We live in a race-conscious culture. As Americans, we are a nation of people who self-consciously chose to adopt a vision of society that embraced lofty ideals of individual freedom and democracy for all along with powerful mechanisms for devastating racial oppression. Our history is replete with instances of differential treatment on account of race - slavery being only the most egregious example - that achieved the desired effect of generating remarkable disparities in socioeconomic well-being among individuals and between different racial groups. Such disparities are not simply historical artifacts. They are facts of the contemporary American racial landscape as well. Racial disparity in socioeconomic well-being has always been, and continues to be, a central feature of American life. Of course, we each choose how we come to terms with racial inequality, how we rationalize, compartmentalize, or explain this phenomenon, and how we integrate our "raced" existence into our personal view of the world. For nearly three generations, we have undertaken a largely sustained collective effort to eliminate racial discrimination in American society. For some, the persistence of chronic racial inequality in the face of sustained efforts to ameliorate racial discrimination provides subtle confirmation of deeply held suspicions regarding the intellectual, cultural, or economic capacity of African Americans. For others, the persistence of racial disparity highlights the limits of the prevailing approach to antidiscrimination law and makes the case for greater intervention. Professor Glenn C. Loury's "The Anatomy of Racial Inequality" is a thoroughgoing attempt to ascertain the root causes of racial inequality and provide insight into the thought process that causes us to view racial disparity with complacency and indifference. However, Loury's project is not merely descriptive. His structural account of racial inequality provides the staging ground from which he launches a deep critique of prevailing views on American race relations. Racial inequity is not the product of some inherent deficiency in the minds and hearts of African Americans. Rather, it is a social pathology "deeply rooted in American history" - a pathology that "evolved in tandem with American political and economic institutions, and with cultural practices that supported and legitimated those institutions . . . that were often deeply biased against blacks." Loury therefore rejects the conservative policy of indifference toward racial disparities, and declares emphatically that racial inequality is "an American tragedy [and] a national, not merely a communal disgrace." In a very real sense, Loury's free and extended meditation on racial inequality and the prospects of racial reform provides us with an insightful theoretical and discursive structure through which we can engage the struggle for racial justice anew. In this review essay, I offer an extended examination and critique of the major arguments presented in the book. In the course of connecting Loury's work with historic and contemporary literature on racial disparities in American life, I offer some thoughts on the impact his project may have upon the shape of American race relations to come.
Northwestern University Law Review, Vol. 97, 2003