Glen Loury asks the provocative question Why Are So Many Americans in Prison? (thanks to Earl for the link)

His answer for many of us isn’t surprising. The fact that he got there in the first place probably is surprising to some of us given his black conservative roots. (I’m not sure if it is on the web or not, but what is fascinating to me was how he was treated by conservatives when he underwent his conversion experience. While the same thing probably would have happened among liberal/leftists had his conversion gone the other way, it is fascinating nonetheless.)

I also like the title he chose. In fact in some ways this article is the counterpart to Martin Gilens book Why Americans Hate Welfare. In that book Gilens makes the claim that Americans hate welfare because it has become associated with black women. (Earl has a video link to Gilens’ presentation somewhere on his site.) The problem with that title is that he isn’t really talking about Americans…rather he’s talking about white Americans. So he ends up doing what many do–take the viewpoints of whites and make them the universal standard.

When Loury does it though, he’s coming from a very different place. The assumption already is that these people aren’t Americans, not only because they are prisoners, not only because they are not white, but because they are black. His attempt to flip this on his head is reminiscent of the move that Albert Murray makes.

The only problem with this work…is that he’s making an assumption about “American values” that is only warranted in brief moments. Loury:

This situation raises a moral problem that we cannot avoid. We cannot pretend that there are more important problems in our society, or that this circumstance is the necessary solution to other, more pressing problems—unless we are also prepared to say that we have turned our backs on the ideal of equality for all citizens and abandoned the principles of justice. We ought to ask ourselves two questions: Just what manner of people are we Americans? And in light of this, what are our obligations to our fellow citizens—even those who break our laws?

* * *

To address these questions, we need to think about the evaluation of our prison system as a problem in the theory of distributive justice—not the purely procedural idea of ensuring equal treatment before the law and thereafter letting the chips fall where they may, but the rather more demanding ideal of substantive racial justice. The goal is to bring about through conventional social policy and far-reaching institutional reforms a situation in which the history of racial oppression is no longer so evident in the disparate life experiences of those who descend from slaves.

Gunnar Myrdal was tasked in the late thirties early forties to write the definitive book on American race relations. Radical for its time the book An American Dilemma made many of the arguments that we now routinely find ourselves having to wrestle with. The argument for example about the debilitating effect of black matriarchies on black men (and black society) was NOT first found in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s work…but rather in Myrdal’s work written some twenty years earlier. Imagine saying that Negroes would likely be in the same position if racism were removed…and making this claim during the height of Jim Crow!

But given the size and scope of Myrdal’s work, this tidbit was largely ignored. The thing that put Myrdal over the top, argument wise, was his claim that the central American problem was a moral one. Americans had two sets of diametrically opposed values–a set of values they applied to themselves, and a set of values they applied to blacks. This caused whites a great deal of tension, and its resolution was imperative for the health of American society.

Note how Loury is making the same claim above. We make the Rawlsian move towards redistributive justice in order to heal the current rift between our present values as Americans (just what manner of people are we?) and our past ones.

But the problem here, as with Myrdal is a simple one–there is no rift. Better yet, the we above is not a universal we. No black people I know think the current condition as particularly moral. No Latinos I know feel this way. This is peculiar to one distinct population.

Rather than using a philosophical turn to get us (no, not us) to revisit the American justice system, I’d argue for a political turn. Which puts us in another quandry altogether, but still is a more accurate rendering of the problem and the solution we’ve got to employ here.

Oh. One note. He referred to the work of Vesla Weaver. Vesla’s got skills….but Khalilah Brown-Dean has been working on the exact same issue for a few years now.