What is the moral challenge posed by high rates of incarceration, and as racial inequalities in the U.S. persist, what is there to do about it?
Economist and professor of social sciences Glenn C. Loury has asked himself this question and posed a similar one in a recent lecture titled “Beyond Civil Rights: “What’s a Self-Respecting ‘Black’ Intellectual to Do in the Face of Persistent Racial Inequality in the United States?” Loury will speak at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.
Loury will speak mainly about race, incarceration, American values and the responsibility of scholars to speak on these issues in a lecture titled “The Divided Society and the Democratic Ideal.” This week’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme is “With Economic Justice for All.”
“He’s a prominent public intellectual who has written on the themes of racial inequality and social policy, and we believe that’s a very important part of the kind of really honest inquiry we really need to be making in this week,” said Maureen Rovegno, associate director of Chautauqua Institution’s Department of Religion.
“He really is very well prepared to speak to us about the topic of economic justice for all, because that’s where he puts his academic energy and his personal philosophy.”
In the “Beyond Civil Rights” lecture, Loury outlined the failed transition to racial equality in the U.S., and pointed out the faulty logic of assuming the country is OK because it has a black president. In reality, African-American disadvantage persists, convergence to parity is nowhere in sight, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of equality has yet to be realized.
He also discussed an “incarceration explosion,” which both reflects and locks in racial inequality. Imprisonment in the U.S. dwarfs that in other countries, and current high incarceration rates are unprecedented in U.S. history. Imprisonment is now a key feature of U.S. social policy, he said — and incidence is widely disparate by race and class.
Loury pointed to crime, politics and social change as underlying causes of the issue. With a decline in urban manufacturing came problems of drugs and violence concentrated in poor and racially segregated inner-city neighborhoods, and crime rates increased significantly from the early 1960s to the early 1980s, he said. In the 1980s, federal and state governments expanded mandatory prison sentences, and drug arrests increased while drug crimes were sentenced more harshly.
Although crime has been falling steadily for two decades, anti-drugs law enforcement has yielded a massive racial disparity, relative to usage rates, he said.
In a June 2014 interview with The Region, a quarterly banking and economic policy magazine, Loury addressed possible causes of rising U.S. inequality.
“I have the impression, or even the belief, that an increase on the premium on skills is a big part of it and that the college-high school wage gap has increased as a result,” he said. “I do believe that skill-biased technical challenge is a real thing.”
He also addressed in the Region interview his 1981 analysis of the impact of raising the minimum wage, as some states have passed or are considering passing legislation to do such. Although his conclusions weren’t “absolutely definitive,” Loury’s work suggested raising the minimum wage would likely lead to discrimination against young black people, and could price people out of the labor market. Loury said he is a Democrat, but worried that the party is too quick to label those who oppose minimum wage hikes as people who believe the poor are lazy.
“By raising the minimum wage, you’re pricing people with few or no skills out of the labor market,” Loury said. “I’m talking about people whose labor isn’t worth $10.10 an hour. Such people exist. If nobody wants to pay them $10.10 an hour, but somebody wants to pay them $8.30 an hour, then by raising the minimum wage, you have just priced them out of the labor market.”
Loury was inspired to pursue the study of incarceration upon being invited to give the Tanner Lecture on Human Values at Stanford University. He spent nine months preparing, and delivered a lecture titled, “Race, Incarceration and American Values” in 2007, he told The Region.
“I didn’t think economics by itself reached broadly or deeply enough to allow me to cover the terrain that I wanted to cover, which is, ‘What happened to my country here? How did we get to be a nation of jailers?’” he said.