Renowned Economist and Professor Glenn Loury Speaks at UMN Webinar

February 17, 2022

As a part of the Public Life Project initiative, the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota hosted Glenn Loury, Professor of Economics at Brown University. He holds a PhD in Economics from MIT and is the first tenured African American professor of economics in Harvard history. Loury is a renowned economist, social critic, and intellectual who writes on social policy and racial inequality.

The topic for his webinar with the University was “Why Does Racial Inequality Persist?” Throughout the conversation, Loury tackles ideas on how to address the unequal economic status of Black Americans in the 21st century.

Throughout the lecture, Loury tackles important topics facing the African American community and counters popular political arguments. He counters the idea of America as a structurally racist society and argues that that idea discredits that there is so much more to the problem and solutions of racial inequity. As an economist, Loury offers tangible and practical conceptual solutions to issues facing Black Americans.

One of the main ideas Loury addressed was the topic of reparations to the African American community. This policy has become popular in American public discourse as a proposed policy and solution to racial inequality facing Black Americans.

To portray an actual example of a similar policy, Loury mentioned the reparations payments to Japanese Americans who were placed in internment camps during World War II. Congress acknowledged this terrible wrongdoing and paid out $20,000 in reparations and damages for the 80,000 Japanese Americans who were interned in these camps.

Loury used this historical example to describe the cost of a similar program for Black Americans. There are 35-40 million African Americans, and at an adjusted value of $100,000 a person, a similar reparations amount would cost around $4 trillion. Loury warns this amount would be of social security magnitude and “South Africa-esque” in terms of basing social programs on racial identity.

Loury did not deny that there are problems that need to be addressed. He said that Black America has problems that will not go away overnight and that they need sympathetic public and political engagement.

In terms of reparations in the form of a one-time cash payment, Loury argued that it would not be smart for Black America to cash out on its “moral capital,” but instead opt for more long standing solutions such as housing, education, pre-school care, and healthcare.

Inequality persists in large consequence of slavery and Jim Crow, and Loury does not want to commodify the obligation to remedy inequality in the form of cash reparations. He believes that Black America should lend its moral capital to a “righteous cause. Not a racially defined reparation, but instead a humanistically defined improvement in the social contract broadly understood.”

righteous cause. Not a racially defined reparation, but instead a humanistically defined improvement in the social contract broadly understood

— Dr. Glenn Loury

Professor Loury then pivoted his conversation to affirmative action. He notes that racial preferences have become institutionalized and are inconsistent with equality of respect.

Loury discusses how it is important to focus on equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. “Equality of representation in the most rarefied venues of competitive selection is ultimately inconsistent with equality of respect when there are different performance levels between the populations in question. I’m talking about selection at the right tail. I’m not talking about selection at the median of a population.“

This does not mean Loury is not an advocate for more representation of different groups in certain professions. For example, he notes “there are not enough black economists, I agree.” He also goes on to say that he can agree that current institutions are not inclusive enough and that of the top institutions in the country, there should be at least two black economists.

Loury argues that if hiring decisions are based on race, “you’re not going to get black equality, you are going to get black mediocrity.” He suggests that the right tools and educational opportunity be given to black individuals so that when hiring is based on equal criteria at the right tail (best qualified) of the population, the numbers of black economists (or any profession) increase.

The University of Minnesota was lucky to have had the honor to host such a renowned economist and figure as Professor Glenn Loury. His insights vary from contemporary takes on race and society and provide actionable policy suggestions to advance the cause of Black Americans and reduce racial inequality.

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