Black scholar renounces conservative 'crown'
It's a turnaround notable for its speed.
Just seven years ago, Glenn Loury won the American Book Award for a book that criticized the behavior of inner-city blacks and preached a gospel of self-reliance. "One By One From the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America," also targeted affirmative action, claiming that the culture of dependency it spawned was detrimental to African-American advancement.
But broach those issues today with Professor Loury, a prominent academic long associated more with Ronald Reagan than with the black intellectual mainstream, and he'll offer a starkly different assessment.
In his latest book, released earlier this year, Loury no longer condemns affirmative action or beats the drum for self-improvement. Instead, "The Anatomy of Racial Inequality" stresses the subtle and pervasive stigmatism that blacks still face in America, a stigmatism for which, Loury argues, whites are largely to blame.
The mental journey is a dramatic one for a black academic, now an economics professor at Boston University. But one thing has remained consistent. At the end of the day, Loury is, and always has been, a "race man" an intellectual preoccupied with matters of ethnicity and identity.
"Whatever else I say about race, I haven't forgotten that I'm black," Loury says. "That's a conditioned state of mind. It arises out of my particular instance, coming into the world the way I did, a world that was quote raced."
Born on the South Side of Chicago, a descendant of slaves, Loury was apolitical as a young man. But over time he came to question the civil rights establishment. That put him squarely at odds with many other African-Americans but it also made him new friends. As an MIT-trained economist, author, and tenured professor at Harvard University during the 1980s, Loury was quickly adopted by conservatives, who helped propel his career.
But fairly quickly, he hit rough ground. "I thought I was pretty hot stuff," Loury admits. "But I was in a lot of trouble, and as events developed, I think that became clear." In 1987, Loury was arrested for possession of cocaine, to which he was addicted, and spent time in a halfway house.
The following year, he began to attend church, underwent baptism, and was born again. On the heels of this religious conversion came the realization that he needed to change his life and his politics.
"I had allowed myself to become, was rushing to become, this kind of finger-wagging critic of what we now call the underclass," he recalls.
In 1991, he left his post at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government for a higher-paying position at Boston University, where he began to lay the groundwork for who he is today. A tenured professor and director of the university's Institute on Race and Social Division, Loury now sees himself as a political progressive.
Not everyone, of course, is convinced that this new phase will last. Roy Innis, a conservative colleague and leader of the Congress on Racial Equality, questions the sincerity of Loury's "epiphany," as he calls it. "I'm usually very uneasy with these turnarounds. These 'finding the light on the way to Damascus,' St. Paul and the Bible kinds of things," he says.
But Charles Ogletree Jr., a professor at Harvard Law School, sees Loury's political makeover differently, sensing what he calls a "positive maturation" in Loury's views on race. "Time will tell where he takes these views, but I for one believe the change to be real and heartfelt," Professor Ogletree writes in an e-mail.
Heartfelt or not, Loury's evolution can be traced in his work. In "One by One From the Inside Out," Loury focuses on the need for African-Americans to help themselves, rather than remain victims of an unfair society. But in "The Anatomy of Racial Inequality," Loury focuses on the problematic behavior of white Americans, pointing out their flawed assumptions which, he argues, perpetuate and reinforce negative stereotypes of blacks.
"Then, I wanted mainly to say, what manner of people are we, or you, poor urban blacks, who behave in such a way," Loury says. "Now I want mainly to say, what manner of people are we, Americans, who countenance such an awful circumstance in our midst. That's a big difference in orientation."
It would be a leap for any intellectual. But because of Loury's race, and the hostility his conservatism engendered among many African-Americans, his about-face was more vulnerable to criticism. Unpleasant questions of motive, and issues of loyalty and betrayal, cloud and aggravate an already-charged situation.
"It was being willing to be seen to be on the side of Ronald Reagan and those people that was thought to be un-black," explains Kwame Anthony Appiah, a former Harvard philosophy professor who has just moved to Princeton University. "And I think that's unfair."
Loury would agree with that assessment, but he does not believe it gives him an excuse to avoid facing his past. Today, he is his own worst critic. He says he was seduced by the glamour and power bestowed on him in those heady Republican years in the 1980s. Dining with President Reagan, sought out by the media, chauffeured in limousines, Loury says he was intoxicated by his new world.
"I know what my motives were," Loury says in retrospect. "Currying favor, ambition, the sense of exhilaration and excitement about what I'm doing now, who I'm talking to, where I'm invited, how important I seem to be, not wanting to get the disapproval of people, and therefore maybe tempering doubt or critical thoughts that come up in my own mind," Loury recalls. "So I know that I was censoring myself to a certain degree."
As a young black intellectual with impeccable credentials who dared to speak critically of his own race, Loury says he gave many conservatives what they wanted. In turn, Loury got noticed.
"There's a tendency for public intellectuals to take extreme positions in an effort to differentiate themselves from the group to which they belong, and which they might otherwise be submerged by," says Richard Posner, the author of "Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline." "If [Loury] hadn't taken an independent position, he might have gotten no attention at all. He'd just be running with the pack."
This path to success had its price, however. The more he attacked liberal dogma, the more ostracized from the African-American community he became. Seen by them as a sellout, Loury became the poster boy for appeasement, reviled by the majority of blacks who would, when he spoke in public, seethe in anger.
"I'd sort of wear it as a badge of pride," Loury says. "But down underneath, it was really taking its toll, sure." During this time, Loury developed a cocaine addiction. "I was troubled by these feelings of, well, deep down I'm a hypocrite, right?"
Loury now says he is more or less politically rehabilitated a "recovering reactionary." Yet he remains an outsider. "There are people who are just never going to forgive the unforgivable," he says. "[To them], Ronald Reagan was evil incarnate."
Randall Kennedy, a leading black professor at Harvard Law School and author of the controversial book "Nigger," agrees. "There are some people who, I guess, take the position, well, you know, if you switch so dramatically, maybe you'll switch again," Professor Kennedy says.
Having been roundly criticized for the provocative title of his book, Kennedy knows what it's like to stand apart from the liberal ranks of black academics.
"Any community is going to have some notion of loyalty," he says. "Intellectuals should not allow themselves to be too bound to ethnocentric loyalties of that sort, because that impedes the freedom that intellectuals need to do their best work."
If Kennedy is correct, perhaps Loury's best work is before him. He plans to write another book, tentatively titled "Changing My Mind." "It needs to be partly the telling of my story, but also a reflection on being a public intellectual," Loury explains.
Alan Wolfe, a professor of political science at Boston College and the author of "Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice," knows Loury well.
"Glenn is heading somewhere," he says. "At the appropriate point, I'm sure he'll know where he's at, and we'll have a major statement."