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Social Control and Human Dignity

Barry Latzer’s recent piece addresses a fact that has to be part of any meaningful conversation about race and policing: young black men commit a disproportionate amount of the violent crime that persists in this country. That fact surely helps explain why police disproportionately apply force against black men and interact with black men. It also helps explain why our prisons disproportionately house black men. That’s a critical point, but I don’t think we can stop there. As Glenn Loury, the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences in Brown University’s Economics Department, has argued in a series of lectures on mass incarceration, that approach is rather “thin.” It might suggest a viewpoint that denies social responsibility for the method of social control we have adopted, resting complacent with the fact that criminals are guilty of the crimes they committed and deserve their time in the clink. That may be true, but it only goes so far. We should also consider the broader context of how we as a society have chosen to deal, or perhaps not deal, with the persistence of crime in poor black communities.

Loury’s recent writings, interviews, and conversations at his vlog with John McWhorter help make space for serious people of all races interested in understanding and discussing problems of race, police, and crime in a holistic way that does not force them to deny obvious facts. Loury has made the point, consonant with Latzer’s argument, that violent crime is a much greater threat to black lives than police violence, by the numbers. More broadly, Loury offers a deeply humane analysis of our policy of social control and response to violent crime since the early 1970s. He argues that our method of social control has damaging effects on many of our communities and the people whose lives the criminal justice system touches, effects disparately borne in poor black communities. These effects are such to make the method of social control we have adopted a systemic injustice that demands the attention of policymakers and leaders around the country. Loury’s analysis is distinguished from others in that he insists on applying moral categories and acknowledging personal agency. He sees the problem in its multidimensional entirety: not simply as a crime or mass incarceration problem, but a problem of social control and ultimately human development. He calls us to a greater sense of social responsibility than our policy since the 1970s has exhibited. We should heed his message.

Loury insists on nuance. He insists on the proper application of moral vocabulary, on recognizing as “contemptible” the violent and irresponsible behavior of a minority of young black men responsible for violent crime in poor black communities. He insists that part of treating people with respect and dignity is to hold them accountable for their behavior. One theme in his analysis of race and inequality is that black people have agency and are not mere victims of systemic racism. This is a deeply humane argument, for to deny a person’s agency is to deny his humanity. Loury argues that black leaders and communities have to exercise this agency and find a way to effectively condemn and control immoral behavior in their own communities.

White, right-leaning listeners like me are likely to seize on that element of Loury’s analysis. Loury also makes a point we might miss if we rest there. While he insists on personal agency and accountability for behavior in black communities, he does not absolve the larger polity of responsibility for the ills of high-crime black communities. He insists that Americans need to shift our thinking, so that we don’t treat the problems of poor black communities as the problems of “those people.” He argues that racism played a role in the development of our policy of social control. He has argued that anti-black racial animus helps explain the turn to an increasingly punitive approach to social control, starting in the mid-1960s, continuing even as crime rates fell after the early 1990s. Our method of social control is partly related to our history of racial injustice and racial subordination. In Loury’s wording, it gained traction partly as a result both of “explicit” and “tacit” racism, the former referring to anti-black animus and the latter to complacent acceptance of racially disparate impact. Loury frames crime and our choice of policy for social control in context:

A central reality of our time is the fact that there has opened a wide racial gap in the acquisition of cognitive skills, in the extent of law abidingness, in the stability of family relations, the attachment to the workforce and the like, and this is a disparity in human development which is as a historical matter rooted in political, economic, social, and cultural factors peculiar to this society and reflective of its unlovely racial history. That is, the inequality of human development that is reflected in widely disparate rates of criminal offending by race in this country is a societal, not a communal or a personal achievement.

Let me sketch the argument for viewing our current method of social control and its connection to a larger failure to adequately provide for human development in poor black communities as a systemic injustice. It’s not obvious how, as Loury argues, “the sum of a million cases, each one rightly judged on its merits to be individually fair, can still constitute a great historic wrong.”

The problem is not so much with what we do as what we fail to do, which is to allow for the human development of many people and communities, overly relying on a punitive justice system to control the results of social dysfunction.

I understand a systemic injustice, or a social injustice, to be a legal and accepted social practice that fails, on a wide scale, to render to each person his or her due. This definition borrows from Nicholas Wolterstorff and is grounded in the traditional notion of suum cuique: “Social injustice is the injustice wreaked on members of the community by its laws and public social practices.” The argument is that our incarceration system and treatment of people formerly incarcerated, fails to adequately respect the human dignity of prisoners, former prisoners, and their families and communities. The charge is based on the scale at which we incarcerate, the quality of treatment incarcerated and formerly incarcerated persons receive, and the overall state in which it leaves communities. The charge of injustice is based not on the fact of punishment, but on the reality that the total result of our method of social control is a failure to prevent crime in many communities, a failure to rehabilitate offenders and integrate them back into society, and a failure to leave poor minority communities better off.

That argument is certainly debatable, but I would at least submit that many white people don’t see struggling black communities as our own communities. As Senator Marco Rubio put it, we exhibit “racial indifference.” And that itself is enough to constitute a systemic injustice because it also is a failure to render people their due. This is a social issue, not just an issue for predominantly black communities. The problem is not so much with what we do as what we fail to do, which is to allow for the human development of many people and communities, overly relying on a punitive justice system to control the results of social dysfunction.

Of course we have to take the fact of crime, and concentration of violent crime in black communities, into consideration. Police do have to confront violent offenders, as Latzer points out. Crime does deserve punishment, and that is not inhumane even by Loury’s analysis. True to his insistence on nuance, Loury says we can’t decide individual cases based on the history of racial injustice in the country. But can we go further? Can we see, as Loury does, the problem of social control and the punitive approach we have taken as an underlying failure of human development?

Loury’s analysis would imply that waiting for crime to diminish in black communities is inadequate as a policy response. First, we need reforms in the justice system to encourage more dignified treatment of suspects, prisoners, and the communities who the system affects. That likely means not ‘defunding’ police but increasing and enhancing training and recruitment for police and corrections officers. Loury’s thick analysis would also suggest attention to the social dysfunction that plausibly underlies crime in some poor minority neighborhoods, especially in bedrock institutions like the family. Decentralized, community-based efforts like Robert Woodson’s organization, which works to find and amplify what’s working well in high-crime communities, offer models for consideration. We may need public funding and more involvement on the part of community members, especially churches and other institutions, in similar efforts aimed at strengthening those bedrock institutions in struggling communities. We might consider expanding violence reduction efforts like David Kennedy’s “Ceasefire” project, which is based on the humanization of violent offenders through direct community-level intervention and has shown some promise. We need to give more attention to our educational institutions and finding real solutions for lagging academic performance.

To quote Loury, we need to shift our understanding of ourselves in relation to each other:

While we cannot ignore the behavioral problems of the so-called black underclass, we should discuss and react to those problems as if we were talking about our own children, neighbors, and friends. It will require adjusting ways of thinking on both sides of the racial divide. Achieving a well-ordered society, where all members are embraced as being among us, should be the goal. Our failure to do so is an American tragedy. It is a national, not merely a communal, disgrace. Changing the definition of the American “we” is a first step toward rectifying the relational discrimination that afflicts our society, and it is the best path forward in reducing racial inequality.

We need to replace racial indifference with serious attention to the ways we can humanize our reparative institutions while helping communities restore the strength of bedrock institutions, so we can move away from a purely punitive method of social control.

Reader Discussion

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on June 23, 2020 at 08:01:51 am

A finely attuned, probative piece. Nicely done. Heartening to read something of this quality on this subject.

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Michael Bond
on June 23, 2020 at 09:52:26 am

Thanks for this great essay. I too have followed Prof. Loury with great interest and learned a lot from him. Very challenging. My questions are these, How do his prescriptions differ from what Pat Moynihan suggested in his famous report? How would they differ from the general "Great Society" approach to rebuilding our cities on principles of justice and racial peace? It is one thing to argue for different approaches to crime. I'm all ears on that. it is another to get at the roots of crime, which the GS sought to do.

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Scott Yenor
on June 23, 2020 at 10:17:40 am

“We need to replace racial indifference with serious attention to the ways we can humanize our reparative institutions while helping communities restore the strength of bedrock institutions, so we can move away from a purely punitive method of social control.”

True, and yet, how can the State assume the role of Father, when the State itself has demonstrated that it discriminates against the very essence of being, in essence, a beloved son or daughter, brother or sister, husband or wife, father or mother?

“Call no one Father except your Father In Heaven.”

Racism, like all violence against innocent human life, is due to a failure to Love, according to The Word Of God Made Flesh.

We are all members of the Human Race. Racism is a sin, because like all sin, it denies the inherent Dignity of the human person as a beloved son or daughter, brother or sister, husband or wife, father or mother.

“1849 Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as "an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law."121

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Nancy
on June 23, 2020 at 10:36:41 am

The challenge, and perhaps aspects of it are paradoxical, is Agency. All people need a sense of agency, the combination of ability to solve one's own problems, and responsibility for solving problems. And with that, we assume, some degree of self-accountability for the consequences of having solved problems. But if we say that African-Americans should work, in community, to 'fix themselves', but they fail (for whatever reasons -- perhaps they weren't really given the tools and authority required for the task), then following that failure, we get into the trap Senator Rubio points to -- they are 'not us', and we become 'systematically indifferent.' They are part of us, and the pathology of failed community is in our community. But to the extent that there are pathological issues unique to African-American history, who can solve them and how do we work together? It is a problem with roots in chickens and in eggs. Where can on begin?

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cmcc_aus
on June 23, 2020 at 12:13:00 pm

We must begin at The Beginning, when God Created every human person, equal in Dignity, while being complementary as a beloved son or daughter, Willed by God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, worthy of Redemption, with an intellect and a will, to live in Loving relationship, in communion with The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity.

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Nancy
on June 23, 2020 at 12:17:27 pm

Consonant with this piece and Loury's fecund examinations in general - while additionally mining the deepest substrates of the social contract, constitutionalism and conceptions of human anthropology as they inform our thinking and competing visions is this richly probative piece by Richard Reinsch here at L&L.

It does indeed reach to the deepest levels of what needs to be examined and appreciated with the utmost probity. Reinsch's well considered approach to the thought of Orestes Brownson, Bertrand de Jouvenel and Harvey Mansfield contrasts a classically liberal constitutionalism with a progressivist kind together with the strengths and weaknesses of the former in confronting the latter.

Following is but a very slight glimpse into the anthropology being summoned but is perhaps helpful to that degree nonetheless:

"Brownson’s mature political thought shores up the living tradition of liberalism by showing how its origins in Christian anthropology and the natural law made the case for a responsible freedom rooted in an objective moral order that could guide political decision-making."

Without exploring these deepest of substrates which in turn inform such basic, yet malign ideas and praxis as our hyper or "atomistic" individualism, radical autonomy and the like, we are not going to be able to come to terms with racial and other crises we are facing. We will be applying but band-aids to deep wounds. This all reflects work requiring the utmost sobriety and discernment.

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Michael Bond
on June 23, 2020 at 14:00:37 pm

In using the term human anthropology, above, I meant to say more human, as I think and believe the anthropology invoked by Brownson and others mentioned reflects a conception of the human, of human reality that is more, qualitatively more both on personal/individual and relational levels of all modes and kinds.

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Michael Bond
on June 23, 2020 at 16:22:47 pm

Glenn Loury is courageous, smart, thoughtful, independent and dedicated to his role as a responsible intellectual. He could never be a Leftist, an apologist for racialist ideology or a public figure given to easy, pat answers for complicated public problems. Hence, he can have no impact in the Democrat Party or among the student body, professoriate or administration of a contemporary major university campus, certainly not Brown University, the campus where he now teaches. Loury's intellectual ideas can have agency only at a college like Hillsdale College or among conservatives. Apparently, for reasons of academic self-preservation he declines to call himself a conservative (wrong, like von Hayek, there.) The only potential allies who could be powerful exponents of the kind of thinking which Loury brings to bear are the Republican Party and President Trump. Loury apparently strongly disapproves of Trump. Thus, despite his tremendous potential value as a strong voice of reason and solution, Loury will remain a man without a place to call home.

That is very sad!

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paladin
on June 23, 2020 at 17:52:10 pm

The availability of jobs that pay a living wage needs to be part of this discussion. A job that pays adequately gives a person self-respect, a sense of agency, and hope, a feeling of belonging and ownership, and a stake in preserving their neighborhood. An entire community of such individuals results in stronger and resilient children, families, schools, hospitals, and tax base. A win-win for ALL. Two things need to happen. One, corporate America needs to be weaned off outsourcing and offshoring to China and India, it needs to be weaned off reliance of illegal immigrant labor. This can be facilitated through tax incentives and disincentives. Two, the culture of communities that have lost hope needs to change. To the extent that we are not doing this, we are basically replacing US citizens with imported labor. I would LOVE the opportunity to do my part in the second one. Tutoring, mentoring, coaching kids in the inner city. How about an Americorps (like the Peace Corps) to recruit people like me who have a lot to give and who WANT to give?

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NP
on June 24, 2020 at 10:47:13 am

The core problem is how to motivate the large numbers of poor urban young black men to desire a mode of living that resembles or approximates the bourgeois middle-class norm that other racial groups here are motivated by. A mode of living centered on establishment and maintenance of a 2-parent household, regular employment in some kind of M-F, 9-5 job, and emphasis on formal education of the children in preparation for their entry into and active maintenance of that mode of living. I know this is highly reductive and too general; it is not necessary for one size to fit all. But I think my gist is clear and it has been the gist of many others going back at least as far as Moynihan.

It may be, and probably is, the case that the deplorable treatment of blacks from the end of Reconstruction through the 1960s gradually eradicated their orientation towards the kind of stable, boring middle-class existence that, had it remained their orientation, would no doubt have led over the course of 3 and more generations to the accumulation of far more collective wealth and prosperity in the black population as a whole. Accumulation of that degree of wealth and prosperity is not the work of a single generation, and no government benefit policy, however generous, can possibly change the pattern in a single generation.

But it seems beyond doubt that among young blacks anyway, that mode of living--that "discipline" in all its Foucaultian significations--has become indelibly associated with "white" society, and all things white, all knowledge, all institutions, all practices, associated with white people are now categorically morally bad and are to be avoided at all costs. Young blacks attending colleges today make their mission not to participate in the institution as it has evolved historically, not to adopt the knowledge, orientations and discipline adopted by past generations of mostly white participants and thereby enter and reproduce the boring bourgeois middle-class milieu (boring, but yet that's where the accumulated wealth, prosperity and stability are), but to demand that the institution rid itself of all vestiges of that white-by-association character and transform itself into a therapeutic facility. Asians especially have thrived here by embracing the traditional model and doing it better than even whites lately, but for blacks it has become axiomatic that they must somehow advance in any manner but that manner. That model, that kind of discipline, is now ideologically unembraceable by them, and in fact their stated goal is now to make it unembraceable by anyone.

So, the core issue, the real issue, amounts to just this: per Loury, whose thinking requires adjustment the most and the most imminently in order for a more just society for blacks collectively (which will be ascertained primarily, if not wholly, in economic measurements), that of blacks or that of whites?

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QET
on June 24, 2020 at 12:16:14 pm

At another internet site, Lawyers, Guns, and Money (LGM), commentator asked: "what kind of society values property over black life?" Another commentator answered: "Ours." Hmmmm, asked and answered! Perhaps, Glenn Loury, as Patrick Moynihan, overlooks the truism: it is always among equals that one finds independence!

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Anthony
on June 24, 2020 at 12:39:34 pm

That question is incoherent, a non-sequitur. Who exactly has said they value property more than life? I assume the question's context is the massive destruction of property in the rioting in various cities nominally claimed to be protests of police brutality towards black people. Neither said property nor its owners have taken any black life, unless it be in attempting to prevent the wanton and willful destruction of said property, which is perfectly reasonable. My use of deadly force against one who is unlawfully and violently trying to take or destroy my property is not correctly interpreted to mean that I value property over life.

Or was there a different context?

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QET
on June 25, 2020 at 13:01:15 pm

The question is neither incoherent nor a non-sequitur (my old friend/nemesis). Because you dislike question, does not make its referent less real. We've spent more than a decade @ this! Still, I enjoy your perspective eve if my vantage point offers a variant.

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Anthony
on June 25, 2020 at 13:04:46 pm

Should read "even if...."

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Anthony
on June 24, 2020 at 17:08:06 pm

As to "whose thinking requires adjustment the most and the most imminently in order for a more just society for blacks collectively... that of blacks or that of whites?" I would say, alas, that, for want of a republican (small "d") defense, the zeitgeist is with the Democrats and their millions of African American shills, so that the morally superior, intellectually-grounded, lawful, primary culture is expected to adjust its thinking drastically so as to conform to the updated racist notions of the morally decadent, lawless Democrat Party.

This racially-founded, politically-driven, moral dumbing-down of culture and law will, of course, in a consequence of supreme historical irony, redound to the severe detriment of the vast majority of Blacks, but, most importantly, to the great benefit of the demonic Democrat Party, the political institution whose forefathers imported slavery for profit, whose founders (all for profit) vastly extended and institutionalized slavery after the nation's Founding, whose most prominent 19th century oligarchs (all for profit) duped hundreds of thousands of poor whites into going to war to defend slavery, and whose political leaders insidiously sustained slavery (after Republicans fought and died to abolish it) in the form of 100 years of Democrat Party-sponsored, legally-sanctioned feudalism, only to continue to exploit the descendants of slavery from 1965 with the false promises, lies and political treachery of the Democrat Party's Great Society right up to the post-Minneapolis riots of June, 2020 aimed by the Democrat Party at electing Joe Biden and perpetuating the Democrat Party's racist hegemony over African Americans.

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paladin
on June 24, 2020 at 17:33:45 pm

I understand the "is"; I am thinking of the "ought." Since "justice" will ultimately be assessed in economic terms, at some point the depredations of the woke brigades will reveal themselves as nothing to do with justice. (However, they will claim victory if their antics increase the general economic depression thereby bringing non-black populations in the US downward economically toward the level of the black population. After all, equality is equality, whether in prosperity or in deprivation).

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QET
on June 24, 2020 at 18:15:31 pm

You are correct; there is a difference between the ought which you imply and the is which I predict.
I have become so jaded that I sometimes forego emphasis on the ought, thinking it, except in moral philosophy, just an abstract waste of time.

Last week in a comment I noted, The Congress and the Court are a lost cause; the media and journalism are fake news co-conspirators of the Democrat Party, the military has been so co-opted that its most senior active and retired officers now sound like Burt Reynolds in Seven Days in May, the institutions of intelligence-gathering, criminal investigation and criminal prosecution are corrupted, and local law enforcement, police protection and penal detention are collapsing before our eyes.
Truly, "the center does not hold.""
''Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
Except with the fearless fighter, Donald Trump, and his loveable, undaunted deplorables."

Glenn Loury's faux-conservatism does not change a wit of that. And your ought is right; the Black subculture has had 155 years to get its act together and has failed. Time to drop the Black apologetics, the race-baiting and the hate-mongering against Whites. The only systemic racism in the U.S. today is that of the Democrat Party, university academics, administrators and college students, a large segment of inner-city African Americans and most African American politicians.

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paladin
on June 25, 2020 at 13:40:27 pm

I don't know that I agree with your timeline. My study of the history convinces me that in the 25 year period following Reconstruction, Southern blacks, for the most part (always there are exceptions to anything) most assiduously tried to establish communities of small farms and townships, built schools and churches and otherwise tried to align with the pattern of the Southern yeoman farmer model, even where economically they were but sharecroppers. But they were actively prevented from these steps toward economic self-sufficiency by white goons quite reminiscent of today's rampaging woke mobs.

Then the black codes suppressed them even further, eventually demoralizing such large numbers of blacks that no critical mass of "bourgeois" blacks could form. In the Northern cities, their situation, while bad, may not have been as dire, yet the de facto discrimination against blacks in the employment sector, which naturally resulted in exclusion from the credit sector, all during the 20th century, further demoralizing blacks and leading directly to ideologies of militant blackness that reject outright further attempts at integration with the majority white society, its ways, values and discipline.

I would argue that it is only in the last 40-50 years that the conditions have been present for blacks collectively to begin to build the economic foundations necessary to overcome the pathologies engendered by the preceding 100 years, and that such building is the work of multiple generations oriented to a mode of living conducive to the gradual accumulation of wealth in families, and not of a new entitlement program or three. Possibly the late frenzy to install as many black men and women as possible in economically favorable situations in the name of "diversity" will, if those installed use their employment positions to cultivate a more bourgeois mode of living, result in a nucleus in this generation of economically viable black households who will be the start of an upward generational trend. Of course, it would really help if immigration and especially H-1Bs were severely curtailed in order to stimulate more demand for black US citizens as employees.

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QET
on June 25, 2020 at 18:50:28 pm

We agree. My 155 years in the wilderness includes all of the post-bellum era, the 20th and the 21st century to date, acknowledging that a great deal of the failure was externally-caused and not self-inflicted. The national failure to achieve Grant's goals of Reconstruction and the era of Jim Crowe are failures not of the Black minority but of the White majority, perhaps inevitable given the national and local power of the Democrat Party. The harm done to Blacks by the Great Society was harm caused by the Democrat Party and is not a failure of the Black minority. Yet, whatever the cause(s), African Americans have not improved their lot substantially in 155 years. And there are now no external causes or internal excuses for that except the Democrat Party, the Black support of which is not a matter of compulsory servitude.

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paladin
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on June 26, 2020 at 01:41:41 am

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