A Nation of Jailers

By Beth Schwartzapfel '01 / March / April 2008
March 26th, 2008

Standing in front of a room full of people, Glenn Loury stumbled. It was a rhetorical stumble, not a physical one. It came near the beginning of the first of two Tanner Lectures on Human Values he delivered at Stanford last April: "As it happens," he said, "I have passed through—" he paused briefly, taking a deep breath, "the courtroom, and the jailhouse, on my way to this distinguished podium. 

01.loury.jpg
Mark Ostow
Then he paused again, longer this time, collecting himself before reading the rest of the lecture. Later he recalled the moment: "It was harder for me to say than I realized it was going to be when I wrote it down on the page."

For Loury, the lectures marked an important moment on the long and ongoing trajectory that has joined his lived experience to his scholarship and his politics. Titled "Racial Stigma, Mass Incarceration, and American Values," the lectures brimmed with both moral passion and rigorous analytical scholarship, a combination that has become something of a trademark for him. The lectures asserted that the number of black men incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails—a number wildly disproportionate to their representation in the general population—reflects the social dishonor to which African Americans are still subject today, a dishonor with roots in U.S. slavery.

"We are becoming a nation of jailers, and racist jailers at that," Loury said later in the lecture. "We must ask, in light of our history, whether this is the nation we want to be. And, deciding not, we must then try to do something about it."

Loury has indeed committed himself to doing something about it. In addition to lecturing and writing on the issue, he appeared last year before a U.S. Congressional committee examining the economic costs of the surge in the nation's prison population. The issue has propelled Loury back into the role of public intellectual, a role he has flirted with through much of his career. As an economist, his work is to crunch numbers, but what the numbers have revealed to him has triggered his moral outrage. Loury makes no apologies for his attempts to "reach beyond science and, within the limits of my abilities, to address deeper questions." Unlike many of his academic colleagues, who after earning their PhDs obtain stable professorships and address their peers in scholarly journals, Loury's journey to Brown and the issue of prisons has taken unlikely twists and turns. It has involved not just the courthouse and the jailhouse, but years as a conservative pundit. It has included a religious rebirth followed by a repudiation of that religion, and now has brought him to the far left of the political spectrum.

The oldest of two children, Glenn Cartman Loury grew up on Chicago's South Side in the 1950s and 60s. Although the neighborhood was rough, Loury's family was comfortable enough. His father was a high-level administrator with the Internal Revenue Service and his mother a secretary with the Veterans Administration. He had cousins who were doctors and lawyers but, he recalls, he also had relatives and neighbors caught up in illegal activity.

The sociologist Elijah Anderson has described two broad categories of social orientation in inner cities: "decent families," who tend to be working poor (rather than unemployed) and who value self-reliance, hard work, education, and church; and "street families," who turn to lawlessness to make ends meet and violence to settle conflicts. Loury's family had a little of both, sometimes in a single person. "I'm talking about my uncle Mooney," Loury says. "He was a legitimate small businessman but also sold marijuana out the back of his barbershop, routinely. I'm talking about my great Aunt Candy, and Aunt Rosetta, who fenced stolen goods as a regular course of events. They had young women who were shoplifting clothing and foodstuffs from retailers, and they would get twenty cents or thirty cents on the dollar from my aunts, who then had big freezers in the basement. So that whenever you wanted to have a family thing, you knew that you didn't go and buy your ham and your turkey from the Stop & Shop. You went to Aunt Candy or Aunt Rosetta." When Loury gets excited telling these family stories, his voice clicks up a register or two. "These are church ladies with big hats!" he says. "They were salt of the earth, these people! But that's what they did."

One's racial identity was of primary importance in Chicago during that period. White flight had turned many of the city's neighborhoods into African American enclaves, and the civil rights and black power movements had fired up black youth, Loury included. In the prologue to his 1995 book of essays, One by One from the Inside Out, Loury tells a moving story about attending "one of those heated, earnest political rallies so typical of the period" with a longtime friend and neighbor, Woody. With two mixed-race parents, Woody looked white, but growing up in a black neighborhood with black friends, he identified as a "brother." When at the rally Woody raised his hand with a suggestion, Loury recalls that "one of the dashiki-clad brothers-in-charge" asked for someone in the audience to "vouch for this white boy." Eighteen-year-old Loury, fearing that "speaking up for Woody would have marked me as a disloyal 'Tom' among the blacker-than-thou crowd," said nothing. Years later, still cringing at his disloyalty, Loury continues to struggle with the issue of what it means to be "authentically black."

Even as his political approach to "the race problem" has veered sharply from left to right to center and back to the left again, Loury's foundational belief has remained consistent. He has always held that race is a "socially constructed mode of human categorization," as he wrote in his 2002 book, The Anatomy of Racial Inequality. The key intellectual innovation in this most recent of his books is the concept of "racial stigma," which he explains this way: "If we believe that people of a different look and hue and shape of face and such are different from us, and we act on that belief, we can create dynamics that make that a fact. Moreover, if we are unaware of how some of these influences bias and influence our conceptions in society, then we can draw conclusions and be very comfortable and set in those conclusions without interrogating them."

A heavyset man of fifty-nine, Loury sports a graying goatee and a presence that, although guarded at first, quickly softens. In conversation, he ranges from the formalized diction of the lecture hall to the chatty, easy way of a friend. He is unwilling to dumb down his opinions or his way of speaking. This has the effect of making people around him strive to be sharper, more well-read, quicker on their toes. He can be cocky, though not obnoxiously so, and his discourse is peppered with the names of his friends in high places.

Loury was an exceptionally bright student in high school, and, after graduating at age sixteen, he entered the Illinois Institute of Technology. But after his girlfriend—whom he later married—gave birth to their daughters, Lisa and then Tammy, Loury dropped out and took at job at a local printing plant. He continued to take night classes at a local junior college. (He also fathered a son, Alden, with another woman around this time.) Soon he had secured a scholarship to Northwestern, where once again he demonstrated great promise, particularly in mathematics and economics. In 1972, divorced from his first wife, he arrived at MIT and quickly became one of the top students in one of the top economics departments in the world.

Loury's 1976 PhD dissertation, "Essays in the Theory of the Distribution of Income," was a rigorous economics-based examination of why, years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, blacks still weren't getting ahead. He put forth a theory of "social capital," asserting that who a person knows—the informal networks and connections that can give one a leg up at everything from jobs to housing—matters at least as much as a person's intelligence or hard work. African Americans had few, if any, such networks. This view of racism as far beyond the simple fix of antidiscrimination laws and perpetuated by an ongoing, self-fulfilling social cycle, has since become one of the hallmarks of the American left and a frequent justification for affirmative action.

Over the next decade, however, Loury's thinking turned right and made him one of affirmative action's most outspoken black critics. He wrote essays and op-eds with such titles as "Beyond Civil Rights" and "Blacks Must Now Fight the Enemy Within," arguing that placing blame for the African American community's problems solely on white America was incorrect and counterproductive. "The bottom stratum of the black community," he wrote in a 1984 article in The New Republic, "has compelling problems which can no longer be blamed solely on white racism, and which force us to confront fundamental failures in black society. The societal disorganization among poor blacks, the lagging academic performance of black students, the disturbingly high rate of black-on-black crime, and the alarming increase in early unwed pregnancies among blacks now loom as the primary obstacles to progress." Personal responsibility became his mantra. Black folks, he said, needed to quit the blame game.

By 1982, when Loury, at age thirty-three, became the first tenured black professor in the Harvard economics department, he had gained a reputation as a brilliant, if ornery, iconoclast. He'd alienated such black leaders as Coretta Scott King and Jesse Jackson with his disdain for what he saw as their outdated approach to problems in the African American community. His intellectual allies were such conservatives as William Kristol and James Q. Wilson, who had the ear of the Reagan administration. By now, Loury was speaking publicly and vociferously against affirmative action. ("By what calculus of fairness can those claiming to be fighting for justice argue that outstanding white students ... should be denied the opportunity for ... education so that minority students who are not prepared for it may nonetheless enroll?" he wrote in "Beyond Civil Rights.") And even as old friends and family back home in Chicago were increasingly disappointed with what they saw as Loury's selling out, he says, "The answer I would give to that was, 'I'm a free thinker, and I go where the ideas lead me, and I'm sorry to disappoint you but I gotta speak the truth.' "

He resented the idea that he need hew to a party line because of his race. "I felt a little bit martyred," he recalls, "because, you know, these people gonna drop a ton of bricks on me just because I have the integrity to say what I think is correct? Because I'm black and I'm at Harvard I'm supposed to be part of some imaginary team that you people are constructing out there to help the race—quote-unquote? So now I've got a chip on my shoulder. You expect me to say something that is beyond the pale. In a way, I need to live up to that expectation. That's now my role. My role is to upset you."

In 1987, Loury's room in what he calls "the house that Reagan built" seemed secured when U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett offered him a position as under-secretary.

Meanwhile, thanks to President Reagan's War on Drugs and the generation of tough-on-crime policies that followed, Americans in general, and black men in particular, began going to prison in increasingly large numbers. "Two decades ago, it is fair to say, America faced a violent crime problem," Loury said in his Tanner Lectures. "This was a time when drive-by shootings and drug-deals-gone-violently-bad were common fare on local news, when the War on Drugs was taken to a new level, and 'gangsta' rap was born."

But, Loury now believes, like the drug use the incarceration boom was supposed to lessen, incarceration itself became an addiction. Once the United States began turning to lockup as the solution for a growing list of what had previously been considered social, not criminal, ills, it couldn't stop. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of people in U.S. prisons more than doubled. Although the rate of violent crime peaked in the early 1990s and has been declining ever since, between 1990 and 2000, incarceration rates nearly doubled again. Today, at least 1.6 million people are incarcerated in U.S. prisons. Include people on probation and parole, and the number jumps to more than seven million. According to a recent report from the Pew Center on the States, one of every 100 adults in the United States is behind bars—the highest incarceration rate in the world. As Loury points out in his Tanner lectures, Americans account for 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of its inmates.

"Today, fifteen years after crime peaked, the American prison system has become a leviathan unmatched in human history," he said. "Never has a supposedly 'free country' denied basic liberty to so many of its citizens."

The impact on communities of color has been enormous. According to U.S. Department of Justice figures, a black man has a 32 percent chance of entering state or federal prison during his lifetime. If current incarceration rates continue, one of every three black male babies born today will see the inside of a prison cell, a rate more than five times higher than that of white male babies. In many inner-city neighborhoods, a stint in prison is as much a rite of passage as graduation from high school. The effects of these incarcerations are not confined to the prison walls. More than half of state and federal inmates are parents of minor children; according to DOJ, black children are nearly nine times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison. Finding work for any person with a criminal conviction is already a challenge; for an African-American, that challenge can be almost insurmountable.

Prisoner statistics, Loury said in his Tanner lectures, tell only part of the story:

No cost-benefit analysis of our world-historic prison build-up over the past thirty-five years is possible without specifying how one should reckon in the calculation the pain being imposed on the persons imprisoned, their families and their communities. How to value this aspect of policy is, to my mind, a salient ethical issue. Punishment politics, it seems to me, invariably discounts the humanity of the thieves, drug sellers, prostitutes, rapists and, yes, of those whom we unceremoniously put to death. It should be clear that social science has no answers for the question of what weight to put on a "thug's" wellbeing, or on that of his wife or his daughter and son. Nor can Science tell us how much additional cost borne by the offending class can be justified in order to obtain a given increment in security of life and property—or in peace of mind—for the rest of us.

When Loury says "the rest of us," he includes himself in his audience of well-off academic peers. He is in a stable marriage to his second wife, Linda, with whom he is raising two teenage boys in an affluent Boston suburb. Yet in the same passage Loury points out that by virtue of his race, he is "knitted together with offenders in networks of social and psychic affliction." His admission to his audience at the start of the lecture that he had once been behind bars echoes powerfully. In a sense, he is siding with the "thug."

"This was a big deal," says Josh Cohen, a professor of political science and philosophy at Stanford and a friend of Loury. "To be doing these lectures and to be stepping outside of his usual responsibility as an economist to be talking about issues of political morality: it wasn't like there was some bold new moral idea in the lectures, but that's usually not the way moral thinking works. You get yourself worked up about a problem. Then you try to bring it to bear."

Throughout the 1980s, as Loury's professional influence grew, his personal life fell to pieces. By day, he lectured at Harvard alongside some of the top minds in economics and political science; by night, he ventured into housing projects and strip clubs, freebasing cocaine and picking up women. Even as he preached about personal responsibility, he frequented crack houses and nightclubs, where he was not a Harvard professor but just another brother, out looking for a good time.

"I knew how to talk and how to walk, not to seem an obvious mark in such a community so that I would get robbed," he says now. "I wore that as a secret badge of honor. It made me, in some way or another—nutty, nutty, I can't defend this—more authentically black somehow. This is sick, I would say in retrospect. But I believe it's an accurate reflection of what I actually thought in the back of my mind in those years."

Three months after he was offered the position in the Reagan education department, he withdrew his nomination, citing "personal reasons." Days later, a twenty-three-year-old woman named Pamela Foster brought assault charges against him. She was, it turned out, his mistress, living at his expense in a Boston apartment. Although the charges were eventually dropped, she accused Loury of dragging her down a flight of stairs and throwing her belongings out the window. Local newspapers had a field day. Here was a conservative unable to live up to his own gospel of personal responsibility.

"At the time, I guess the way I'd construe it was: what I'm saying is correct," he says now. "Whether I'm doing what's right is another matter. People should take better care of themselves. They should take care of their children, they should be responsible. If I fall short of that, well, there you are."

Loury's problems were far from over. His drug use continued to spiral out of control. His marriage was at its breaking point. Then, towards the end of the year, he was arrested for possession of marijuana and cocaine. Shortly after the scandal with Pamela Foster surfaced, Loury recalls, he remarked to his friend, the evangelical Catholic priest (Loury calls him a "theo-con") Richard Neuhaus, that Martin Luther King and John Kennedy also had mistresses. "If he could have slapped me, he would have," Loury says now. "But he gave me the stern reproach look, the equivalent of a slap in the face. And he said, 'It was a terrible flaw in King. It seriously compromised his effectiveness. And it's a flaw in you as well.'"

A judge agreed to drop the drug charges in exchange for Loury's entering rehab. He emerged, after several months, a changed man.

He was still conservative, but, as one old friend told the Boston Globe, he was a "sensitive conservative." He was also a born-again Christian. He and his wife, Linda, who shortly after Loury returned home from rehab gave birth to their son Glenn Jr., joined the Bethel AME Church. The couple's second son, Nehemiah, named after the Old Testament figure, was born three years later. The church's pastors, civic leaders in Boston, helped the Lourys rebuild their family. "They saved my life," says Loury. "Our children were born into this church. Our marriage was saved there."

In 1991, Loury left Harvard over the protests of his colleagues and joined the faculty at Boston University for a fresh start. Over the following decade, he tried—unsuccessfully, he now says—to straddle the line between his old commitment to conservatism and personal responsibility and his growing awareness of the structural issues preventing black people from achieving full integration in every aspect of American society.

His 1995 book, One by One from the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America, was an attempt to delineate this new, softer position. It contains an essay called "Leadership Failure and the Loyalty Trap," in which he returns to his old frustrations about the "loyalty" that blacks supposedly owe to a particular political ideology. He indicts the black community for, among other things, having "made excuses for and sometimes even glorified the supposedly rebellious actions of thugs" and having made "apologies for the able-bodied, healthy, and intelligent young men who gather children and then walk away from the responsibility to support them."

At the same time, the book is humbler than his previous work, steeped as it is in his new religious beliefs. Its epilogue reads like a searching and personal confession. It also closes with a scathing review of the controversial 1994 book The Bell Curve, which asserts, in part, that a sizable proportion of America's (black) citizenry is simply not smart enough to grasp the nuance of anything less than a hard line on crime and parenthood, among other social ills.

The Bell Curve was one of a series of books published around that time by former friends and colleagues whose approaches to race made Loury increasingly uncomfortable. In 1995 Dinesh D'Souza published The End of Racism, in which he argued, among other things, that slavery was not a racist institution, and that the only reason racism continued to be a problem in the United States is because of such "racist" programs as multiculturalism and affirmative action. Crime and Human Nature, published in 1998 by James Q. Wilson (with whom Loury had, in 1987, co-edited a book) and Richard J. Hernnstein, argued that crime was caused by biological determinants, and that zero-tolerance policing with less emphasis on rehabilitation was the only answer. In 1999 Loury's old friends Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom cheerfully announced, in America in Black and White, that African Americans were doing just fine—better than ever, in fact—and that we should not impede their progress with such wrongheaded programs as affirmative action.

Loury began to speak out against such thinking, at first quietly, and then more forcefully, prompted in part by the chilly reception he received from conservatives for his critiques of their ideas on race. Commentary magazine, whose pages had contained many of his words over the years, refused to run his review of the The Bell Curve. The American Enterprise Institute, with which he'd long been affiliated, refused to repudiate D'Souza, who had written his book while he was a fellow there. Loury resigned in protest.

He also began to take himself to task for all the years he had provided political cover for what he was beginning to construe as thinly veiled racism among his colleagues. At a 1990 conference called Second Thoughts on Race, organized by the neoconservative David Horowitz, he gave a presentation in which he said that his agreement with conservatives on affirmative action "helps you to see your [position] as valid and nonracist. If by some magic I were suddenly to become white, my brilliant, perceptive, and courageous insights would just as suddenly be reduced to pedestrian, commonplace complaints, of little political or personal comfort to you."

Finally, in 1996, Loury reached a turning point. He and his old friend, fellow black conservative Shelby Steele, were assembling donors and board members for their new organization, the Center for New Black Leadership. California's Proposition 209, which proposed an amendment to the state's constitution prohibiting public institutions from considering race, sex, or ethnicity in admissions or hiring decisions, had just been placed on the ballot. The Center's funders wanted Loury and Steele to come out in support of the measure. It should have been a no-brainer. Here was perhaps the most central issue of the era for both conservatives and African Americans, an issue that Loury had not minced words in criticizing over the years. "What is our brand, as black conservatives, if it's not that?" Loury recalls Steele asking him. But he found that he couldn't do it.

"What I said was, 'I'm against affirmative action, but this is over the top.' I tried to split the difference, which was a mistake," he now says. "I was for affirmative action, is what I should have been able to say, but I couldn't quite make myself say it." Instead, he resigned.

It was also around this time that Loury repudiated his religious beliefs. He had many long, searching conversations about his growing doubt with his Christian mentors and friends. He found it increasingly difficult to reconcile his religious beliefs with his faith in rationality and science. But the breaking point came with the death of a bright young woman who had worked as an administrative assistant in his office at Boston University. It had taken her into her thirties to finish college, and she was now pursuing her dream to go to law school. She'd had a wildly successful first year at BU's law school and had made law review when she died, suddenly, of a freak heart infection.

"I'm devastated by the tragedy of this young woman's death," Loury says, describing his feelings at the time. "Don't tell me that this is God's work and he knows better than me. You're just fooling yourself. You're afraid to look down in the abyss." He is still haunted by the image of the young woman's mother, at the funeral, smiling because God must have loved her daughter so much to take her away. "And basically I haven't been back to church since. There was no going back from that."

These days, Loury has found his footing to the left of center. He has repudiated many of his own former positions on public policy, but the core of his beliefs, he insists, was not wrong. It simply lacked context.

"I'm not eschewing personal responsibility," he says. "I don't want to say, a kid goes out and commits a crime, it's society's fault, it's not the kid's fault. The core of the error was a failure to give an appropriate weighting to the communal responsibilities of developing and sustaining a cultural milieu that's supportive of human development. I was loading way too much weight on this autonomous communal capacity—self help and so forth—vis-√†-vis questions like, What's the IRS doing? What are the police doing? How are cities and states organized? And what role does race play within that?"

Loury knows that his changes in position harm his credibility with some peers. Others, however, see his intellectual journey as evidence of his honesty. Economist and former Princeton president William Bowen has been one of Loury's friends and mentors. (Loury wrote the introduction to Bowen's most recent book, The Shape of the River, a defense of affirmative action in higher education.) "When people would accuse Gandhi of being inconsistent," Bowen says, "Gandhi would reply, 'my goal has never been to be consistent with myself from year to year, but to be consistent to the truth as it appears to me.' Really capable people think like that. That takes courage, and I admire it."

Loury arrived at Brown in 2005, after a falling-out with BU's president over funding for his Institute on Race and Social Division. He has thrown himself into the life of the University, serving on the Advisory Committee on Slavery and Justice, instituting a seminar series on race and inequality, and publishing several papers in both economics journals and the popular press. "He is a combination of someone who is an incredible theorist—who can think in terms of economic models in a sophisticated way—but who fundamentally cares about the most important issues of the day," says Andrew Foster, chairman of the economics department. "He's also clearly stimulating research in this area among grad students."

Given his complicated history, Loury has been an easy target for armchair psychoanalysis. A 1995 New Yorker profile speculated that he had turned away from some of his earlier hard-line stances because he was lonely; as a black conservative he didn't really "fit" anywhere. A longtime friend and colleague, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, was quoted in a 2002 New York Times profile as saying that Loury was "overcompensating" by listening to gangsta rap. And yet, even as his most recent crusade is deeply personal in some ways, he remains a consummate social scientist in others, and resents any implication that he is speaking out against racial inequality in mass incarceration as a way to assuage guilt or do penance for his former views.

Josh Cohen, the Stanford professor, recalls an incident during a series of seminars associated with the Tanner lectures. A politically progressive friend of Loury's made a joke about how Loury hadn't moved far enough to the left yet. "He used some sort of therapeutic vocabulary, like 'his treatment isn't quite done yet,'" Cohen recalls. "Glenn responded badly to that, and I agreed with him. He was saying, 'This is a matter of intellectual convictions. We're in this business of argument and analysis. It's really misguided to put this in the language of therapy and cure. It's about changing your mind. About being changed by reason.'"

Beth Schwartzapfel is a BAM contributing editor.

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
March / April 2008