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The Mass Media

Controversial BU Prof Argues Against Reparations

Boston University Professor Glenn Loury and Trotter Institute Director Barbara Lewis.
Kristen DeOliveira
Boston University Professor Glenn Loury and Trotter Institute Director Barbara Lewis.

Trotter Institute Director Barbara Lewis referred to the recent biopic documenting the life of musical icon Ray Charles to introduce Boston University professor, author, lecturer, and controversial African American figure Glenn Loury’s discussion of reparations last Wednesday in Healey Library.

“African Americans are most often depicted as economically disadvantaged,” Lewis said. “Like Ray, a disproportionate number enter the marketplace with a strike against them. Ray learned to compensate for his failing and turned it into an asset. How can we do the same so that our program of recuperation acknowledges and capitalizes on what we possess rather than remain fixated and paralyzed by what we lack? Dr. Loury is going to engage us deeper in that dialogue.”

Dr. Loury opened his discussion allowing that although the present condition of black people in society constitutes a grave historical wrong, “seeking payment of reparations to descendants of slaves in the United States is a wrong turn.”

Loury likened the payment of reparations to the payoff of the prosecution of a court claim. “I hit your vehicle, I get pain and suffering, plus doctor’s bills, plus lost income and so forth…the sum is computed, you make the payment, your obligation is discharged,” he said.

He added that the condition of the African American community cannot be reduced to such a claim, suggesting that upon payment the debt of society could be written off without specifically influencing or addressing the larger problem of ingrained social status.

“It’s about interpretation, not about compensation,” said Loury. “The question is not about injuries done, payments to be paid. The question is about what’s the story, what is the narrative that is going to seep into American public civic culture, as to how it is that we can call, process, and understand what it is that has taken place. …How do we relate that narrative to the present condition of our people… Is there a debt? Darn tooting there’s a debt, no doubt about it — but what are we going to do, that’s the question. How are we going to go forward?” Loury cited one of his issues with the issuing of reparations as coinciding with the “what if” questions that surface when assessing the degree of the damage.

“But for slavery, but for share-cropping, but for debt peonage, but for disenfranchisement of the southern states for a century after the emancipation, but for Jim Crow …nobody can answer that question in principle,” he said. “Given the intellectual difficulty of reducing the problem to the kind of quid pro quo terms that political reparations advocacy requires …It would be really, really tough to cash that one out because it requires the kind of knowledge of social dynamic and social evolution that we simply don’t possess.” Throughout his talk, Loury maintained that he would be willing to embrace the idea of reparations if anyone could answer the questions they evoke. He also admitted that despite his assertion that a coalition of action would be necessary to revamp the status of the African American public, he was unsure as to what steps would lead to such a solution. Dr. Loury contended that without a massive piece of social engineering, a coalition to address the problems that stem from slavery, the payment of reparations could be counterproductive. “The status of social pariah won’t be reversed, may even be reinforced by the successful advocacy for slavery reparations,” he said. “Once we’ve been paid, the obligation has been discharged, once we have taken our moral patrimony,” said Loury, continuing that sacrificing that for monetary payment would have severe consequences.

“‘You negroes have been paid,'” said Loury wiping his hands clean. “‘I don’t want to hear no more about affirmative action, I don’t want to hear no more protests about ‘three strikes you’re out’ -please don’t tell me about the detrimental impact of welfare reform and don’t keep complaining about the ghettos of the major cities of this country which are the worst places in the industrial world for human beings to live…because you Negroes have been paid.’ Watch out you just might get what you ask for.”

“The condition of my people in this country gives the lie to that self-righteous rhetoric -that is our moral patrimony so long as it exists, so long as it’s spirit exists, so long as the disproportionate and ill-representation of [black people] exists,” Loury added.

“It is living testimony to the hypocrisy of America. We’re going to trade that in for a few pieces of silver? We’re going to sell that? It’s not for sale on my watch,” he said.

Following his speech Loury fielded questions from an audience of UMB professors eager to weigh in on the subject and debate Loury’s position.

Dr. Lewis, director of the Trotter Center who co-sponsored the discussion along with the Philosophy department was pleased with the dialogue and the way the UMass faculty went “toe-to-toe” with Loury.

“Here was this heavy-hitter, and they were hitting back,” she said. Although Lewis had hoped more students would have turned out for the event, she found Loury, who agreed to speak at UMB free of charge, to be charming and gracious.

“What I was fascinated by was his fluency as a speaker. I thought he was wonderfully engaging and provocative,” she said.

“The position Professor Loury is taking seems to be much deeper and more focused on the problem than most reparations advocates,” said Marc Black, a graduate student in Applied Linguistics who attended the event after having been familiar with Loury’s ideas and reading his book The Anatomy of Racial Inequality.

Professor Larry Blum of the Philosophy Department is planning to teach Dr. Loury’s book in conjunction with his Race and Racism course.

“It’s great for UMass to have somebody of his stature and his learnedness,” said Blum. “His talk and his book help us to understand that the past is a live force,” he continued

“The problem with America is that people speak freely, but no one speaks frankly…it’s great when you get someone to come along who can do both,” added Dr. Ajume Wingo of the Philosophy Department, who was largely responsible for bringing Loury to campus. “He is controversial because he is exciting, he is provocative…Having a multitude of ideas, viewpoints whether they are correct or not, whether they are controversial or not, that to me is our duty.”

After the event, Loury said that he was grateful for the exchange and pleased to have had the opportunity to visit UMass Boston. Of his controversial reputation he said, “It’s not for me to say. I don’t try to be controversial. I just try to speak my mind, in my experience that has generated controversy.”