Episode 6: A conversation about racism, narratives, and backlash
Runtime: 18:03 — There’s agreement on the need to close racial disparities, but it’s fair to ask if solutions are even possible in today’s polarized environment. So we did. Georgetown’s Harry Holzer and Brown’s Glenn Loury discuss racism, narratives, and backlash.
Boston Fed researchers say they don’t just want to uncover the causes of racial disparities, they also want to explore solutions. But the nation’s politics are so divided, it’s fair to ask whether solutions are truly possible.
We posed that question to two eminent economists in our final episode. Georgetown’s Harry Holzer was an official in the Clinton administration. Brown’s Glenn Loury is known for his frank and sometimes heterodox views. Both see our national polarization obstructing efforts to narrow racial gaps.
Holzer says we’ve been drifting toward sharp political polarization for decades, so progress closing disparities is inevitably difficult. Loury says the country desperately needs visionary and courageous leadership, and it needs it now.
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This season on Six Hundred Atlantic, we looked at racial disparities in today's economy, which was the topic of our 64th Economic Conference here at the Boston Fed. These disparities are extremely persistent, they extend over decades, and they exist at a major cost to our economy and our society. The topic is also highly emotional, and it's highly politicized. And we know it's important to have conversations about it that are clear-eyed and honest and measured. That's what we tried to do at the conference, and that's what we're trying to do here today.
I'd like to welcome back two panelists from the conference to continue the conversation about racial disparities that we started there. We're joined by Harry Holzer. He's a professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, and he's the former chief economist for the U.S. Department of Labor. Harry has authored or edited 12 books. Most recently, he co-authored, "Making College Work: Pathways to Success for Disadvantaged Students." We're also joined by Glenn Loury. He's a professor of economics and social sciences at Brown University. He was recently selected as a winner of the 2022 Bradley Prize, which recognizes dedication to American exceptionalism, and he's the host of a weekly podcast called The Glenn Show.
Thanks to both of you for joining us, and I'd like to start with this question: When it comes to understanding these enduring racial disparities, how adequate is racism as a sort of encompassing explanation for how these disparities continue to exist, and Harry, why don't you start us?
Sure, happy to do that. I think it's essential that racism be acknowledged. Whether it's the lingering effects of past racism, which was very severe in America, as well as some elements of racism that still currently exist and caused their own disadvantages. But it's not adequate as a solo factor. It's not the only factor, and it's probably not even the predominant factor in American society that causes racial disparities. I think race, in America, has become complex, and racial factors, racial disparities are correlated with lots of underlying behaviors and characteristics of people. We can go into them pretty soon. And so I think those who try to steer the conversation in a racism-only direction do us a bit of disservice on that. Racism matters, we've got to acknowledge it, but it's not the solo or even the dominant force, I believe.
Glenn, I was wondering about your perspective here as well.
I know what I'm supposed to say, Jay. Okay. I'm supposed to say 400 years, I'm supposed to say slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, et cetera. And I think that is, oh so 20th century. It's a 40- or 50-year-old narrative. It hasn't worn very well in the last couple of decades. I think we're in the 21st century, I think the world's a fast-moving place. I mean, we could parse the causal, you know, what proportion of the disparity is due to what kind of racial unfairness you could trace? But if the argument is, we're going to have a second Civil Rights Revolution that African Americans going to make some claims based on being excluded, I don't think it's going to fly politically, and I don't think it's appropriate to what the actual challenges are, because the challenges are at development, the challenges are at skill acquisition. They are behavioral patterns that are conformable with success in society. And a lot of the disparity that we're seeing is a reflection of unequal development across racial lines in those human performative dimensions, and crying racism isn't going to solve that problem.
I guess, pivoting off that a little bit, the question here I have is about the backlash. Harry, during the conference, he spoke about a backlash to sort of the racial reckoning of the 1960s, and this backlash stretched over decades. And I'm wondering about the backlash now. When you spoke at the conference, Harry, we were talking about whether or not it would happen. I guess my question is, do you see it happening already? And how have the responses to the 2020 protests after George Floyd's murder, in politics, in policing, in education, the different responses there, how have they increased or decreased the likelihood of an enduring backlash? And Harry, I'll direct that to you.
Well, I think there is some evidence of a bit of growing backlash since 2020. I see two bits of evidence in the political world. One is that a set of moderate Democratic congressmen and women lost their seats in 2020 that they had gained in 2018. And polling evidence showed that some voters had concerns about crime and defunding the police that led them to vote the other way. Even if these individual congressmen and women weren't supporting defund the police, they still got tarred with that brush.
Now on the positive side, I think, and I'm obviously I'm speaking as a Democrat, I was a Democratic political appointee, so, I was in the Clinton administration. So, from that vantage point, I'm glad that President Biden is clearly pushing back and clearly indicating in his rhetoric and policy proposals that they take crime seriously, and they take policing seriously, while at the same time still arguing for some police reforms. So, there is some evidence of a backlash, but there is also evidence that of some politicians pushing back against it, perhaps effectively, hopefully effectively, in my view.
Glenn, I'm wondering about any thoughts you've had. You've mentioned that you felt like we're at a kind of a perilous time or a difficult time. Do you see a backlash forming, or do you have anything to add to what Harry has observed?
I mean, this is not quite backlash, but I want to say about the law-and-order public safety thing. There's a strong argument that the net effect of the assault on the legitimacy of the police that was occasioned by the post-George Floyd thing, and that is reflected to some degree in justice DAs who have ratcheted back significantly in enforcement intensity in jurisdictions around the country, and some of that is coming into question. But there's a reasonable argument, this is that police are withdrawing, that the effective engagement of police is down in circumstances where police have come under scrutiny and so forth, that that has actually cost Black lives. That has, you know, carjacking and homicide and all of that being up in cities, all across the country. I don't want to jump on a soapbox here about law and order, but I'm saying the stakes here are incredibly high in terms of the actual quality of life of people on the ground. And the ideology of anti-racism as an excessive single note of your narrative about disparities can get a lot of stuff wrong with significant detrimental consequences.
And I want to second Glenn's comment on that just with a few numbers. Let's take the issue of homicides alone. Homicides have risen about 50% in the last … between 2019 and 2021. And in the African American community, probably at least that much, if not more. That means that homicides rose from about 8,000 a year, Black homicides, to 12,000 a year. Twelve thousand a year is 30 to 35 African Americans murdered every single day. It's massive compared to the instances of, and I'm not, because I also understand that police harassment of stop-and-frisk and things like that can be damaging to people even when it's not lethal. But when you look at the numbers on the homicide arena, and for the Black Lives Matter movement to not talk more about that, to me, is a little bit unforgivable. Because there's so much bloodshed there that we need to try to reduce.
Right. Those statistics, I did not ...They're stunning. That's true. I guess I want to turn now to the talk about, we've referred to kind of this very highly politicized political environment that we all live in here in this country. And the question I have just as an observer or a layperson, it's so polarized, you wonder whether it's really possible to make meaningful progress on these important issues, on closing racial disparities. Particularly because it seems like there's real incentives in the political and the media worlds for maintaining some division. And Glenn, I'm wondering if you would address that question first.
Well, I think you put your finger on something important, which is how are these questions framed and the interest that various parties, politicians, activists, media, academics, and so forth might have in the process that ends up having it framed one way or another. So, police violence doesn't have to be framed as a Black/white issue. And I think they're real strong arguments about why you shouldn't frame it. It should be framed as a cop/citizen issue, where they're to maintain order, and if they mess up and citizens are there and they have rights, but they also commit crimes and they have to be dealt with, shouldn't be Black/white.
Just like I don't want to count how many Black criminals are offending against white people and make that into a big issue. Even if they drive SUVs in the parades or open fire on subway cars or whatever, I don't want to make that into a racial issue. And the point goes deeper, because unless we can somehow see that we're all in this together across racial lines and have our interest defined in more broad and humanistic ways, we're unlikely to be able to deal with the mess that we often find ourselves in and have the kind of social safety net and the kind of politics that we want.
Harry, I'm wondering if you have anything to add there in terms of this politicized environment. Is there a way forward to make progress here in, where we are right now?
Well, let's be honest. It's very difficult because polarization was very dramatic even before the murder of George Floyd, right? We've been drifting in that direction, politically, for decades. That, and so many features of the political system reinforced that polarization. You know, gerrymandering in the House, the way the Electoral College works, et cetera. So, in that environment, it's going to be inevitable that it's hard to make progress on the kinds of issues we're talking about, and especially as Glenn said, there's a lot of emotion, a lot of polarization just to how people frame these issues.
If we take one example, I had been hopeful that there could be a police reform bill coming out of the current Congress. And there was this effort by Tim Scott, Republican senator, and Cory Booker, a Democratic senator, both Black men, very well-respected Black men, to cut a deal. And there were times when it seemed like they were close. And yet things broke down. They couldn't agree on police immunity and some other issues. So, in this environment, it's very, very hard to make progress. On the other hand, there is at least some recognition on both sides that there are problems there. There's some recognition that these racial disparities in outcomes in health and education and employment are unacceptable. And if in that environment, if you could get people, at least a little bit, to moderate their rhetoric and their views, maybe some positive things could happen.
And there's other ... Not everything requires legislation and policy, right? Just the fact that labor markets are tighter right now, all else equal, should help some of our more marginalized groups in the labor market. That could create some progress as well. So, the environment is terribly polarized. And I look for silver linings in all clouds, and occasionally you can find them.
Glenn, at the conference you talked about, you said that changing the definition of the American "we" is the only solution for the racial inequality problem that afflicts society. I'm hoping you can expand on that a little bit right now.
Yeah, well, it was kind of flowery rhetoric. I mean, I hope it touches the ground at some point. I mean, I was trying to gesture toward what the spirit of civic cooperation should be able to acknowledge the developmental and behavioral problems in some, in the disadvantaged populations, without seeing them as a people apart. I was trying to worry about the threat to the integrity of public discussion if we have a blind eye to those things. But I'm saying, those are not "those people," those are "our people." And that, if there is a cultural, a behavioral values, dimension, pattern, you know, whatever it might be, that it's an American, not just the ethnic group's, problem. Something like that.
Right. Thanks. Harry, you just mentioned how you're looking for sort of silver linings in the clouds. And obviously there's frustration in society-wide about the slow progress on closing these disparities in the way we are right now. But I'm wondering if you could be more specific, do you think there are reasons for optimism, anywhere that you could find them. And also while answering that, can you speak to why it's so important to continue to look for solutions, even though there is frustration?
Well, in the framing about "we," it captures some important truths, because the truth is the whole country is weakened when you have these enormous racial disparities. People are not fulfilling and not meeting their productive potential as citizens. So, it actually weakens our economy, and it creates poor health and crime and other manifestations, all of which cost the country and all of which cost the economy. So, we can't afford that. We can't afford so much loss of our national potential, and everybody should have a stake in that. Again, if we can keep the conversation from getting so polarized. If I want to look for hope in other places and dramatic progress … so, the last time we had dramatic progress on race was really in the decade after the civil rights revolution, roughly '65 to '75. That's hard to achieve.
And it's even harder to achieve in a world where, as Glenn points out, the issue of rights is probably not the predominant cause of these disparities. There are harder structural issues around education and achievement and things like that. But there are at least a few bright spots out there for making maybe more modest progress. One that I've already mentioned is that we seem to be in an era of tight labor markets, at least for right now. Tight labor markets are good for workers. That means employers can't indulge their prejudices as much as they might like. So, employers don't like to hire men, especially Black men with criminal records. But if they have no one else, they're willing to consider this group and look at them carefully and see, maybe be willing to overlook, if it's a person with one felony conviction that was nonviolent, maybe they would take a chance on this person. So tight labor markets, especially as the Baby Boomers retire, that might help us.
I think in other areas, for instance, if you look at education and training, we're starting to identify more effective forms of job training that are oriented towards the growing sectors of the economy that have a much better track record at preparing workers for good-paying jobs. Colleges are trying to figure out how to raise completion rates and are making some progress on that. So, all these things will help disadvantaged folk in general and African American folks in particular. Because they suffer sometimes from those lack of skills, lack of completion of post-secondary credentials. So, to the extent that I have hope, those things certainly help. And when I hear politicians making less inflammatory and more sensible comments on this, I have even more hope.
Glenn, I'm wondering, the same question to you: Are there reasons for optimism in a time when it maybe it looks like there aren't a ton? And also why should we continue to work to close these disparities? They're decades long, people will be frustrated, could talk about why that's important?
Yeah, well, Jay, I have to say this. I mean, I thought Harry's review about the different policy fronts on which progress might be made was helpful and right on. But I want to, if we're going to introduce the supply side, talk also about the communal dimension, the kind of civil society. I mean, government is not everything, and policy is not everything.
I mean, the family issue is so deep. We can count the statistics, single-parent kids out of wedlock and whatnot. But what about the patterns of behavior and value that underlie that, about how people are relating to each other and about what the culture is within which that's embedded? This is very sensitive territory, especially for an economist to be entering into, but I'm just trying to put it on the table. There can be other kinds of conversations that take place, not within political context, but within a communal context, in which the way people are living is under some kind of reorientation or assessment or whatever. That that can be a part of the solution, too. I can be optimistic or pessimistic about that, as well as about government policy.
Right. Great. I'm done with my questions, but if there's anything that either of you want to add, please feel free to do so.
I think we desperately need visionary leadership and courageous leadership. Harry gave a tribute to Joseph Biden, and more power to him. I think we need more excellent national leadership on these questions amongst African Americans and in the larger society.
Thank you for listening to Season 3 of Six Hundred Atlantic. You can find interviews and our first three seasons and subscribe to our mailing list at bostonfed.org/six-hundred-atlantic. Listen and subscribe to Six Hundred Atlantic on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and TuneIn.
The producers would like to thank our contributors for their time and insights. They are Dionissi Aliprantis, Esteban Aucejo, Nakkhari Holmes, Francisco DePina, Eric Esteves, Harry Holzer, Sasha Killewald, Glenn Loury, Beth Mattingly, John MacDonald, Ben Moynihan, Sarah Reber, Tito SantosSilva, and Jeff Thompson.
Six Hundred Atlantic is a Federal Reserve Bank of Boston podcast hosted by Jay Lindsay and Jessica Gagne. Produced by Jay Lindsay, Jessica Gagne, and Peter Davis. Executive producers are Lucy Warsh and Heidi Furse. Recording by Steve Osemwenkhae and Peter Davis. Engineering by Steve Osemwenkhae, Peter Davis, Meghan Smith, Michael Konstansky, and Jessica Gagne. Project managers are Peter Davis and Dulce Depina. Chief consultant is Jeff Thompson. This podcast was written by Jay Lindsay and edited by Jeff Thompson, Darcy Saas, and Nicolas Brancaleone. Graphics and website design by Meghan Smith, Michael Konstansky, and Stephen Greenstein. Production consultants are Mike Woeste and Will Collins.
This has been "Enduring Divides," the third season of the Boston Fed's Six Hundred Atlantic podcast.