Slavery, Race, and Inequality in America

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The Pew Research Center recently reported that black Americans are more dissatisfied with their progress now than at any time in the past quarter century. In this program Bill Moyers gets perspective from historical and cultural sociologist Orlando Patterson and Glenn C. Loury, an economist and expert on race and social division.


BILL MOYERS: Today, inequalities between the races remain deeply embedded in our social, political, and economic structures. The Pew Research Center reported last November that black Americans are more dissatisfied with their progress than at any time in the past quarter century. Furthermore, Pew found that almost half of African-Americans born to middle-income parents since the late 1960s have fallen into poverty or near poverty as adults.

So let’s talk now about race, class and this moment in history with two old friends whose contrarian and often controversial ideas have provoked debate on both the left and right.

Orlando Patterson is Professor of Sociology at Harvard University and the author of several major books ranging from Slavery and Social Death and The Ordeal of Integration to Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, which won the National Book Award for non-fiction. He’s also written three novels and most recently was a guest columnist for the New York Times.

Glenn Loury was the first black tenured professor in the Economics Department at Harvard University, and is now a professor at Brown University. He’s published over 200 essays in dozens of journals and his books include One by One From the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America and this one The Anatomy of Racial Inequality.

Welcome. It’s good to have you on the Journal.

GLENN C. LOURY: Welcome.


BILL MOYERS: Have we ever had a real conversation in this society about what to do about so large a number of people who have been deliberating assigned to the margins, so that it’s virtually impossible for them to climb out on their own. That is, they only have a minimal possibility of getting themselves out of the hole into which history and policy and other considerations have placed them. Have we ever had that real conversation?

GLENN C. LOURY: Well, you know, I’m thinking here about the speech that Lyndon Johnson gave, and I know you know it very well, Bill, in 1965 at Howard University. A commencement address. In which he said, in effect, that it wasn’t enough for the civil rights statutes, which had only just been enacted, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it wasn’t enough to level the playing field.

You don’t hobble a man, he said, in a metaphor with hundreds of years of deprivation and unfairness and then bring him to the starting line and shoot off the gun and say it’s a fair race.

ORLANDO PATTERSON: There are two aspects of the problems that blacks face from the horrendous past from slavery and Jim Crow. One is the public exclusion of blacks, the systematic public exclusion of people, black people, of not belonging to the society. Not being real citizens. Even though they’ve been here longer than most whites as a group.

And that exclusion is in politics, in civic life, in the economy. As late as the late ’50s. I love to illustrate the point with my students. Pick up any of the major weekly journals, even The New Yorker, and flip through it. You wouldn’t see a black face. I mean, black problems weren’t even considered worthy of discussion. This is a white country.

And with the laws, Jim Crow and elsewhere, I mean, were reinforced that. The major objective of the civil rights movement was to, of course inclusion. To insist that blacks are an integral part of this society. In its laws, in its public life, in its civil life, in its culture. In its conception of itself. And in that, it succeeded mightily. Blacks —

BILL MOYERS: So that now we see blacks in the public square. We-

ORLANDO PATTERSON: That’s right. Absolutely. I mean, the most influential woman in America, the two most influential women in America are black. The Secretary of State and Oprah Winfrey.

In that sense, what was inconceivable in America, as late, I’d say, as ’59, ’60, is now, I mean, we are an integral part of this society. And I’d say for the typical white person, America’s definition of itself is no longer a white society. It’s recognized as that, however there’s another side of what slavery which is exclusion from the private domain.

Blacks were people who lived separately. People we did not marry. People who were simply seen as apart. And that had major consequences because you’re excluded from the cultural capital of the society.

GLENN C. LOURY: I think this is exactly correct. I think it’s a very important distinction, this distinction I call discrimination in contract, the formal exclusion, and the discrimination in contact, the informal exclusion. I think the emphasis on social capital is exactly right. The fundamental question is what are the resources available for human development for people?

And some of those resources come through formal channels. But many of those resources come about as the indirect byproduct of social life that’s just played out in communities and in families and so forth. But the thing that I would like to add to what Orlando just said is that there are public and political implications of the informal, as well as the formal derogation and subordination of blacks.

The public implications of the formal were manifest in reforms like the Civil Rights Act. That made it illegal to discriminate in employment and in housing and so forth. But there are also public implications of the informal. I want to say that massive urban communities that are almost exclusively black and that are troubled, are a public product. They came about as a result of policy.

They are partly the reflection of people not wanting to be around the people who live in those communities. And they’re, therefore, recuse a responsibility to our political institutions to redress those consequences.

And what I mean practically is this. You go to the inner city school systems and you look at who’s teaching the children there. And it’s a labor. I respect what people are doing. But I have to say this, often, the most talented and pedagogically gifted and qualified of the people that we have available to teach our children, are not teaching the children who are most in need of that kind of instruction. And there’s a zero sum element to a lot of this. People are thinking it’s the education of my kid or the education of somebody else’s kid

And to my mind, the solution to that problem is to make them not have to fight over the same dollars. We could invest a lot more than we are investing.

ORLANDO PATTERSON: Well, I agree with all of that. But there’s another side to it. There are two sides to it. black Americans face one enormous internal problem. And that’s the nature of their families. Historically we know the reason why black Americans, I mean are in the situation they’re in. It’s a fact that there are 270 years in which the primary focus of slavery was the destruction of the family. Whatever historians may say. And historians are quite deluded about this.

Then we have a long period in which this persisted. Now what I’m saying, then, is that we have to address not only the schools, but we also have to address and the state has a role here—this is where I differ from the conservatives radically – the state has a role in it. How can we help to fix the fragile state of black American families? And because, you know, I mean, with young kids, especially young boys you know, without growing up without fathers, in which welfare laws have made it essential that their mothers work. Sometimes two jobs.

They’re not being parented. And the streets, then, capture them. Gangs, we know now, every study on gangs have indicated that gangs have become a substitute for families, for parenting. And the gang leader is often a father substitute. We have to, and the state has a big role here, and we’re talking big bucks, in address directly how we can help these mothers who are doing a heroic job, but failing because they just don’t have the time. They’re just human.

In terms of our making provisions available from very early. I’m going back to infancy.

GLENN C. LOURY: When we talk about this — as when Senator Obama spoke about this on Father’s Day recently in his speech in Chicago on the family — when we talk about this we’re kind of doing a two pronged discourse. We’re talking about we, the American people, and we’re also talking about we, or them, the African-American people. We’re talking about what must we do as a polity, what should our laws be, what should our policies be? Nurses that come home with indigent mothers to help them learn how to take care of their children. Preschool programs so that kids, who otherwise aren’t getting the cognitive stimulation, have a chance to develop their young brains.

After school programs so that kids are not wandering the streets aimlessly and all the rest. Public policy. But then we’re also talking about moral judgment. About the sanction of unacceptable behavior. About cajoling. About identifying deadbeat dads and fathers who won’t take care. And then lecturing them that they ought to do better.

Now, I’m not against a lecture. But I don’t want the fact of the lecture to get in the way of the development of the program of public action, which is absolutely necessary to solving the problem. And the difficulty is that people are too satisfied with the lecture. They’re too satisfied to hear Bill Cosby or Barack Obama stand up and say what they’ve been wanting to say all these years about Black Fathers not taking care of their responsibilities. And then they’re done. And they ought not to be.

BILL MOYERS: What would you like us to know about the dynamics, the mechanics of the African-American community or family that is producing what everyone recognizes is a catastrophe for those families? So many children born are not raised with fathers. What should we know about why that is happening?

GLENN C. LOURY: What I think people, I would most want them to understand is that they’re not any different from you, okay? Culture matters, okay?

I’m not saying all communities are the same. I’m saying that if you and your forebearers had been subjected to the same historical forces, you would likely be finding yourself pretty much in the same fix, okay? So judgment ought to wait a more subtle consideration of how we have collectively wrought the situation that we’re imputing to this community.

I say “we,” I mean Americans. Of course, many people weren’t here 100 or 200 years ago, their ancestors weren’t here. Nevertheless, they joined a going concern, and that going concern has one way or another helped to bring about a contemporary situation in which they are implicated.

They’re not any different from you. These little knuckle-headed gang-bangers running around with pistols, robbing people and selling drugs? They’re not any different from you. If you’d grown up in a public housing project, your kid might well be out there with them. They’re not any different than you. They are our children. It’s our problem. That’s what I want people to understand.

BILL MOYERS: Was it a good idea for Obama to make this speech? You called it a lecture. To make this speech, because he has been criticized for underscoring what Patrick Moynihan said almost 40 years ago about the black family. He’s been criticized for highlighting what, to many African-Americans, is a shame that they would like not to have publicly disclosed. Do you think he made a mistake in —

ORLANDO PATTERSON: I don’t think he did. Sociologists and social scientists generally think that black Americans are ashamed of this situation and don’t want to talk about it. And for a long time, in fact, I mean, people didn’t even stare the family because they were so terrified that this would be seen as blaming the victim.

But study after study has indicated that black Americans recognize that there is a problem. A few years ago, I was at a conference, an all-black conference in Miami on the family in a cathedral down that. Two thousand, ordinary working black Americans took their precious day off to attend that conference. And they were talking about, they wanted to address the issues. They see it as a problem.

So it’s among intellectuals that there’s this feeling that we don’t, Barack Obama’s got his, is dead on in realizing that, no, it’s not you losing any votes about it. Because the typical black American view is we do have a problem.

GLENN C. LOURY: Well, that may be right. I mean, I think the speech was smart politics on many levels. And I could come back to that. But I don’t entirely agree with Orlando about this. In that of course, African-Americans, for many years, have been saying you know, there’s a lot of problems that within our community, that we have no one to blame but ourselves. And we need to, you know, these young men, these little knuckleheads, they need to, you know, these gang bangers, they need to, you know, these little boys going around havin’ babies they can’t take care of and so forth.

There’s nothing new. Sermons have been preached about that for a very long time. And, again, I want to say, I’m not against those sermons. But I don’t regard them as politics. Okay? Politics is different. The political questions are about mutual obligation. They’re about how the taxing authority and the cohesive authority of the state, which shapes our institutional environment, ought to be deployed on behalf of legitimate public goals. Now, the state of the African-American family can’t be a public goal. Communal exhortation, mentorship, religious and spiritual training, leadership that comes from within community, what does it mean to be an African-American parent in the 21st century?

What are our responsibilities to our forbearers, to our successor generations and to ourselves? What does God, if it comes to that, tell us that we must do? Those are important communal conversations, but they’re not political conversations. And it’s, as I say, the possibility of undermining the achievement of political goals. Now, I saw that speech in Chicago and I thought that Barack Obama needed to go into a black church. And —

BILL MOYERS: This was in a black church.

GLENN C. LOURY: Yeah, this was —

BILL MOYERS: It was not Trinity United. It was an Apostolic.


BILL MOYERS: A Pentacostal Church.

GLENN C. LOURY: A mega church with, I don’t know, 16,000 members or whatever the number is. A huge church. He needed to go into a black church on Sunday, given the backdrop. He needed to try to undermine this critical narrative about him as being, somehow, not sharing the values of typical Americans because of his pastor and so forth. He needed to establish his independence and to shore up his credentials as a leader by taking on a taboo topic and courageously addressing it. But did he advance the ball in doing so toward the achievement of these public and political goals that we’re talking about?

BILL MOYERS: But we won’t know that, will he, unless he’s elected President.

GLENN C. LOURY: Well, so that’s the argument. The argument is he will be elected. And in his election, good things will come. But, you know I’m afraid about-

BILL MOYERS: Afraid of what?

GLENN C. LOURY: Afraid that he might lose. But the center of the conversation will be shifted in such way that black people will be paying a price for years to come.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean? Why would black people pay a price for that speech?

GLENN C. LOURY: In this campaign I think the Reverend Wright controversy and the speech that Obama gave in Philadelphia after it was the beginning of this process. The implicit racial contract is being renegotiated. The sort of, consensus view about collective American responsibility around racial questions is being renegotiated.

Now, I’m not saying that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Okay? Barack Obama is actually more important to the future of affirmative action than was Sandra Day O’Conner, in my opinion. If Barack Obama comes out in October or September and gives this speech that says affirmative action should be class based and not race based, it will be so. Now, I’m not nece-

BILL MOYERS: It will be so. You mean?

GLENN C. LOURY: It will materially affect the consensus understanding politically in the country about affirmative action if he decides to redefine it in that way.

BILL MOYERS: So how do you change the metaphor when you do that?

GLENN C. LOURY: Well what’s at stake here for me is the extent to which current generations of Americans understand a historical obligation to deal with racial inequality. Ok? To make sacrifices on behalf of it. To bend themselves out of what they would otherwise would do in order to mitigate racial inequality.

Now I’m not saying Obama’s program is anything other than progressive around these questions. I think that it is progressive. Okay? But I think that the country as a whole is looking for a reason to get out of the mire of racial politics and racial discussion. And I think Obama’s offer to the country is that his very person, his very success in his electoral ambition, is a kind of expiation of collective racial sin. It’s a kind of confirmation of what’s, as he said, good about America. As opposed to what’s bad about America.

ORLANDO PATTERSON: That all good. But there’s something which he’s done. His policies. Look, there’s always a huge problem in policies with respect to black Americans. And that is on one side, whether they’re going to be targeted towards blacks. So if you have a poverty program, you make sure that it’s for blacks and so on. Or whether it’s gonna be universal. That is, you take the view that it is not a black problem. This is a problem of poverty and the majority of poor people are white.

BILL MOYERS: And that’s what happens when you transfer it from race to class.

ORLANDO PATTERSON: That’s right. And one of the problems that took place since the ’60s. And is that the targeted policy people have won. The danger with that is that poverty was racialized. It was easy for conservatives to say, “Okay, we’ll give them some crumbs.” But it’s not a national problem. And by the way, the same thing happened in Europe for the welfare state legislations were kept at bay as long as they’re seen as, for the poor.

The welfare state in Europe and Esping-Andersen and others who have written on the history of it indicate that only won political support when it was seen as universal. And middle class people said, “Oh, I’m going to get something out of this, too.” And what Obama has proposed is a shift from the targeted approach to a universal approach. In which, yes, affirmative action will be for the white poor, as well as the black poor.

Poverty and poverty programs are not going to be targeted just for blacks. But for Appalachians and others. And then, that strategy will indeed, lead to a shift in support for the kind of quite radical sort of end of poverty initiatives which we’ll have to engage in. And that and he’s made it quite clear in his biography, in his autobiography, as well as in his program. And-

GLENN C. LOURY: I’ve read this, but I’m not persuaded, Orlando. And I think the distinction that you make between targeted and universal doesn’t go far enough. That’s an old distinction. You know, affirmative action is race based and its racial preference versus something that’s universal like a class based thing, from which blacks could also benefit.

The point I want to make here is that within universalism, there are many houses. There can be universalism that is more or less felicitous of advancing the interest of particular groups. So the Columbia University political scientist, historian, Ira Katznelson, has a book called When Affirmative Action Was White. And what it’s about is the GI Bill. And it’s about the New Deal. And he’s making the point that in the 1930s and ’40s and ’50s massive transformation of American institutions and huge investments were made. They were universal, primarily.

BILL MOYERS: For whites.

GLENN C. LOURY: Yeah, but the consequences of the design and structure of these universal programs, the New Deal programs, agricultural supports the rewriting of labor laws — the GI Bill, the consequences of these programs, which were on their face universal, was to massively disproportionately benefit white working class vis-à-vis black working class for a variety of reasons that he goes in, into the book.

And likewise, likewise, if we say affirmative action at leading American universities is now open to poor people, regardless of their race, no more of these middle class blacks who have lower test scores getting into places like Princeton or Harvard or any place like that. The result of that, the actual result of doing it, just like that and nothing else will be for every black that might have benefited, there are going to be ten poor whites who could potentially benefit.

It will be a significant reduction of the number of blacks at these institutions. Now, maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s not okay. But to reach that result without explicitly engaging the question, what will happen to the racial representation of African-Americans if we make this shift, will be to do blind universalism. And I’m not for that.

BILL MOYERS: Whether Obama wins or loses, does his campaign symbolize the great changes of the last 50 years? You talked about those. And is this a defining moment for race in America?

ORLANDO PATTERSON: Absolutely. What he embodies one America, I call ecumenical America. I see not one but three Americas. There’s a traditional America, there’s a multicultural America-

BILL MOYERS: How is ecumenical America different from multicultural America?

ORLANDO PATTERSON: Oh, multicultural America is a salad bowl in which everyone does their own thing and couldn’t give a damn about what’s going on elsewhere. Identity politics is almost mean-spirited about, you know, we’ll attend the parade on St. Patrick’s Day but, you know, we don’t want to know you.

And a genuine intercultural America, it knows the other, and is involved with the other. And in a way, Obama embodies that. And it’s very appealing, especially to a younger generation of America now, there’s a huge divide in terms of age in America. Between people under, say, 45 and people above. And, I mean, it can be it comes out in every poll done. But you see it visibly.

I used to live a block away from a public school which you looked at, Cambridge Rindge and Latin, which is a very diverse multicultural school genuine. And I used to just love walks through that school because you see these young kids, their interaction with each other is like nothing a person over 50 can understand. And the reason for the appeal to younger people is that indeed he represents this intercultural America, I call it ecumenical, because there is a common culture there, a common culture which black Americans contribute to enormously, even as they were excluded. And —

BILL MOYERS: Through music, and art, and-

ORLANDO PATTERSON: Yes. And styles of living-

BILL MOYERS: Sure. Language —


BILL MOYERS: — yes, language.

ORLANDO PATTERSON: Fist-bumping and arm, what have you. I mean, it’s

BILL MOYERS: Fist-bumping?

ORLANDO PATTERSON: I mean, and the over-50s don’t know about that. But, I mean you know, that’s their problem. So and he embodies that and represents that. Now he’s going to have also an enormous effect on the black community. Already we see that. Remember the beginning, Hillary Clinton was 40 points ahead of him because of the blacks just didn’t see that he was possible. Until Iowa, and so on. Now, I see a tremendous change already in the black communities. My God, we are accepted. We are part of the system. And I-

GLENN C. LOURY: So is it an ecumenical or multicultural development, this change within the black community rallying around Obama?


GLENN C. LOURY: Is it in a multicultural but not an ecumenical development?

ORLANDO PATTERSON: No, it has to go, it’s gonna go beyond identity politics now, which accepts the others, but which sort of simply say, “I do my thing and you do your thing.” What it’s saying is that these people are accepting him as their leader. We are part of this —

GLENN C. LOURY: Yeah, but —

GLENN C. LOURY: I would say that in —

ORLANDO PATTERSON: I see it in the barbershop. My sense is that-

GLENN C. LOURY: No, no, I know what you’re talking about. I see it in my inbox from e-mails from people writing in when they don’t like what I say on some blog or something. But-

BILL MOYERS: But you’re skeptical of what?


BILL MOYERS: Orlando is —

GLENN C. LOURY: Yeah, I am. Because well on the first thing I wanna say is I think Obama’s candidacy is an extraordinary event, and I see it not mainly through the generational lens or even through the racial lens. I see it through the way that he frames conflict, political difference.

He wants to transcend and not litigate some of these open questions from our culture wars and out past political wars.

It’s not as if he’s saying we have to extirpate every remnant of the Reagan era, we have to go after every right-wing this or right-wing that. It’s as if he wants to say, “It’s a whole new day, let’s redefine the questions and let’s change the agenda.”

But the other thing that I wanted to say about Obama is with respect to blacks is who are voting to Barack Obama in 90 percent levels in the primary season, and who constitute a very important element of his political coalition. I don’t know that they recognize that they’re voting for the end of race as we’ve known it in the country. I don’t know that they recognize and I don’t mean to belittle them. I’m just asking a question. I’m not sure they recognize that —

ORLANDO PATTERSON: Why would they?

GLENN C. LOURY: In the success of —


GLENN C. LOURY: Obama’s candidacy will be a complete redefinition of the racial landscape.

ORLANDO PATTERSON: And there’s no reason why they should.

GLENN C. LOURY: Well, because they’re caught up in the emotion of a black guy runnin’ for President. It’s the first chance to support them without perhaps thinking through all the implications of what that might mean.

ORLANDO PATTERSON: Right. But, you know, that’s the way things happen in America. During the Revolution those Revolution leaders didn’t know they were running a Revolution. I mean you know, you read their diaries, you know, I mean, Adams at one point said, “My God. I mean, I’m a conservative lawyer. What am I doing?” I mean. And, you know, things emerge in context, you know. The logic of the situation forces people to think anew-

BILL MOYERS: Now, you —

ORLANDO PATTERSON: — and that’s what’s happening here.

BILL MOYERS: Orlando Patterson, Glenn Loury, Thanks for being here.

This transcript was entered on May 25, 2015.

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