|Glenn Cartman Loury is an American economist, academic and author. He is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics at Brown University|
A social scientist of any sophistication recognizes that societies are not amalgams of unrelated individuals creating themselves anew--out of whole cloth, as it were--in each generation. A complex web of social connections and a long train of historical influences interact to form the opportunities and shape the outlooks of individuals. Of course, individual effort is important, as is native talent and sheer luck, for determining how well or poorly a person does in life. But social background, cultural affinities, and communal influence are also of great significance.
This is the grain of truth in the conservatives' insistence that cultural differences lie at the root of racial inequality in America. But the deeper truth is that, for some three centuries now, the communal experience of the slaves and their descendants has been shaped by political, social, and economic institutions that, by any measure, must be seen as oppressive. When we look at "underclass culture" in the American cities of today we are seeing a product of that oppressive history. It is morally obtuse and scientifically naive to say, in the face of the despair, violence, and self-destructive folly of these people, that "if they would get their acts together, like the poor Asian immigrants, then we would not have such a horrific problem in our cities."
The only decent response in the face of the "pathological" behavior of American history's losers is to conclude that, while we cannot change our ignoble past, we must not be indifferent to the contemporary suffering that is linked to that past. The self-limiting patterns of behavior among poor blacks "which some commentators are so quick to trot out" are a product, not of some alien cultural imposition upon a pristine Euro-American canvas, but, rather, of social, economic, and political practices deeply rooted in American history. We should not ignore the behavioral problems of the underclass, but we should discuss and react to them as if we were talking about our own children, neighbors, and friends. This is an American tragedy, to which we should respond as we might to an epidemic of teen suicide, adolescent drunken driving, or HIV infection among homosexual males--that is, by embracing, not demonizing, the victims.
The problem with talk about black culture, black crime, and black illegitimacy, as explanatory categories in the hands of the morally obtuse, is that it becomes an exculpatory device--a way of avoiding a discussion of mutual obligation. It is a distressing fact about contemporary American politics that simply to make this point is to risk being dismissed as an apologist for the inexcusable behavior of the poor. The deeper moral failing lies with those who, declaring "we have done all we can," would wash their hands of the poor.
It is morally and intellectually superficial in the extreme to begin and end one's argument with the observation that the problems of the underclass are due to their high rates of criminal behavior and out-of-wedlock births, and not to white racism. But this is what political discourse assessing the status of blacks has come to. The highly ideological character of racial debate in America makes nuance and complexity almost impossible to sustain. For while it may be true that the most debilitating impediments to advancement among the underclass derive from patterns of behavior that are self-limiting, it is also true that our history has dealt poor blacks a very bad hand. Yes, there must be change in these behaviors if progress is to be made. But a commitment of support will also be required from the broader society to help these folks help themselves.
The conservatives deny this. They rationalize the nasty, brutish, and short lives of a sizable minority of the black population as reflecting blacks' deficiencies, rather than revealing any flaw in "our way of life." Nowhere is the ideological character of this stance more clearly revealed than in the conservatives' celebration of immigrant success, over and against native black failure. That nonwhite immigrants succeed is taken as a vindication of the system; that blacks fail is said to be due entirely to their own inadequacies. This is obscenely ahistorical. Frankly, I remain optimistic about the prospect that black teenagers, given greater opportunity, might respond with better behavior. What makes me pessimistic about our future is the spectacle of politically influential American intellectuals grasping at these cultural arguments as reason to abandon or ignore their moral responsibilities to those who are least fortunate in our society.