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Race in America

Round Two: Concluding Remarks

GLENN C. LOURY

Correspondent Kevin Bowman complains that I do not take sufficiently seriously the possibility that the plight of the black underclass comes from "within" the black community (due to failures of "black culture") rather than from "without" (due to white racism). He thinks I am afraid to admit the truth about "black culture" because doing so would let whites off the hook for their moral and social responsibility to poor blacks. Correspondent Tom Sweetnam is similarly disturbed by a lack of candor in the discussion, particularly concerning what he takes to be justified fears among whites of "black criminality." Mr. D'Souza alleges that I have difficulty conceding the "cultural dysfunctionality" and "behavioral pathologies" of the black poor. He further asserts that my "confusion can be clarified" by consulting the century-old debate between the great black leaders, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.

These complaints reflect a serious misunderstanding (in D'Souza's case, a willful misrepresentation) of my position. The fact is that I "wrote the book" on behavioral dysfunction as it relates to black poverty. My collection, One by One from the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America (1995) argues in detail and at length that "Blacks Must Now Fight the Enemy Within" (as I put it in the title of an August 1985[!] Washington Post Op-Ed). In 1992 I gave a Bradley Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute titled, "Two Paths to Black Progress: The Conflicting Visions of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois" (reprinted in my book), where I noted approvingly that Washington, unlike Du Bois, confronted candidly the dysfunctional behaviors characteristic of lower-class black society. (Mr. D'Souza, then as now a fellow at AEI, is certainly aware that, more than five years ago, I made the very argument that he now disingenuously quotes back to me without attribution.) Furthermore, I am involved along with my wife, the economist Linda Datcher Loury, in a major research project to study church-based, self-help efforts that address behavioral and other problems confronting low-income blacks. Much of my recent writing, in The New Republic, The Brookings Review, and elsewhere, deals with these "internal" efforts. There is not space here to give a full account of my thinking in this area, but for a useful summary the interested reader can consult my essay, "The Divided Society and the Democratic Idea."
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The highly ideological character of racial discourse in America makes nuance and complexity almost impossible in discussions of this kind. Genuine wisdom usually doesn't fit on a bumper sticker. It happens to be true that history has dealt poor blacks a very bad hand. It is also true that the most debilitating impediments to advancement among the underclass derive from patterns of behavior that are self-limiting. Obviously, there must be change in these behaviors if progress is to be made. But it is equally obvious that a commitment of resources and support will also be required from the broader society to help these folks help themselves.

There is no confusion, avoidance, or embarrassment implied by making these distinct observations. They are all a part of the truth. Self-development is what I have called an "existential necessity" for blacks as an ethnic community. But there is a moral requirement for Americans as a democratic polity to affirmatively address the dire conditions of those who are mired in the worst urban poverty in the industrial West. America's pretensions -- to being "a city on a hill," a beacon of hope and freedom to all the world -- seem fraudulent when set alongside the lives of haplessness and despair lived by so many of those Americans who descend from slaves. Thus the citizens of this republic bear a responsibility to be actively engaged in changing the structures that constrain the black poor, in such a way that they can more effectively exercise their inherent and morally required capacity to choose. That "those people" -- who now languish in the drug-infested, economically depressed, crime-ridden central cities -- are "our" people, and that "we" must be in relationship with them, are moral truths that transcend politics. Why is it that when I make this observation the instinct of so many people is to complain that I haven't called sufficient attention to the violent criminal behavior, or lack of sexual discipline, to be found among the urban black poor?


Roundtable Overview


Introduction and opening questions by Nicholas Lemann

Round One -- posted on November 13, 1997

Round Two -- posted on November 26, 1997

Glenn C. Loury, a professor of economics and the Director of the Institute on Race and Social Division at Boston University, is the author of One by One, From the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America (1995). His article "The Conservative Line on Race" appears in the November, 1997, issue of The Atlantic.

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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