Class Day Address, Boston University
May 20, 2000
Glenn C. Loury


I wish to speak briefly on this occasion about the practice, found virtually everywhere in social life, wherein people use the physical markers embedded in the bodies of human beings – their skin color, hair texture, facial bone structure, and the like – to divide the field of human subjects into groups. In ordinary parlance, the word "race" is used to refer to the human groups that share in common some cluster of these markers. Despite its ambiguous anthropological status, and troubled moral history, the social practice of sorting people into "races" continues to be a powerful reality of the human condition. Why is this so, and what is the ubiquitous character of this human convention telling us about ourselves?

Speaking in the voice of a social theorist, I will suggest two broad answers to these questions. And then, in the voice of a moral philosopher, I will point to a troubling ethical problem for a pluralistic society like ours raised by the phenomenon we call "race." Ultimately, I will ask, "what manner of people are we who look upon one another in this way?"

Now, a social theorist might say something like the following: A field of human subjects characterized by differences in physical presentation comes through concrete historical experience to be partitioned into subgroups defined by some clusters of physical markers. This partitioning permits two things to happen: First, information-hungry human agents hang expectations around these markers, beliefs that are more or less reasonable, and that can be become self-confirming. Second, meaning-hungry human agents invest these markers with social and psychological significance, making them the basis of personal and collective identities, building narratives accounts of origin and descent around them. As a result, communities of mutually susceptible persons, sharing feelings of pride, honor, shame, loyalty and hope come into existence based to some degree on their having these markers in common.

So, for the social theorist "race" is the phenomenon whereby superficial markings of the human body come to be vested with both reasonable expectations and with ineffable meaning. The "races" thereby constructed may take on a social life of their own, coming to seem natural, not merely conventional, and having very real consequences for the character of public life in society. Let us look more closely at the two prongs of this social theory of "race."

Information is a key aspect of the story. Inevitably, race-conventions are accompanied by "stereotyping" – that is, adopting generalizations for a class of persons about traits that cannot be easily assessed for individuals within the class.Now, we mustn’t judge to harshly the fact that people take note of and react to the physical self-presentation of those whom they encounter in society. As a purely cognitive matter, each of us interacts socially only by surveying the field of human subjects and endeavoring to discern relevant distinctions among individuals in that field for the purpose of refining our actions, so as better to serve our ultimate purposes. In the many anonymous encounters that characterize life in a large city, for example – it is often the case that only the crudest physical distinctions are available to us in practice. So, as a general matter, classifying human subjects based upon how they seem to present themselves to us is a universal practice lying at the root of all social-cognitive behaviors. There can only be the question of how, not whether, human agents will classify those subject to their actions.

But, what about the second social-theoretic point – that people hunger not only for information, but also for meaning. Indeed, race-symbols are often freighted with social meanings that bear on the identity, the status, and even the humanity of those who carry them. Once established, these meanings may come to be taken for granted, enduring essentially unchallenged for millennia. In hierarchical social systems a rough correspondence may develop between position in the status hierarchy and the physical marks taken in that society to signify "race." Bodily markings that trigger in the minds of observers the sense that their bearer is "ordained to be a hewer of wood and drawer of water," or is "a member of a master class destined to rule the world," illustrate the possibilities.

I will venture this generalization: we humans need to discover transcendent significance in the artifacts that furnish our world. Materialism is the doctrine that physical conditions mediated by social institutions cause people to behave as they do. This is a flawed doctrine, and a very limited explanatory paradigm, because it overlooks the fact that humans are spiritual creatures, generators of meaning, beings that cannot "live by bread alone." More fruitful, I hold, is the view that material and institutional givens establish only a fairly wide range within which behavior must lie, and that specific actions within this range for particular human beings depend on factors of motivation, will, and spirit. This implies that behavior is, in some essential way, a consequence not only of material and institutional structures, but is also determined by what people take as the sources of meaning in their lives -- by what animates them at the deepest level.

We shall often find that membership in human groups defined in part or altogether on the basis of the race-conventions I have been discussing constitutes one important source of the meanings that animate us. I take this to be merely a statement of historical fact. I think it does us little good to inveigh against this deeply ingrained aspect of human behavior. But, because we humans are reasoning, as well as meaning-seeking creatures, we need not become slaves to our social conventions. We can, in a moral-philosophic mode, critically examine, reflect upon, and then try to avoid some of the pitfalls that accompany this aspect of the human condition.

Where people impute to the physical markers associated with "race" meanings about the identity, the capability, and the worthiness of themselves or others, we may expect to see enduring consequences, some of which are not so pretty. We Americans know something about the dangers lurking here. Confronted with the experience of unequal achievement, disproportionate transgression of legal strictures, the differential development of productive potential as between racial groups, observers need to give an account. They need to tell themselves a story. They must, in effect, answer the question, where does the problems lie – with US (meaning in society as a whole) or with THEM (meaning with the character and or the capacity of the racially marked groups.) An observer’s willingness to examine taken-for-granted assumptions about the extent to which our nation’s civic arrangements correspond to its professed ideals will depend upon the answer given to this question. Indeed, the observer’s awareness of race-based injustice, capacity for trans-racial empathy, and stirrings of conscience are conditioned by beliefs in this regard. Faced with manifestations of extreme marginality and dysfunction among some of the racially marked, will the citizenry indignantly cry out, "What manner of people are THEY, who languish in that way?" Or, will they be moved, perhaps after overcoming an instinctual revulsion, to ask themselves reflectively (and reflexively!), "What manner of people are WE who accept such degradation in our midst?"

This is not an abstract question here, in the United States of America, at the dawn of the 21st century. When we look at the so-called "underclass culture" in the center of our great cities we are confronting a key moral problem – not only THEIR problem, but also OURS. I hold it to be morally superficial, in the extreme, to argue in the face of the despair, violence, and self-destructive folly of some of these people, that, if they would get their acts together then we would not have such a horrific problem. The only decent response in the face of the "pathological" behavior of American history's losers is to conclude that, while we cannot change our ignoble past, we must not be indifferent to the contemporary suffering that is linked to that past. That is, this situation is a product, not of some alien cultural imposition upon a pristine Euro-American canvas, but, rather, of social, economic, and political practices deeply rooted in American history. We should not ignore the behavioral problems of the ghetto poor, but we should discuss and react to them as if we were talking about our own children, neighbors, and friends. And, we should respond as we might to an epidemic of teen suicide, adolescent drunken driving, or HIV infection among homosexual males -- by embracing, not demonizing, the victims. We should ask not only, "What manner of people are THEY?" but also, and more importantly, "What manner of people are WE?" And, having asked the question, we should then act in such a way that we can be proud of the answer. Thank you.