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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This article appeard in the Spring 2002 issue of the Claremont Review of Books