January 19, 2023 - 5:23pm

At the end of last week, the American economist and writer Professor Glenn Loury spoke on a panel as part of a conference held at King’s College, Cambridge. The event, ‘Towards the Common Good: Rethinking Race in the 21st Century’, was organised by The Equiano Project and aimed to promote liberal and universalist approaches to tackling racial conflict and inequality.

An edited version of his speech is printed below.

Fellow combatants in the culture wars, we are fighting for our lives here. We are fighting for the preservation of Western civilisation and the hour is late. I only mildly exaggerate.

I am an economist by training and that is a bust of the great John Maynard Keynes, here at King’s College, Cambridge. It resonates.

I agree with my friend and colleague Shelby Steele that, for black Americans, when we talk about disparities in race the problem is not oppression: the problem is freedom. The problem used to be exclusion and discrimination; the problem today is freedom. We’re well into the 21st century and African Americans have equal citizenship before the law in the United States, as a matter of fact.

Don’t bother me with anecdotes. I’m talking about the basic structure of citizenship. It’s a level playing field; it’s an open field. The ball is in our court. The issue is, what shall we do with our freedom?

I’ll quote another great economist, Thomas Sowell, who has taught us that disparities are one thing and discrimination is another. This is now my second point. The first point is, for black Americans the problem is the problem of freedom, not unfreedom. My second point is that disparities are one thing, discrimination is another. Disparities are not, ipso facto, evidence of unfreedom. Disparities are to be expected.

There’s a deep irony here when the identitarians become group egalitarians. The identitarians are the ones who are constantly telling us, “This is my identity; this is who I am; this is my group; this is my culture; these are my people. Don’t tread on us; don’t culturally appropriate us. We are an integral, distinct, identifiable type.”

Okay. So you have your blacks, you have your browns, you have your yellows, you have your gays, you have your whatever. How, then — since you are so insular, distinct, identity-based and different — should we expect that you would represent yourselves in equal numbers in every dimension of human activity? That there would be the same number of doctors, the same number of engineers, the same number of financiers, the same number of school teachers, the same number of criminals, the same number of shopkeepers per capita across all these different identity categories — if, indeed, identity is a real thing. The position is incoherent.

We should not expect group equality across every aspect of humanity and we don’t see it, and this was Thomas Sowell’s empirical point in book after book after book. Everywhere you look in the world you see disparities because everywhere you look in the world you see cultural differences which reflect themselves in human behaviour, which then lead to different representations in various areas of human activity. So disparities are not ipso facto a problem.

Finally, I want to say that equity is not equality. I could name them but I won’t: the writers in the US who are so prominent now — Ibram X. Kendi comes to mind — in promoting a certain ideology assert, “I see a disparity. I want equity.” And by equity they mean an equal representation. This is not equality.

If you use a different standard of assessment in order to achieve equity, you have just patronised me. You have just communicated tacitly that you don’t think I’m capable of performing according to the objective criteria of assessment as well as anybody else. I am now your client. I am now a ward. I go or come by your leave.

This argument that “We blacks must be made equal and you have to open up the doors and let us in! Never mind that our test scores are not as great” is pathetic. It’s a surrender of dignity. You will not be equal at the end of that argument even if you get what you ask for. There’s no substitute for earning the respect of your peers: if they grant it to you out of guilt or pity they have just reduced you, not elevated you.

Glenn Loury is an economist, academic and author.