil rights martyrdom, is weeping. There are tears coming down her cheeks; I’m alarmed, of course, but I’m also startled. Weeping about what? I mean, what did I say that would bring you to tears? This woman is a trip. I mean, is she off her meds? I really thought, “Come on… You’re weeping? You’re weeping at someone making a set of critical observations about the character of contemporary politics? I mean, who could take such a person seriously?” I thought.
I’m 33, 34 years old, I’ve just been made a professor at Harvard University, I am this bright, young kid, I’m the future, you know, I’m the first black to have tenure in economics at Harvard, people see this as an achievement, people are proud of me, I’m the fruit of the civil rights movement, so there’s a sense of despair in people that a guy like me, a product of their efforts would have gone off the rails.
I think I was reluctant to embrace the idea of myself as a conservative, rather that I was simply a contrarian. I began having concerns about affirmative action for example very early on the in the arc of my move to the right. Maybe even a neoconservative in the sense of liberal who’s been mugged by reality.
There undoubtedly is a personality dimension of me which likes being in your face and iconoclastic, but there’s also a lot of stupidity and confusion in the world. There’s a lot of error. And there’s a lot of circling the wagons around error.
So as the jails filled up as the school failure totals came in, as the 15-year-old mothers proliferated, my feeling was, you know, we’re sailing over a cliff and somebody had better call attention to that. Now that’s not my characterological flaw of somebody who loves to be at the center of controversy. That’s me being right and them being wrong about something that’s vitally important for the welfare of my people.
I mean, the way I felt about it was many of these predictably liberal African American intellectuals didn’t know diddly about the underclass. They didn’t know anything about the ghetto. They wouldn’t know what to do if they were actually confronted with real hardcore tough minded, tough living black people. They lived in a bubble. Their audience was liberal whites. They were performing an act. I actually had to go home to those neighborhoods. I had to go home to my family which was diverse in its socioeconomic and cultural makeup. And I felt like “You’re gonna tell me that I don’t care about our people? You’re gonna tell me that I’m not black?”
I grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s. I was born in 1948. I lived on the South side of the city. I lived with my mother who was divorced and my sister in a small apartment upstairs and in the back of a grand house that my aunt — my mother’s sister — and her husband owned.
My mother, who was a wonderful, loving woman, but not the most responsible and effective parent, was staggering through her own life, you know, one husband to another and moving around a lot. I was in five different schools before finishing the fifth grade. My aunt, my mother’s sister said “This can’t go on, we need some stability in your life. I want you to come over here and live here. You’ll pay rent but it would be a discount,” and I don’t think my mom really had much other alternative than to move in with her sister.
This was a beautiful house, in a nice neighborhood. It had been a white neighborhood when my aunt and uncle first moved into it, but it flipped over within three or four years to being all black.
Yes, so I was 16 years old when I graduated from high school in 1965. I had been always a really good student in school. I got a scholarship to study at the Illinois Institute of Technology. However, I was graduating high school at 16, just turned 17 as I was starting my college, and I had always been younger, sometimes two years younger than the other kids, and I was kind of a nerd, kind of a social misfit. And when I came out of high school and started college, I also started coming into my own in terms of being able to successfully court people of the opposite sex, and have sex with them. I mean, that’s kind of what it comes down to at the end of the day okay? And I was really a lot more interested in doing that than I was in going to classes at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
So two things happened. I flunked out. I mean literally, I got bad grades and they ultimately asked me to leave. And the other was that Charlene, my girlfriend, became pregnant. Charlene was 16 and I was 18. That was in March 1967.
I merely wanted to not have my father look at me with contempt. My father, who worked very hard for everything that he ever had, who got himself certified as a public accountant and became a auditor for the Internal Revenue Service and worked his way up till finally toward the end of his career he was a high-level manager. My father knew that I was smarter than him, he told me that every time I saw him. He was deeply concerned that I was squandering my gifts, appalled at the idea that I would marry Charlene. He said “Take care of your children, but don’t marry that girl, that’s a mistake.”
He thought that her class background within the African American community of being from parents from the South who were relatively unsophisticated — her mother worked as a laborer, and her father was a janitor — they weren’t particularly well-educated people. He didn’t think we were going to prove to be compatible over the long run.
We ultimately did marry, and I think he rather imagined that I was repeating his mistake. He knew that — as his own example showed — a man could be a father to his children without having to be a husband to their mother.
My girlfriend gets pregnant, she gets pregnant again, I go to work full-time, we marry. But while this is happening, I’m saying, you know, I really need a college degree. So I begin to take a couple of courses at a community college. Somewhere along in my second semester, one of the inspired teachers, Mr. Andres, said to me, “You know, I think that you could do well at a real university, and I want to recommend you for a scholarship at Northwestern, which is my alma mater.” And I said “Sure” without having any idea what I was getting myself into.
They looked at my portfolio. My test scores were always high, but my record was I had flunked out of college. There’s no way that such a person was going to get admitted to a place like Northwestern, but for the fact that the university wanted to bring kids from the South side of Chicago to study at Northwestern, and I looked like a good bet. You can call that affirmative action, I’m not hiding from the fact that they wanted more black kids at Northwestern and that they brought me in under the conditions that I’ve described, but once I got there, I can tell you this, I tore the place up.
I had no idea that I could compete with those white kids, those rich, white kids up there at Northwestern. I was intimidated by them. But I got into the classroom, and this was mathematics, economics, philosophy, literature. The teacher was saying my paper was brilliant. They pushed me and they encouraged me. “You have to make something of yourself!” So come the end of my time at Northwestern, I was beginning to feel that I was really called — in retrospect, it’s kind of a religious metaphor — but that I was called to something higher. And toward the end of my stay at Northwestern I settled upon economics as the area of study that I wanted to pursue.
The early 1970s, Charlene and I moved to Cambridge Mass together when I began graduate school at MIT. She was employed as a secretary in one of the laboratories and I was a graduate student. We were together maybe for about 15 months before we separated.
Charlene didn’t fit in well there. I hang with a little clique of the black graduate students and I had a kind of way of smoothing over my relations with people who had rather different class backgrounds than I did although they were black. Charlene didn’t have that. One thing led to another and we decided to separate. And the winter of 1974 I moved into the YMCA.
I met my second wife, Linda, a few months after I separated from Charlene in 1974. She came to MIT as a graduate students and things blossomed from there between the two of us. After she took a job at the University of Michigan I moved from Northwestern to the University of Michigan’s faculty.
When I got the job at Harvard, Linda put her foot down and said I ain’t moving across the country and leaving my job without you making some commitment to this relationship. And I realized that she was right, and she and I married.
I came to Harvard in 1982. I was the first African American to be a tenured professor of economics at Harvard. Tenured professor of economics and of African-American studies, although in those years they said Afro-American studies.
Here’s the truth about my early years at Harvard: I was absolutely terrified of failing in the Economics Department, as a professor of Economics. I still harbored in the back of my mind the possibility that I wasn’t really up to it. In my mind, race had a lot to do with it. I’m the guy they hired because they wanted to hire a black guy. It wouldn’t have been the first time I had those feelings. And when I got to Harvard this was like the ultimate test. I was anxious and I wanted to measure up and didn’t have anything to judge it by, didn’t have anybody really that I felt that I could confide in. And lived with a constant panic, really that I wasn’t going to succeed.
In my mind I envisioned everyone sitting there behind those tall wooden doors in their cloistered Harvard offices with their toes tapping and their arms folded waiting for Glenn Loury to prove that he deserved to be here. I go to the point where I didn’t even feel uncomfortable into Littauer Hall even though I was a full professor in that department.
The man who really became my mentor at Harvard, Thomas Schelling, suggested an alternative avenue for me, which would be to move over the Kennedy School of Government. The Kennedy School was a relatively new institution, it was only really becoming what we know today to be the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. My economic theory expertise would be respected and welcomed, but I’d also have the latitude to pursue my interest in public policy and race related issues. It wouldn’t be a distraction, it would be part of my job there.
I flourished at the Kennedy School. I mean, first of all, I brought some heft to the economic faculty there. But I was also this guy that was now making a name for himself as an outspoken conservative critic of civils rights establishment on the race issues. I was getting in the magazines, I was getting attention from the media. I fit right in.
So Reagan is elected president and I started meeting some of the more prominent neo-cons. The young William Kristol was a colleague of mine at Harvard in the early 80s. And I’m seeing that I have a lot in common with these people. Soon enough they were soliciting input from me for their magazines and stuff.
[FROM ESSAY: Since the 1980s we’ve been faced with a new American dilemma, one that is especially difficult for black leaders and members of the black middle class.]
This was around the time that I was working the piece that became “A New American Dilemma”, my kind of manifesto piece, and a draft of that piece had circulated amongst some civil rights leaders. The meeting that I had with the civils rights leaders in 1984 came out of this very same period.
[FROM ESSAY: If the new American dilemma is not dealt with soon, we may face the possibility of a permanent split in our political system along racial lines…]
The next year I had Esquire name me one of the people under 40 who was changing the nation. In one of those lists of celebrities that the magazines like to put out. And I’m young. I’m this hot new thing. But I’m a neo-con.
I met Clarence Thomas in these years and he was with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at that time time, and he invited me to come down and brief him on some of the research ideas I had about labor market inequality and race. And I was coming to the attention of some of the people in the Reagan administration. We get to 1986 and I’m invited to a state dinner at the white house and seated at the president’s table.
The Reagan administration wanted me to be undersecretary of the Department of Dducation – the number two person in the Department of Education.
I felt proud. I felt like I was winning. Okay winning against what? My battle lines were not conventional left/right, you’re a Democrat, I’m a Republican. My battle lines were more within the African American intelligentsia, I’m a traitor and the rest of them are on the team. And I was a bad boy, I was a renegade I was one of those troublesome, confused, identity-messed-up negroes who thought that Ronald Reagan might actually have something useful to say to African Americans, I was the enemy.
Well, the enemy, me, who might not get invited to the cocktail party and even if he were invited, had to imagine that people were snickering behind their hands about him, was winning. He was in Time magazine, he was the one who was at the National Press Club, he was the state dinner with the United States and he was the one who was telling the truth about the conditions about his people.
The world was my oyster. I could anything. I could run for senator, for governor. I could do anything in the fullness of time.
If you want, I know this is kind of where the story turns and it might be a good place to, if we want to get more water or use the restroom…
I’m fine. I’d just as soon go ahead.
I know we want to get to the part where I start using the cocaine, okay? But what I want you to know is that that part doesn’t come until 1987, and I came to Harvard in 1982 and I joined the Kennedy School in 1984. I do not believe that I was using the drugs in those later years because of the pressures that I felt in adjusting to being at Harvard. That was a different story.
This is all in the public record more or less… So I met Pammy — that’s how I remember her, that’s how I used to call her, I used to call her Pammy — Pamela was a student and then a graduate, living in New York City and working some job in New York. She was interested in political matters and race in America, and I was beginning to write about these things in the magazine, and she was reading these pieces and she started corresponding with me. “Oh, you know, can you help me with my ideas about this paper? I was thinking this or that or the other,” and I’d write back. Then she says, “Oh, I would love to meet you.” It happened that Pammy was going to be in Washington, and I suggested that we meet for a drink after the official meetings of my committee, at the hotel. And we did meet for that drink.
I can remember what she looked like. I can remember what she smelled like. Roses and lavender. Very dark skin. She was bubbly, effusive, she was full in all the right places… You guys are embarrassing me. She was, I dunno, 12, 15 years my junior. She was just so young and fresh, I could see her nipples through her blouse. And she was a flirt. But she was thoughtful, she had done a lot of reading.
I’m trying to play like I’m the disinterested professor who’s just meeting a young woman who is interested in my ideas and who I might be able to help with her career or something, but constantly thinking “How am I gonna get her upstairs, how am I gonna get her upstairs?” I suggested that we might wanna retire to my room where it would be more private.
It wasn’t the first affair, okay? It wasn’t the first time, it wasn’t the second time. It wasn’t the third time. I was a womanizer, okay? What can I say?
I was still living with my wife at home, but I had this apartment up there on Union Park Avenue in the South end of Boston that I was renting, and Pamela was living in it. So one day I come there to this place, and there was a dressmaker who had a shop down on the ground floor, and apparently she had gone there and ordered some dresses to be made for herself. It was a sum of money, I don’t remember how much, it wasn’t trivial. And the guy was talking to me about paying for it. He said, “Your wife is, blah-blah-blah.” So I go up and we start talking about her committing me to some dresses that we hadn’t discussed. And that blew up into a big fight — it was not the first fight that we had — and I lost it, and I ultimately said “Look, I’m not doing this anymore.” And whatever she said to me, one thing lead to another and I said, “Look, I’m done, and I want you out of there. I want you out of here now.”
I push her out of the door of the apartment. She seeks shelter at a women’s refuge and is counseled that, “This man has assaulted you and you ought to go to the police about that.”
She claimed I dragged her down the stairs and that I kicked her. I was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, a shod foot. I had to be arraigned in court. She showed up to that arraignment in a neck brace. There wasn’t anything wrong with that woman’s neck, and if there was something wrong with her neck, it happened after she and I had our altercation, because I didn’t do anything to that woman or to her neck, but I did push her through the door out of an apartment, I did throw her belongings behind her, I treated her very shabbily, and I was charged with assault.
In retrospect I think the record will show that I did not assault her, in the sense that the charges were subsequently dropped and so forth. And I did not assault her, although I treated her very badly in the relationship.
The front page of the Boston Herald, depicted me being arraigned, I’m standing with my attorney on one side and a police officer on another, entering a courtroom in Boston. On one side of the page there was this photo of me and on the other side of the page there was this photo of Pamela with her neck brace on, and the headline was “He dragged me down the stairs”. And I bring the thing home and I’m sitting in my bathtub, weeping, looking at this photograph in the newspaper and wondering “Oh my God, what will the world think of me? Oh my God, what am I going to do?”
This happened literally weeks before my nomination to be undersecretary of the Department of Education was going to be forwarded to the relevant committee for Senate confirmation. But this altercation and my being arrested killed all of that. I had to withdraw.
One night I was out cruising the streets of inner city Boston, and I picked up this young woman. I thought it was going to be a commercial transaction, I was gonna give her some funds, she was going to give me some head, and she suggested, “Hey, do you wanna do something that’s fun? Have you ever tried to do this?” and I said “No.” And the “do this” was smoking crack. She takes me to her apartment and asks me for 50 dollars, and I give it to her, and she goes and she comes back with these crystalline cocaine bits that she crumbles and puts on top of a makeshift pipe. The pipe was a soda bottle, a plastic soda bottle with a piece of aluminum foil stretched across the top. That was my first hit on a crack pipe. I loved it.
There was no sex between us, we were too interested in the drugs actually. I went back again, maybe a couple nights later, looking for her and found her in roughly the same place, standing on the street. I asked her where she was getting it and she told me. I figured out that I can go without her and get it myself. I discovered that it was actually better to cook the cocaine yourself rather than to buy the crystal already cooked.
How often would you say you were doing cocaine?
Well, at first it would have been once a week. Maybe I’d go on the weekend, maybe I’d go back during the middle of the week once, but it soon enough became pretty much every day that I wanted to use.
The next thing you knew, I was ditching classes, cancelling meetings, hiding from my wife, drawing two or three hundred dollars a day out of the bank account. Finding those Dominican guys that used to hand out on Tremont Street, that I came to know pretty well, who could always give you an eighth of an…uh, uh ….a little piece of plastic with enough cocaine in it to keep you high for a few hours…An eight ball, whatever you call it. Anyway.
I could start out at 9 o’clock, 9:30 in the morning and then my only concern was not running out when I was still in the flow. I wanted to make sure I could get enough so that it would carry me through to 3 o’clock in the afternoon when I knew I was gonna have to start getting my act together, because my wife would be coming home soon. It was a kind of horrible, surreptitious double life that I was leading.
Did you ever teach under the influence of crack cocaine?
No, I didn’t. I mean, not that I was above it, but just that the logistics probably wouldn’t have been right. The point is this: when you start consuming this drug you don’t want to stop. The last thing you wanna do is take a couple of hits before you have to go in and do something else for 90 minutes, I mean this is like…it’s not like that — for me it wasn’t, anyway. It was an all-consuming thing.
Now, the weirdest part of this I think is that I was really proud of the fact that I could walk both sides of the street, and none of my colleagues — I don’t care what color they were — at Harvard, I thought, and I could be well wrong about this, could have possibly done it. So I was going where no man, woman or child had gone before. I was doing the impossible, I was invincible, I was a time traveler, I could move between worlds.
I was arrested in early December in Boston, in possession of drugs. The arrest of course made the newspapers. The Boston Globe sends a team back to Chicago to investigate my life before, and things are coming out about my life, all these stories are being written in the Chicago Sun-Times. Everybody is calling me a hypocrite. “Oh, he prescribes Victorian values for the under-class, but is a libertine himself.”
I say to Richard — my friend Richard Neuhaus, the theologian and Catholic priest — I say, “You know, Martin Luther King wasn’t faithful to his wife either. Nobody thought that that diminished the force of his public leadership.” They’re incommensurates, they’re not the same thing at all. I never said that I was a saint. And Richard rebuked me. He smacked the table with his flat hand, he was angry. He said, “Don’t you ever say that, that’s wrong. Don’t you ever say that. King’s flaws were profound moral missteps on his part. They hurt the movement. He was less effective as a moral leader, for his own private misdeeds. If you stand up and you tell people how to live, then you have a responsibility to live decently yourself. You’re either a moral leader or you’re not. Now you choose. “
At the time I thought, “Okay Richard, I’m not gonna argue with you about this. I hear you,” but deep in my heart of hearts I didn’t feel that I had somehow behaved hypocritically. I felt that I had behaved in a way that was self-destructive, that was harmful to other people, that was morally wrong, and that was about me, okay? But I didn’t feel that that had anything to do with whether or not two thirds or three quarters of African-American children being born out of wedlock was or was not a factor in perpetuating black poverty. Okay, now maybe I’m no longer a good messenger for that message, okay? I grant you that, my saying it won’t be as effective given what you know about me, but it doesn’t make me into a hypocrite. I never said that I was a saint.
And in retrospect I can see that he was right, and more generally I’m prepared to say that my fixation on the enemy within African-American society almost surely was to some degree a reflection of my misgivings somewhere in the back of my mind about the moral foundation of my own life. The extent to which I had rage and fury and contempt for the way in which black people were living, if we were to do a psychoanalysis on Glenn Loury, almost surely is connected with the extent to which some part of me had profound misgivings and a kind of self-contempt about the way in which I was living. So these things are all, these things are all, it seems to me, all connected to one another.
I find myself in the Hamilton Recovery Homes, which — it’s halfway house.
One of the disciplines of being a resident at the halfway house was the mandatory nightly AA or NA meeting — Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. When I first started going to these meetings I would say very little; after maybe a few months I began to speak up a bit and share.
So I can remember the first time that I think I spoke genuinely from my heart in one of these AA meetings. I was thinking about my relationship with my wife. My wife who stuck with me through thick and thin. And you know I’ve said it here I hadn’t been faithful to her, but I hadn’t really plumbed the full depth of my mistreatment of her.
So Linda lost a couple of pregnancies before finally she was able to carry one, our oldest son Glenn, to term, and on one occasion where she had a miscarriage, I was relieved. I mean I didn’t show it, I would have performed just as a grieving husband in comforting his wife for the loss of their child, would have performed. I would have said the words that a person was supposed to say, but deep down inside I was relieved.
I hadn’t even admitted it to myself. I hadn’t admitted fully to myself that this is how I felt. I came to understand that I was glad that woman lost that baby.
And when that thought became vivid in my mind, when I realized it, that “Oh what a wretched man I am,” this kind of thing. I had come into an understanding of just how corrupt, just how craven, just how selfish, just how debased my life had become, and I spoke that out in the meeting. And as I was speaking it out I could feel the tears coming up, I could hear my voice beginning to quiver, I could see the room transfixed by people. You could have heard a pin drop in the room.
The guard was down, the pretense was gone. There wasn’t any fake, there wasn’t any front. I wasn’t performing, I wasn’t projecting an image, I was simply laying my soul bare.
Higher power. I came to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity.
I was being converted to rather conservative, charismatic and fundamentalist protestant Christianity, this African Methodist Episcopal Church. I went at first just for quiet, for peace of mind, for support.
And I can remember many services in which even this hardened, hyper-rational, mathematical economist, PhD intellectual type forgot about reason, forgot about explanations, forgot about plausibility.
I sat there in the pew, listening to the music, which reminded me of many of the services that I had attended as a boy, and I wept, I felt powerfully moved. I did not get up from my pew and go to the altar and surrender my life to Jesus, and in fact I subsequently relapsed and started using cocaine again, and had to go back into the hospital. But something happened where a door was opened, where the emotional power of being in the presence of others, of worshipping and of hearing a sermon that preached about how Christ had died for me. Not for the abstract humankind; for Glenn Cartman Loury. Jesus had died for me. God sought to establish a bridge between his exalted self and our fallen humanity. That was the person of Jesus Christ. A concrete path to salvation. That bridge was available to me, Glenn Loury. The sky didn’t open, there was no lightning bolt, I didn’t suddenly feel a chill of electricity running through my body, but I did begin to entertain a possibility in a more serious way than I had ever done before.
And months later after the relapse, going back into the hospital, going to the halfway house, coming out of the halfway house, seeing my son Glenn born, finding myself back out into the working life and family life, trying not to use, trying to stay straight, trying to put one foot in front of another one day at a time, I began to visit this church with my wife, and we found ourselves drawn in more and more.
And despite my rationality and my dubiousness, seeing the tears in the corners of the eyes of people, seeing the trembling in their hands and their vibrations, seeing them hug each other in joy, seeing them weep. When a room full of people are swept up in that feeling you know, you can get with that. At least this person was able to get with that.
I was baptized at the age of 40, and a deacon for the better part of the decades through the 1990s. I look back on that as a period of a kind of benevolent self-delusion. I was in the right place. I’m living in the right way. Here are these two beautiful young children who are like another lease on life, I’ve gotten past the drug addiction, the humiliation, and the destruction of reputation attendant to my very public collapse. I’m rebuilding my life one step at a time. I’m in the right place.
I didn’t really believe. And I came to realize that I didn’t believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead by an almighty God who decided to reach down into human affairs and alter the course of history. I saw it to be a benevolent mystification. A kind of mythic epic that I couldn’t literally believe. I still don’t believe it. On the other hand, I still have very warm feelings about this effort of people to, know, quiet the storm, to assure themselves, to find hope, to get the strength to continue to go on.
“The good that I would do, I do not. The evil that I would not, that I do. Oh, wretched man that I am, who will save me from this body of death?”
There’s good that I would do but I don’t do it, and there’s evil that I swore I would not do and yet here I am doing it. That’s our condition. That’s my condition.
So there are two points here. One is that if I’m gonna preach virtue, I have to practice it in my own life, or else I’m a hypocrite and I’ve come to accept that, although for years and years I resented it. It’s not okay that I’m just running around while my wife is in that home waiting for me, but I’m going around telling the rest of the world they need to be chaste. That’s hypocrisy.
But the other piece to this is knowing the fact that, you know, I’m susceptible to the same temptations as anybody else leaves me with a more forgiving, a greater understanding, a more malleable sentiment of judgment in viewing the behavior of the others, including the little girls who get pregnant when they’re 17 years old. After all, I became a father at 18, and again at 19, and again at 20. Uh, including the kids that run with the drug-selling gangs. I didn’t run with drug-selling gangs, but I was glad that there were drug-selling gangs on the streets of Boston when it was time to cop some cocaine.
So knowing my own fallibility, the ferocity and the certitude and the arrogance with which I might preach virtue should be tempered. I can’t expect more of the others than I am able to deliver myself.
I believe Pope Francis said this recently about a certain Republican presidential candidate: “You can’t be a good Christian and turn your back on people in need!” Whether they’re trying to get across the border because they’re looking for a better life or they’re poor living in the ghetto and they don’t have housing and they don’t have enough food to eat.
The Sermon on the Mount is actually not at all ambiguous about this, okay? You’re called to higher ground.
The Glenn Loury of the 1980s was not concerned about solving problems, he was concerned about exposing what the thought to be rot in the thought of the establishment, of the liberal negro public intellectual establishment. I thought the NAACP was on the wrong track, I thought these mayors running these cities were on the wrong track, and so on. I was mainly concerned about critiquing something, not about building something. And I think my Christian experience disabused me of the idea that it was simply enough to critique something.
That congregation, they were socially conservative, but they definitely knew that the neighborhood needed to be built up. They knew that people fall and you give them a hand. They were committed to creating an institution in our community of uplift, of stability, of affirmation.
And so at these various convocations when I would come and I would hear people talk about the poor, I was hearing that talk differently than I had heard it before. I began to have misgivings.
It wasn’t as if I thought that the liberals had suddenly become right; the racial liberals, the civil rights community, the people who had hated my guts. However, I became more keenly aware of what seemed to be a mean-spiritedness and a kind of contempt for people in the conservative community.
We get to talking about how bad the leader Jesse Jackson is and so forth, and we get to talking about problems of the ghetto and so forth, and I don’t disagree with any of this. We get to talking about how the civil rights people are asking for the wrong thing at the wrong time and the typical stuff. But I have a ‘but’, and I say “Yes, but we have to try to figure out a way to help these people.
I think my experience with the church left me still with an approach to life that’s less combative, that’s more open to doubt, and also more sympathetic to the conditions of people.
[FROM ESSAY: Much evidence suggests that managing social dysfunction via imprisonment is now a primary means by which racial stigma is reproduced in the United States. But, racial disparity in the realm of punishment is not merely an accretion of neutral state action applied to a diverse social flux – the chips having fallen as they may, so to speak. Instead, it is a salient feature of contemporary American social life best understood as the residual effect of a history of enslavement, violent domination, disenfranchisement and racial discrimination. For massive inequality by race in the incidence of punishment in this country is one of two things: It is either a necessary evil given the need to maintain order, or it is an abhorrent expression of who we have become as a people at the dawn of the 21st century. Nothing in the data, nothing within empirical social science, can tell us which of these alternative narratives is the correct one. So, I am free to take the latter view. On the whole, we have concluded that those languishing at the margins of society are simply reaping what they have sown. Their deviance is seen to have nothing to do with us — it is not taken as a systemic failure, entailing social responsibilities, correctable via public action. This is wrong-headed in my view.
What does this state of affairs say about our purportedly open and democratic society? What manner of people does our punishment policy, particularly its racial disparate incidence, show us Americans to be? As I see it, we are acting as though some of us are different from the rest and because of their culture, their bad values, their self-destructive behavior, their malfeasance, their criminality, their lack of responsibility, they deserve their fate. I wish to suggest that this posture is inconsistent with the attainment of any distribution of benefits and burdens in our society that could rightly be called ‘just.’]
[ESSAY continued] In other words, we have lawbreakers out there and they have to be dealt with. But they did not simply fall from heaven. They are themselves a product of the structures in society, which we are responsible for. If we respond to their lawbreaking as if the only issue at hand is their punishment, we absolve ourselves of responsibility for those structures. Justice means more than a reckoning with an individual for his own wrongdoing. Justice means ordering our relationships with one another so we don’t have hundreds of thousands and millions of individuals in that miserable condition. It’s something that we can do if we had the will to do it.]
I think where I am now is thinking that the enemy without is best attacked by a broad trans-racial progressive movement that tries to get the state, our government, our policies, expanding basic opportunity for people. Whether it be healthcare — including mental healthcare. Whether it be investment in education in those parts of our society that are not flush, that the stake that we have in generating jobs for people or being less punitive in our punishment policies, is a human rights argument, not a civil rights, in the racially specific term, argument. In the training of police, the protocols under which they operate, the systems of accountability that they have to reckon with are things that we all have a stake in. And changing that is something that would require changing laws and so forth. So, racial injury may be the impetus that pushes up to look for reform. But political coalations that reach across racial lines are the only way that we’re ever gonna get it.
I moved to Brown in 2005, after having been at Boston University for 14 years. I’ve been here at Brown for the last 11 years at the economics department and most recently the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. It’s a bit of a precious, politically correct hothouse here, I’m not going to deny that, but one gets used to it.
So stepping back a little bit, if you were to paint the whole intellectual trajectory, what are the different eras and what would you call them and how would you characterize them?
Okay at the beginning I was a technocrat, mainly concerned about my equations and getting published in the journals, not very political at all. I got inducted into the neo-conservative pantheon and I found myself happily ensconced there. Ended up breaking with many of my associations on the right over an increasing sense that I was in the wrong place politically. I didn’t think they really cared about solving the problems in the inner city I was deeply concerned about.
What would you call yourself?
I referred to it on more than one occasions as being a man of the left. For example, on affirmative action, I came around, but I don’t think that’s an accurate characterization.
If someone said, “Oh Glen, you were a neo-con, where are you now?
I’m not sure these labels are important… centrist Democrat? Stephanie, what are you asking me?
I think part of what we’re trying to do is, as we’ve worked on this piece, a lot’s happened in the national conversation about race since we’ve started this project. We’re trying to figure out if you’re still evolving your political beliefs.
I’m trying to tell you, even though I’m not necessarily coming up with a label. I used to think pretty much it was enough to be right about the liberals being wrong. by the time I get to the nineties, that’s not good enough. But I have to tell you that today, as I listen to these recycled and you know… I feel like I’m still back in the 1980s sometimes when I listen to the kinds of arguments people are making. Or I pick up the manifesto of the Black Lives Matter consortium, and I look through the list of demands about this or about that. Or read read Ta Nehisi Coates, or Jelani Cobb or Charles Blow or somebody like that. I feel like I’m back in the 1980s thinking these people are idiots! I wouldn’t wanna be quoted saying that necessarily, although I don’t really care. I don’t really care! They’re probably not idiots, but my reaction is, my God! Look at the level of this arguments!
Does anybody really believe this? Does anybody really believe that the greater threat to the integrity of the black body are rogue police offers shooting people down because they’re unarmed and the police officers get their jollies shooting people?
Or, that these police are deployed, in the numbers that they are in the situations that they are in, coming into contact with African American men, some of whom are armed and some of whom are not, has mainly to do with the disorder in those communities which constitute a first order threat to the quality of life of the people who have to live there day in day out? Just count the bodies as they pile up on the street.
Does anybody believe the fact that there are not enough blacks at Caltech or MIT is because those institutions are not open and inclusive? They they’re excluding people of color? Maybe it has something to do with the acquisition of mastery over the technical curriculum that is the lifeblood of innovation in the 21st century. All you have to say to the fact that blacks are not acquiring that level of expertise in comparable numbers, is to wave the bloody shirt of racism? You’re an idiot!
I mean, that’s how I’m sometimes thinking today. So I don’t know if I’m answering your question or not. Sometimes I feel like I haven’t gotten off of square one, when I circle back — are you really gonna tell me Rahm Emanuel is planning to give a speech in which he says, “I’ve been to funeral after funeral after funeral of these guys killed in gang violence in my city, and I don’t see any fathers. I don’t see any fathers in their lives — this is Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago. “Father absence and neglect of children is an important part of the story of violence in my city,” that’s what he wants to say. He’s already been criticized and a ton of bricks is going to fall on him when he gives that speech. How dare he, a white man, say anything about the integrity of the black family? Seventy percent of African American children are born to women who are not wed at the time of the birth. Even a sociologist should be able to understand that that’s pathological.
So this is Glenn Loury in 2016, you’re going to tell me it doesn’t matter if mothers and fathers are together when they’re trying to bring children into this world? I don’t believe that, I don’t believe that for a minute and I frankly doubt that the people who are saying it believe it.
I’ve got a couple thoughts. And I’m glad you went there because this is all stuff that we wanted to ask you about and you touched on almost all of it in this moment. Let me just throw this out there and I’ll have you react to it how you want. And I’m just speaking for myself, when I hear you talking about police shooting in particular… The police shootings are obviously the most outrageous thing you can get people behind in order to sort of also talk about the bigger issues. That’s why when I hear people talk about difference between “all lives matter” versus Black Lives Matter, I get why saying “black lives matter” is important because it’s about the bigger message and about getting attention. And I’m curious to how you respond to some of these thoughts.
Um, here’s what I think. We’re in 2016. I mean we’re already one sixth into the 21st century. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. That was more than a half century ago. I mean it’s a long time, okay. Now we’re still talking about people who are native born American citizens, for whom every opportunity in this society that immigrants struggle to get here to avail themselves of, is pretty much open. But still, a third to 40 percent of that community languishes. We don’t have anything better to say about that than to repeat the same tropes about racism, bigotry and exclusion, about people embracing confederate flags, about them being alt-right ultra nationalist, Ku Klux Klan, etc. etc. Those are avoidance of the actual reality. And the failures in African American society — for which there is plenty of historical explanation, but they’re failures nonetheless, they are failures — can’t be even called that. It has to be someone else’s problem.
So, yeah, Black Lives Matter is successful at calling attention to certain injustices and certainly there are injustices, there’s not any doubt about that. But I’m struck by how many of these cities are actually run by black people. I’m struck by how frequently the cops who are the bad acting cops, are black people. The police commissioners in many of these cities. The President of the United States, the Attorney General of the United States, and so on. So I’m like, you wanna make a point? You wanna draw attention to something? I’m not impressed with that anymore. Sorry I’m rambling Brendan, I think I need to…
I guess when you say, “Yeah there are black folks in power now too,” That doesn’t change the system, that doesn’t change the long-standing inequities that are built into the system that we have. And I feel like the conversation about race has shifted more to the kind of conversation you’re talking about in terms of people are now more aware of systemic and institutional forms of racism. The kinds of things that lead to the structural problems that you’re interested in, that you’re exploring.
Yeah… but. The but is, while we’re waiting to reformulate and restructure a system and there are a lot of things that can be put on the table to be indicted here. Capitalism would be one of them. While we’re waiting to restructure and reform the system, the world is moving on, willy nilly. It’s being transformed right before our very eyes. This is the 21st century and time is moving on and this lament, to be content with a lament, that the system is rigged… Yeah, but even if it is, that’s the hand you’ve been dealt. Are you gonna play it or what? Are you gonna sit back and wait?
And by the way, you’re empowering white people when you lapse into this posture of waving this bloody shirt of racism.
Can you explain?
Yes, I can explain that very clearly I think. You know, the Black Lives Matter consortium is putting out this list of demands, saying “We demand this, we demand that.” Well, how do you think anything is gonna happen? It would happen if by your getting the attention — you shut down traffic on the interstate. Okay so now we’ve got the attention of people, and we press our demands, we’re disruptive.
It is presumably because they — that is the powers that be, the politicians and ultimately the voters themselves — are gonna acquiesce to your demands. They will be moved to do something different. So now guess what? They become actors. They become morally responsible agents and we imbue them with the power to make our lives better. Whereas about ourselves, we’re saying everything negative that you see about African American life is somebody else’s fault. We’re puppets at the end of the string, dangling there, subject to all the historical forces that blow us this way or that, waiting to be made whole.
I mean, reparations. Think about that argument. “We demand reparations for slavery.” That argument is morally infantilizing for black people. It makes white people moral agents that can or cannot grant reparations. It makes black people baubles at the end of a string, waiting to be pulled up by their morally superior white brethren.
We don’t have the capacity to make our own futures? Really? I don’t think that’s the history of ethnicity in America, in fact I think if we were prepared to get out of our bloody shirt waving business and get serious about examining our history we would find that African Americans are not the first, or only people to be shunted to the margins of society, to be spat upon by history. And we would find that almost to a group, the way people overcome such insurgency is through their own effort, not through petitioning their own oppressors to be made whole.
But that sounds to me like a pretty conservative bootstrapping idea.
That last little bit of the speech was a pretty conservative bootstrapping thing. You heard what I read earlier so you gotta put that in the mix. But yeah. I am what I am.
And as I steel myself engaging more vigorously arguments about these things. The role that I want to play now today in 2016, as I address these issues in the last part of my life is a role I play for my country. The people, if I say it, my people now are the American people, they’re not just the African American people.
I’m an American. I’m an American here in the 21st century. It’s my country that I’m concerned about.
Nick van der Kolk, Host & Director
Stephanie Lepp, Producer
Brendan Baker, Producer