Glenn Loury discusses racism with Sam Harris

| August 31, 2016 | 2 Replies

I found this discussion of race issues by Glenn C. Loury and Sam Harris to be a lively, challenging and candid discussion.

Consider, for example, this excerpt on “structural racism”:

This is one of the reasons why I think the term “structural racism” is so compelling to many people. But I, a social scientist, find the evocation of that kind of one-size-fits-all narrative—structural racism—inadequate to getting an account of what’s actually going on.

It’s not as if there’s a bunch of white people meeting somewhere deciding to make the laws in order to repress blacks. And it’s not as if the outcomes that people are concerned about—in the example at hand, disparities in the incidence of incarceration—are independent of the free choices and decisions that are being made by people, in this case black people, who might end up finding themselves in prison. They made a decision to participate in criminal activities that were clearly known to be illicit and perhaps carried the consequences that they are now suffering, didn’t they?

Sometimes the decisions they make have enormous negative consequences for other black people. Do we want to inquire about what’s going on in the homes and communities and backgrounds from which people are coming who are the subjects of this racial inequality? Or are we to assume that any such deficits or disadvantages that are causally associated with their involvement in lawbreaking, and that are related to their own community organization, structures of family, attentiveness of parenting, and so forth, are nevertheless themselves the consequence of white racism? Black people wouldn’t be acting that way if it weren’t for white racism. If there were greater opportunity, if the schools were better funded, if it hadn’t been for slavery, the black family wouldn’t have… So forth, and so on.

If that’s what you mean by structural racism, which is to say, every racial disparity is almost by definition a consequence of racism, either because it reflects contempt for the value of black life, and the neglect of the development of black people, or because to the extent that it is a consequence of choices that black people are making themselves, they are making such choices only because of the despair, the neglect, the lack of opportunity, etc., that they have experienced, then it seems to me that that’s a kind of tautology that says, “Any disparity by race is, by definition, a reflection of structural racism.”

That’s a tautology that, as a social scientist, I don’t want to embrace. And as an African-American, I’m profoundly skeptical of it because at some level, it seems to me, it kind of surrenders the possibility of African-American agency, saying that everything that is of a negative character, that is a reflection of inequality, of disparity, in which blacks are on the short end of everything, is a consequence of this history. How is it that blacks are unable to make our own lives notwithstanding whatever the history may have been?

Are there not variations and differentiations within the black population that one could identify and extol the virtue of—certain patterns of behavior and reactions to environmental conditions that seem to be effective and more life-affirming, more successful, than others? I don’t like structural racism because it’s imprecise, because it’s a kind of dead end. It leaves us, I mean African-Americans, dependent upon a kind of dispensation to be bestowed by powerful whites, who actually are moral agents, who actually do have the ability to choose or not various ways of life, including responding affirmatively to our demands for redress of our subordination.

Whites are powerful; whites are agents; whites can do the right thing or the wrong thing. Blacks are merely historical chips. We’re merely cogs, being driven by the fact of slavery, by the fact of Jim Crow segregation, and so on, and ultimately not responsible for our own and our children’s lives.

The interview contains references to many studies and also statistics. This batch of statistics leads off the section of the discussion on police shootings of blacks:

Let’s pivot to the issue of police violence. I want to kind of creep up on the Fryer study, which has received a lot of press. Let’s review a few facts first: 4% of blacks who die by homicide are killed by cops. So 96% are not killed by cops. Virtually all are killed by black men—there are not a lot of white men are killing black men. And, as you pointed out, not a lot of black men are killing white men either (though there are more homicides running in that direction). The fact is that most violence is intraracial. Incidentally, 12% of whites and Hispanics who die by homicide are killed by cops—so, at least by one measure, this is three times the rate at which blacks are killed by cops.

As we get into this data, we should admit that statistics are a bit of a Rorschach test. It’s possible to read even valid statistics in misleading ways or in ways that are guided by bias. Needless to say, we’ll do our best not to do that, but here are just a few more facts as I understand them: A thousand people are killed each year in the U.S. by cops, more or less. Around 50% of the fatalities are white, and about 25% are black.

Glenn: Right.

Sam: Now, that’s double what you’d expect from the demographics, because as you said, about 12% to 13% of the population is black, but they commit, again, 50% of all violent crime, at least. In some cities it’s as much as two-thirds of all violent crime. So my question for you and for our listeners to ponder is, given how much crime black men are committing in our society—again, mostly against other black men—and given how much attention from the police they will naturally attract because of this, and should attract in the hopes of keeping black communities safe, what percentage of fatal encounters with cops would make sense? I mean, honestly, I am surprised. Even if I’d never heard of the Fryer study, which we’ll talk about, and was just looking at these data, I’m surprised that only 25% of the fatalities are black—that strikes me as surprisingly low.

Once more excerpt of statistics. There are from a study by Loury’s associate, Roland Fryer:

[There is] about a 25% greater chance that some kind of force, short of shooting, will be used against the suspect if he’s black than if he’s white—other things being equal—and about a 28% or so lower probability that shooting will be used against the suspect if he’s black.

So that’s the broad outline of his findings. Race is implicated: blackness is a factor in the police use of force, short of deadly force, but is not implicated as a factor, and indeed the number goes the other way in police shooting a suspect.

Is Black Lives Matters concerns based on accurate data that cops unfairly pick on and shoot blacks? The cases seem to fall along a continuum:

Sam: Here’s the core issue for me: These cases run the full gamut of police malfeasance and culpability on the one end to completely predictable and even rational uses of force on the other, and everything in between. So on the one end you have cops who are quite obviously guilty of murder, whether it’s from racism or some other deranged motive, and I would put the Walter Scott and Laquan McDonald shootings there. These cops, to my eye, clearly should never have been given a gun and a badge, and they belong in prison. And if I’m not mistaken, the cops involved in those shootings are actually being prosecuted for murder, so the system appears to be working in the right direction in those cases.

But on the other end, you have legitimate uses of force that would have happened 99 times out of 100 in the presence of any sane cop, and race surely had nothing to do with it. I would put the Michael Brown case pretty close to that end of the continuum. We don’t have a video of what happened, but the facts as reported suggest that he attacked a police officer and was trying to get his gun.

If you’re trying to get a cop’s gun, it is only rational for him to believe that you intend to kill him with it. Whatever the color of your skin, you’re going to get shot. And if you don’t get shot, it’s either because you got very lucky, because the cop had amazing hand-to-hand skills and he just decided to spare your life, or because there were enough cops on hand to physically overpower you without requiring lethal force.
In the rest of these cases, you see almost every variety of incompetence, bad luck, poor training, and just basic human chaos, and I would put all these recent incidents, like Philando Castile, and Alton Sterling, and frankly even Eric Garner somewhere in the middle here.

These cases, the three I just mentioned, are totally unlike the extremes but they’re importantly different from one another too. One thing to point out is that in some of these videos, the video record itself can be profoundly misleading. Some start after the shooting occurred—you simply don’t know what precipitated it—and some that show the shooting don’t show you what the cops themselves saw. So you can’t really judge whether it was rational for them to feel that their lives were in danger. The range of these cases, ethically and as a matter of police procedure, is almost as wide as can be imagined.

And then you throw the Trayvon Martin case in the mix, where the guy who shot him wasn’t even a cop and arguably wasn’t white, right? And yet all these cases are spoken about in the same breath as intolerable examples of murderous racism on the part of the police. So my problem—and again, this doesn’t subsume everything Black Lives Matter is doing—is that this seems to be the moral core of the movement, as far as I can tell. And these claims are not only inaccurate and unfair, they seem frankly dangerous to me.

How should one act around a cop?

Sam: There’s a part in your podcast with Rajiv Sethi where I felt you guys were talking past one another a little bit. I recommend that people see that podcast, because it was very valuable on many points. On this point he was totally correct to insist that you should be able to be rude to a cop in our society without being physically punished for it, much less killed. And I think he’s right to think that it’s a measure of a civilized society that cops don’t start beating you just because you’ve been disrespectful.

Glenn: Sure.

Sam: But you were right to insist that people shouldn’t be rude to cops because it’s unwise. You should be respectful to a cop because you don’t want things to escalate. And again, Rajiv is right in saying that they shouldn’t escalate based on anything you might say, and if they do escalate, it’s the fault of the cop. He’s right to think that it’s the cop’s job to have a very thick skin and be totally professional in his dealings with the public. But on your side, do you really want to increase the risk to your own life by testing the emotional maturity of the guy with a gun?

No, you do not. In my view, you have to deal with a cop like he’s a lethal robot who could malfunction at any time. And what I see in these videos is people who just have no idea what the implications are of grabbing a cop, pushing a cop, of doing whatever they’re doing to resist arrest.

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Category: American Culture, Bigotry

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Tige Gibson says:

    On the ground, the average white person resists the presumed burden of guilt and uses that offense to neglect to understand any of it. It goes hand in hand with the same attitude towards religion: people use getting offended as a rationalization for not understanding, but presume to understand all too well.

    Systemic racism, not structural racism, is a status quo condition. Like all status quo conditions, average people are totally negligent to understand and blissfully ignorant of the factors which contribute to inertia. In fact I’ve dealt with people who strongly deny being racist yet also strongly insist on a take-it-slow, small bites approach which actually ends up dragging things backwards due to inertia. Inertia is not a force which keeps things from moving, it’s a force that keeps things from changing, so if you presume that doing little or nothing will allow things to stay the way they are you are fooling yourself and things will in fact move backwards. Go ahead and park your car on a hill without the parking brake on.

    The perfect example of the effect of inertia is how Donald Trump’s campaign is as successful as it is in spite of his complete negligence of it. Inertia is what allows him to be competitive virtually without campaigning. Inertia is also how Hillary Clinton managed to defeat a much more politically appealing character in spite of a massive grassroots movement. Yet among her supporters are people who were extremely antagonistic towards anyone who tried to strive for too much in the classical uppity sense, the same not-a-racists, mind you.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      These are difficult issues to wrap one’s head around, and the temptation is to lump things into cartoons in order to make some political hay. I agree with you about Trump and Hillary. Gad, it’s the confirmation bias in high gear, so much so that facts cease to matter. But I also see that on both sides of discussions about race. Cartoons allow one to stride to the podium with anger and make broad ranging accusations against huge heterogenous populations based on skin color. If only one could so over-categorize. The truth, though is that (especially to me as a non-believer in the very concept of “race”), we need to take the time to get each person better and avoid over-arching generalizations even though it feels so good. When we over-categorize, it is an act of laziness. Racists and many of those who preach against vague notions of structural racism, are both guilty of laziness. Not that there isn’t racism out there, but it’s irresponsible to cast wide and reckless blame, because that can cause more harm than it solves.

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