Race And Affirmative Action
An interview with Professor Glenn Loury of Harvard University
From Human Rights In Australia by LJM Cooray (1985)

Since 1982, Glenn Loury has been a Professor of Economics and Afro-American Studies at Harvard University. Prior to joining the Harvard faculty, Professor Loury was an economics professor at the University of Michigan and at Northwestern University. He received his BA in Mathematics from Northwestern University and his PhD in Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Professor Loury has devoted a major portion of his career to the study of race and public policy. He is the author of 'On the Need for Moral Leadership in the Black Community', 'Responsibility and Race', 'Impact of Affirmative Action on Equal Opportunity: A New Look', and most recently 'A New American Dilemma'. Professor Loury is an Associate Editor of the Journal of Urban Economics, a member of the Research Advisory Board of the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington, DC, and a member of the Council for a Black Economic Agenda - a newly formed organisation that is articulating a conservative vision for black Americans.

Ed. Update: The civil rights policies of the past quarter century seem to have been based on equality of outcome rather than on equality of opportunity.

Professor Glenn Loury: I think you are correct to describe the direction in which civil rights enforcement policy has moved over the last 20 years as one which has placed increasing stress on results. Of course the ideal of equal opportunity merely requires that persons be treated in employment or admissions decisions without regard to their race or religion or sex, but not necessarily with the goal of attaining a certain proportional representation. So there is a conflict between the equal opportunity ideal on the one hand and the results-oriented focus of our enforcement efforts on the other. This conflict presents quite serious problems of a philosophical, political and moral nature.

Ed. Update: What is the philosophical problem?

Professor Loury: If preference toward obtaining a particular racial result is given to some individuals, inevitably other individuals will be denied opportunities that would otherwise have been forthcoming to them.

Ed. Update: Is preferential treatment ever justified?

Professor Loury: I believe that there are limited circumstances under which such actions can be justified, but that those circumstances are significantly narrower than the current range of application of affirmative action policies. There can be an overriding public interest, for example, in a southern town with a 40 percent black population and a long history of racial oppression by a police force in which blacks have never served. The public interest, in this case, would require that the police force be integrated. The point is that the maintenance of order in this town requires the public to have confidence in those authorised to use deadly force under limited circumstances, and that this is best attained, given the historical context, by having representatives of all racial groups in the community on the police force. But this kind of case, of course, is not the primary context within which results-oriented policies are being implemented.

Ed. Update: What is the political problem?

Professor Loury: The political problems stem from the fact that affirmative action policies create backlash. Simply put, white male Americans have rights too. How can one justify denying admission to an elite professional school to a working-class white youth of immigrant parents, who has struggled against all odds to be able to score high on the admissions test, while admitting instead a member of an appropriately designated minority group, who has enjoyed all the advantages of an upper middle-class upbringing - but has not performed as well according to standard admissions criteria?

Such actions build resentment, which ticks away as a time bomb inside the base of political support for these policies. Resentment is heightened when defenders of the policies claim that to even raise such a question is to engage in a racist act. Advocates of preferential treatment have become so arrogant that they believe they owe no explanation to the young white men who raise such questions. I think that the effort to defend their position by shrill moralizing, instead of directly engaging the legitimate concerns of those who raise questions about them, has been a monumental strategic error on the part of the advocates of affirmative action, the consequences of which they are having to live with.

Ed. Update: What is the moral problem?

Professor Loury: It has to do with the possibility of attaining dignity and honour for blacks. Throughout the long history of the emancipation, blacks have struggled to become equal participants in the national enterprise. This, of course, was the substance of Martin Luther King's dream. The legislation and the judicial decisions of the 1950s and 1960s laid the foundation upon which the attainment of this dream could be built. In certain fundamental ways, the widespread practice of affirmative action, as a primary vehicle for blacks in gaining participation in the leading institutions of American society, undermines this foundation.

Ed. Update: How so?

Professor Loury: First, the practice of affirmative action creates a circumstance where black achievement in the minds of those looking on from the outside cannot be unambiguously ascribed to the efforts of individual black persons, but rather is shrouded in the suspicion that the attainment of a prestigious position is partly due to the influence of affirmative action policies.

Second, knowing that they do not have to score at the top of the class in order to have the benefits of being at the top of the class, black young people in the early stages of their careers often face the wrong set of incentives. I have heard black undergraduates at Harvard College, for example, say that a B-average is good enough, since upon leaving Harvard with such an average they are sure to be able to get a very good job. However, there is something profoundly ignoble about the posture that beneficiaries of affirmative action are forced to adopt in defense of their circumstances. They end up arguing that, absent such policies, no blacks would ever penetrate the hallowed institutional halls where they now walk. This is either an assertion that such institutions are fundamentally and implacably racist or an admission that blacks lack the capacity to compete on an equal basis under any circumstances. Either assertion is abjectly inconsistent with the facts.

Ed. Update: Are you saying a change in attitude is needed?

Professor Loury: I think there is a deep lesson in all this. It is that groups of people who seek to improve their status in the social hierarchy also need to earn the genuine respect of their fellows - not their condescension, their acquiescence in certain demands, their pity, or their guilt. Blacks will not be equal in American society until they are able to command the respect of their fellow Americans. By making affirmative action claims a primary part of the struggle for equality, blacks are building into the structure of their advance elements that negate the possibility of attaining this respect. The truth of the matter is that no government, no institution of higher education, no corporation, no political body can bestow this respect on black people. It can only be earned by the efforts of individuals. Therefore, to the extent that preferential treatment becomes a political substitute for individual effort and achievement, the attainment of Martin Luther King's dream will be postponed.

Ed. Update: If preferential treatment were no longer required by legislation and judicial order, what would be the reaction of our institutions of higher education?

Professor Loury: I suspect there would be a variety of responses. Public institutions, being subject to the influence of state legislatures would probably be more sensitive to affirmative action goals in many regions of the country than would many private institutions. One good thing that might happen, however, would be a shift from a focus on representatives of certain designated groups as the beneficiaries of affirmative action to a more general focus on dis-advantaged persons as potential beneficiaries of preferential treatment. This, you may recall, is the line of attack used by Justice William Douglas. The idea was that special consideration would be given to applicants who have demonstrated their capacity to overcome some significant obstacle or disadvantage, whatever their race, sex or religion.

Ed Update: You are one of the founders of the Council for a Black Economic Agenda, which met recently with President Reagan. What are the educational goals of the Council?

Professor Loury: The Council believes that the condition of poor blacks could be materially advanced if the choices of parents with regard to the nature of education for their children could be expanded. Many of these parents would seek out alternative educational options for their children if they could get some financial assistance. For this reason, the Council has advocated a program of educational vouchers for the parents of low-income students. These portable vouchers would enable parents to avail themselves of private education for their children, should they be willing to make the necessary attendant sacrifices. This option and its exercise by some parents would create pressures on the public institutions and the unions that represent their employees which well might lead to an improved educational environment for all poor students.