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  • One of the developmental issues that I try to encourage people who think about racial inequality to take more seriously is: how we are raising our children? Tweet This
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How do we explain persistent racial inequality in the United States and what does family structure have to do with it? These are the topics that economist Glenn C. Loury, the Merton P. Stolz Professor of the Social Sciences at Brown University, addressed in a recent lecture at the University of Virginia hosted by the National Marriage Project. Dr. Loury, who has written widely on the themes of racial inequality and social policy, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor at The Boston Review, and was previously a contributing editor at The New Republic. His most recent book is Race, Incarceration, and American Values (MIT Press, 2008).

During his visit to UVA, we had a chance to sit down with Dr. Loury to talk more about racial inequality and the role of family structure in the black community. Following is an edited version of our conversation.

IFS: What progress have we seen in the African American community over the past 50 years, and in what specific areas has the racial divide remained too large?

Glenn Loury: We’ve seen progress across the board. The trend lines, generally speaking, are up, even if only slightly so. If we look at the fraction of people who complete four years of college, median family income and other measures of that kind, and if I ask how many people are penetrating professional occupations, getting advanced degrees, life expectancy, etc., [we] see a general improvement in the conditions of the African American population.

On the other hand, in relative terms, compared to whites or Asians, among these different measures, I see gaps that are not narrowing much. The inequality persists even though the absolute condition of the African American population, I think, clearly is better now than it was 50 years ago. There are pockets in which there is a disturbing persistence and even a widening gap. You have concentrated poverty in a portion of the African American population living mostly in the big cities, so-called ghettos, or areas that are preponderantly non-white….where we have significant African American populations that are severely disadvantaged. Employment of men is especially low at the lower education and low-income levels of the African American community. Incarceration rates are very high, and the disparity in the incidents of incarceration—maybe it’s narrowed a little bit since the turn of the 21st Century—but it’s big. If you looked at various measures of academic achievement, you’d see gaps. And maybe they’ve narrowed slightly, but they’re still quite substantial, and they don’t show any tendency toward going away.

And I know we are a family institute around here, so I haven’t even mentioned those dimensions of marriage and family—conditions under which children are being raised, the prevalence of single-parent families, out-of-wedlock births, the early termination of pregnancies, and the general tenor of male/female relations within the community—which are areas that I would flag as some that continue to be a matter of concern. And if you just look raw at the statistics, if it’s out-of-wedlock births, we’re talking two-thirds of the children born to black American women are born to women who are not married. So, that’s controversial…many people don’t want to make too much out of it, but that’s an area, from my point of view, that should also be identified as a worry.

IFS: To what do you attribute the persistent patterns of social inequality between African Americans and whites that we see today in the United States? 

Glenn Loury: My lecture [at UVA] developed off of the contrast between what I call the bias narrative and the development narrative. The bias narrative calls attention to racial discrimination and exclusionary practices of American institutions—black Americans not being treated fairly. So, if the gap is in incarceration, the bias narrative calls attention to the behavior of police and the discriminatory ways in which laws are enforced and attributes the over-representation of blacks in the prisons to the unfair practices of the police and the way in which laws are formulated and enforced.

Agency is a fundamental issue when talking about how African Americans deal with our continued subordinate status in American society.

The development narrative, on the other hand, calls attention to the patterns of behavior and the acquisition of skills and discipline that are characteristic of the African American population. So, in the case of incarceration, the development narrative asks about the behavior of people who find themselves in trouble with the law and calls attention to the background conditions that either do or do not foster restraint on those lawbreaking behaviors. Now, the position that I take is that whereas at the middle of the twentieth century, 50 to 75 years ago, there could be no doubt that the main culprit in accounting for the disadvantage of African Americans was bias of many different kinds (bias in the economy, social relations, and in the political sphere), that is a less credible general account of African American disadvantage in the year 2018. And the development narrative—the one that puts some responsibility on we African Americans ourselves, and the one that wants to look to the processes that people undergo as they mature and become adults and ask whether or not those processes foster people achieving their full potential—that, I think, is a much more significant dimension of the problem today relative to bias than was the case 50 years ago.

I think it’s a combination of things. Opportunities have opened up, but bias hasn’t completely gone away. On the other hand, I think it’s very hard to maintain that bias hasn’t diminished significantly. And when I look at things like the gap in the academic performance of American students by race, or the extent to which the imposition of punishment for lawbreaking falls disproportionately by race, or when I look at the conditions under which children are being raised (and to the extent that those conditions are less than ideal) and the patterns of behavior that lie behind that, that is between parents or prospective parents and the responsibilities that they take for the raising of their children. These are dimensions that I think are relatively more important today and are questions about the behavior of African American people.

IFS: The media response to the latest Raj Chetty study seems to be an example of what you’ve described as the “deficient, accusatory or even dishonest” discourse surrounding our cultural discussion of racial inequality. One pundit said of Chetty’s new findings that “family structure doesn’t explain the racial mobility gap.” Yet, as Brad Wilcox recently wrote here, one underreported finding is “a strong positive association between black father presence [in the neighborhood] and black males’ income.”  How important are present and involved black fathers to upward mobility in black communities, particularly for boys?

Glenn Loury: I agree with Brad Wilcox that this important finding and the implications it has for why father absence matters in a negative way for child development has been underplayed by the press. I haven’t done a systematic survey of all the press reports, but from what I’ve seen, they call attention to bias. They say, because the black boys are more likely to have downward mobility, it shows that they’re not facing the same opportunities in society. But of course, father absence is more prevalent in African American households, and to the extent that people congregate in neighborhoods that are relatively racially homogeneous, you’re going to have many more black boys growing up in areas where there are few fathers than you are white boys. And this is something that should be taken more seriously than it has been.

But I don’t think the data available to these researchers are finely gauged enough to permit answering the question that you’ve asked me, which is about the importance of fathers. Although it is suggestive that fathers matter at the level of the neighborhood, if not at the level of the individual household.

If you’re asking Glenn Loury—and this is not a scientific conclusion, it’s just an observation after being a student of these matters for decades—how could it not be true that fathers matter? They’re not the only thing that matters by any means, and a bad father—an abusive, drunken, unsupportive person in the household who happens to be male and may have contributed the genetic material to the production of a child—is certainly no panacea for any kind of social problem. But a neighborhood in which two-thirds of the households are women raising their children alone is a different neighborhood, it would appear, than one in which one-fifth or one-eighth of the households [are headed by lone mothers], and in which the patterns of behavior associated with responsible men who are working and caring for their families are modeled before the young men as a normal practice. But I don’t want to speculate about this because it’s a serious matter.

Now, having identified that it matters is not the same thing as knowing what to do about it. These things are not going to be flipped around by just pulling on a string and everything is going to be made right. These patterns are deep. They’ve been a long time in the making.

When Sen. Patrick Moynihan wrote that report 50 years ago, he was alarmed that it was a 25% or 23% out-of-wedlock birthrate amongst African Americans...Moynihan was very alarmed. He thought the world was coming to an end for black people…Well, those rates of non-marital birth that you saw amongst blacks in the 1960’s are now characteristic of whites broadly in the society. Norms and social practices change. The bottom has not fallen out, although if you believe people like Charles Murray in his book, Coming Apart, or Robert Putnam or J.D. Vance, there’s a whole lot of white people who are not doing so well, and instability in their family lives seems to be associated with that. Again, I’d stress this is the kind of thing that deserves to be studied with precision. But that’s one of the developmental issues that I try to encourage people that think about racial inequality to take more seriously: how we are raising our children and how are they being socialized?

There’s no substitute for the guidance and loving hand of structure, and the teaching and the infusion of norms and establishment of a sense of worth that’s happening inside the households where children are being raised.

School discipline is another area where you get higher suspension rates. And in the bias narrative embraced by the Obama education department in its efforts to get school districts to lower the racial disparity in suspension rates, it basically attributes a high rate of black suspensions in school to school districts being racially biased and not knowing how to handle misbehaving black kids. So, they suspend them, but white kids doing the same thing don’t get suspended.

I don’t find that at all persuasive…What I think is more likely to be the case is that these African American kids, those who end up getting suspended (and not all of them, for sure) are exhibiting patterns of behavior—whether it’s getting into fights or it’s using profanity with the teacher or insubordination—that are a reflection of the failures of their families to socialize them in a manner that instills the behavioral restraints associated with being able to function within that kind of environment. That’s a developmental issue—if the issue is the mother is stressed out, there’s not enough money to go around, or there’s a lot of time the kids are being unsupervised in their behavior. And it’s something that one shouldn’t just speculate about. But if the kids are really not getting the developmental experiences that are crucial to them being able to be effective adults, then that’s a serious problem. And it may actually have something to do with the adult incarceration rate inequality that we end up seeing.

IFS: You’ve argued that we need to “foster among black Americans…the acquisition of skills, habits of conduct, attitudes, values and cultural practices associated with success.” How important is the development of agency to bringing about positive change in the black community and what role do families play in this process?

Glenn Loury: Agency is a fundamental issue when talking about how African Americans deal with our continued subordinate status in American society. It’s the thing that leads me to make a distinction between a bias narrative and a development narrative. It’s what causes me to be concerned [about] someone like the prominent writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has become—at The Atlantic—the voice of the social justice movement on behalf of equality for black people. What troubles me a little bit about the way in which Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writings have been received is: Nobody is coming to save us.

This is what I want to tell young black people if they’d give me a chance—nobody is coming! You know this is not 1968 anymore. It’s certainly not 1938, and darn it, it is a long way from being 1868. So, all this talk about slavery, about white supremacy has done us wrong, or about how the American dream is an empty dream—this is what Coates says in his books. He teaches his son that there’s no let-up in the contempt that white America has for you, for your body, for your mind, and for your worth as a human being. 

This, in a country that’s so open and dynamic, and of course, people are going to argue with me about this, but what I see is that people everywhere on the planet want to be a part of this growing, dynamic, wealthy, free, and open society. People from every corner of the planet, from every strata of our society and from every ethnic group are availing themselves of this opportunity in America.

If we continue to embrace this idea that nothing’s going to happen until absolutely the last vestige of racism has been extricated—that every time a police officer who happens to be white and an African American get into an altercation that leads to a violent encounter that maybe costs the life of an African American, that’s just another evidence of how Jim Crow is continuously with us—I don’t think those things are true as a statement about the country. And I think if people who embrace that view, who give up, kind of withdraw, say it’s on the white people to get their acts together and see us for the equal human beings that, in fact, we are—if that takes the place of our accepted responsibility for our own fate, [that’s a problem] because nobody is coming….

There really isn’t any alternative to agency especially with respect to the raising of our children, where the primary place that socialization of young people [takes place] in the family. It’s not a public activity. You send your children off to school, and there may be universal Pre-K...But there’s no substitute for the guidance and loving hand of structure, and the teaching and the infusion of norms and establishment of a sense of worth that’s happening inside the households where children are being raised.

Nobody is coming to do that job for us. That’s our responsibility. How could it be otherwise? What [kind of world would it] be in which our families were not primarily responsible for taking care of our kids? I don’t think I want to live in such a world…The ball is in our court, and that’s especially so with respect to the raising of our children.

*Photo: courtesy of Glenn Loury