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News Release

April 11, 2007


Lisa Trei, News Service: (650) 725-0224,

Race remains central issue in America today, economist argues

In the post-civil rights era, the question of race in America remains central, not peripheral, to the evolution of social policy, according to economist Glenn Loury. The rise of the "mass incarceration state" during this period and the fact that most prison inmates are poor, uneducated and have black or brown skin must be analyzed within this context, Loury argued during the 2007 Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Stanford.

"This punishment policy complex has become the principal way that racial hierarchy is now reproduced in our society," he said. Although civic inclusion has been the historical imperative in Western political life for 150 years, it remains woefully incomplete in this country—"despite our self-declared status as a light unto the nations, as a beacon of hope to freedom-loving peoples everywhere," he added. "This situation weakens the legitimacy of the American political regime … in the eyes of many of its citizens, and in the view of a great many people throughout the world, who see our social practice, in light of our racial history, as barbaric."

Loury, the Merton P. Stultz Professor of the Social Sciences at Brown University, discussed "Racial Stigma, Mass Incarceration and American Values" during two lectures April 4 and 5 presented by the Program in Ethics in Society. In Loury's first lecture, "Ghettos, Prisons and Racial Backlash," he focused on the historical, political and sociological role that race has played in the post-1970 transformation of America's punishment policies. In his second discussion, "Social Identity and the Ethics of Punishment," Loury analyzed the ethics of punishment in America's divided society.

Each lecture was followed by lengthy commentaries by Stanford sociology Professor Lawrence Bobo and law Professor Pam Karlan on April 5, and by Tommie Shelby, Harvard associate professor of social sciences, and Loïc Wacquant, a sociology professor at the University of California-Berkeley, on April 6.

"The question we should be asking—not instead of but in addition to questions about penal policy—is whether the denizens of the ghetto are entitled, as a matter of justice, to a better set of options, and if so, whose responsibility it is to provide them," Shelby said. "If there were the same percentage of whites as blacks in prison, in abject poverty, in miserable low-paying jobs, in terrible schools and without adequate health care, should we think that real progress toward social justice had been achieved? I don't think so."

Throughout the Tanner Lectures, Loury tried to offer "argument and evidence, not moral outrage or rhetorical fervor." But his anger and frustration were evident. "I am a black American male, standing before you to address the ethics of mass incarceration in this race-conscious, racially divided nation," he said. "I have sat in the visitors room at a state prison; I have known—personally and intimately—men and women who lived their entire lives with one foot [on] either side of the law. In my mind's eye, I can envision voiceless and despairing people who would hope I might represent them on this occasion."

Although violent crime has declined during the last 15 years, Loury said, the American prison system has become "a leviathan unmatched in human history." Spending on law enforcement has more than quadrupled during the last quarter century. "Never has a supposedly 'free country' denied basic liberty to so many of its citizens," he said. "As of December 2006, some 2.25 million persons were under lock and key in the nearly 5,000 prisons and jails that are scattered like an archipelago across America's urban and rural landscapes."

America has 5 percent of the world's population, but it incarcerates 25 percent of the world's estimated 9 million inmates, Loury said, referring to a 2005 report by the International Center for Prison Studies in London. The U.S. incarceration rate of 714 per 100,000 residents is higher than its closest competitors: Russia, Belarus and the Bahamas each imprison 532 per 100,000 people. America incarcerates at 6.2 times the rate for Canada, 7.8 times the rate for France and 12.3 times the rate for Japan, Loury said.

In California, a black male resident is more likely to enter a state prison than a state college. In 2000, one in nine young black males in the United States were incarcerated, compared with three out of 200 whites. There is nearly a three-fifths chance that a black male high school dropout born between 1965 and 1969 will have gone to prison or jail at least once before turning 35, he said.

Departing from his prepared speech, Loury told the audience, "I'm simply describing an institutional transformation of an order and of a scale is that is stunning, that is astounding, that ought to command our attention. How could we possibly just sit idly by and have it happen—unremarked?"

Loury referred to the work of Vesla Mae Weaver, a young political scientist from Harvard, to explain the role race may have played in the transformation of the criminal justice system. Weaver argues that civil rights opponents, unable to prevail against the liberal zeitgeist of the era, shifted their energies to "a seemingly race neutral concern over crime," Loury said. Quoting Weaver, he said, "Once the clutch of Jim Crow had loosened, opponents of civil rights shifted the 'locus of attack' by injecting crime onto the agenda. Rivals of civil rights progress defined racial discord as criminal and argued that crime legislation would be a panacea to racial unrest."

Experts estimate that the massive increase in incarceration rates accounts for no more than 25 percent of the decline in U.S. crime rates since 1990, Loury said. "Analysts of all political stripes now agree that we have long since passed into the zone of diminishing returns," he said. Despite this, the criminal justice system in recent decades has become increasingly punitive. From 1980 to 2001, less than half of complaints resulted in an arrest, but those arrested were twice as likely to land in prison—up from 13 to 28 percent. Today, he said, two-thirds of inmates are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, mostly for dealing illegal drugs.

"We have choices about how we manage those people," Loury said. "I am not saying they don't constitute a problem. I'm saying we have a decision to make on how we manage them. When the only instrumentality that we can see is to project violent state power as a means of control over their physical being, it's telling us something about us. This, ladies and gentlemen, is about us. I'm talking about the American character."

Loury exhorted the audience to view the problems of the urban underclass as an expression of a more profound and widespread moral issue that involves all Americans. "The fundamental premise that should guide us is that we are all in this together," he said. "Just look at what we have wrought. We Americans have established what, to many an outside observer, looks like a system of racial caste in the center of our great cities. I refer here to millions of stigmatized, feared and invisible people. The extent of disparity in the opportunity to achieve their full human potential, as between the children of the middle class and the children of the disadvantaged … is virtually unrivaled elsewhere in the industrial, advanced, civilized, free world."

Despite this, too many Americans have concluded that those languishing at the margins of society are "simply reaping what they have sown," Loury said. "Their suffering is seen as having nothing to do with us—as not being evidence of systemic failures which can be corrected through collective action. We have given up on the ideal of rehabilitating criminals and have settled for simply warehousing them."

Americans have failed to recognize that urban ghettos are products of their society's own making, Loury said. "Precisely because we do not want those people near us, we have structured the space in our urban environment—as was revealed by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005—so as to keep them away from us," he said.

"What those images out of New Orleans showed is that this American project of civic inclusion remains incomplete. Nowhere is this incompleteness more evident than in the prisons and jails of America. And this as yet unfulfilled promise of American democracy reveals a yawning chasm between an ugly American reality and our nation's exalted image of herself."

Scholars will meet at Stanford on Wednesday, April 11, to discuss the causes, meanings and effects of racial disproportion in the U.S. criminal justice system. The conference will take place in Bechtel Conference Center, Encina Hall, at 616 Serra St. For more information, visit



Eamonn Callan, Ethics in Society: (650) 723-8317,

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