Bridging the gap
BU's Institute on Race and Social Division
by Jim Graves
In a time of widespread discouragement over persistent black-white divisions in America, Glenn Loury is hopeful -- and busy. Indeed, the UNI and CAS economics professor has started an interdisciplinary center to explore fresh approaches to the crisis whose intractabilities have mocked both liberal interventionism and a Reaganomics that promised to float all boats. Under his direction, the Institute on Race and Social Division (IRSD) began operating at summer's end amid the clatter of workmen completing the renovation of its quarters on the fifth floor of 704 Commonwealth Ave.
By now, the work of IRSD's staff, which besides Loury in-cludes three visiting scholars in residence this year and a research professor, is approaching full stride. "Our central focus is on racial division in America," Loury explains. "But social conflicts along economic, political, and cultural lines are unhappily prominent in many nations, and the IRSD is proceeding on the assumption that the important features of this problem are universal. To gain perspective on the problem in America, we will also investigate the causes, consequences, and methods of resolution of social conflicts within modern nation states around the world."
Some inspiration for the international emphasis, Loury says, came this past May when he attended the Salzburg Seminar in Austria, where he took part in an international conference for developing ideas to resolve conflicts around the world. "At the end of the week in Salzburg," he says, "it was clear that the Asians, Africans, North and South Americans, and Europeans who participated -- including Serbs, Bosnians, Sri Lankans, and others with deep grievances and animosities -- had developed a hopeful sense that the conflicts they discussed can be transcended by the application of reason and good will. I went to Salzburg as a skeptic, but I left there energized."
Which is not to say that he underestimates the extent or potential of racial divisions in America. Unless bridged, says Loury, these divisions could threaten national social, economic, and political chaos. "That's a worst-case scenario, but for too many youngsters in inner cities across America who are without responsible parents or a supportive community life, the worst case is already a reality. A corresponding reality is the cold impersonality with which some social critics and policy makers discuss the plight of these children. Both facts help measure the size of the problem."
The time has come, he argues, to rid this complex and deep-seated dilemma of wishful thinking, code words, and finger-pointing by both the left and the right. If the institute brings about nothing more than candid and objective reflection on the subject, that will be much, he says. But he believes that IRSD's multidisciplinary approach, combining the insights of several fields, can yield useful new understandings.
"And while bringing the methods of quantitative social science heavily to bear," he says, "we're also adding a new emphasis to the exploration of ethical and moral dimensions of these questions. I believe, for instance, that collaborations between the institute and Christian ministries in inner cities can prove fruitful to both scholars and activists. In this connection, we've persuaded Pastor Ray Hammond of the Bethel AME Church in Boston to take an active part on our advisory board. Likewise, the institute is joining George Washington University's Institute for Communitarian Studies in sponsoring a major conference to be held in Boston and Washington, D.C. The topic, Racial Reconciliation in the United States, will tap in to a dialogue on reconciliation that has emerged among evangelical Christians."
A second major conference, Race Policy in the United States and Great Britain, will take place in Boston and London and will focus on international aspects of the problem. Already under way is the institute's public seminar program, in which scholars and advanced graduate students present works-in-progress. Throughout the academic year researchers in diverse fields will address pertinent topics at the institute each Wednesday from 4 to 5:30 p.m. "Besides publishing, conferences, and public lectures, we're training future scholars to look for ways to heal social gaps," says Loury. "There's much to be done."
IRSD advisory board member UNI Prof. Alan Wolfe says that he looks for positive results from the new institute. Although discrimination remains powerful, Wolfe says, "we've reached a post-civil-rights era that marks a new phase in American race relations. I feel Glenn and the institute are capable of articulating the new parameters of the problem and of resolving some of our racial conflicts. Which is why I signed on as an advisor."