A Black Economist Critiques Old-Style Affirmative Action

GLENN LOURY is one of several black conservative economists rapidly acquiring a national reputation. So when the Boston University professor gave a public lecture at BU earlier this week, it attracted a goodly audience of students, professors, and members of the community, mostly white. One reason was the topic, "The Economics of Discrimination."

Senator John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts discovered how hot that subject was when he said at Yale University Tuesday: "You've got to have a program of affirmative action in this country.... But we ought to acknowledge the downside aspects of it."

A Boston NAACP official promptly called his remarks "race-baiting."

Such snap comments, however, are more difficult when a critique of affirmative action is made by a black.

The first part of Mr. Loury's lengthy talk could be summed up by former President Carter's pithy remark, "Life is unfair." Loury points out that economic inequality between the races is a product of "unjust history, propagated across the generations in part by the segmented social structure of our race-conscious society." Most blacks in the United States are descendants of slaves, affected by a history of discrimination. Other groups have similarly been influenced by a history of injustice.

"All societies, and therefore all economies, exhibit significant social segmentation, as various groups of individuals and families cluster together because of their historically derived commonalities of language, ethnicity, religion, culture, class, geography," he says. These groupings "exert a profound influence upon resource allocation, especially those resources important for the development of human beings."

A skilled worker, notes Loury, is produced by inputs of education, parenting, acculturation, nutrition, etc. He runs through how some of these inputs affect many blacks. Over 60 percent of black children did not live in households with both parents present in 1988, compared with 20 percent of white children.

The institution of marriage has been in rapid decline among blacks for more than three decades. Among women ages 15 to 44, fewer than 3 out of 10 were married with a spouse present in 1988. Nearly 60 percent of men in the same age range reported that they had never been married. He speaks of the black "underclass" with its poverty, violence, and crime.

Many social and cultural factors affect income inequality. "Parents' time and effort, a family's traditions and reputation, ethnic identity and loyalty, adolescent peer groups and friendship networks, religious affiliations - these things influence how individuals develop, and what becomes of their God-given potential," says Loury.

Given the inequality in the endowment of "social capital," Loury rejects the theory that government should restrict itself to race-neutral action. "To be blind to color, given our history and our social structure, is to be blind to justice as well," he says.

However, Loury does raise questions about what departures from race neutrality are likely to be most productive. "Unfortunately," he says, "in contemporary American policy debate, affirmative action has become the primary race-conscious policy instrument. It is controversial, of limited power, and attended by deleterious side-effects. Therefore, affirmative action should probably not be as widely used as it is."

Among the harmful effects, the reputation of blacks suffers. Even if blacks are fully qualified for college admission, a job, or a contract, whites may suspect they are the beneficiaries of affirmative action and not up to standard. Because standards may be lowered for blacks, they may not make the same effort to reach high goals or be held to those goals by their teachers or bosses. Affirmative action rouses resentment among some whites.

And there is "no evidence" that preferences have had more than a "marginal role" in alleviating blacks' higher poverty and unemployment rates, greater welfare dependency, and inner-city problems, says Loury.

What can be done? "Develop the people so they can compete on the same standards," says Loury. Spend more per capita on inner-city schools. Maybe even "bribe" kids with a $1,000 check if they stay in school and out of trouble for a year. Put more police in tough neighborhoods to improve public safety.

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