“Maverick”: An interview with Glenn Loury

NOTE: This is an uncorrected complete transcript.

Ravi Shankar Thanks for having me over Glenn. Let’s begin with your recent open letter in support of Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, whom The New Yorker has called “the most powerful black man in America. Reading your letter, which to be fair was not about his jurisprudence, but about the problem of assassinating the character of someone whose opinion we don’t agree with, even going so far as calling him a race traitor and an Uncle Tom. Reading your words immediately made me wonder what it might be like for you as a professor at a place like Brown University. Is it a comfortable space? Do you get pushback from your colleagues and students?”

Glenn Loury I wish I got more. I feel a little bit ignored really. My perspective has always been one of open inquiry. Not just in the case of Justice Thomas, but regarding the larger set of questions about how we talk with each other in public, what's permitted to be said and what's being self-censored as political correctness.

Shankar I don’t know if you saw the recent profile “Looking for Clarence Thomas” written by Mitchell Jackson in Esquire? In it he struggles, as a man of color, with decisions he feels Justice Thomas had made that are not in the best interest of marginalized communities. He wonders aloud: “My god, dude, what the hell happened to you?” And from a neutral perspective, you must admit that Clarence Thomas being the sole dissenter on allowing the presidential records of former President Donald Trump to be transferred to the House Select Committee regarding the January 6th insurrection while his wife Ginny Thomas is simultaneously known to have attended a “stop the steal rally” is ethical suspicious, at bare minimum? Not to mention, that he is a proud literalist and an originalist who believes that the best way to interpret the Constitution is to determine how the Framers intended it to be interpreted, seemingly ignoring the fact that the men who created this document didn’t believe women should have the right to vote and considered blacks chattel slavery at the time.

Loury I'm not competent to speak to the legal ethics question of when a judge should or should not recuse themselves. While I see that there could be a concern there, I don't know that there's something uniquely egregious about the situation. We could investigate the history of people's concerns about justices’ backgrounds; for example, Justice Elaine Kagan served as solicitor general in the Obama administration but had never been a judge before being appointed as a justice. We are in the era of Trump and Ginny Thomas is who she is, a somewhat flamboyant and inflammatory character, who simply happens to be married to a Supreme Court justice.

Shankar How about your students? I can understand many of my students’ visceral reaction to losing what they assumed to be a constitutional right and feeling like there are forces dragging the country backward out of fear. However, by the same token, I understand your distress that college campuses, which we both believe should be the site for contestation, dialogue, dispute, and challenge, have become exceedingly restrictive in the kind of conversations that are sanctioned. In the twenty plus years I’ve been teaching, I’ve found that the academic environment has shifted, and the emphasis now is on creating a safe space of belonging for students and minimizing anything that causes discomfort and could be construed as potentially harmful. Has that been your experience?

Loury Well, first off, the students in my classes are self-selected. I'm not teaching any classes that are requirements. I teach a class in the economics department on race and inequality and a seminar on free inquiry in the modern world. We read classical texts and discuss them, and I put pressure on their prevailing suppositions. And nowhere has anyone suggested that my views about the political issues of the day, if conservative, are unacceptable, injurious, and illegitimate for me to express.  Still, I can't help but think that if I were not black I'd have a much harder time.

Let me be concrete. Let's look at the black family as a social institution. Let’s look at the out-of-wedlock births and the prevalence of single parent families. Let’s look at violence in the inner cities. Sociologists may not readily admit this, but the structure of the family is actually very important for social outcomes. While this is a complex cultural phenomenon under the influence of historical forces and larger economic and social dynamics, they are nonetheless reflective of the internal constitution of the community. Part of our problem regarding the gaps of academic achievement are attributable to what is valued by the black family.

I can say this. But if someone like Amy Wax [the University of Pennsylvania law professor who has seen her academic position come under duress for making inflammatory comments about race and sexuality in the classroom] repeats the same thing, she’s a racist. Part of the racial inequality in this country is not just due to redlining or slavery, or Jim Crow or whatever, but it's also due to cultural patterns that are evident and consequential and divergent across different population aggregates. I repeat this with respect to affirmative action. It’s not 1980 anymore. It’s 2022. We are half a century down the road from the Civil Rights Movement and we have seen progress across the board. I'm not against affirmative action because I think white people or Asian people's feelings are getting hurt. I'm against it because it's not a solution to the underlying problem of any quality. It's a bad thing.

Shankar Because despite the prevailing income disparities along racial lines, affirmative action diminishes expectations and tokenizes its beneficiaries?

Loury Yes, it corrupts institutions because we're not willing to acknowledge the consequences of what we are doing. If you want substantive equality, then you may want to reconsider implementing systems of selection that prefer a population based on race. It’s not that it is racial discrimination in reverse, or unfair to white people. That’s not my argument. If you’re transitioning from a culture of black exclusion, you may want to rely upon some preferential methods as a temporary, stop-gap mechanism. However, ultimately, we cannot ignore the underlying fundamental developmental deficits that are causing these inequalities. Using preferential selection criteria is a cover up for the consequences of the historical failure to develop African American performance fully. It’s fake equality.

Shankar One thing I really appreciate about you Glenn is that you are willing to take an unpopular stance and defend it with logic. You seem to believe that identity politics run amok has driven us apart, rather than providing a platform of equity and despite what others may have inferred about you, I sense a deep humanism and even a tentative optimism in your work. Is that part of the case you are making for black patriotism? I believe you mean this differently than James Baldwin who said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” You seem to have a more sympathetic view of patriotism.  

Loury Look—here we are. We’re African Americans but we are Americans first. We are not African in any way that’s meaningful. The United Nations, the International Court of Justice, these entities are not going to be involved in adjudicating whatever concerns we have about how we fare in American society. That is a matter that must be worked out within the context of American politics. Yes, our ancestors may have been enslaved, but they were also emancipated. The arc of history is built in such a manner that we who descend from enslaved persons are free and equal citizens of a rich and powerful Republic. This is our home. We must make peace with it. I grew up in a time in the 1960s when there was a lot of talk about separatism. Afro-nationalism.  The grandchild of Marcus Garvey in the exhortations of black Muslims. I'm from Chicago, which was the headquarters for the movement for the Republic of New Africa. Seceding from America? That's fanciful. Not real politics. It's a self-indulgent pipe dream. We are literally the richest and most powerful people of African descent on the entire planet. We have ten times the income on average of the typical Nigerian. There’s an enormous black middle class and black billionaires. Woke racialism claims the American Dream doesn’t apply to blacks, which is a patronizing lie that robs us of agency and authenticity and self-determination and dignity. It doesn’t acknowledge that we possess the ability to rise to meet our challenges and carry the torch of freedom. Instead, we are construed as victims.

I understand the suspicion of my critics who claim that my argument acknowledges how white Europeans stole our labor, and then begrudgingly incorporated us into this behemoth of capitalism, and now we’re supposed to be grateful. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying be realistic about where you stand in history. I realize that it was a provocative intervention, but it was generated to a certain degree by the context. I wrote that piece in the summer of 2020, which saw calls to “defund the police,” and white supremacist this, that, and the other. I think it’s really a kind of political immaturity not to accept and affirm the reality of our situation, which is, yes, that we are, first and foremost, Americans.  

Shankar Then would you buy into the narrative of American exceptionalism? That there's something about our collective democratic experiment that makes this country somehow both different and perhaps categorically better?

Loury The latter, I would be very cautious about and overall, I'd be very reluctant to use the language of American exceptionalism, although I must tell you that I was just the recipient for the 2022 Bradley Prize, granted by a conservative foundation that’s been around for a while. I received the prize along with Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese dissident who’s been inveighing against the depredations of the Chinese Communist Party, and a historian Hillsdale College Wilfred McClay who has written about American political history and culture. The prize is meant to go to scholars who further American exceptionalism, which is why I mention it.

Listen, I would never be a chest thumping, jingoistic, flag waving, America's-the-greatest-civilization-that-has-ever-existed blowhard. America is the Vietnam War and capitalism run amok. Certainly, there are legitimate critiques that could be made about our foreign and domestic policies. However, I wouldn't be shy about affirming the greatness of the American civilization, or the unique contribution to political culture and history, which was the formation of the United States of America at the end of the 18th century. The ratification of the Constitution and the framing of the structures of government here are remarkable and we can observe that when people get to vote with their feet and move around, they don’t mind coming here. A lot of immigrants arrive here and prosper, wave after wave after wave, which I put forth as tangible proof of the virtue and value of this civilization. In asserting that, I am in no way blinding myself to the critical reaction assessment. I’m open to discussion about all these things.

Shankar What’s problematic for me are the illusions and elisions and coercions and inaccuracies that go into sustaining this myth. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson used the model of consensus governance and the exemplar of a written constitution taken from the over 800-year history of the Iroquois in framing their own drafts of the United States constitution. And in India, where my parents emigrated from, there was a functional participatory democracy in the eastern province of Bihar as early as 6th century B.C. Yet somehow, we consider ourselves the unique inhabitants of the “shining city on the hill” as everyone from 17th century Puritan governor John Winthrop to former president Ronald Regan put it. I see an inability to think critically and empathetically, to evolve by acknowledging our collective missteps and shared responsibility in the perpetuation of that myth.

Loury Fair enough.

Shankar My perspective is also colored by the experience of my father, who immigrated here in the mid-1960’s; as you know, we’ve had a raft of discriminatory immigration policies in our country, from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act to the Immigration Act of 1924, which used eugenics to justify restrictions on Asian immigration. It was not until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that someone like my father was allowed to come to America at all and that was only because he was studying to be a mechanical engineer at Howard University—it’s funny, but as a child, I used to think it was Harvard, but no, he was one of the few Asian students at Howard. He’s not a gregarious man and doesn’t talk much about that time but I’ve often wondered what it must have been like for him to move from India to a country where he believed the streets were paved with gold, instead ending up in Washington DC during the middle of the Civil Rights movement. He was there when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and there were the riots, and the National Guard was sent in and buildings all around him were being burned down. I imagine his trip in my memoir, as well as my mother who had an arranged marriage to my father, and left everyone she knew—friends, family, colleagues—to move halfway across the world to live with this stranger who was now her husband. It’s a common immigrant story but it still boggles my mind to imagine that journey.

And speaking of India, I think of how for all its chaos and corruption, it is really a vibrant living model of secular democracy (unfortunately being compromised now by Prime Minister Modi and this new zeal for Hindu nationalism). Still where my grandfather grew up in Coimbatore, there was a local election to city council, and I think there were over one hundred candidates on the ballot. It’s messy and overwhelming, but also more reflective of the great range of belief on the political spectrum. I’m curious what you would make of Noam Chomsky’s assertion that in the US, there’s basically one party—the business party—that carries out somewhat different variations on the same policies justified by the mass media? What he calls manufacturing consent.

Loury That happens to be the fervently held position of the lovely lady I’m married to now. We go back and forth—she claims that all the culture war kerfuffle is just deep cover for the common consensus affirmation of the structure of society where the wealthy and corporations get away with low to no taxes, little environmental obligations, etc. And the difference between the Republicans and the Do-Nothing Democrats is thinner than we imagine. That’s her posture—not mine. I’m a staunch defender of capitalism, and I think there’s a correct answer to the question of socialism vs. capitalism. We can fiddle around the edges of our political structures, but I think the arc of history involves the remarkable transformation in the status of human beings, from the increase in longevity to the way the market has allowed us to avoid the awful disasters of famine. Incontestably, we’ve seen a general improvement in the living conditions of the human species, and that is largely a product of initiative, free enterprise, people pursuing private property and following the rule of law. We have a liberal order that works! And we threaten the goose that's laying the golden egg, when, because of the imperfections and inadequacies of the received order, we threaten to throw it all overboard, we’re making a mistake. A prima facie case can be found in the developing world; just look at the natural experiments of North versus South Korea, which in 1950 were basically one country. Or East Germany versus West Germany, and what’s happened around the world since the conclusion of the second world war. By the time you get to our contemporary moment, there’s a dramatic difference in what has happened to those societies. I take scholars like Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson seriously; their book Why Nations Fail explores the beneficial power of the inclusive institutions that maintain a civil border in which free enterprise thrives. This is not capitalism without restraint, not a system of governance without taxes and environmental regulation, not a society without a social safety net, etc. When I look at Scandinavia and Northern Europe, I see capitalist countries with a social democratic framework, but I don't see public ownership of the means of production, I don't see the censorship of media, and those other elements.

Shankar Then, however we choose to define it, we agree that a more empathetic model might be more beneficial to its citizens? Take your example of Scandinavia—there’s a reason that life expectancy and measures of contentment are higher there than in the United States, where our healthcare system is in shambles and there’s rampant inequality. Over the last few years, I had an international research fellowship at the University of Sydney and in that time, I found a lot to appreciate about Australian society. They have universal health care, they pay a living wage, they implemented sensible gun control after a mass shooting, and they have a parliamentary democracy that means that voices like the Green Party are taken seriously. Of course, the country has its problems also—for instance the indigenous population is over policed and overrepresented in the criminal justice system; but when you look at these other models that have a more vigorous and robust social net and less income disparity between its citizens, isn’t that something we should look to as an example?  

Loury Sure, why not? Let’s lay out the pros and cons thereof. I was impressed by a body of research done by Nathan Glazer, the Harvard sociologist, and Edward Glaeser on the survival of the city. They wrote a paper that asks why isn’t there a European-style welfare state in America? First, they argue, many of these societies were more ethnically homogeneous and therefore better able to sustain a political compact of mutuality. We're all in this together. And that race was a bind. In fact, it was a fractional factor that made it more politically difficult to generate consensus around the idea that we're all in this together and it feeds into the fear from the typical voter who may believe that higher taxes and a greater social provision is going to benefit the undeserving who will disproportionately be black. This is one of the arguments and part of the account, although I don't think it explains it fully. But you’re asking why there's no real left party of influence in the United States, which is just another way of saying what you said. There's no real Socialist Party. That is vying for influence over power.

Shankar We may ask if Bernie Sanders really should be a Democrat.

Loury My wife would say no. The Democrats are the lesser of two evils.

Shankar I’m not a political scientist, but we live in a society where there are 27 different kinds of pasta sauce. Why shouldn’t there be more political parties? During the 2016 election, I had an exchange with Gary Johnson, the presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, and Jill Stein, representing the Green Party. They both acknowledged that because of campaign finance—we could point to Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission 2010 decision as exacerbating this point—that there was no chance that their message would be heard. Andrew Yang recently proposed a third political party and he’s been roundly mocked. But isn’t that suppression of perspective anti-democratic?

Loury I don’t have a good answer to that but would extend my earlier remarks to Glaeser’s finding of racial diversity as a primary explanatory factor in accounting for the difference in the expansiveness of the welfare state, in Europe and in the United States. Whereas they point to race. I think that's only part of the story. You just called attention to the structure of our political financing, how campaigns are organized and run in a two-party system and where the money goes and who gets the attention of the press and why we have a winner-take-all system instead of proportional representation.

Shankar Let’s get back to the question of race and mass incarceration, which I know you have done a lot of writing on and which my memoir “Correctional” is about. Why is it that we have 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its incarcerated people? More than North Korea and Iran and China combined. Why are our rates of recidivism so high? How can we ignore the racial disparity in sentencing and how the explosion in prison growth during the last 40 years has been mind-boggling and happening under the gaze of most Americans? I know that we seem to have plateaued but again, this phenomenon seems deeply anti-democratic.

Loury Yes, we have plateaued at the turn of the 21st century. I’ve written about this in a book “Race, Incarceration, and American Values” out with M.I.T. Press. It was based on some lectures I gave at Stanford University in 2007. At that time, I was in a rage about the over-incarceration of African Americans in the United States. I traveled to the Center for prison studies in London, where data has been collected on the incarceration rates for various countries around the world and something like what you just said is true, but there are many ways of saying it. The bottom line is that we rely on the punitive reaction to social disorder to an extent that is unrivaled in world history. Really. These are massive institutions. But I also said that this can’t be the end of the discussion. We need to ask about the root causes and living conditions and family structures of those who have ended up in prison.

Shankar I believe you wrote somewhere that “a million cases, each one rightly decided, can still add up to a historic wrong.”

Loury That’s right! That’s an old quote from me and I do still believe that. Regarding mass incarceration, you’re right, that under Ronald Regan, Bill Clinton, the prison population increased. You see the curve just going up and up and up. Of course, crime is part of the story, but crime peaks in the late 1980s and starts declining, but the curve of incarceration continues to go up. It has finally flattened and started to turn down.

Shankar Based on my experience, I found that it's not just the numbers of incarcerated people but the institution itself, which fosters dysregulation, not rehabilitation. It feels like an investment in failure. We have been discussing Norway—there are no life sentences there, so they are incentivized to help heal those who have committed crimes. These people are given a trade, access to mental health counselors, and relative freedom. I mean—semi-facetiously—some of those prison compounds are nicer than walk ups I lived in Brooklyn. But here we believe in punishment.

I think this punitive streak is part of the Puritan legacy in our country. They came over with England’s bloody codes and still practiced the sanguinary punishments—public floggings and dunking and branding and executions. Banishments into the wilderness of those who would not conform. And once you were guilty you were additionally marked with the shame of being criminal. Think of Hester Prynne in A Scarlet Letter, marked for life by her crime. Actually, it was the Quakers, who were the liberals of their time, who believed that this legacy was quite barbaric. They decided to use prisons, which up until that time had been used to hold someone temporarily for trial as in the Tower of London, as the actual punishment itself. They believed that through the application of work and silence—elements that we still see today in the use of prison labor at below market wages and the use of solitary confinement, e.g. institutional segregation—a soul could be redeemed. There’s the linguistic connection there of course—the penitentiary and the penitent. But I think it’s worth noting that the two great moments of the growth of prisons in the US came in the post-reconstructionist South after the Civil War and then on the heels of the Civil Rights movement. That can’t be a coincidence.

Loury You’re absolutely right that we have been over-investing in incarceration, and we don’t have any expectation that the process of confinement is going to be to the betterment of a criminal. We’re punishing them so it’s meant to be punitive. You could make an argument on the other side that asks why should we have a social policy that invests in education and healthcare and general life enhancements of the quality of life for someone in prison? Why should you have to break the law first before being eligible for the benefits of such policies? Isn’t that wrong-headed to reward bad behavior by helping people who are now confined because they broke the law. It begs the question: if I'm doing this for the incarcerated, why am I not doing it for everybody?

Shankar It seems we are getting it all wrong—over-incarcerating those who have mental health issues or drug problems instead of addressing their underlying issues. Why shouldn’t we be a more forgiving people? Isn’t it punishment enough to be away from your friends and family in confinement? Do you really need the casual sadism of the correctional officers, or the neglect of health needs, that only will make it harder for you to reintegrate into society? How about the ripple effect that mass incarceration has had on generations of families?

Loury There’s a political scientist at Johns Hopkins, Vesla Weaver who coined this term “frontlash” about how punishment and surveillance have been used to circumvent civil rights advances. In the 1960s you had the end of Jim Crow and consensus within American politics that we are going a different direction on the race question. There were winners and losers in that shift. So when there were race riots and cities in which the reaction was disorder, they could enact policies that sublimated concerns about racial dynamics into seemingly colorblind concerns about crime. This is really a George Wallace kind of argument; because they could not crack down directly on blacks because this would be seen as racist, they use the public order maintenance ruse as cover. This was the reactionary response to the successes of the civil rights movement. That's one argument.

But something is missing, which is that there was a lot of support within communities of color, for punitive responses to the upsurge in crime and violence that one sees through the 1970s and the 1980s. For example, the crack versus powder cocaine sentencing disparity is well documented. It was about how much weight would trigger a mandatory minimum prison sentence and it was a 100 to one ratio. Someone with five grams of crack would face the same sentence as someone with five hundred grams of powder cocaine. That was enacted and you can argue that it was racially disparate punishment. But a lot of black representatives supported it. Charles Rangle who represented a district in Harlem supported it when he moved to Harlem because he had seen firsthand the kind of violence and harm to his communities that the drug trade had caused. He said let’s look at data on states, political contests which had been redistricted, to see if the laws are more or less punitive when political participation from black people in that state has been enhanced due to voting and civil rights. What he finds is that association is not what you might think. You might think more black voters, less punitive law, but in fact the trend goes in the opposite direction. We see that echoed in the argument about defund the police and so on. We live in urban communities where there are murders and carjackings and robberies and so on. The residents want more police. Of course, they want police who are not going to abuse them because they are outraged by police violence and police brutality. But they want something to answer when they call 911.  Because they're the ones who are suffering the consequences of most of the violent crime that goes on in the cities.

I’m complicating the simple story that after the end of slavery, you had the black codes and southern states not wanting to accept the citizenship status of the newly free blacks, which led to the rise in the incarcerated population and then at the end of the civil rights movement in the 1970s, you are seeing this rise in incarceration. I think that’s too simplistic. Still my outrage is reflected in that book I wrote and what it says about American values that we sit idly by while under our watch there is this institutional transformation which is truly historic, going from a half million to 2 million under lock and key in a 20-year period. We basically allowed it to happen, allowing politicians to run for office waving a banner saying I’m going to lock them up, three strikes and you are out, mandatory minimums, super predators…

Shankar Don’t forget about “law and order.” For some reason, I always found that the most chilling euphemism. Why do you think we aren’t more forgiving as a people?

Loury It's what it is. I mean, the incarcerated are disqualified from housing benefits, from Pell Grants, support for post-secondary education, certain jobs, the list goes on. In some jurisdictions they are prevented from being able to cast a ballot. They're basically ex-communicated. I agree with you but discussing it is not enough. Here’s something I’ve been doing in response to questions like this.

There’s a gentleman named Johnny Pippins, is serving an expected 30 years at Iowa’s Anamosa State Penitentiary for felony murder. He was part of a group that committed some robberies and during one of them, someone was killed. He was 15 years old at the time and he’s 26 years old now. I’ve written about him. During his time in prison, he's completely reformed himself, gotten a college degree, gotten a master's degree, and been accepted to a Ph. D. Program in social statistics at the University of Iowa. He writes for publication where he's been working as a research associate and he’s applying for grants. He’s literally transformed himself over the course of a quarter century of confinement. However, to pursue a PhD program, he needs to be on campus. He can't do it remotely. He needs to be able to go to class.

We decided that we would try to use our good offices, such as they are, to bring this case to the attention of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Recently The Chicago Sun Times ran an editorial signed onto by the editorial board appealing to the Governor to do exactly what we suggested. We mounted a campaign and have gotten hundreds of signatories to a letter. It's very straightforward. We say listen: this is an exceptional case. It's an opportunity to do something that is not just kind but that is also affirming. He has paid his debt, now let him contribute now to society, this kind of idea. So, even in my relative conservatism, what I'm saying, I'm still advocating. I'm proud to be able to use the little network that we've generated around my Substack newsletter to try to get the word out on this.

Shankar I’ve been working with the formerly incarcerated on reentry and there’s this sense that if you have a misdemeanor or a felony conviction, it’s going to follow you for the rest of your life. You should be happy flipping burgers. I struggle wondering if we're inherently uncharitable.

Loury Yeah, I don't have an answer on that. And especially when you consider the in some of the quarters that are most conservative, they're also most religious and they're Christian. And you might think that that Christian charity orientation would militate in favor of a more charitable response to social transgression.

I served for years on the board of Prison Fellowship ministries, which is a ministry to philanthropic enterprise started by Chuck Colson, who served time in prison as the first member of the Nixon administration to be incarcerated for Watergate-related charges and was converted to an evangelical Christian while in prison. He started this ministry and approached me in the late 1990s, and I served about five years on their board. But the contrast between that organization's ethos, whose model was Christ hanging on the cross being crucified, forgiving the guy next to him who is a common thief or whatever. You get saved through Christ and I don’t think you have to believe in the magic of people going to heaven to see the metaphor that's built into that story, which is what we believe as Christians. It requires us to adopt a more charitable posture. You're not defined by your worst moment in your life. We're all susceptible to the temptations and snares, dead ends, and so forth and so on.

And, okay. Punishment is a part of the process here and no one's arguing for a kind of disarmament of society and its effort to protect itself and against the depredations of wrongdoers. But that's not the end of the story. That's the beginning of the story. And oh, by the way, what about the victims? How are victims helped by the punitive reaction to the criminal? Punishment doesn't do anything to restore and make the victim whole. And oh, by the way, what about the people who are connected by bonds of blood and identity to the people who are being punished? What about their families? What about their children? We're creating social policy here, not just doing a kind of one-off balancing of right or wrong for the individual.

Shankar Yes, it’s hard to see what prison is doing for those nonviolent offenders, those who may have mental health issues or drug problems. Should prison really be a place for the poor and marginalized to be set apart from society? To do what Angela Davis deems does not disappear social problems, such as unemployment, homelessness, illiteracy, addiction, and mental illness, but rather disappears human beings. I'm a big believer in bibliotherapy and in education to help accelerate healing. I think being able to tell your own story matters, and I am just at a loss at how our current system of mass incarceration adequately addresses whatever antisocial pathologies an individual may possess, especially given the fact that the cultural norms and laws on the books are relative and shift over time. What’s legal in Massachusetts is still illegal in Mississippi which gives the lie to the ideal that we are operating under some universal moral edict. I don’t think inflicting pain on a person who has transgressed should be part of the purpose of a social institution. Do you know how much we spend a year on Rhode Island per incarcerated person?

Loury I’d say around $50,000 a year

Shankar Try $82,500 on average, about 75% of which goes towards security, administration, surveillance, etc. That’s over $225 a day! If you gave me that budget, I guarantee that I would provide better outcomes than our criminal justice system.  

Loury That’s a big number. And it makes my point that if you are going to be spending that amount of money to make people's lives better, you don’t just want to target those who have broken the law. You want to make the intervention earlier.

Shankar This ties into the notion of racial stigma, as opposed to discrimination, which you elucidated so beautifully in your Anatomy of Racial Injustice, which I believe was just reissued. How do you think those ideas hold up 20 years down the road?

Loury Yes, I wrote a new preface to the book, in which I touch on the idea of stereotype and stigma and racial justice questions. I’m proud that I was one of the first few people to make this argument, which comes out of my understanding of race. I see race as these marks on our bodies that we use to casually sort strangers into various groups. Then we react to what we see, not our knowledge or understanding of people. Race is embodied social signification, so what the marks mean depends on whether you are in the deep South or New England, in sub-Saharan Africa or in Brazil. You don’t have the same meanings attached to these marks in different places. My ideas on this subject were deeply influenced by Orlando Patterson, the sociologist, whose book Slavery and Social Death had a profound effect on me when I read it in 1982.

He discusses the dynamics of slavery in over 60 different societies, from Ancient Rome to Medieval Europe, from China to the Islamic kingdoms, from the Caribbean islands to the American South. His claim is that slavery is not just stealing the person's labor; it's also reducing them to a dishonorable status. It is the permanent, violent domination of natively alienated and generally dishonored persons. That's a quote from his book. That's his definition. It's concise and underscores the lasting disconnect between generations because the parents and the child in this social condition is mediated by the ownership claims of the master. They are chattel and not afforded the rights of actual people in any real sense. He deemphasizes the material and racial aspects, to discuss the sociological, legal, and symbolic factors that contribute to the master-slave relationship.

Some athletes have used this as an analogy for laboring under a set of contractual rules. He must play for a particular team until the owners decide that he can play any longer. He doesn't really own his own labor. He's not a free agent. He can't just move around, but he's not a slave. The difference between the two is this sense of general dishonor and I always thought that point in the American context was profoundly important. Because when we think of citizenship, we think of law and you can change the law to create Emancipation and write civil rights bills, but you can’t change the stigma. Individuals in society depend not just on the rule of law but social connectivity.

Shankar What you call “social capital”?

Loury Yes. And therein is the social meaning of your racial category. This undercurrent of thinking those who are different from me, don’t fit with me. They're unintelligent. I wouldn't want intimacy with them. I don't want to live next to them. I don't want my children in school with them. They’re ignorant. Dirty. Unworthy. That’s what I'm trying to get at with racial stigma. I'm saying the culture and the history have an overhang in which the social meanings attached to bodily marks for African Americans impede our full inclusion within the web of interconnection and intermarriage and integration into certain neighborhoods. Social capital are the benefits that you accrue through connections to people who are resourceful and successful in society which allow you to acquire skills and habits that will promote your own success in society. That process is undercut for a group of people who are defined by these racial marks on their body, which then come to have social meanings, making them, at least in part, stigmatized and dishonorable.

Shankar It’s an anti-essentialist perspective.

Loury  Yes, it’s one of my axioms from that book. I begin with three axioms, including the fact that race is a social construct. That's constructivism. However, there are measurable differences between ethnicities, and I am not going to try to explain them by referring to the intrinsic qualities of racial groups. That’s essentialism. Nonetheless in the historical cultural context of the United States, the social meanings attaching to this kind of racial marking are tainted and stigmatized. I don't say this as a scientific proposition. There are no genetic differences of any relevance between racial aggregates that we can point to like intelligence to account for it. That's a scientific claim. I don’t believe in that form of genetic speculation. But that's a scientific claim. And my claim was not a scientific claim. I was not going to present definitive evidence. I was only going to say, as an ethical matter, I will constrain myself a priori, so as not to rely on any such account in trying to explain the persistence of racial inequality.

Shankar I can see the difference between your mode of thinking and what conservatives refer to as a ‘colorblind’ approach. Ultimately, what I most admire about your work is that you are returning agency to individual actors in some way. Rather than human lives being solely contingent on these historical forces, which makes certain communities into victims, you're empowering people with the ability to make their own decisions, while simultaneously acknowledging the kind of historical underpinning and context in which these lives are led.

Beyond your ideas about race and inequality, your work in game theory and macroeconomics, I’m curious about your time at Brown University. Kind of like Clarence Thomas growing up in rural Georgia, you also had a remarkable rise from the inner city of Chicago to working at Harvard University and now holding this distinguished chair at Brown. How do you feel about living and working here?

Loury It’s a poignant question at this moment because I just agreed to a phased retirement package, essentially committing myself to retire after three years.  

Shankar Not under duress, I hope!

Loury Oh no, no. I'm going to be 74 on my next birthday. Life is short. What do I want to do with my time? And, you know, I think, well, let me put it this way. When I was in graduate school at M.I.T. in the early 1970s. I had great teachers in economics like Nobel honorees Paul Samuelson and Franco Modigliani, Robert Solo and Peter Diamond, and when these absolute legends reached the age of 70, they all voluntarily stepped down and took emeritus status. It makes sense as a kind of informal norm, because you are drawing a huge salary and taking up the corner office, and you probably are not producing papers the way you might have been 25 years ago. I’m not retiring from life, but I am also not going to be dragged out of the classroom.

Shankar What do you intend to do with your time?

Loury Well, enjoy life with my children and grandchildren and my wife of four, going on five years now. We spent some time earlier this summer in Europe and enjoyed it. We were Marseille, which is an amazing city on the Mediterranean. I gave some lectures in London and we've been to South Korea, where I have former students. I also have a memoir well along the way. I’ve written eight solid chapters and W.W. Norton and Co. is going to bring it out. I’m supposed to deliver before the end of the year. The convenient and unexpected revelation is my podcast and my newsletter, which reaches a whole new swath of people. I continue to receive more invitations to give speeches than I could possibly accept. I could continue to do that and earn an income. I’m not at all worried about the financial side of things.

The truth is that I’ve been teaching since 1976. That was my first year as an assistant professor at Northwestern University. You’re talking about 46 years ago. As I prepare my lectures, as I read the endless string of memoranda that are coming from one administrative office or another about this or that, as I sit through department meetings, I know I’m not going to miss it. I love my students, but maybe I’m a little bored. Who knows? Maybe I’ll run for office. Just kidding! There’s no chance whatsoever about that.  I like playing chess. I like playing billiards. I have five children. The oldest is in her mid 50s. And I have six grandchildren. Two former college graduates by now. And, you know, my lovely wife Luann, is, as I said, a Bernie Sanders Democrat. We have interesting, spicy conversations about politics around the dinner table.

Shankar You’ll stay in Providence? I just moved here a few years ago and have grown a fondness for this state, I must say, and my theory is that something of the character of those who founded a place is retained by its current inhabitants, and so Rhode Island being formed by those who were kicked out of their Massachusetts Bay Colony because of their unorthodox beliefs, the Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson-types, bodes well for the spirit of free inquiry that you treasure so much. I mean the country’s first synagogue and public lending library were created here.

Loury Yes, we are not going anywhere. We just bought this house that we are renovating. I like Providence. I love Brown. To be honest, I need to be in a university community of some kind. So, I don’t plan on disappearing but will have a graceful exit. Recently there was a festschrift for me in my department, and there were six panels about my books and writings on affirmative action, political correctness, social capital and around 50 people either zoomed or flew in. So I'm proud of my accomplishments, but I don’t want to be that narcolept falling asleep in the middle of my lectures. Job well done and let’s move on to the next thing.

I'm in my mid 70s and still vigorous. I could obviously lose some weight. I have blood pressure and borderline diabetic issues and a fatty liver, a little cyst that's perfectly benign, but my wife is good about reminding me to take my probiotics and medication. When you ask me about Brown, I think about coming in 2005 from Boston University where Ruth Simmons was the president. I was accepted with open arms. I was still doing quantitative economic research at that time and hadn’t become as overtly political as I have now become.  Of course, I was always engaged with racial questions, but in my mind, my public utterances have been precipitated by the anti-racist argument and the various simpleminded and frankly condescending diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives on college campuses.

Shankar I served on the DEIJ committee at Tufts and I found much of that work valuable myself.

Loury Well, I’m on the record discussing what I think about all of that. You can look at my open rebuttal to Christina H. Paxson, current president of Brown University, after she sent a virtue-signaling, platitude-filled letter after the murder of George Floyd. No one really took issue with my stance and honestly, I have no complaints.  Richard Locke, the Provost, who came in as the Director of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, basically recruited me and back then I had a passing interest in international relations and development studies. I participated in the Brown International Advanced Research Institute’s program, which was a series of seminars conducted by Brown faculty around the world, recruiting participants from developing countries all over the world. From South America and Africa, South and East Asia, I co-taught a class on ethnic violence and inequality from a global perspective. We invited world class outside speakers to come and address our students. Each of us gave lectures. We bonded with the students. I loved it. That was one of the most gratifying teaching experiences of my career. Brown has been very good to me.

I have one complaint, which is that I haven't I don't think been taken as seriously as I wished that I would have been taken by senior administration, when I went on the record to talk about the problems of the gospel and catechism of diversity regimes. On these issues, they are toeing the politically correct line and playing it safe, and following, not leading. It may be very unfair for me to say this because I'm sure their jobs are a lot harder than I could even begin to imagine. But I take issue with the various layers of administration in place to deal with this issue. I think it’s overbearing.

Let’s begin with the heavy administrative pressure on ‘diversity’ and what that means. There’s a former Yale professor, Bill Deresiewicz, who has written this book Excellent Sheep about his experiences as a white teacher of literature in college and how he believes that the way we are failing pedagogically is by providing a real education that challenges students. Where we are more in the marketing business and trying to sell our brands to you. We’re not diverse, not really. There may be superficial diversity but where’s the class diversity? Let’s imagine a religious student and how out of place he’s going to feel on campus, afraid of confessing their faith because of what’s happening with the zeitgeist on campus. Some of this, Deresiewicz attributes to the rise of overbearing, self-aggrandizing administrative structure of Provosts, Deans, Associate Deans and so forth. I don’t claim to have any real expertise on how to structure higher education, but I think there's something to that idea.

Shankar I had a professor at the University of Virginia, Mark Edmundson who has written about how on a college campus being a leader really means being a good follower, to enact the agenda of the Board of Trustees, to raise revenue, things that I think are antithetical to the mission of most Universities. When I was a first year there in the early 1990’s, I took classes with Jerome McGann where we read the Marquis de Sade, Jean Genet, Angela Carter, and I don’t think I would dare to put those writers on my syllabus today. I know many of my colleagues who feel like they must walk on eggshells so as not to say something out of step with what the prevailing mood is—and of course my students are more anxious today than ever before—but ultimately, I can’t see how that’s going to be a benefit to the students not to have vigorous intellectual engagement on campus.

Loury We agree about that.

Shankar Why don’t we end with spirituality? Because along the margins of a lot of what you say I feel the resonance of the spiritual path you’ve been on, maybe lapsed, maybe coming back around to it. Do I have that right?

Loury That’s a big question for me. These days. I was once born again. Bible believing, praying, church attending.

Shankar Did you have a conversion moment or kind of epiphanic experience of grace?

Loury Well, I mean, not Paul on the road to Damascus kind of thing. The skies didn’t open up for the hand of God to come down to unblind me. It’s more that I was in drug addiction recovery in the late 1980s. Coming through that process, I had a couple of moments that were very powerful. I was one confined inpatient for the better part of two months at McLean Psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. I was deeply addicted to crack cocaine back then.

Shankar Yes, wasn’t that when you were being named by the Reagan Administration to become Secretary of Education William Bennett’s deputy and you withdrew your name from consideration?

Loury Yeah. It's complicated. I was tagged by the Reagan administration. I had to withdraw because I had an extramarital affair going on with a woman that I ended up in a fight with who accused me of assault and that became public. I had to withdraw from the Reagan administration. The following summer I buried myself deeper and deeper into depression and began this life destroying dependency on cocaine. And I, in fact, turned myself in to the treatment process in 1988, spent two months in a psychiatric hospital as an inpatient, came out, relapsed, went back out. Two months go by and I end up at a halfway house, because my insurance coverage had run out from the inpatient treatment. I'm trying to not use a day at a time and it was during this time, I met a young woman who was a minister in one of the local black Christian congregations. She spoke to me and urged me to come to a service. It was Easter Sunday, 1988. And I had an experience where I was powerfully affected by spiritual promptings and ended up deciding to stay with my first wife who's now deceased. That was before our children, and we have two sons in their 30s. This was before they were born, and she had stayed by me through the adultery and the public humiliation and then this trauma of me in a drug dependent state, wondering if our marriage would last and whether we would have a life together in the future. Then we began to attend services at a church together, a small congregation that was just getting started at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, located in Boston, Massachusetts. They've since grown into a very successful and impressive community of believers. They have a campus where they have their sanctuary, and they have a children’s school and an administrative building and whatnot there. They're a pillar in the black community in Boston, and we were a part of that congregation that started in the late 1980s. And for about 10 years, I would say I did Bible study. I taught Bible study. I was a part of prayer groups we've met at 6 am on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday. Then when we had our children. I drifted away from that. I think I had persuaded myself about some of the claims that I actually didn't believe to be true. They were kind of a benevolent self-delusion. You know, the primary one of which is that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead but I kind of persuaded myself that I believed the story. I’m not sure what the right metaphor is.

Then years later, I had a particular experience that disabused me of that credulity. My administrative assistant and I were running an institute at Boston University in the late 1990s. And this wonderful young woman, died of a viral infection of her heart, suddenly and under the most suspicious circumstances you can imagine. She'd worked for me for several years and had gotten herself admitted to the law school at Boston University and had enrolled and had been doing brilliantly well. She had made law review her first. She was in her early 40s, going to law school, living out her dream, a beautiful, vibrant young woman and then she suddenly died. I went to her funeral. I spoke at it. The entire congregation had gathered, and the pews were packed to the rafters and the preacher is giving a sermon over the body lying in the coffin, saying that we came together not to mourn death but to celebrate everlasting life. Her mother had flown in from New Orleans and she said she was sorry for my loss. My loss? I can't tell you how wonderful she was. It was terrible. But everyone pivoted towards this bromide of it’s okay. She’s with God now. She’s an angel. How he loved her so much that he took her for special company and now the entire congregation was affected. They’re singing and stomping and dancing around the church and as they proceed past the viewing of the coffin, they’re clapping their hands and affirming this claim. That she’s not dead but that she’s moved on. And I couldn’t move. At first, I was just sad, bereft, nervous because I must make some remarks. I have no idea what I said. I mumbled something to these people about this wonderful young woman’s death. I’m just more in tune with life; even if I wanted to celebrate because I thought she was wonderful, I couldn’t. Then I grew angry. I’m pissed off at my fellow congregants because I had this Nietzschean thought. They're cowards, I thought. They are hiding behind the silly fairy tale. She's not still alive. Come on. She's dead. She's tragically dead.

They refused to confront the reality of our condition. The abyss goes all the way down. It's much too easy to dance around this church and clap your hands. We should be silent. We should be in awe. We should be terrified. We should be in grief beyond consolation. I will not accept this fairy tale. It just came over me in the same way as what I felt on that Easter Sunday years before when I was trying to not cocaine one day at a time. When I was convinced to go to church again, and heard this thing that was embedded within me, that echoed back to my own childhood, the hymns and the rhythms in the sermon, and the hands clapping and people standing up and cheering and being empowered by the Holy Spirit. I somehow got swept up in it. Then during that funeral, the inverse of that feeling came upon me and I left there changed.

During this time, I had a good friend, Richard John Neuhaus was his name. He was a German Catholic priest who ran something called the Institute on Religion and Public Life, a think tank based in Washington DC that has advocated for religiously informed public policy. If you look him up, you’ll find that he was a great man. And he was a kind of spiritual counselor for me. A few weeks after this funeral, I called him and said, I’m losing my faith, I have to talk to you, and I went to New York City where he lived. We spent a few hours together one evening with a bottle of whiskey. We drank and talked. And I confessed to him that the feeling I had was akin to laying on the beach and you look up and you see the clouds and it looks like Abraham Lincoln's profile. Then you look away at the paperback you are reading and when you look up again, you can’t find it. And he began to chuckle under his breath a little bit.  I didn't see anything funny about what I was saying to him, and he said, you think you're the only one? Who told you that this was going to be easy? He told me that our Lord Jesus on his way to his own crucifixion, asked God if he could not have that burden lifted from him. He had his own doubts. Who said then you're not going to have doubt? Then he starts quoting Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine. He’s a theologian after all. But he's basically saying there's faith inside that doubt of yours. And there's doubt inside the faith, and this is an ongoing, perpetual struggle and it's not something that you can just think yourself out of. But I didn't buy it. I'm a rationalist. I don't believe in life after death. I don't think a man was raised from the dead. I think that's a fairy tale. This is what I'm thinking to myself. So now how can I continue to pretend that it's otherwise? That’s how I fell away from the church. But that was in 2000, over 20 years ago. But here I am now, and you know, I'm thinking about mortality. Can you live without faith in something? I am unsure these days. My lovely wife is an avowed atheist.

Shankar Wasn’t she raised Seventh Day Adventist?

Loury Yes, and it was very strict, and she broke away from that in her 30s. She and I met in 2016. So about it's been six years now. We’ve been married for four years. And when we talk about this kind of thing, she's a little wary that down underneath my hyper rationality there's still this quest for something. And she may be right about that. Let’s just say I don't know how the story ends. 


An academic economist, Professor Glenn Loury has published mainly in the areas of applied microeconomic theory, game theory, industrial organization, natural resource economics, and the economics of race and inequality. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Econometric Society and a member of the American Philosophical Society. In 2005 he received the John von Neumann Award, given annually by the Rajk László College of the Budapest University of Economic Science and Public Administration to "an outstanding economist whose research has exerted a major influence on students of the College over an extended period of time." He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Carnegie Scholarship to support his work. He has given the prestigious Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Stanford (2007), the James A. Moffett '29 Lectures in Ethics at Princeton (2003), and the DuBois Lectures in African American Studies at Harvard (2000).

A prominent social critic and public intellectual writing mainly on the themes of racial inequality and social policy, he has published more than 200 essays and reviews in journals of public affairs in the US and abroad. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a contributing editor at The Boston Review, and was for many years a contributing editor at The New Republic. His book One by One, From the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America (The Free Press, 1995) won the American Book Award and the Christianity Today Book Award. 


Dr. Ravi Shankar is a Pushcart prize-winning poet, translator and professor who has published 15 books, including the Muse India award-winning translations Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess and The Many Uses of Mint: New and Selected Poems 1997-2017. Along with Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal, he co-edited W.W. Norton's Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond called "a beautiful achievement for world literature" by Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. He has taught and performed around the world and appeared in print, radio and TV in such venues as The New York Times, NPR, BBC and the PBS Newshour. He has won awards to the Corporation of Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, fellowships from the Rhode Island and Connecticut Counsel on the Arts, founded one of the oldest electronic journals of the arts Drunken Boat, is Chairman of the Asia Pacific Writers & Translators (APWT) and recently finished his PhD from the University of Sydney. His memoir  Correctional was published in 2021 with University of Wisconsin Press and he teaches creative writing at Tufts University.