Nation of Jailers

May 23rd, 2008

Your profile of economics professor Glenn Loury raises questions about the extent of racism in the criminal justice system, as well as about alternative explanations for high incarceration rates for blacks, specifically poverty ("A Nation of Jailers").

If more blacks than whites in this country live in poverty and if most crimes such as theft, drug abuse, and assault are motivated at least in part by poverty, and if public defenders aren't as effective as more expensive private defense attorneys, couldn't a greater incarceration rate for blacks be more attributable to poverty than to racism? How do the incarceration rates of young white men living in poverty and young black men living in poverty compare?

Keith Winnard '73
Berkeley, Calif.


In the matter of allegedly undue incarceration of black men, is it barely possible (all rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding) that there is a correlation between the increase in incarceration rates of black men and the drastic decline of crime rates? "If you do the crime, you do the time."

Jack Campbell '48
Hardwick, Mass.


Could it possibly be that the falling crime rates in the last decade are the result, at least in part, of higher incarceration rates of the people who commit crimes?

This would explain Professor Loury's paradox of lower crime rates and higher rates of incarceration. Or is it Loury's contention that there are a significant number of people being placed in prisons who did not commit the crimes for which they were convicted? If so, no evidence is contained in the article.

There is no doubt that a terrible plague of crime has disproportionately afflicted African American communities for many years. The victims of these crimes are also primarily African Americans, and they are far more deserving of our compassion and protection than are the perpetrators. It is very unfortunate that Loury simply cries "racism" without providing any data at all to support this claim.

Steve Schwartz '79
Los Angeles


Glenn Loury's constantly evolving recombinant racial and religious theosophy is nothing short of miraculous. However, one cannot help but be tempted to answer the incendiary (if perhaps rhetorical to the "liberal" ethnographic canon) question posed on the lower cover of the March/April BAM.

Even today Loury decries but asserts a pathological tendency to violent criminal behavior among American black males, and the acceptance of petty crime by "church ladies with big hats." Unless there is evidence of affirmative action admissions policies having been adopted by the criminal justice system, I don't think a PhD from MIT is required to solve the conundrum: The answer to the declining crime rates could possibly be the incarceration of the criminals (75 percent of them white). That leaves unchanged the challenge of addressing the causes of the disease, but not the scientifically vapid and morally bankrupt revisionist socioeconomic "therapy" seemingly at work here.

Mike Offit '78
New York City


The question posed on the March/April cover confuses cause and effect: are crime rates down because the number of incarcerated black men has doubled every recent decade?

The article fails to identify what is new about this racial bias. Targeted imprisonment of black men is as old as Reconstruction. The article fails to summarize the costs of this "new racism." Nor does the article make clear why the reader should be interested in the moral, legal, intellectual, and religious meanderings of Professor Loury. As an economist, I can only infer that the article did the professor a disservice. What are editors for?

John Karlik
Bethesda, Md.

The writer is a Brown parent.


Loury's own life story sinks his theory of new racism. I think many of us are tired of the excuses that people make for their own shortcomings, lack of achievement, or even criminal behavior. If social capital were the real issue, or if our society's desire for incarceration is so great, then Loury should be another incarcerated, black high school dropout; instead he is a distinguished professor at Brown.

I would argue that despite his disruptive behavior, Loury succeeded because of his own hard work and intelligence. In my opinion, the real crisis of our society is the destruction of the family unit. To the chagrin of feminists and liberals, numerous studies have shown that the best foundation for success begins in married two-parent households.

Unfortunately, a stable household is the social capital so many blacks lack. That disadvantage seems to rest squarely on the shoulders of black men. By that yardstick, Loury, who according to the article has fathered children by three different women (several out of wedlock) is just as much to blame as the racist society he condemns. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

George Deckey '84
Yuma, Ariz.


It was serendipity when the March/ April BAM arrived in my mailbox at the same time as the spring edition of City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute. The Brown cover highlights Glenn Loury, who believes that one of our nation's "gravest injustices" is the number of black men being sent to prison. His theories, if you can call them that, are a rehash of the mewling of the 1960s and is nothing less than that old and worn diversion called "victimization," which has paralyzed our minorities for years.

In City Journal, Heather MacDonald's article, "Is the Criminal Justice System Racist?" is replete with statistics that seem to have escaped Loury. "The race industry and its elite enablers take it as self evident that high black incarceration rates result from discrimination," MacDonald writes and the "favorite culprits for high black prison rates include a biased legal system, draconian drug enforcement, and even prison itself." But, she continues: "None of these explanations stands up to scrutiny. The black incarceration rate is overwhelmingly a function of black crime. Insisting otherwise only worsens black alienation and further defers a real solution to the black crime problem."

I have spent a lifetime in and around the criminal justice system in New York City and I have witnessed few, if any, instances where defendants were treated differently because of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. Loury's own experiences as a drug abuser, where charges were dropped so he could enter rehab and thus change his life, seem to have been lost on him in his new role as an attack dog against the court system.

Finally, I think your author should have done more research so that her article on Loury would have been a bit more journalistically critical.

Sidney Baumgarten '54
New York City


Professor of Economics Glenn Loury replies:

Several summers ago, I took some time to read the nonfiction writings of Leo Tolstoy. What struck me most was Tolstoy's provocative claim that the core of Christianity lies in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount: You see that other fellow committing some terrible sin? Well, Jesus preaches, if you have ever lusted, or allowed jealousy or envy or hatred to enter your own heart, then you are to be equally condemned! This, Tolstoy claimed, is the central teaching of the Christian faith: namely, that we're all in the same fix!

That is, while the behavioral pathologies and cultural threats that we see in society—the moral erosions "out there," the crime, drug addiction, sexually transmitted disease, idleness, violence, and all manner of deviance—while these are worrisome, our moral crusade against these evils can nevertheless take on a pathological dimension of its own. We can become self-righteous, legalistic, ungenerous, stiff-necked, and hypocritical. We can fail to see the mote in our own eye. We can blind ourselves to the close relationship that actually exists between, on the one hand, behavioral pathology in the so-called urban underclass of our country and, on the other hand, society-wide factors such as our greed-driven economy, our media-encouraged worship of the self, our endemic culture of materialism, our vacuous political discourses, our declining civic engagement, and our aversion to sacrificing private gain on behalf of much needed social investments. We can fail to see, in other words, that many of the problems which we most vociferously decry are but an expression, at the bottom of the social hierarchy, of a more profound and widespread moral deviance—one that involves all of us.

No, I am not a moral relativist. But just take a look at what we have wrought: We Americans have established what, to many an outside observer, looks like a system of racial caste in the center of our great cities. I refer here to millions of stigmatized, feared, and invisible people. We hold two million souls under lock and key on any given day, half of whom are black. A third of black children live in poverty. By age twenty, black Americans can expect to live lives that are 10 percent shorter than those of whites. One can go on and on with these statistics.

And, of course, it is not only blacks who suffer. Still, the extent of disparity in the opportunity to achieve their full human potential, as between the children of the middle class and the children of the disadvantaged—a disparity that one takes for granted in America—is virtually unrivaled elsewhere in the industrial, advanced, civilized, free world. When I travel and lecture abroad on these problems, people are invariably appalled to learn of what happens daily in the United States.

Too many Americans have concluded, in effect, that those languishing at the margins of our society are simply reaping what they have sown. Their suffering is seen as having nothing to do with us, as not reflecting systemic failures that might be corrected through political action. We have virtually given up on the ideal of rehabilitating criminals and have settled for warehousing them. We accept, despite much rhetoric to the contrary, that it is virtually impossible effectively to educate the children of the poor. A central feature of the problem here is that the socially marginal are not seen as belonging to the same general public body as the rest of us. At least implicitly, our political community acts as though some are different from the rest and, because of their culture—because of their bad values, their self-destructive behavior, their malfeasance, their criminality, their lack of responsibility, their unwillingness to engage in hard work—they deserve their fate.

This is, I must insist, a profound moral error.

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May/June 2008