One by One from the Inside Out
In the United States, African Americans are “representative persons.” That is, their behavior is not perceived as springing solely from internal sources. Rather, it represents something; it serves to assist majority culture to measure the decline or progress of the race itself. Successful blacks reap individual benefits but also function as demonstrations of “what a black person is really capable of.” “Failures” cannot experience the simple misery of their lot, for, however dimly, they know that they have provided material for those who want to say, “There, I told you so!” They have failed to be “a credit to the race.”
Most members of other minority groups in the United States also function as representative persons. Yet their burden is immeasurably lighter. For example, Koreans never served as slaves and so are exempt from the infinitely complex psychology of guilt and innocence that bedevils black-white relations. Of Koreans one could never say, as Orlando Patterson says of his people, “The black population, for two thirds of its history in the United States—248 of 377 years or .6578 of its history, to be exact—was an enslaved group, physically, economically, socially, legally, sexually, morally, and psychologically, subjected not only to the exploitative whim of individual white owners but at the violent mercy of all whites.”
As Shelby Steele has vividly pointed out, white Americans desperately wish to construct a defense of their own innocence in relation to this history. Few do so by exculpating the institution of slavery. Most proclaim their noninvolvement, the contemporary irrelevance of the question, and their fervent best wishes for “black improvement.” What is seldom noticed is that all such defenses leave blacks with something to prove—that the racists are wrong, that advocates of color-blind policies are right, that the suspicion of racial inferiority that hangs in the American air can gradually be dispelled, or that this is indeed Babylon.
The profoundest argument that America remains a deeply racist nation lies exactly in this domain. If a group of people “have something to prove”—if the actions of one of their number are quickly generalized to the whole (more than thirty million persons, in this case)—they are not unique selves but representative persons. As such, they are excluded from the quintessential American experience: to be considered purely as individuals—unencumbered by ancient ties, archaic histories, outlived traditions, ancestral and tribal enmities. When a young white male is sent to prison, no one says, “He has shamed the white race.” Caucasians enjoy the status of true individuals; blacks meanwhile still remain “race men.”
Such is the context within which the remarkable saga of Glenn Loury is playing itself out. Loury’s career as a black intellectual has been predicated on the audacious theory that American individualism is vibrant enough to be the political philosophy of African Americans. He has long held that blacks have been too reluctant to make use of the opportunities that America affords, opportunities that realistically exist despite racism’s undeniable grip. In the prologue to One By One from the Inside Out, he makes his credo very clear:
Thus, ironically, to the extent that we individual blacks see ourselves primarily through a racial lens, we sacrifice possibilities for the kind of personal development that would ultimately further our collective racial interests. We cannot be truly free men and women while laboring under a definition of self derived from the perceptual view of our oppressor, confined to the contingent facts of our oppression. . . . It seems to me that a search for some mythic authentic blackness too often works . . . to hold back young black souls from flight into the open skies of American society.
Such a point of view must impose multiple burdens on any African American who holds it, and it is clear that Loury has found them occasionally unendurable. While he has refused to view himself “primarily through a racial lens,” others have insisted upon it. A product of the Chicago’s South Side, Loury grew up in the charged racial environment of the 1960’s. Having majored in mathematics with an interest in both social issues and abstract modeling problems, Loury completed a Ph.D. in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the mid-1970’s. He eventu- ally became a tenured faculty member at Harvard University and, in the words of Robert S. Boynton, “an intellectual hero of the Reagan right.” Loury was instrumental in acquainting Americans with what seemed like a new species: the black conservative intellectual. With Clarence Thomas, Shelby Steele, Stanley Crouch, Stephen Carter, Julius Lester, and Patricia Williams, Loury has opened entirely new perspectives on the debates over affirmative action, civil rights, crime, welfare, and urban decay.
This volume is a collection of Loury’s writings from the preceding eleven years. The most substantial pieces appeared first in such publications as First Things, The Public Interest, Moment, and the Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy. Readers would, however, be well...
(The entire section is 2162 words.)