Glenn Loury: an intellectual force of nature

Glenn Loury: an intellectual force of nature

Late Admissions is an unflinching memoir from a courageous enemy of orthodoxy.

Cory Franklin

Topics Books Identity Politics USA

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Glenn Loury, the brilliant American economist and social commentator, now turned successful podcaster, has turned his hand to autobiography. The result, Late Admissions: Confessions of a Black Conservative, is a captivating memoir, so much so that if Glenn Loury were a character in a novel, you wouldn’t believe such a person could exist in real life. There is an engrossing detail or unique spin on every page.

Loury’s story is a classic case of ‘too much, too soon’. His formidable intellect brought him to the pinnacle of academia and intellectual success at an early age. At the same time, he had an outsized appetite for women and later drugs, which temporarily derailed his career and nearly ruined his life. While all this was going on, his writings and trenchant social observations earned him glowing praise and scathing criticism from both the right and left. Rare is the intellectual who can be ostracised and then accepted back into the fold by both sides of the political spectrum. But that was one of Loury’s gifts.

Born in 1948, Loury grew up in a black working-class neighbourhood on the South Side of Chicago – I grew up 20 miles north of him at around the same time in a Jewish working-class neighbourhood. Segregation still had a powerful hold on the city. While Loury was a teenager, Martin Luther King came to Chicago and said, ‘I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen – even in Mississippi and Alabama – mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago’.

Young Loury was aware of, but hardly consumed by, race. His upbringing was not mired in poverty and he was surrounded by middle-class values. Relatives, neighbours and friends all had steady jobs. In high school, he had a savant-like talent for numbers and theory but, despite this, his success was not preordained. Subject to all the pressures of a teenager, he stole a car to joyride and was caught. This being Chicago, strings were pulled and charges dropped. He married young and fathered two children, had a third out of wedlock, worked full-time at a factory and attended a community technical institute after high school.

In a fortunate break worthy of Charles Dickens, an institute teacher noticed his aptitude and recommended him to Northwestern, the prestigious university just north of Chicago that was seeking talented black students. It was the break that changed his life, and his subsequent rise was meteoric.

At Northwestern, Loury’s intellectual gifts were manifest immediately. He understood economics and how it related to the real world, along with having the uncommon talent to communicate complex ideas understandably, both in writing and speech. After moving from Northwestern to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to complete his PhD in 1979, and then to University of Michigan to teach, he moved to Harvard in 1982, where he became one of America’s academic superstars in the field of economics. His articles were published in top journals, he hobnobbed with Nobel laureates and he was in demand everywhere as a lecturer. In little more than a decade, he moved from the mean streets of Chicago to the heights of academia. His impressive skills and mighty intellect were responsible for his ascent, not his race.

Harvard is considered by many to be the ne plus ultra of academic institutions, but the internal politics and jealousies can be fierce. The impersonality of the Harvard economics department and the catty ‘What have you done lately?’ syndrome there contributed to Loury’s growing feelings of inadequacy. By 1984, friends had helped him leave the economics department for Harvard’s nearby Kennedy School of Government. It might have marked the end of his career as an academic economist, but it opened the doors to an even more successful career as an intellectual and political thinker. It was at the Kennedy School that he started to think more seriously about the problems of race in America.

In the 1980s, Loury began expressing conservative views on major policy issues including welfare and affirmative action. His assertion was that these policies, while necessary during the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s, had outlived their usefulness. In his mind, welfare discouraged necessary black self-help, while affirmative action, by lowering standards for minority students, could disincentivise students to excel and thereby justify the disparagement of their qualifications – a case of ‘if I know I can be admitted with lower grades and lower scores, why should I study so hard?’.

These heterodox views, especially coming from a black man, made him particularly attractive to key figures in the Republican Party and the Reagan revolution of the 1980s. Loury’s writings and his speeches brought him to the attention of important conservatives, black and white, such as jurists Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. At the same time, they alienated him from many of his fellow black academics, most of whom were liberals.

While he revelled in the adulation from the highest levels of the Republican Party, one of Late Admissions’ most poignant moments has him witnessing Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther, break into tears of dismay after one of his speeches challenging liberal orthodoxy. Her outburst disturbed him profoundly, even as he remained undeterred in his career path.

This path reached its apogee in the mid-1980s. In 1985, he attended a White House dinner and was seated one person away from President Reagan. Shortly after that, in 1987, he was mentioned for an influential and powerful position as William Bennett’s second-in-command at the Department of Education.

But Loury was flying too close to the Sun, and he was undone by his personal vices. For years he had been a womaniser (his second wife, Linda, is one of Late Admissions’ heroes in how she dealt with her husband’s infidelities). This finally caught up with him when he and a girlfriend had a very public fight. He was arrested and the ensuing publicity wrecked his chances of a Washington position. Although the girlfriend dropped the charges, Loury became damaged goods in his intellectual circles.

Still, his womanising continued, including an affair with his best friend’s wife. He began to use crack cocaine and it is fascinating to hear him not only rationalise, but also do an economic risk assessment of his drug use – he began to make his own crack cocaine because doing so was more efficient economically than buying it on the black market. The man who had dined with the president not long ago was now crawling through crack houses. The youngest tenured black economics professor at Harvard was now the oldest patron of sleazy Boston bars.

Unsurprisingly, he was eventually arrested and forced to undergo inpatient drug rehabilitation. Linda, his wife, stood behind him courageously as did several friends, but his rehabilitation, including a reconciliation with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was long and hard.

Another poignant story is his encounter, after a relapse, with Bob, the leader of his halfway house:

‘”Alright, professor Loury, since you’re such a clever fellow, answer me this: what were you doing out there in the streets of Boston, showing your ass just like a nigger from the projects?” This white man called me, Dr Glenn Cartman Loury, the n-word. It was not okay for him to say that to me, I think. How dare he talk to me like this? I should pack up my stuff and go rather than subject myself to the taunts of this racist.’

But Loury didn’t leave – because he couldn’t answer why he was out in the street copping drugs. He also noticed how many addicts and alcoholics returned to thank this halfway-house leader and volunteer to help as well. On completing the rehab programme, Loury wrote:

‘On the day I left the halfway house, Bob told me, in so many words, that he was proud of me. I was touched by that. The thought that this big, tough, profane Irishman thought well of me made me proud in return.’

In 1991, Loury left Harvard and joined Boston University. He also returned to the Republican think-tanks where he had been successful, no longer a Wunderkind, but not quite an éminence grise. Things had changed, though. The conservatives that he once associated with had become more strident and, in his eyes, insensitive to the black community. Things reached a boiling point of sorts in 1995 when he wrote a scathing takedown of The End of Racism by Dinesh D’Souza, a prominent conservative and a friend of his. Ostracism quickly followed. Rather than regarding him as a thoughtful critic, the right considered Loury a disloyal traitor and cast him out of the tribe, just as the left had once done. We really do live in a world where ignorant armies clash by night.

Leaving Boston in 2005 (his academic star fallen, but his intellect still fierce), Loury moved to Brown, another Ivy League university, where he remains today. By this point, his views on race had softened and he had become increasingly critical of the right. As a result, the left was happy to accept him back with a gimlet eye. But his rapprochement was short-lived. He considered then US president Barack Obama a poseur. Then, to the consternation of many friends, he expressed sympathy for those who elected Donald Trump in 2016, cognisant of the maverick nature of his campaign. He was turned firmly off Trump by his antics after the 2020 election.

Much of the final section of Late Admissions chronicles Loury reconnecting with his family, whom he always loved but often abused with his selfishness. Linda, who stood by him for 25 years, died a slow, heartrending death from cancer. He became closer to his four children with her, and to his two daughters from his first marriage, and the out-of-wedlock son whom he did not see for almost 20 years (the story of how they reconnected is touching). His third marriage is to a younger woman who is steadfastly left in her political views – Loury remains, as ever, the contrarian.

Readers and critics, aware of Loury’s polarising politics, may read this book seeking either to attack or to vindicate the man depending on their own views. It is better read as the story of an extremely talented and serious man with regrets and deep personal flaws. In looking back on his life, he turns his attention variously to loyalty, family, ambition, self-awareness and, of course, race.

Throughout Late Admissions, Socrates’ famous dictum, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’, comes to mind. Glenn Loury has examined his remarkable life in detail for our benefit. Both young and old would do well to read his observations about the difficult world he created for himself, but then ultimately mastered.

Cory Franklin’s new book, The Covid Diaries 2020-2024: Anatomy of a Contagion As It Happened, is now available on Amazon in Kindle and book form.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Books Identity Politics USA


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