Getting grown-up about race

At last, the black leadership and white liberals are starting to get past civil rights sloganeering and talk turkey about the real problems facing black America.

Twenty years or so ago, my friend Glenn Loury started saying that the problems of black America were as much internal as external, and that changing norms about, for example, education, childbearing, and violence was just as important as challenging racial prejudice. Back then, he had a hard time getting a hearing for those ideas among white liberals and much of the black leadership, and allowed himself to be pigeonholed as a “black conservative.”

Glenn has since rethought the alliances he made back then: the Bell Curve flap was a wake-up call. Still, reputations die hard, and I doubt that Glenn will ever be fully forgiven for telling those home truths, or for the way he told them and the company he told them in.

Still, the truths don’t seem to be going away. Instead, they’re becoming part of the white liberal/black establishment conventional wisdom. Henry Louis Gates’s latest column, and the Barack Obama speech it’s based on, make that abundantly evident.

Nor is that the only way in which those concerned with the welfare of black Americans are discarding what needs discarding from the politics of “civil rights.” For years, it was a dogma among liberals that any mention of crime as a real issue, or of any measure to control it other than improving the lot of those who might otherwise be tempted into crime, was by its nature “conservative” and likely to be subliminally racist. The big issues in criminal justice policy, from a liberal perspective, was supposed to be how to prevent police misconduct and how to reduce the disproportion between the racial composition of prison population and the racial composition of the population at large.

But this year, John Kerry went to the National Urban League convention with an enforcement-oriented gang-control strategy (a quite innovative and sensible one, by the way), and no one raised an eyebrow. That speech wasn’t a “Sister Souljah” moment, where a white liberal made a show of confronting a black audience. It reflected something much more encouraging: a recognition, shared by the candidate and his audience and not needing any apology or explanation, that controlling crime was a central issue for black neighborhoods, and that the criminal justice system can and should play a central role in controlling crime.

Really, I’m not sure how much more good news I can handle.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

One thought on “Getting grown-up about race”

  1. Sensible Liberals!

    In a comment to this post below, Andy Lazarus sends a link to a very sensible post by liberal Mark Kleiman about the recent spate of sensible comments by liberals on race. I agree with Mark that these comments, and

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