Welcome. Recently I have been recommending a video of the week at the end of the blog. This week the video takes centre stage. It is Glenn Loury speaking on ‘Race in America – The Black Family’ (from October 2020; 26 minutes). Do try to watch it in conjunction with this blog.
As a non-black, non-American I rate Loury highly. Am I right? I would value hearing your views.
Glenn Loury on ‘Race in America: The Black Family’
Loury is Professor of Economics at Brown University, following a distinguished career at Harvard. He is one of the leading conservative black intellectuals in the USA. He does a weekly video ‘The Glenn Show’ discussing topics mainly to do with race, often in relaxed discussion with John McWhorter, a professor of Linguistics in New York, and a fellow black conservative. As such, his views are in strong contra-distinction to writers such as Ibram X Kendi and TaNehisi Coates, who in Britain are often taken to be the authoratative and authentic voices of black America.
Loury came from a working-class black family on Chicago’s South Side. He had a chequered early academic career, eventually graduating in mathematics, and then becoming a stellar economist at Harvard, whilst moving left-to-right in his thinking. His religious journey is also interesting. After his career was disrupted by scandal, he experienced conversion, became a member of the African Methodist Episcopal church, and was a high profile Christian. Recently however in a discussion with Cornell West (my first video of the week recommendation) he described himself as apostate, referencing particularly problems in believing in a physical resurrection of Jesus.
In his discussion of ‘Race in America: The Black Family’, there are four areas that Loury focusses on that I want to give attention to.
1. ‘Bias Narrative’ or ‘Development Narrative’
For Loury this is the central issue. The Bias Narrative attributes black disadvantage and negative disparities to the operations of a white-controlled society. Consequently the only route to racial justice is to address racism, particularly racism as it functions ‘systemically’ in the economies, values and assumptions of a racialised society. Loury does not pit the Development Narrative as the polar opposite of this; rather he recognises the reality of continuing racism in America, but stresses that (contrary to Coates or Kendi) this is not the whole picture, and that weaknesses in ‘development’ - the way children are nurtured and enabled to develop their potential - is a central, though controversial, element in black under-achievement.
There are clear parallels here with the ‘Sewell versus Runnymede’ debate in this country (see my blog 40) with Runnymede seeing disparities as entirely the consequence of the racism structured into our society; Sewell arguing for a much more complex interplay of factors, including family formation. “This is not about allocating blame, but simply pointing out that children require both time and resources, and that is more likely to be available when both parents play an active role in their upbringing. Governments can not remain neutral here. We would urge the government to investigate this issue further and look at initiatives that prevent family breakdown” (Sewell p 42). In fact, Sewell is less up-front than Loury in stressing the seriousness of absentee fathers; possibly not wanting to stoke the fires of controversy even higher. Possibly, too, he trimmed the Report to please his Conservative Government taskmasters, not by downplaying the reality of systemic racism but by not facing them with the damage being done by unstable family relationships.
Life is always simpler when phenomena have only one cause. Support for anti-racism, appeals for racial justice, ascribing blame to white supremacy are all possible with much greater clarity, vigour and moral force when the cause is squarely laid at the feet of white racism. But if this is not the sole cause, if racial disparity is rooted in a more complex set of factors, then the simplistic narrative simply hinders an effective response. As racial disparities continue, as the expected ‘racial justice’ fails to materialise, then the solutions are either to double-down on accusations of unspecified systemic racism, or to think again and be prepared to bring a wider range of factors into play.
To be fair to the bias narrative it has produced substantial advances. The Black Lives Matter protests, and such gestures as footballers taking the knee has drawn attention to the injustices suffered by black people and caused rightful self-questioning amongst white people. Racist statements are increasingly rare, and racist attitudes (as, say, over inter-racial marriages) increasingly uncommon.
And yet, what will happen if the elimination of racial disparities is a mirage that forever lies upon the horizon and in reality remains elusive? For Loury that will forever remain the case until the force of the ‘Development Narrative’ is recognised, and expectations become shaped by recognising the hindrances to peoples’ social development, notably the absence of stable two-parent nurturing, especially in the early years.
2. ‘Social Capital’.
Loury claims to have created the phrase in his early years aa a Harvard economist. Central is belief in the ‘priority of social relations over economic transactions’. Thus the well-being of society, and ethnic groups within that society, grows primarily from the way that relationships, especially in the family, nurture qualities such as mutual respect, self-confidence, discipline, or hard work which enable people to mature, form stable enduring relationships and carry out tasks effectively. These qualities are not innate. They are formed in the crucible of particular cultures. The consequence is diversity of outcome. In so far as any ethnic group is effective in nurturing them then there is a strong likelihood that such ethnic groups will prosper in a society, even despite the possibilities of strong ethnic or religious discrimination working against them.
So why in Britain have, say, Bangladeshis been more successful educationally than black Caribbean children, despite both being drawn from largely similar low paid employment, migrant communities (see Sewell table on p 58)? Especially given that Bangladeshis, alongside shared experience of racism, have had the additional difficulties of religious, linguistic and cultural distinctives. It is inadequate, as the Runnymede Report does, to remain silent on such questions. Rather the answer that obviously presents itself is differences in the development of social capital. Whilst western liberals considering South Asian cultures may prefer to give negative attention to the pressures of religious conformity, intense parental expectation, and the surrounding honour/shame culture, these are in fact part of the matrix that generate greater educational achievement and career success.
In traditional British society social capital was generated fairly unconsciously through family life and a positive attitude to education, leading to a relatively high level of social mobility. By contrast, with the decline in stable family life, particularly amongst working class people – both white and black – the deposit of social capital has been eroded, and upward social mobility declined.
Loury raises the controversial question of why since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s black people had not enjoyed the successful outcomes hoped for, referencing the argument of the 1965 Moynahan Report that improvement was unlikely given that 25% of black families lacked a husband. The figure is now 70%. Some explanation needs to be given of how in the two decades before 1965 black people made considerable economic and political progress despite entrenched and often violent white racism; in the years since in a more benign context this has slowed down considerably. For Black Lives Matter this is because the tentacles of racism are still so deeply entwined in American life that progress continues to be choked. Thus much deeper rooted, indeed revolutionary change in the system is required, of which defunding the police is but a first step. For Loury it is primarily the proliferating of ‘counter productive patterns of behaviour’ that is the culprit.
3. Patterns of Family Life.
‘Inequality is to some degree a consequence of failure or dysfunction in the family lives of black people’ is Loury’s conclusion – one that he recognises is so highly contentious and widely unwelcome that commentators have been ‘wary’ of sounding so ‘judgemental’.
In the British context a not dissimilar assessment is made by the Guyanese-born psychotherapist Barbara Fletchman Smith: “Where there is single parenting not supported by a well-functioning extended family, there are more likely to be mental health issues. There is also likely to be ongoing issues around authority: who carries it, who can exercise it safely, and whether males can be trusted to wield it over women, or whether they can be trusted to provide care for women and children” (in ‘Transcending the Legacies of Slavery: a Psychoanalytic View’, 2011, p 107). In an earlier book (‘Mental Slavery: Psychoanalytic Studies of Caribbean People’, 2000) Fletchman Smith, like Loury, recognises this is dangerous ground: “In a climate in which racism thrives, one runs the risk of ‘singling out’ this group of people as a ‘problem’. However this is a risk I am prepared to take” (p 15).
The evidence is overwhelming that the first few years of a person’s life have very powerful consequences, where disruptive parental relationships, the absence of a male father figure, or the sheer exhaustion of a mother who is forced to work to make ends meet as well as care for her small children, deprive the infant of the close loving attention that generates inner development, and which gives a good expectation that their adult years will be stable and positive. Fletchman Smith comments critically: “Sadly, female policy makers who devalue the richness of being mothered by one’s own mother are in the vanguard of making a new society in which there is to be ‘freedom’ for women through the exploitation of poorer women and the neglect of their children” (2011, p 42); illustrating the argument of my previous blog # 47 on the racism of anti-racism, that liberal middle-class white policies so often work against the well-being of working class black people.
The situation in both Britain and the USA where now over 70% of black children spend their earliest years without the secure presence of a father is beyond the power of any state to remedy, unless as Loury has ironically remarked elsewhere you have a totalitarian regime which claims control over a child from their moment of birth.
4. What can be done?
The continuing legacy of slavery on family life is disputed. Writers such as Thomas Sowell have pointed out that in the early twentieth century in the USA family formation was more stable amongst black families than whites. Nonetheless it is arguable that the subsequent fragility which we now see on both sides of the Atlantic is rooted in the traumatic impact of centuries of slavery not only on the institution of marriage but also on the underlying fabric of relationships. Thus, “There are of course, also powerful social and economic legacies of slavery. But the legacy that overwhelms all others is the disturbance of couple formation (coupling between adults and between mother and child). Its consequence is fragility in the area of family formation and maintenance” (Fletchman Smith, 2011, p 106). Thereby illustrating Loury’s emphasis on ‘the priority of social relations over economic transactions’.
We live with the consequences of the evil, brutality and sin of the enslavers. In assessing the case for Reparations for Slavery (which I intend to address in the future) it is the social consequences that need to be set down alongside (and bigger than?) the economic consequences
Loury is careful to point out that these are problems of our society, not just of those who are the victims of unstable family lives. He specifies two areas. One is welfare policy. As an American conservative economist he believes that state welfare is a damaging undermining of responsibility, and continuing commitment to the well-being of your family. I don’t have the economist’s expertise to evaluate how the benefits and damages of Britain’s far more positive attitude to welfare play out. Yesterday’s increase of the national minimum wage (an abomination to black conservatives such as Loury and Thomas Sowell) indicates government determination here to counter poverty in all ethnic groups (but with black people heavily represented). Certainly poverty is one factor amongst several that destabilise marriages so that government action to alleviate it should be welcomed as positive for sustaining family life.
The second way in which Loury sees the whole society as being complicit in the destabilising of the black family is the general culture’s attitude to monogamy. Is it mere coincidence that the slowing down of the rate of black progress, along with the acceleration of absentee fathering, happened in the same 1960s decade that saw traditional patterns of faithful monogamy and sexual restraint being abandoned? The changed assumptions and expectations over patterns of sexual behaviour of the past half century have not worked well for black communities in the USA or Britain. Loury rightly refuses to exclusively heap blame on the ‘historically oppressed groups’ for making wrong preferences, and wisely recognises both ‘the mistake of blaming victims and the mistake of looking away from the role the victim might play.’ As regards the responsibility of the whole society, it is notable that the persistence, or even retrieval of marriage has been largely amongst prospering middle classes, yet who are curiously negligent about the damage to family life caused by its casual, but financially profitable devaluing in the media.
All of this faces churches with a double challenge. We need, like Fletchman Smith, to take the ‘risk’ of identifying with the ‘Development Narrative’ and be explicit that the disparities suffered by black communities are not rooted alone in white racism, however elusively systemic it may be held to function, and that the very high level of unstable parenting is a running sore which will continue to damage the averaged-out prospects of the black community, though not of individuals. There is no obvious or direct path of intervention available here, but schools, the media and the churches all need to work at develop pathways to upgrade parenting which directly enhances the developmental needs of children.
The second challenge is to be explicit about the damage wrought by the decline of faithful monogamy in our society, and to recognise that the advocacy of stable sexual and parental relationships is not intrusive and judgemental ecclesiastical moralising, but an essential expression of our service and witness to this society. Churches love to speak of their vocation to ‘speak truth to power’. Overwhelmingly that is seen as speaking through a secular left-liberal window about issues of racial, social, global and environmental justice; all of which is proper, although in our present context now neither unexpected, nor controversial, nor risky. By contrast, speaking the truth that the well-being of our society, especially for the poor, and especially black people, involves rebuking the implicit devaluing of faithful marriage and the casual acceptance of infidelity in our media and national life. Adele is unreproved for explaining on record to her son why his pain at his parents’ divorce ranked less than her own self-fulfillment. The nation elected a Prime Minister who has no commitment to permanence in marriage or fathering. Loury would see these as examples of the society wide devaluing of monogamy and paternal responsibility which lies at the centre of black America’s continuing travail. Speaking truth to power is never easy. Loury points to an issue where the churches today have a responsibility to retrieve the centrality of stable marriage to our moral order and to make their voices on the matter heard.