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Loury: The political inefficacy of saying, ‘Black lives matter’

Op-Ed Contributor
Friday, November 6, 2015

I fear that the #BlackLivesMatter movement may have gotten off on the wrong foot (with tactics that alienate needed allies) and that it may be barking up the wrong tree (by focusing inordinately on anti-black police violence.) This concern derives from my definition of the core problems and my convictions about how best to make progress toward solving them. Permit me to explain.

I am taking the considerable risk of expressing my concerns about BLM here precisely because I want the movement to succeed. Consider this intervention to be an “old head” offering some friendly, unsolicited advice. I understand fully that righteous rage can be a catalyst of change by forcing neglected issues onto the public agenda and by stirring the masses out of their complacency so as to advocate reforms. If change is ultimately born via legislation enacted by politicians, it is often midwifed via noisy, disruptive acts of the mobilized masses.

So I accept that activists and politicians play very different roles in bringing about needed social change. But I disagree with those who insist that the right answer to the question famously posed to the presidential candidates in the Democratic Party debate some weeks ago was for them to respond as they did. Incanting “Black Lives Matter” rather than “All Lives Matter” hardly constitutes advocating “racial justice,” in my view. Indeed, I see the making of such verbal concessions as a kind of cheap grace. These genuflections ask very little of the (white) politicians or their (white) voters.

But endorsing universal early childhood education, scattered site public housing, massively increased spending on mental health care for the indigent, revamped criminal justice policies, a guaranteed minimum income for all American families, public jobs as employer-of-last-resort, higher per capita expenditures on the education of those from the least advantaged home environments — all of these things, and more, enacted via comprehensive legislative initiatives DO ask a great deal from politicians and WOULD be a massive step in the direction of “social justice” in America. And, given their disproportionately beneficial impact on black communities, enacting such a comprehensive progressive agenda would constitute achieving the only kind of “racial justice” worth fighting for in my view. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying one must choose either to pursue social justice or to seek racial justice. One can do both. There is plenty wrong with the way certain law enforcement agencies conduct themselves in certain communities of color, and this must be opposed. My point is that, in doing so, one ought to bear in mind that the ultimate goal is to transform the underlying social structures that give rise to the marginalization of communities of color. And this observation imposes constraints on the ways in which racial justice claims should be expressed.

I can put this differently: At the end of the day, there can be no “racial justice” that will last without establishing universal social justice. And there is no path to the latter goal that does not involve persuading a majority of one’s fellow citizens of the desirability of one’s cause. The historical crimes of slavery, Jim Crow segregation and mass incarceration have devastated millions of black lives. These crimes, most definitely, constitute racial injustice. But reversing the effects of this historical racial depredation — that is, healing the broken bodies and minds of its victims — is something that cannot be achieved in isolation from the broader political program of establishing a just social order for all Americans.

Thus my concern is not — as many opponents of the so-called “politics of respectability” might put it — that (black) activists should be “walking on eggshells” so as to avoid alienating “the (white) powers that be.” Rather, I urge upon BLM the adoption of a comprehensive political strategy that, in collaboration with other strands of activism in this country, can lead toward the enactment of the structural changes necessary for undermining the subordination of black people and enhancing the quality of black lives. That strategy would stress legislative outcomes of the sort outlined above. It would recognize that the support of people from all races is an essential precondition for political success. It would, in other words, be less driven by righteous rage and more constrained by rational prudence than is characteristic of the current public stance of BLM.

Finally, and in the same spirit, there is another reason that we should speak of “all lives” and not of “black lives”: We black people make race the central theme in a discussion of crime, policing and punishment in this country at our peril. This is because we blacks are vastly overrepresented among those who commit acts of violence (e.g., robbery and homicide) relative to our presence in the population. My fear is that a discourse which readily cites the race of a citizen and the race of a cop as the touchstone of moral outrage — “yet another unarmed black teenager is accosted by yet another white cop” — invites a counter-discourse in which the race of the perpetrators and the victims of everyday street crimes comes to be accepted as a legitimate topic of public argument. We are already seeing the ugly specter of such a discourse in the frequent, and quite disturbing, mention by conservatives of so-called “black-on-black” crime and in their evocation of those (few) instances in which some fringe elements marching under a BLM banner have seemed to call for violence against (white) cops.

We may be but a short step from having to endure public exhibitions where “black criminals” are said to have preyed upon “white victims” — as with the infamous Willie Horton incident from the 1988 presidential campaign. This is not a tendency favoring the interests of black Americans over the longer run. So much should be obvious. Moreover, we cannot count on adherence to the restraints of political correctness to protect us from such an eventuality, as outrageous remarks issuing daily from a certain Republican presidential candidate would seem to attest. In my view, risking such a racial backlash is completely unnecessary. After all, twice as many whites as blacks are killed by police officers in this country every year. We blacks may be at a greater actuarial risk, and racism may yet be alive and well in some quarters of American law enforcement. But unaccountable police violence against citizens happens to people of all races, and it diminishes every American citizen, whether victimized or not. Thus, a movement defining itself in opposition to police violence need not be framed primarily in racial terms. That may be how one comes to start such a movement. But it ought not to be how one aims to build and to sustain it.

In summary, I continue to believe that, while race remains important in America, the core problem here ought not to be defined as a racial justice problem. It is a social justice problem. And the key to solving it, ultimately, is not by means of a mobilization on behalf of black lives. Rather, lasting solutions will come, if at all, only via a movement that successfully affirms the value of all lives. I realize that, at this critical moment, these are loaded words. I use them because I am convinced that lasting progress requires the successful marshaling of voting majorities on behalf of well-defined legislative policy goals that, once achieved, will have had the effect of transforming the lives of all Americans.

Glenn Loury, professor of the social sciences and economics and a faculty fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, can be reached at

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  1. “We blacks may be at a greater actuarial risk, and racism may yet be alive and well in some quarters of American law enforcement. But unaccountable police violence against citizens happens to people of all races, and it diminishes every American citizen, whether
    victimized or not. Thus, a movement defining itself in opposition to police
    violence need not be framed primarily in racial terms”

    Okay. Let me break this down for you.

    Yes, people of all races–including white people–are killed by police violence. And yes, we need to be talking about that. BUT people of color–especially Black people–are
    killed at a ridiculously disproportionately high rate.

    28.3% of the people killed by police in 2015 were Black; Black people make up
    13.2% of the population. Black people are also 4 times more likely than
    white people to be killed by the police. (

    How can you not see how this has to do with race? Black people are 4X MORE LIKELY THAN WHITE PEOPLE TO BE KILLED BY THE POLICE. Framing this in non-racial terms is dangerous wishful thinking that requires a sort of willful ignorance that tries my patience.

    But, before this devolves into statistics and white people using the anonymity granted to them by this platform to spew hate, let me say one thing. It has less to do with police
    brutality because your argument about police brutality is so weak that it can
    be refuted in a few sentences and doesn’t deserve any more of my time.

    No. It has to do with the fact that this article was published in the Brown Daily Herald—a platform that very recently published an article calling for Indigenous people to celebrate
    “Columbus Day.”

    I’m shocked that this platform has been used to spew so much bullshit that maintains white supremacy.And I’m an angry at you, Glen Loury, for contributing to that legacy. A legacy the BDH has so consistently upheld.

    • agree to disagree says:

      Not an article, an op-ed. It’s an opinions section. People will have opinions that differ from yours. It doesn’t make the BDH racist, white supremacist, or anything of the sort. If you’d like to see your opinion presented, then submit a piece refuting this. It’s not bullshit – it’s someone’s opinion, whether you agree with it or not.

    • Black people are also 50x more likely to have a short allele of the MAOA gene, which predisposes them to explosive aggression without child abuse being an aggravating factor. Black people are more likely to have suffered poverty and food insecurity (meaning they are more likely to have succumbed to the epigenetics of poverty’s effect on maturing brains, and they did not have the historical luck of having the material culture necessary to gain power and ultimately call the shots). They are more likely to be involved with drugs and crime, have outstanding warrants and be unable to pay fines. if the black community ever wants to get a handle on the abysmal rates of police violence against them, they must confront the levels of violence within their own communities. The police must, in their turn, be trained to show compassion towards people who may not, for reasons that are not their fault in the least, be able to control themselves as well as other people when confronted, offended, or arrested. Perhaps one day, there will be breakthroughs in scientific research on the human genome that will provide gene therapies to fix poverty- stricken brains, and edit alleles predisposing a person to certain personality traits or behaviors. Couple this with rigorous education, strong, stable, self- actualizing communities (made up of people themselves with edited genomes). I truly await this day. Perhaps this will make police violence a thing of the past once and for all.

      • Could the public see some receipts on these genetic statistics, though? And exactly who is at fault for the poverty and “food insecurity” (that did not just start today) that we see in Black communities? And, contrary to your beliefs, black people CAN indeed possess great control over ourselves. The evidence is in he fact that we as a community have exercised the self control necessary not to revolt against a government that has built its values and systems on our backs, starting with 400 years of state sponsored chattel slavery and refused to remain in the cramped social spaces America forced us into. Perhaps America should try repairing the damage it did to our communities instead of laying the burdens on us, yourself included.
        Oh, and a warning:
        your anti-blackness is showing.

        • I don’t know what you mean by “receipts”, I didn’t purchase any data from anyone.
          Poverty and food insecurity is, ultimately, no one’s fault. It is the result of bad luck. Pure and simple. Bad geographic luck, bad biological luck, bad luck.
          I don’t believe that black people can’t control themselves. On the contrary, some of the most rational, reasoned, and logical people I know (and who I have great respect for) happen to be black (the author of this op- ed being one of them). What I said, and what I do believe, is that black people MAY be LESS LIKELY to control certain aspects of their behavior or their reactions in certain situations. For every hundred black people who are cultured, civil, and paragons of self control and restraint, there may be as many as 150 or more that simply do not have the capacity to react to a threatening or aggravating situation the same way as a white person, a polynesian person, or an aboriginal person might. The evidence of black self control you offer isn’t self- control, its submission and self preservation. Blacks aren’t playing along out of benevolence, but out of necessity. They have not, historically, been the original owners of guns, germs, and steel. They have been historically disadvantaged through an unfortunate run of bad luck. America should confront its sins, but only when the black community confronts its sins.

        • econ student says:

          I believe the most successful governmental solution towards “fixing” communities has been to stop persecuting them and stop trying to help them.

          On the persecution side: The history of the Davis Bacon Act shows that minimum wage was instituted in a deliberate attempt to keep blacks from undercutting whites in the construction labor market. The drug war is also severely detrimental – impossible to enforce laws are carried out against whichever groups are least liked by the powers that be.

          On the “helping” side: Teen pregnancy rates, % single-mother households, poverty rates – all took a turn for the worst with welfare policies starting in the 1960s. These metrics had been steadily *declining* for decades prior. One economist pointed out – it’s strange that such things would be attributed to a legacy of slavery when they only appeared a century after its abolition.

    • The point of Professor Loury’s Op-Ed here is that the insistence on the statistical argument, while correct, is the wrong strategy. It invites the same rhetorical circle jerk that actually does nothing to tangibly improve conditions for people or win the political capital necessary to enact those changes. The responses to you and his op-ed are exactly as he predicted: statistics that blacks are at more risk (PigStateNews, yourself) and that the black community is inherently flawed and needs the community to band together (No BLM).

      What Loury offers here is a much needed strategic advice on how to realign efforts through better, more sophisticated rhetorical thinking.

      It’s alarming to me that Brown students don’t wake up and realize that in order to win an argument, being right isn’t enough, it requires winning other people over. The key is to empathize with the opposing viewpoints in order to build the rallying focal point. Bellicose activism may garner attention and headlines more quickly, but it doesn’t capture the imagination and showcase a new world of “what if?”; it fails to win the hearts and minds of the needed bystander, and it removes the permission for the otherside to change their minds and agree with you.

      • BLM isn’t about winning an argument. Black lives are not up for debate. “Black lives matter” is an assertion. Publicly saying that black lives matter is a powerful display of resistance against white supremacy.

        There are many people who refuse for whatever reason to affirm that black lives matter. Denying or obscuring the racialized nature of police brutality would not change people’s hearts and minds when it comes to racism: it would just make the idea of racial justice more palatable. Such a strategy would allow ingrained racism to continue its prevalence in the American population, and as a result, any legislative reforms (which, remember, are created and maintained by people) would produce racist outcomes. Affirming that black lives matter is a necessary step in fighting for racial justice.

        • First off: black lives DO matter; however, do you believe that this movement is approaching the issue of systemic oppression in a productive manner? How will the truly racist people in this country be swayed through activism and riots characteristic of much of this movement. Although there are also many peaceful parts too, these other groups seem to be the loudest. Instead, a more encompassing term, such as “All Lives Matter” would be fundamentally better than a name which alienates other marginalized groups such as hispanics. In this way, all races can work together in a unified movement to promote social justice and other races would be more willing to accept what the leaders of this movement have to say. By having an overarching name such as All Lives Matter, one is not degrading blacks, but instead including them with all of the other races in order to promote equal treatment of all members of society whereas this Black Lives Matter movement is more likely to shut out other parts of society and make it more difficult to discuss the real issues with empathy.

        • Everything is up for debate. No Lives Matter. Study philosophy.

        • BLM isn’t about winning an argument. Black lives are not up for debate. “Black lives matter” is an assertion. Publicly saying that black lives matter is a powerful display of resistance against white supremacy.

          The “white supremacists” to whom you think you’re sending a powerful message are just laughing at you, knowing damn well that most young black males murdered every year are NOT the victims of Aryan supremacists, “racist” police officers, or “white hispanic” vigilantes, but their own kind. You really want “Black Lives Matter” to make a difference? Start with the real problem – black-on-black crime – if you want to show the rest of the world that you’re serious…

    • Angry about what? “Political inefficacy” means what it says, namely “not the best path forward for achieving a political goal.” At issue here is how most effectively to frame an argument that will make a difference. Thus, consider this:

      I am simply claiming that there would a lot more political traction on behalf of police accountability if the people mourning this white kid’s death could get together with those mourning the deaths of those black kids who have been shot by cops in difficult and ambiguous circumstances. That’s not wishful thinking. It’s common sense. No?

      • I think the way political expediency is framed here (and in the article) misses the mark. BlackLivesMatter is not a traditional political activist group. It is not operating within the traditional frameworks of political activism

        Does this mean that it forfeits some long term political gains? Sure it does. But this also confers unique advantages. Consider the way it has handled interrupting progressive speakers. How the activists have literally shouted at White, progressive candidates to give explicit, direct answers about how their policies will specifically benefit the Black populace. Barack Obama could NEVER get away with this. Hell, not even most Black academics (especially tenure track) would dare do this. And moreover, it has worked. Politicians are releasing racial justice platform pages. #BlackLivesMatter is getting referenced during the political debates.

        It may be the case that BLM will never elect a senator or win a mayoral race. But this is not the mission. It is, as someone said before, a radical group asserting and affirming the value of Black Lives. It is seeking to give public credence to marginalized voices.

        But finally, this is not without historical precedence. The historical fight for Black liberation has always been multifaceted. The Nation of Islam’s Black supremacist brand of theology wasn’t for everyone. Which is why we also had Martin advocating for nonviolence and racial integration. Similarly, we have more than enough Black people fighting from within the establishment (Obama, Holder, academics, etc). Radical voices are also necessary. And to create an overarching paradigm that seeks to exclude and silence them misses the mark.


        • Thanks for the comment, Malik, but I think you’re wrong. My point is precisely that BLM are NOT a radical political movement. Rather, they’re a feel-good-denouncing-racism movement, which, given the dire conditions facing our people, is just not good enough. The political theorist Adolph Reed spells out the reasons why in this insightful piece:

          • Exactly: “feel-good-denouncing-racism movement”

            I think you touched on this in your video podcast episode with Professor McWhorter the day after the original Ray Kelly incident. I”m curious, has your views changed or updated since then? Today it just feels like one campus outrage after the next–its nearly dizzying…

            I’m glad that you have been taking an increasingly vocal stand here, and I hope more of the faculty continue to publicly stand up to what increasingly appears like a tyranny of unruly children.

    • Honestly this makes no sense. 1. You say “But, before this devolves into statistics”, even though you start your argument with a statistic and a broken link. 2. By saying “white people using anonimity” you’re being racist yourself. Aren’t you? Honestly I feel sometimes that you folks do this solely for attention and sweet karma. But why waste my time if you’re going to use made up facts and not back them up with your real name, “Angry”.

    • Personally, I believe that there is no denying statistics like these and I believe that it is true that black people are systemically oppressed in this country; however, I don’t believe that the right way to combat issue is through hate towards each other. The only thing that this accomplishes is more hate. How does saying “white people using the anonymity granted to them by this platform to spew hate” accomplish anything towards promoting the goal of social justice?

      Instead, I believe that all races should work together to combat police brutality and it should not inherently be an issue of race since, as Professor Loury says, “It is a social justice problem.” That is not to say that black people are less likely to be oppressed, but by unifying the efforts of all races to seek justice would we not be able to accomplish more?

    • Man with Axe says:

      I was shocked by the statistic you cite that 28.3% of people killed by police in 2015 were black. Blacks should be thankful that the number is so low, given that they commit violent crime at a rate something like 7 times as often as whites do.

      Now, if you have data on the number of innocent blacks who were killed by white cops on purpose, as opposed to by misadventure, I’d love to hear it.

      By the way, what’s with your capitalizing of “Blacks” but not “whites?” Your racism is showing.


      Black people are also 5x likely to kill each other than white people are. Ever consider that the issue isn’t necessarily the police, but cultural traits among young black American males that make them more likely to engage in violent confrontations that eventually result in getting people killed?

    • You’re not comparing the right data. It’s not the population statistics that matter but the crime statistics. Yes, Black people account for 28.3% percent police deaths, but they account for 36.9% of violent crimes. When you adjust for the baseline crime rates, whites are actually more likely to die from police violence.

      Of course, a partisan rag like motherjones isn’t likely to care about the truth.

  2. PigStateNews says:

    At least 1010 people have been killed by U.S. police since January 1, 2015.
    At least 1,108 were killed in 2014.
    At least 2,886 have been killed since May 1, 2013.

    • Boring. Tell us something we don’t know.

    • How many were determined to be justifiable homicide after review?
      How many were determined to be voluntary manslaughter?
      How many were determined to be outright murder?

      How many of those people killed physically assaulted an officer?
      How many of them exhibited behavior that would lead a trained police officer to reasonably believe that they were armed and intending to use a weapon?
      How many of them had previous felony convictions for violent crimes?
      How many of them were on probation or parole at the time?
      How many of them were determined to be legally inoxicated, or under the influence of illicit drugs?

      There’s a reason you won’t provide THOSE statistics. Why is that again?

      • Are you implying that someone being on probation or parole is a mitigating factor in the case of their murder by the police? It seems unimaginably cruel that anyone would believe this.

  3. Here are things that should be done, none of which require anything but self discipline.
    Go to school. everyday
    pay attention, shutup, learn to read, write, and cypher
    Do not smoke, or use intoxicants of any kind
    Do not create a human life.
    Do not get married until you employed full time
    When you and your committed for life spouse do have children, rear them. That means instilling the above values, and committing to your children full time, sacrificing your own pleasures, and wants
    Repeat this for 3 generations, Problem fixed

    • Courtney Baker says:

      Go to school every day
      – Your parent(s) are low-income and cannot afford childcare. There is no universal child-care in the United States and private facilities do not accept children under 1 years of age (and are incredibly expensive). You are the oldest sibling and become the caretaker. You also have to work nights to supplement the family income.

      Pay attention, shut-up, learn to read, write, and cypher
      – Most mental health disorders and learning disabilities are undiagnosed in communities of color. Schools often do not have the resources to support these students or offer remedy to a turbulent home/school life.

      Do not smoke, or use intoxicants of any kind
      – Large tobacco companies have statistically been proven to advertise at a child’s eye level and advertise much more in communities of color. From a young age, child are subliminally shown images of smoking and enjoyment

      Do not create human life
      – Birth control is not highly accessible without a prescription from a doctor. Sexual education is not permitted in all schools.

      Do not get married until you are employed full time
      – There are immense tax benefits for a married couple versus a domestic partnership.

      When you and your committed for life spouse do have children, rear them. That means instilling the above values, and committing to your children full time, sacrificing your own pleasures, and wants
      -Due to the inaccessibility of birth control methods and abortion, some couples have more children than expected or for which they plan. The oldest begin taking care of the youngest while the parents work over 40 hours a week to provide for their children.
      Repeat for 3 generations. The system fails the “problem” once more

  4. Comments are a total waste unless you identity yourself–anonymity breeds dishonesty.
    Straw arguments don’t help, they confuse people (usually emotionally) and abuse a target. You want to save the world? Then face the facts with courage and perseverance and bring your brain. Solve this:

    1. The majority of young black men are being raised without an authority figure. There are a number of very direct solutions to this problem and some include love and mercy. Lock em’ up apparently works only in a very limited way but represents one of America’s favorites: out of sight out of mind.
    2. Bad neighborhoods are getting their brains sucked out–smart people leave. Here is a bit of news for you–some people are stronger than other people, some are black, some are white, some people have green eyes other people are smarter than most. Some smart people are not very nice people and wouldn’t walk across the street to take a piss on you if you were on fire and would rather use you as a prop to raise money and garner power and attack their political rivals or people of other color.
    3. What’s worse? The n word or being called a Tom for carrying books home from school with no one to protect you. Who is going to love these kids? (The answer here is not the 2,357th government program or passing out honorary degrees.)
    4. Black lives matter…and black people are exposed to danger to a much higher degree and more often than white people and some of these situations are encounters with police officers…but most are with thugs. Some of the heightened danger is a result of “lifestyle choices” a handy euphemism for doing stupid things. Sadly, the interracial run-ins have more opportunity for violence because the white guy is scared, not real smart, and has pre-judged the outcome of the encounter. Does white boy have a reason to be afraid and is this driving his prejudice? Tough question and a tough problem, your solution should not involve less encounters…we tried that, see item 1.
    5. The first partly black president has made matters worse and divided us badly for his own personal gain–we had so much hope in him and he has abused our faith. Do we let one guy define us or do we move on and attack the real problems? Hard to do, is there any american character left or has it all been consumed by these jackasses in Washington? How do we fix the damage he has done and bridge the divide so we at least talk about real solutions.

    • One could argue about some of your points, John Vaci, but that would be an argument worth having. My hope is that some among our students at Brown will take it up, seeking to rebut your points rather than ignoring them, or chalking them up to “white supremacy”. I intend to use our provocative and candid intervention as a prompt for discussion in my class “Race and Inequality in America” the next time I teach it.

  5. sandritamason says:

    What bothers me about the BLM movement is that they don’t treat black people as if they have agency in encounters with law enforcement personnel. Denying black people agency treats them as less than fully developed humans. Take the case of Sandra Bland. I don’t know how Ms. Bland died, but video at the time of her arrest showed that she caused the police stop and arrest. She didn’t signal while changing lanes-which could have caused an accident. So, the police was doing his job by stopping and questioning her. Ms. Bland disrespected the policeman by not putting out her cigarette when he requested she do so (maybe, like me, cigarette smoke makes him sick). At that point the encounter escalated to Ms. Bland’s arrest. Ms. Bland could have complied with the officer’s requests and just gotten off with a ticket instead of imprisonment. There are many more examples of people (from all races) whose non-compliance results in bad police encounters. The BLM movement should be promoting the ‘Ten Rules To Help Black Boys Survive’ from Marion Wright Edelman. But, then, the BLM people wouldn’t be the perpetual victims they want to be to garner attention.

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