The enigma of the stigma

The enigma of the stigma – Book Review

Christopher H. Foreman, Jr.

Review of The Anatomy of Racial Inequality by Glenn C. Loury

In America’s cottage industry of writing on race, a few nonfiction categories predominate: history, biography, personal memoir, journalistic expose. But most stimulating and useful for raising the level of public discourse are social science-based commentaries that aggressively invite sophisticated general readers to reconsider what they know (or think they know) about the condition and prospects of African Americans. Examples include recent work by sociologist Orlando Patterson, historians Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, and political scientist Paul Sniderman. Whether one remains optimistic or pessimistic about America’s enduring racial problems, we are indeed blessed with a broad spectrum of researchers and thinkers, from Thomas Sowell on the right to Lani Guinier and Christopher Edley on the left, who remain eagerly and productively focused on this important intellectual work.

Economist Glenn Loury offers us a fascinating new addition, this one posing a direct challenge to the Thernstroms’ impressively comprehensive and influential 1997 volume America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. Once favored by conservatives for his willingness to question racial preferences–he was briefly considered for a political appointment in the Reagan administration–Loury’s arguments now place him closer to those “racial liberals” with whom he still has his differences.

While Loury doubtless feels strongly about his subject, The Anatomy of Racial Inequality is a remarkable (if not in every respect fully persuasive) effort to reason rigorously. The presentation, though accessible to the general reader, is crafted to pass muster with professional peers, who want to know not what Loury feels but what he can demonstrate. This concise volume, based on a series of lectures delivered at Harvard, is not easily sampled, skimmed, or summarized. It is nevertheless well worth the effort it demands. The reader will find no new data but rather “a novel conceptual framework for assimilating the evidence at hand.” The argumentative style is partly deductive and frequently interdisciplinary, though strongly anchored (especially near the opening) in the economic analysis that is Loury’s intellectual home turf.

Loury sets forth the core of his argument in three chapters on racial stereotyping, racial stigma, and racial justice. Quite early in the book, Loury begins laying the groundwork for his position that “taking race into account” is not an invidious practice per se. Indeed, doing so turns out to be something of a moral imperative. He comes to this conclusion even though he begins by positing “race” as a construct grounded only in the simple (if universal) need of human beings to organize, cope with, and gather information about the world they find themselves in. But the “body markings” we construe as “race” are of importance to Loury (and to the rest of us) as bearers of “social meaning.” These markings, he says, “signify something of import within an historical context.”

Loury is interested in the potential for stereotypes to be “reasonable” in the sense that they are “self-confirming.” As human beings, we are both burdened by limited information about the world around us and inclined to make generalizations. More particularly, someone having limited information about “marked” persons may draw unwarranted inferences about individuals that are grounded in the generalization. Persons about whom inferences have been made may then adjust their actions in ways that confirm the stereotype. Thus a sequence of mutually supportive belief and behavior emerges. By way of example Loury posits an employer who, believing that black trainees are more likely than others to perform poorly, sets a lower tolerance threshold for errors by such trainees. The black trainees, in turn, are more likely than others to read this employer behavior as a disincentive to perform well. “Knowing they are more likely to be fired if they make a few mistakes, an outcome over which they cannot exert full control, more black than other workers may find that exerting high effort during the training period is, on net, a losing proposition for them.” They thus behave so as to confirm the expectations held of them.

Loury offers additional examples: black automobile buyers and black students applying to professional schools. These “thought experiments,” as Loury presents them, likewise conclude with the buyers and students behaving so as to confirm the expectations held of them. What is most interesting and pernicious here is that this dynamic may be driven entirely by mutual expectations rather than by the underlying capacities of the parties to the relationship.

Some readers may reasonably ask, however, whether the perverse patterns Loury presents are actually telling us everything we need to know. Might even the conscientious “thought experimenter” easily (however unintentionally) rig an experiment? Within the world as Loury posits it, his logic seems impeccable. But what if inconvenient additional facts (such as genuinely lower skill or motivation on the part of his hypothetical trainee) are present, as they might indeed be in a real workplace? In that event, the negative outcome could not reasonably be held to stem entirely from the perverse stereotyping dynamic Loury wants to illuminate. (The notion that low teacher expectations induce low performance is a familiar one in debates about education reform. But is this all we need to know to raise minority test scores?)

This reservation stated, however, Loury’s reasoning performs an important social and intellectual service by alerting us to the possibility that some unknown fraction of unwholesome interaction across the racial divide might derive importantly from the kind of perverse expectations logic he lays out. A theory that is not universally applicable is not worthless. Indeed, Loury’s argument might prompt useful work on two fronts. Academics might subject Loury’s argument to careful scrutiny, including hard empirical research. Meanwhile the rest of us might profitably reconsider the roots of our own behavior regarding persons bearing “body markings” other than our own, especially when that difference is amplified by other disparities in social or organizational standing.

But, if Loury is right, such reconsideration by ordinary people will be unusual, if not exceedingly rare. Explicitly considering the possibility that such a self-confirming feedback mechanism could be unveiled and discredited, Loury believes this a tall order for most persons. Given the deeper realm of “nonrational factors–in particular, the taken for granted meanings that may be unreflectively associated with certain racial markers” in which their cognitive processes are anchored, such detached reflection may be unrealistic to expect.

In theorizing about “the mental processes underlying … cognitive acts,” economist Loury may be on thin ice. (One anticipates that social psychologists will want to weigh in here.) But it is there that he must go to pursue the next (and perhaps the most challenging) part of his argument, which centers on the notion of racial stigma. While Loury’s discussion of stereotyping centers on information, stigma is all about meaning. Bodily “markings” (or any visible characteristic of any person or thing, for that matter) may become strongly imbued with a significance and association. “[T]he symbols we call ‘race’ have through time been infused with social meanings bearing on the identity, the status, and the humanity of those who carry them.” If this is so, the obvious charge to the racial reformer is to create new meaning, if such a thing is possible. Loury anticipates an equally obvious objection from, if not the Thernstroms themselves, then surely from readers familiar with their recitation of survey evidence. Isn’t the social meaning of race changing (such a reader might ask) as reflected both in the long-term trend data showing increased tolerance of blacks by whites and in the proliferation of widely admired persons of color? Loury’s insistence that probes of popular “attitudes” cannot capture what he’s getting at (i.e., “meaning”) is a claim likely to generate some resistance. Empirically minded critics will insist on knowing (and debating) whether one can observe and measure (as distinct from personal attitudes) “an entrenched if inchoate presumption of inferiority, of moral inadequacy, of unfitness for intimacy, of intellectual incapacity, harbored by observing agents when they regard the race-marked subjects.” One can see what Loury is getting at here: a reflexive, unquestioned “us” and “them.” (I believe I have detected such “cognitions” myself, from time to time, in persons who wouldn’t dream of behaving inhospitably, much less abrogating my rights. Yet I am relieved that it is not my job to assay this terrain convincingly for others.)

Where does all this take us as a policy enterprise? For one thing, we get here a new analytic vocabulary justifying an equal opportunity emphasis, a distinction between reward bias (under which “productivity is rewarded differently for members of distinct racial groups”) and development bias (which makes “opportunity to acquire productivity … unequally available to the members of distinct racial groups”). For Loury the former is classic discrimination, and worthy of less emphasis in our racial discourse than the latter, which lies more deeply embedded in a foundation shaped powerfully by stigma. If anti-black reward bias has declined, a crippling development bias lingers that, unfortunately, is anchored strongly in an informal, nongovernmental realm that our political culture places largely off-limits to even determined efforts at social justice policy entrepreneurship. Loury’s analysis here calls to mind Patterson’s focus on informal social networks as crucial channels for group advancement that are less viable among blacks–a collective disability justifying (for Patterson at least) affirmative action (at least for a limited time).

Loury, by his own account, is adamant that he is not up to “some over-theorized discourse in defense of affirmative action policies.” In finding both liberal individualism and his own discipline’s analytic emphasis on atomized individuals wanting, Loury has far more on his mind than the battle over diversity in corporations and universities. Rather, he suggests that since race matters as a profound and subtle generator of inequality, so should it be allowed also to matter in the conception and implementation of ameliorative policies. He is less interested in “reaching beyond race” (as Sniderman and his collaborators would have us do) than in facing up to the social freight that racial “markings” force a significant slice of the American population to carry. For Loury the tenacious pursuit of “race-blindness” may ironically make us morally blind as well. Distinguishing among policy implementation, policy evaluation, and “civic construction” (the domain where “we are building monuments, constructing public narratives, enacting rituals and … pursuing policies that have an inescapably expressive as well as directly instrumental face”), Loury argues that the race-blindness of liberal individualism in the first and second realms is both “ahistorical and sociologically naive.” Only in the last, he believes, “should some notion of race-blindness be elevated to the level of fundamental principle.”

This is, of course, a startling policy stance from a scholar once so welcome in Republican-dominated salons. For those of us who have been reading Loury for a while, his alienation from more “conservative” brands of thinking about race is not news. He repeats the critique he launched in the Atlantic Monthly some four years ago against the Thernstroms’ America in Black and White. In the mid-1980s, political scientist Donald L. Horowitz coined the phrase “the figment of the pigment” to describe a mistaken belief in race and ethnicity as fundamentally different. The Thernstroms approvingly cite the phrase in describing “the myth that racial groups are sealed compartments, impervious to change.” Loury says that the Thernstroms “blame race-conscious public policies for what they take to be an excess of racial awareness among blacks,” a view he thinks “gets it exactly backward.” For him “it is the historical fact and the specific nature of blacks’ racial otherness that causes affirmative action [for blacks] to be so fiercely contested …” (Along the way Loury himself misstates the Thernstroms’ argument. They don’t suggest that African Americans’ belief in the myth is the specific problem but rather that a widespread susceptibility to this belief is.) Loury also categorizes the Thernstroms as “conservatives,” but that has always seemed to me a peculiar label for two old-fashioned Ivy League liberals who happen to take a skeptical stance toward affirmative action and certain delusional varieties of black nationalism. Indeed America in Black and White explicitly attacks, in plain black and white, the conservative reluctance to “acknowledge the ugliness of our racial history and the persistence of racism” only two paragraphs before the Horowitz reference.

On the whole, however, Loury serves us well by directing us toward “the enigma of the stigma.” He brings a keen and subtle mind to bear on a set of issues that sorely needs it. The Anatomy of Racial Inequality is thoughtful, provocative, and demanding (in both the intellectual and political sense). It is sure to be at the center of all sophisticated discussions on race for years to come.


COPYRIGHT 2002 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

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