TBR: The Anatomy of Racial Inequality

Do you remember the song from A Chorus Line, "Dance 10, Looks 3"?  Today’s book, The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, by Glenn Loury, gets a rating of "Content 9, Writing 3."  Loury makes some very important arguments, but they’re buried in some of the most inpenetrable writing I’ve ever encountered.  And it’s especially frustrating since I’ve read some essays by Loury that I found both lucid and eloquent.

Loury uses the language and mathematics of classical economics to address the question of why racial disparities aren’t fading away in American society now that formal discrimination ("discrimination in contract") has largely been eliminated.  (Paul Krugman writes that there was a MIT joke that Loury’s thesis began: "This dissertation is concerned with the economics of racism. I define racism as a single-valued, continuous mapping…") Specifically, Loury argues that even if you begin with the assumptions that race is a social convention with no underlying biological reality, and that there are not overall differences in the innate capacities of the different races, it can still be rational for people to treat members of different races differently. 

An example Loury offers is of the cabbie who must decide whether to pick up a potential fare.  Loury suggests the following scenario:

  • Criminals are distributed equally often among members of two groups.
  • Criminals are less sensitive to how long they have to wait for a cab than law-abiding citizens (who can turn to alternatives like taking the bus or asking a friend for a lift — these are not good substitutes for someone planning a holdup).
  • Cabbies believe that members of group A are more likely to be criminal than members of group B, and therefore are less likely to stop for them.
  • Therefore, members of group A have to wait longer for cabs that members of group B.
  • Therefore, the law-abiding members of group A are less likely to take cabs.
  • Therefore, the subpopulation of group A who takes cabs is in fact more likely to be criminal than the subpopulation of group B.

Loury argues that similar logic could apply to various other scenarios, such as hiring workers. He then offers the question: "If the association between payoff-irrelevant markers [such as race] and payoff-relevant traits [such as criminality or work ethic] is not intrinsic, but is engendered by the nature of agent-subject interaction, then shouldn’t somebody learn what is going on and intervene to short-circuit the feedback loop producing this inequality?"  (And yes, the whole book is in this sort of awkward language.)

Loury’s answer is yes, somebody should figure out what is going on, especially governments and other large entities.  (He writes: "Consider a traffic cop sitting in a $50,000 cruiser, who has received $100,000 worth of training, is backed by a big bureaucracy, and has a computer at his fingertips that allows him, by simply reading a license plate, to instantly generate reams of information.  This is an observer with no excuse for allowing his behavior to be driven by racial generalizations.")

So why *don’t* we study these sorts of interaction more closely and figure out the intervention points that could break the cycle?  Loury argues that it’s because of persistent racial stigma.  He claims that when girls are laggging behind boys in school, people think "something must be wrong with the schools" but when blacks are lagging behind whites, people think "something must be wrong with the blacks." 

Loury is a somewhat controversial figure.  In the 1980s, he was considered a prominent black conservative, known for opposing affirmative action and arguing that self-destructive behavior was responsible for many of the problems of the black underclass.  He’s moved away from his former allies on the right, but is still far from a classical liberal — in this book he argues that the self-destructive behavior is in part a result of the distorted incentives and limited opportunities offered by a racially unequal society.  I think his ideas are worth grappling with, but the dense language of this book makes it hard to get a grip on them.

One Response to “TBR: The Anatomy of Racial Inequality”

  1. jen Says:

    Hmm, when Loury says “persistent racial stigma”, is he saying that our culture reinforces the feeling that certain racial groups are worse at school? (or less qualified, or more likely to break the law, etc.) Or is he saying that racism benefits some people, and those people might be reluctant to give up their edge?

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