ne Sunday evening early
in the fall, Glenn C. Loury arrived at the Charles Hotel in
Cambridge, Mass., where a group of distinguished black
intellectuals, including Cornel West, Lani Guinier and Henry Louis
Gates Jr., was gathering to discuss the Sept. 11 attacks. The Rev.
Jesse Jackson, the keynote speaker, had flown in to talk about
possible shuttle diplomacy with the Taliban. Loury, an economist at
Boston University who first achieved prominence as one of the
nation's leading black conservatives in the Reagan years, was there
on a diplomatic mission of his own: to mend the rift that has long
separated him from liberal blacks like Jackson. He knew he might
elicit more than a few hostile glances. ''I've been trying to figure
out who you were for the longest time,'' one woman said coldly when
they were introduced, according to Loury. But he decided to brave
Shortly before the meeting, Loury walked into a conference room
where Jackson was chatting with Gates. As Loury shook hands with
Jackson -- a man he had taken to task in print throughout the 1980's
-- Gates effusively praised Loury's book ''The Anatomy of Racial
Inequality,'' which will be published early next month by Harvard
University Press. In it, Loury makes a striking departure from the
self-help themes of his earlier work, defending affirmative action
and denouncing ''colorblindness'' as a euphemism for indifference to
the fate of black Americans.
Jackson said to Gates: ''This man is smart. Whatever his
politics, he's always been smart.'' When the conversation
turned to the Middle East, Loury sheepishly reminded Jackson of
an article he wrote more than 15 years ago in Commentary attacking
him for embracing Yasir Arafat.
''You probably don't remember the piece,'' Loury said.
''Oh, yes I do,'' Jackson fired back.
''I looked him in the eye,'' Loury recalled a couple of weeks
later, ''and said: 'I really wish I hadn't written that. It was a
mistake, and I really regret it.' Jackson didn't say anything
directly in response to it, but during his formal presentation he
made a point of singling me out. He said: 'To say that Glenn Loury
isn't black because he disagrees with me, well that's just stupid.
We can't afford to leave brilliant minds like that by the
The next day, Loury e-mailed Charles Ogletree Jr., the Harvard
Law professor who had organized the meeting. ''I came close to not
showing -- for a variety of invalid reasons that have more to do
with my scarred psyche than with anything in the real world,'' he
wrote. ''You should know that I was deeply gratified by my reception
on Sunday. Jesse was very generous. (I guess my 'political
rehabilitation' is more or less complete now!)''
''That meeting was the defining moment for Glenn,'' his
friend Orlando Patterson, a Harvard sociologist, later said. Or, as
another scholar put it to me, ''Glenn is finally able to walk into a
room full of black people who don't all hate him.''
lenn Loury beamed as he
told me this story in the backyard of his Brookline, Mass., home,
where he lives with his wife, Linda, a labor economist at Tufts, and
their two young sons. It was a crisp New England afternoon in early
October; the leaves had turned a brilliant red and yellow. Loury's
house -- listed, he notes casually, in The National Registry of
Historic Places -- is a large Federal-style structure built in 1854
by Amos Adams Lawrence, a wealthy abolitionist.
Loury, 53, is a tall, stocky man with a high forehead and a
graying goatee that seems to add little age to a face that will
probably always look youthful. On this afternoon, he was wearing a
sweatshirt that said ''Professor Man'' -- a superhero he invented to
amuse his sons. At once polished and insecure, he rarely misses a
chance to mention when someone important has found him ''brilliant''
The quality of Loury's mind has never been in question. What his
critics have expressed doubts about is his judgment. His career as a
public intellectual has been a long and occasionally reckless
journey of self-discovery and reinvention, a dizzying series of
political transformations and personal crises that have left him
with more ex-friends than friends. He is both a genuine maverick
thinker and a shrewd political operator, and therefore a source of
fascination and bewilderment, even to himself.
Loury was reared by working-class parents on the South Side of
Chicago, where the color line was an inescapable fact of life. He
vividly remembers being chased by a group of white kids when he rode
his bike across that line. Loury fathered two children out of
wedlock while he was still a teenager, and he dropped out of college
and got a job at a printing plant. But before his eight-hour night
shift he took courses at Southeast Junior College, and from there he
won a scholarship to Northwestern University, where he studied
mathematics and economics. He did his graduate work in economics at
M.I.T., under the supervision of the Nobel laureate Robert M. Solow.
In his 1976 dissertation, Loury pioneered the study of ''social
capital'' -- the informal relationships and connections that, as
much as money or brains, pave the way for success in the labor
market. As long as whites enjoyed superior access to ''social
capital,'' he predicted, racial inequalities would continue to
plague American society long after the end of legal discrimination.
Loury's argument, coming 12 years after the passage of the Civil
Rights Act, had profound implications for public policy. For if
racial inequality is grounded in something more diffuse, and less
amenable to remedy, than legal discrimination, how can it be
combated? Is it the responsibility of the government, or of black
As America's inner cities fell prey to a scourge of violence,
drug addiction and out-of-wedlock births in the late 1970's, Loury
came to believe that the greatest threat to racial equality was no
longer the ''enemy without'' -- white racism -- but rather the
''enemy within'': problems inherent in the black community. Unless
this ''enemy'' was confronted head-on, he argued, blacks would fail
to achieve lasting social and economic equality. This was not his
only pointed challenge to what he called the civil rights orthodoxy;
Loury was also a critic of affirmative action and an outspoken
supply-sider, promoting solutions to ghetto poverty rooted in
entrepreneurialism rather than government aid.
In 1982, at the age of 33, Loury became the first tenured black
professor in the Harvard economics department. Despite his sterling
qualifications, he immediately began worrying about what his
colleagues -- his white colleagues -- really thought of him. Did
they know how smart he was? Or did they think he was a token? Before
long, he was on the verge of what he calls a ''psychological
breakdown.'' As he remembers: ''I did not carry that burden well.
One wants to feel that one is standing there on one's own. One does
not want to feel one is being patronized.'' In 1984, he moved over
to the John F. Kennedy School of Government, which had been
assiduously courting him almost from the moment he arrived.
''Glenn had no doubt that he was smart,'' Patterson says. ''But I
think he was always doubtful as to whether the economics department
had hired him because of his Afro-American connections. It was that
anxiety about what his colleagues really thought that led him to
doubt the value of affirmative action.'' His criticisms of
affirmative action reflected these insecurities, emphasizing the
stigma it imposed on people like himself.
Loury seemed to relish his chosen role as a thorn in the side of
the civil rights establishment. In 1984, he delivered a paper in
Washington at a meeting of the National Urban Coalition. The room,
Loury recalls, was full of movement veterans, including Coretta
Scott King; John Jacob, the National Urban League president; and
Walter Fauntroy, former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
In a speech calculated to provoke his audience, Loury began by
declaring, ''The civil rights movement is over.'' Blacks, he argued,
were at risk of being dragged down by problems that could not simply
be laid at the door of white racism. The spread of a vast
underclass, the poor performance of black students, the explosion of
early unwed pregnancies among blacks and the alarming rates of
black-on-black crime -- here was evidence, he said, of failures in
black society itself. It was time, he said, for blacks to assume
responsibility for their own problems; blaming racism for their ills
might be emotionally gratifying, but it was also morally obtuse.
When he was finished, Loury recalls, Coretta Scott King wept.
Word of the brilliant, contrarian black economist from the
South Side of Chicago traveled fast. Conservative magazines
solicited articles from him; The New Republic published his thoughts
on race under the title ''A New American Dilemma.'' He befriended
William Bennett and William Kristol, his colleague at the Kennedy
School. He sat at President Reagan's table at a White House dinner,
and he socialized with Clarence Thomas. (Although the two no longer
speak, Loury still keeps a picture in his office of himself with
Thomas.) While his liberal colleagues were boycotting South Africa,
Loury traveled there in 1986 on a trip financed by the white diamond
magnate Harry Oppenheimer.
Loury's alliance with the right was rooted in part in his deep
aversion to the intellectual conformity he felt the left imposed on
black intellectuals; the right offered not only prestige, resources
and acceptance but also, it seemed, the freedom to speak his mind.
(He was also partly motivated, like many rebels, by seething class
resentment: he says that as the son of a low-level civil servant, he
felt ''contempt'' for middle-class civil rights leaders.) But during
this period, Loury says, he continued to see himself as ''a race
man.'' Unlike some other black conservatives, he never called for
abolishing the welfare state, and he rejected the idea that America
had finished paying its debts to its black citizens.
Loury says he wanted to forge an intellectual middle ground, but
his willingness -- indeed, his eagerness -- to assail black leaders
like Jackson and to align himself with the Reagan administration
made him persona non grata in liberal black circles. He was called
an Uncle Tom, a ''black David Stockman'' and a ''pathetic mascot of
''It seemed like a classic sellout case to me,'' remembers
Patterson, who went 10 years without seeing Loury. Loury's Uncle
Alfred -- a proud race man, a steelworker and the patriarch of the
family -- thought I was basically selling out to the white man,''
The hostility of fellow blacks would eventually take its toll,
but at the time Loury took pride in their scorn. While enjoying
considerable patronage in the form of corporate consulting fees and
grants from conservative foundations, he cast himself -- and was
portrayed by his white conservative patrons -- as a brave dissident
who rejected the ''loyalty trap'' of reflexive racial solidarity.
And yet in his personal life, Loury continued to feel the pull of
race. At the same time as he was lunching with fellows from the
American Enterprise Institute, he began to immerse himself in a
black urban world much like the neighborhood in which he grew up. He
started playing pickup chess on tabletops in Dudley Square, an
African-American commercial district in Boston. There, his views on
social policy were unknown, and he was welcomed, not ostracized, by
working-class black men -- the kinds of men he had known on the
South Side, the kind of man he nearly became while working at the
printing plant. ''There was a feeling for me that I was really
blacker than a lot of these liberal black intellectuals who were
denouncing me as a traitor to my race,'' he remembers.
As a black critic of racial liberalism, Loury rose rapidly in
Republican public-policy circles. In March 1987, he was offered a
position as under secretary of education to William Bennett. On June
1, 1987, however, Loury's life veered off-track. He withdrew his
nomination, citing ''personal reasons''; three days later, those
personal reasons became public: Loury's mistress, a 23-year-old
Smith College graduate who had been living, at his expense, in what
Boston papers called a ''love nest,'' brought assault charges
against him. (She later dropped all charges.)
Loury's meltdown had just begun. After the scandal, his trips to
Dudley Square became all-nighters. He was staying out on the street
until 2 a.m. and venturing into ''some really rough spaces.'' He
began freebasing cocaine and picking up women, spending much of his
time in public housing projects. ''It was pathological,'' he says.
''I was castigating the moral failings of African-American life even
as I was deeply caught up in it.'' All the while, he managed to
maintain appearances at Harvard -- according to colleagues, he was
lecturing more brilliantly than ever -- and to keep his other life a
secret from his wife.
''I was bridging the extremities of two worlds,'' he recalls.
''Nobody at the Kennedy School could have known about this other
world, and nobody in that world where I was a familiar character
because I came regularly with a pocketful of money could have
imagined the sophistication and power of the society of which I was
a part. So you achieve a kind of uniqueness moving back and forth
between those worlds. It was fun. There was a sense of power. There
was a real rush. You weren't just breaking the rules. Rules didn't
have anything to do with you. This was new territory.''
In late November 1987, Loury was arrested on charges of cocaine
possession. After spending several months in the hospital and in a
halfway house, he was released, and in January 1989, his wife gave
birth to the first of their two sons. Loury's Harvard colleagues
implored him to stay, but the scandal haunted him. In 1991, he left
for Boston University, which offered him a tenured position and a
salary Harvard couldn't match. For the next year, he devoted himself
to his research in theoretical economics, which had languished for
years, and ''got out of the race business.''
Loury's conservative friends stood by him, and Loury remained
loyal. During the Anita Hill hearings, he prayed over the phone with
Clarence Thomas. In 1995, he founded the Center for New Black
Leadership with a group of conservative black intellectuals that
included his friend Shelby Steele, the essayist.
''We were fellow travelers, Shelby and I,'' Loury recalls
wistfully. ''We were partners in an enterprise. We fancied ourselves
men of ideas who had found our way to this position out of our
willingness to break ranks. It's a lonely business, this black
In the wake of his arrest, however, Loury had experienced a
personal transformation that was to have far-reaching intellectual
consequences. Five months after beating his cocaine addiction, Loury
was dipped into a pool of water at a ceremony in Dorchester, Mass.,
and was born again. He started going to church regularly and was, he
says, ''getting caught up in the rapture of these services where
people were falling out onto the floor.'' The people who forgave him
his sins -- his family, his fellow churchgoers and his wife -- were
black, and Loury did not fail to notice this. According to
Patterson, ''Religion was Glenn's entry back into the black
''The experience did nothing to my politics,'' Loury insists, but
the ''processing of my own frailties'' that it engendered, that did
have an effect. Now that he was among ''the fallen,'' he found it
difficult to keep telling people -- his people -- to ''just
straighten up, for crying out loud,'' as he had been for years. It
struck him, he says, as ''unbelievably shallow, spiritually, and
politically problematic.'' In one of the more revealing passages of
his new book, he criticizes the way successful blacks sometimes
develop an ''antipathy'' toward the black poor: ''If only THEY would
get their acts together, then people like ME wouldn't have such a
fter his brush with the
law, Loury became increasingly alarmed by the right's punitive
rhetoric on issues ranging from racial profiling to the criminal
justice system and wary of the ways in which, as a black man, he was
being used as a screen for an antiblack agenda. He was horrified by
Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's 1994 book, ''The Bell
Curve,'' a social Darwinist tract arguing that black poverty was
rooted in inferior intelligence. He was even more appalled by ''The
End of Racism,'' the lurid assault on ''black failure'' written by
Dinesh D'Souza when he was a fellow at the American Enterprise
Not only did his conservative friends not share his rage; they
were taken aback by it and tried, he says, to muzzle him.
Commentary, which had welcomed Loury's writing in the past, refused
to publish his critique of ''The Bell Curve.'' And though The Weekly
Standard ran Loury's caustic review of D'Souza's book, it also
published a lengthy response from the author. In 1995, Loury
resigned from the American Enterprise Institute over its support of
In a column called ''What's Wrong With the Right,'' published in
the January-February 1996 issue of The American Enterprise journal,
Loury wrote that while ''liberal methods'' on questions of race were
certainly flawed, ''liberals sought to heal the rift in our body
politic engendered by the institution of chattel slavery, and their
goal of securing racial justice in America was, and is, a noble one.
I cannot say with confidence that conservatism as a movement is much
concerned to pursue that goal.''
''The thing about Glenn is that he was always a race man,'' says
Anthony Appiah, a Harvard professor of philosophy and Afro-American
studies. ''I suspect that the Reaganites he was consorting with
never really knew that.''
Loury's break with the right became final in the fall of 1996
during the battle over the California Civil Rights Initiative, also
known as Proposition 209. Aggressively promoted by Ward Connerly, a
black conservative member of the University of California's Board of
Regents, Proposition 209 sought to eliminate race- and sex-based
preferences in state contracting, hiring and college admissions. The
Center for New Black Leadership wanted Loury, the group's chairman,
to publicly endorse the referendum, the culmination of the right's
efforts to ban affirmative action. Loury expressed tepid support for
209 but refused to lobby on behalf of it.
''We're the Center for New Black Leadership, and we will be
leading no black people if we make this our issue,'' he told his
associates. But the board disagreed, and Loury resigned.
A few days later, Steele phoned him. ''Where do you stand on
race?'' Loury says Steele asked him. ''It's as if you're a racial
loyalist here. I thought we all agreed.''
''No, Shelby and I didn't agree,'' Loury says now. ''I was always
aware that, whatever I thought about race, I'm still black. Shelby's
position. . . . '' Loury starts to laugh. ''I was about to say,
Shelby's position was that we had to completely transcend race,
though I can imagine saying those words, too. But my heart wasn't in
them, whereas he really meant it. How could it have been otherwise?
His mother was a white woman. His wife is a white woman. When he
looked at his own children's racial identity and wondered about an
oppressive world that would say to those children, 'Choose sides' --
a dilemma I'd never faced -- Shelby's angle of vision was really
quite different from my own. So in all honesty, it was I who
betrayed him, not he who betrayed me.'' The two men have not spoken
since that conversation. (Steele declined to be interviewed for this
Writing in The New Republic on the eve of the referendum's
passage, Loury declared that it was ''flawed both in letter and
spirit,'' and went on to excoriate ''colorblind absolutists'' and to
argue that ''some 'discrimination' against whites'' may well be
''the inevitable -- and defensible -- consequence of measures to
identify and limit discrimination against blacks.''
''There came a point when I couldn't look my own people in the
face,'' Loury says, explaining his evolution. ''Everyone else had a
place to go. Some would go to Jerusalem. Others would go to Dublin.
You see the metaphor. Where would I go? I came back to Chicago and
talked to my uncle about what I was doing. There was a reproachful
look in his eyes, a sadness. He said to me, 'We could only send one,
and we sent you, and I don't see us in anything you do.' Eventually
I realized I couldn't live like that.''
So where did Loury end up? Not -- and this is what makes him
distinctive -- as a traditional liberal. Despite his new
appreciation of racial solidarity, Loury remains fiercely
independent. His outlook today is an unclassifiable, pragmatic blend
of entrepreneurialism, black nationalism, Christian faith and social
egalitarianism. Though he has relaxed his opposition to affirmative
action, he quibbles with the way it is practiced, recommending
instead what he calls developmental affirmative action -- programs
intended to improve minority performance while upholding common
standards of evaluation. It's a lonely position that infuriates his
former allies on the right without endearing him to black liberals
like Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West, who recently threatened
to resign from Harvard if Lawrence H. Summers, the school's new
president, failed to issue a sweeping defense of affirmative action.
The private Loury is as hard to pin down as the public intellectual:
an affluent homeowner in a largely white suburb who retains a deep
respect for the Nation of Islam; a churchgoer who jogs while
listening to gangsta rap on his Walkman.
''The Anatomy of Racial Inequality,'' based on lectures he gave
in 2000 at the Dubois Institute at Harvard, offers a bracing
philosophical defense of his new views. Returning to an argument he
first presented in his dissertation, Loury argues that blacks are no
longer held back by ''discrimination in contract'' -- discrimination
in the job market -- but rather by ''discrimination in contact,''
informal and entirely legal patterns of socializing and networking
that tend to exclude blacks and thereby perpetuate racial
inequality. At the root of this unofficial discrimination, he says,
is ''stigma,'' a subtle yet pervasive form of antiblack bias.
According to Loury, stigma explains why many white Americans, as
well as some blacks, view the imprisonment of 1.2 million
African-American men as a ''communal disgrace'' rather than as ''an
Of course, Loury himself once perceived the plight of the
underclass in similar terms. As he wrote in 1985, ''Whatever fault
may be placed upon racism in America, the responsibility for the
behavior of black youngsters lies squarely on the shoulders of the
black community itself.'' In his new book, by contrast, Loury
asserts that the miseries of the ghetto can ''only be seen as a
domestic product . . . for which the entire nation bears a
For Loury's former friends on the right, he is guilty of nothing
short of apostasy. Writing in National Review in 1999 ''with a heavy
heart,'' Norman Podhoretz -- an ex-leftist who achieved eternal
notoriety among liberals by publicly changing his mind -- accused
Loury of ''having fallen, or perhaps deliberately leaped, into 'the
loyalty trap' he once worked so hard to escape. . . . The loss to
his fellow blacks, and to the rest of us as well, is incalculable.''
Loury's change of mind has been greeted by liberals with
considerable skepticism. Loury's account of his defection was ''too
pat to be true, especially for a man of Mr. Loury's considerable
intelligence,'' Brent Staples wrote in The New York Times. ''Race-baiting, Willie Hortonizing and
homophobia were part of the package from the start and actually in
fuller use in the 80's than now. That Mr. Loury failed to detect a
'conservative party line' on race while cozying up to the Reagan
administration -- and as a star on the conservative lecture circuit
-- is simply implausible.''
It's a fair point. After all, Loury was always sensitive to the
left's rigidities on race. Why did it take him so long to rebel
against those of the right?
I asked him this directly, and he said: ''Why the 90's and not
the 80's? I'm going to give you an honest answer. I'd say, You're
dealing with a 35-year-old kid in 1983.'' It's not an especially
satisfying reply. After all, this ''35-year-old kid'' was a tenured
professor at Harvard. Loury's conversion narrative is compelling
stuff, but there's something missing. The story fails to explain why
he began to notice things that were perhaps there all along. It
fails to explain how the disapproval of blacks went from being a
badge of pride to one of shame.
You get the sense that the new Loury would just as soon not be
reminded of the old Loury. As he admitted to me in an e-mail
message, ''The ghost or shadow of the 'old' Loury follows me, and I
can still detect people reacting to this presence.''
Though he has to a certain extent ingratiated himself with the
black intellectual circles that once shunned him, the reaction of
many blacks to his new incarnation remains one of caution. ''There
are still people who won't forgive Glenn for sleeping with the
enemy,'' Patterson says.
Loury's embrace of his black identity is striking and, to some of
his black friends, a touch overeager. ''Glenn is into sports now,''
says Patterson, who formed a close friendship with Loury again in
the mid-90's. ''He's into basketball. He's developed a sort of pride
in things black, and a sensitivity about any negative comments made
about the group. I became a little concerned when Glenn started
listening to gangsta rap. I thought there was a little
It's hard not to conclude that Loury's intellectual positions
today reflect shifting personal needs as much as shifting
intellectual convictions. As Patterson points out, ''Glenn had
argued so powerfully against affirmative action that the shift in
position struck me more as a signal to the black community that he
wanted back in, rather than a strongly intellectual change of
Loury, for his part, doesn't disagree: ''I don't know if I want
to concede the point to Orlando, that there's no intellectual
substance to the change of mind. But I think that's a pretty astute
observation on his part.'' Still, he says, ''as long as I can give a
more-or-less cogent account of what the current position is, I don't
worry about the insincerity problem.'' When I asked him why he
constantly changes his mind, he fell silent, pounding his fist on
his desk. Leaning back in his chair, he stared quietly at the
ceiling. Nearly a minute passed. This was the first time I had seen
him at a loss for words. ''There may be something in my personality
that doesn't feel comfortable getting along,'' he finally said -- an
answer that nicely omits his equally strong desire to belong.
The question of belonging, of course, is one that all public
intellectuals face, but it weighs especially heavily on black
intellectuals who write about race. If you're a white college
professor, you can float half-formed ideas and say controversial
things; that's what you're paid to do. To be a black intellectual in
the race debate is to have an audience with expectations, even
demands; an audience anxious to know which side you're on.
You might imagine that the ambiguities of the post-civil-rights
era -- in which the problems may be clear but the solutions are not
-- would reduce the pressures toward intellectual conformity, but
Loury's career suggests that the opposite is true. Debates over
affirmative action and reparations are often so polarized as to
leave little room for iconoclasts. To dissent, on either side, means
you may find yourself in a lonely place, your loyalty -- even your
blackness -- in question.
Throughout our conversations, I had the odd sense that both Loury
and I were after the same thing: an understanding of Glenn Loury --
or, more precisely, how the old Loury became the new Loury. He often
talks about his past self as if he were someone else, as if the only
thing the two Lourys had in common were a body. Loury has been
through therapy, and he often talks like a classic analysand,
putting himself on the couch and registering genuine bafflement at
how he got there. ''Friends of mine sometimes have joked to me that
the old Loury and the new Loury should have a conversation,'' he
says, chuckling ruefully.
When you spend time with Loury, you feel that he's still sorting
out his past, still trying to figure out what has led him away from
and toward the embrace of his race. He is incredibly self-conscious,
and yet all his introspection has failed to yield any answers that
satisfy him. The day after I interviewed him for the first time, we
were walking along Commonwealth Avenue, just outside his office. ''I
feel like I spilled my guts yesterday,'' he confessed. ''But you
know, what I said was something of a revelation to me too. Because
parts of my life are still a blur to me. I don't have a coherent
Adam Shatz is a writer who lives in New York City.