Glenn Loury and I will find plenty to argue about, and I may decide to engage some of those arguments in the future.
But for now, I want simply to report what the self-described conservative professor (at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study) said in a recent speech before the National Press Club. His analysis strikes me as a solid basis for a much-needed debate on the seemingly intractable problems of the black "underclass."
There are, said Loury, two partisan themes that dominate the debate over how best to explain the bleak statistics of the black poor, 20 years after a gloriously successful civil rights movement. One theme blames it all on racism -- perhaps a modernized, more subtle racism, but still racism.
"From this perspective," he said, "black youth unemployment represents the refusal of employers to hire competent and industrious young men because of their race. Black welfare dependency is the inescapable consequence of the absence of opportunity for parents to become self-supporting. Black academic underperformance reflects racial bias in the provision of public education. Black incarceration rates are the result of bias of the police and the judiciary."
The other theme, characterized by the Reagan administration, is to blame the gamut of problems on the failures of Great Society liberals, "to see the problem as the legacy of a tragically misconceived welfare state."
The most obvious result of this second view, Loury said, is that it leads the administration to conclude that it needn't articulate any policy whatever for addressing the problems of the black underclass. "It is as though those shaping the domestic agenda of this government do not see the explicitly racial character of this problem. . . . Their response, quite literally, has been to promulgate a de facto doctrine of 'benign neglect.'
There is a good deal more to the Loury analysis than there is room for here, and there is also this insight: the two explanatory themes, neither of which could, by itself, survive close scrutiny, prop each other up.
"The lack of a positive, high priority response from the administration to what is now a longstanding, continuously worsening social problem has allowed politically marginal, intellectually moribund and morally bankrupt elements to retain a credibility and force in our political life far beyond what their accomplishments could otherwise support."
But "the shrill, vitriolic, self-serving and obviously unfair attacks" on administration officials has "drained the criticism of much of its legitimacy. The 'racist' epithet, like the little boy's cry of 'wolf,' is a charge so often invoked these days that it has lost its historic moral force." The result, Loury argues, is an environment that renders candid discussion of issues and options virtually impossible. He offers himself as a case in point:
"I am an acknowledged critic of the civil rights leadership (one who would side with the administration) on enterprise zones, on a youth opportunity wage, on educational vouchers for low-income students, on requiring work from able-bodied welfare recipients, on dealing sternly with those who violently brutalize their neighbors. I am no enemy of right-to-work laws; I do not despise the institution of private property. I am, somewhat to my own surprise, philosophically more conservative than the vast majority of my academic peers. I love, and believe in, this democratic republic.
"But I am also a black man; a product of Chicago's South Side; a veteran, in spirit if not in practice, of the civil rights revolution. I am a partisan on behalf of the inner-city poor. I agonize at the extraordinary waste of human potential which the despair of ghetto America represents. I cannot help but lament, deeply and personally, how little progress we have made in relieving the suffering that goes on there."
If it is true that some liberal approaches have failed, he says, it is also true that the Reagan administration has no approach to -- nor any evident interest in -- solving the problem.
The need, Loury argues, is for one side to acknowledge the shortcomings of its orthodoxies, and for the other to acknowledge the existence of a profoundly serious, race-specific problem.
"This is not a call for big spending, nor is it an appeal for a slick public relations campaign to show that Ronald Reagan 'cares' as much as Tip O'Neill. Rather, it is a plaintive cry for the need to actively engage this problem, for the elevation of concern for racial inequality to a position of priority on our government's domestic affairs agenda."