Posted: January 29, 2007
The Anatomy of Racial Inequality by Glenn C. Loury.
Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, by Randall Kennedy.
Two recent books on race remind us how difficult it is to have a principled discussion of the subject. Condemned by conservatives and hailed by reliably leftist scholars, Glenn Loury's latest book merits a discussion far different from what it has received so far. Loury hasn't betrayed conservatism (in truth, he was never much of a conservative) so much as reverted to his economist roots and returned to "social choice" theory. In this jargon-ridden revision of academic lectures, he advocates "race-egalitarianism," a narrowing of group differences that he contrasts with "color-blindness."
Loury's principal goal, which appears to be legitimizing race-conscious public policies, rests on the interrelated arguments that blacks are not essentially inferior to others, that perceptions of inferiority (e.g., a tendency to criminality) can distort and exacerbate the situation, and that liberal individualism and color-blindness are insufficient to meet the challenge. Thus, Loury pleads for nuance in a world dominated by ideologues.
Of course, much of his account is already common sense for Americans of good will: They distinguish readily between pathetic beneficiaries of racial preference policies and those who are truly meritorious. But for conservatives who take seriously the Declaration of Independence's principles of equality of rights and limited government, Loury's arguments are readily met. Justice Harlan's "color-blind Constitution" dissent inPlessy v. Ferguson answers many of Loury's charges: color-blindness is just the beginning of an argument about citizenship—its rights and responsibilities—and republican government.
Though he cannot be called a conservative, Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy's astute commentaries on race have earned him criticism from the conventional Left. Nigger continues in this vein. The book is a sober attempt to demystify the word, by giving its history, a legal analysis (can its use be a tort?), and an assessment of frequently hysterical reactions to it. As a pathologist of the opprobrious word, Kennedy unearths jarring facts, such as the original title of Agatha Christie's mystery: Ten Little Niggers. Yet Kennedy would not attempt to eliminate the force of the slur. Its magical powers should be respected, albeit narrowed. We should keep in mind Frederick Douglass, who would not use, tolerate, or be crushed by the term. But a slur is scarcely speech any more than pornography. That this is a book no conservative would have been permitted to publish or discuss thoughtfully in a classroom is the real scandal of speech about race in America today.
— Ken Masugi
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Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass by Theodore Dalrymple.
Citymaking: Building Community Without Building Walls by Gerald E. Frug.
Dalrymple, a British prison doctor writing pseudonymously, has collected his essays from the Manhattan Institute's City Journal into a powerful book on how intellectuals helped produce the British "underclass"—that largely white though increasingly immigrant group—violent, vulgar, and virtually doomed to failure. "In fact most of the social pathology exhibited by the underclass has its origin in ideas that have filtered down from the intelligentsia," Dalrymple writes. These ideas include sexual liberation, feminism, dumbed-down public education, the loosening of moral responsibility via the all-purpose excuses of poverty and racism—in other words, the whole plate of postmodern nihilism.
A rich example of Dalrymple's contention that bizarre theory has influenced practice is Harvard law professor Gerald Frug's Citymaking. After two insightful chapters on the powerlessness of cities in American political thought, the book takes on a postmodern dimension. The late David Broyles once argued that the postmodern Left is the true heir of the Anti-Federalists. This book vindicates this apercu, as we see Frug's attempt to transcend the "situated subject" and construct "ageographical cities" via "community building."
Implicit in all this is the end of the "bourgeois" concept of rights and the transformation of citizens into powerless products of society. Inevitably, law professors would be in charge. All this reconstruction is necessitated by the problems of the 11 million blacks living in "urban ghettos —less than 5 percent of the country's urbanized population." To justify his astounding leaps, Frug observes, "Romantic images have considerable practical effect." We see such effects on display in Dalrymple's "underclass."
— Ken Masugi
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Writings on Empire and Slavery by Alexis de Tocqueville, edited and translated by Jennifer Pitts.
De Tocqueville by Cheryl B. Welch.
Welch's volume in the Founders of Modern Political and Social Thought series from Oxford University Press is no elementary introduction to one of the most fascinating students of the modern world. Welch maintains that Tocqueville's "new science of politics" contradicted the powerful post-revolutionary call for social science, which arose precisely in order to explain the French Revolution and its consequences. The irony of her approach is that it focuses our attention on his style, his rhetoric, but not the core of his political philosophy.
Those political concerns become clear in Tocqueville's Writings on Empire and Slavery, which contains his reports on Algeria, notes on the Koran, and an essay urging the emancipation of slaves. Here we see the author of Democracy in America outlining a sort of Barbarism in Islam—and how to civilize it. Jennifer Pitts, the translator of these writings, condemns Tocqueville's defense of French imperialism. But Tocqueville sees civilizing trends in Algeria: "the whole younger generation of Arabs speaks our language, and they have already partly adopted our mores." Noting that Arabs and French serve together in the military, he concludes: "There is, then, no reason to believe that time will not succeed in amalgamating the two races. God is not stopping it; only human deficiencies can stand in its way." But of course political men realize that there is no end to "human deficiencies"—hence the ongoing need for force. Tocqueville may well have underestimated the political nature of man, but not to the extent that these two scholars imply.
— Ken Masugi