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March 20, 2005

Roland Gerhard Fryer, Jr

Roland Fryer appears to be one of those brothers that I wished I had some way to keep up with. But I think any number of us are going to have some difficulty as he chips away at the convenience of the largely accepted. You see Fryer is aiming for DuBois, and people think he has a shot.

It's difficult to tell whether or not it's important to know what Fryer is trying to discover, a grand unified theory of... well what is it exactly? Blackness? Economic differences between blacks and whites? Implications of social patterns of behavior? But whatever it is, Fryer comes with street cred from the hard side of the tracks as well as all the props from the academic powers that be. And he looks to be assembling his drop squad at Harvard. Do you hear me? Homey from the hood is an economist at Harvard. Enough said.

I first heard about Fryer last week from a surprising email I got personally from Steven Levitt. Yes, that Steven Levitt. He gave me a little sideways intro and told me to watch out for the Sunday NYT Magazine. Having read it this morning and just (lazily) 40% done with Levitt's new book, certain things are starting to click. A little background.

The other night, when I took a picture with Sharpton and also met a young brother who considers himself one of the luckiest men in the world (Lahore, Karachi?), I was chilling with Spence and some very cool academics. One of them, Harwood, who teaches at Ohio State espied my galley proof of Levitt's new book Freakonomics. Spence was already jumping up and down when I showed it to him not two minutes after we first met. Harwood, who'll take Strata over SPSS anyday, practically snatched the book out of my hand and read it all night. When Spence talked about Levitt, he mentioned that it was difficult to believe he didn't have some black in him. I think perhaps we've found the answer, Fryer is a catalyst.

More accurately, Spence said of Levitt's work that he had to be white to do this - to ask the hardball questions and formulate them into the notable paper which became Chapter Three: Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live With Their Moms? Why? Because brothers in the 'hood are already deeply immersed in those economics, and it simply doesn't occur to any of them that this drug economy is worthy of study. The very act of asking all the dumb questions an outsider needs to was Levitt's advantage. Now consider this:

Fryer well appreciates that he can raise questions that most white scholars wouldn't dare. His collaborators, most of whom are white, appreciate this, too. ''Absolutely, there's an insulation effect,'' says the Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser. ''There's no question that working with Roland is somewhat liberating.''

Glaeser and Fryer, along with David M. Cutler, another Harvard economist, are the authors of a paper that traffics in one form of genetic theorizing. It addresses the six-year disparity in life expectancy for blacks versus whites, arguing that much of the gap is due to a single factor: a higher rate of salt sensitivity among African-Americans, which leads to higher rates of cardiovascular disease, stroke and kidney disease.

Fryer's notion that there might be a genetic predisposition at work was heightened when he came across a period illustration that seemed to show a slave trader in Africa licking the face of a prospective slave. The ocean voyage from Africa to America was so gruesome that as many as 15 percent of the Africans died en route, mainly from illnesses that led to dehydration. A person with a higher capacity for salt retention might also retain more water and thus increase his chance of surviving.

So it may have been that a slave trader would try to select, with a lick to the cheek, the ''saltier'' Africans. Whether selected by the slavers or by nature, the Africans who did manage to survive the voyage -- and who then formed the gene pool of modern African-Americans -- may have been disproportionately marked by hypertension. Cutler, a pre-eminent health economist, admits that he thought Fryer's idea was ''absolutely crazy'' at first. (Although the link between the slave trade and hypertension had been raised in medical literature, even Cutler wasn't aware of it.) But once they started looking at the data, the theory began to seem plausible.

That's what I'm talking about. Fryer is a catalyst and as such will be able to bring down to cases those things that we think we know but don't. This is about applying a curiousity abetted by the need to make sense of the African Experience in this land which may finally get the attention of harder science. How many times have I had to explain the lack of hypertension in my family to doctors? We're from Connecticut - we don't eat salty slave food. And yet it was only in the 90s that medical researchers first isolated diet from race in looking at hypertension in blacks. I think we stand at the beginning of a long series of discoveries about how African Americans really do live that stands outside of the accumulated pile of wobbly theory, idiot conspiracies and dismissal.

A while ago, Cornel West stunned me with an idea. He essentially posited that blackfolks don't do 'enlightened self-interest' and don't fit into economic models because we have a psychic hunger for things other than the fungibles of the American economy. In other words, African Americans were receptive to two kinds of economies, the one for everyone, and our own unique afro-psychic one. It was a difficult argument to counter at the time so I accepted it. But ultimately it was my acceptance of Loury's economic view that I think set me right. It is also the difficulty I have in sustaining any discussion about Ujamaa vs Capitalism that gets me steamed, but simply looking at things from an economist's perspective, that of incentive, we're right back into economy. (And yes I do pay my kids to get good grades). Fryer is going to have plenty opportunities to start knocking back old ideas and finding interesting new sets of facts about African American life, but not only Fryer himself, but a new generation of researchers who are not Andrew Hacker, Manning Marable or Daniel Patrick Moynihan. That is a change that is long, long overdue. Who knows which way he's going, but stick him and McWhorter in a room and you've got enough thoughtful dynamite to inject some science into what has too long been speculative (Not to mention well.. how exactly do you describe this?)

I've not studied the economics of the ghetto enough to be surprised to learn much new, but I've been around enough people who've lived there and elsewhere to know much that we do hear ain't right. So much of it is tied to the interests of a dumb national debate that rarely does anything that sounds like truth shine through. I have a good feeling that scholars like Fryer will make a difference.

Now there are the existentials.

I suppose it's rather intriguing that anyone who grows up in close proximity to scary things, like drug dealers and violent knuckleheads, ends up at Harvard. I would expect a certain amount of 'hair touching' in any profile of an up and coming academic star. However I do have some concerns that young Fryer get the blunt end of gratuity. According to the story, Fryer is a phenomenon of self-discipline whose work ethic propels him through. Like a sea lion, he can hold his breath while fishing. I've lived in Boston too, and I've called it the coldest city in the world - a place so white that even the Nike basketball shoe commercials don't have brothers in them. But I am wishing upon Fryer an existential network that keeps the flavor alive (whatever flavor he desires, whatever oxygen he needs). It's impossible to tell, through Dubner's eyes how Fryer might consider his own place or his ability to breathe freely. He may be dreading that he grows gills, he may be perfectly comfortable. All of us 'exceptionals' have some degree of a strangeness about our blackness given our individuality and rareness, and none of us are immune. To this day people aren't quite sure how to take Sowell or Loury, and the more we hear about their own personal demons (speaking of Loury) the more we leap to conclusions about the political spin given their economic work. No matter where Loury goes or what he does, it's always Loury vs D'Sousa or Loury vs Drugs. America doesn't treat black academics well, period. We don't know them, they don't know us. It's a strange relationship. Me personally, I hate on 'em because they don't blog or otherwise show up anywhere they can't get paid or gather up brownie points for their strange rituals and rites of passage. Hmmm. Maybe I ought to join the forces of evil and hack LexisNexis too.. or maybe that's just journalists. (On the other hand, everybody loves Skip - mostly)

Still in all there is much good news in that Fryer gets to grow up and do in a nation that's much better for him to air whatever laundry we've been hiding under the bed. And I'm betting that he won't hesitate. For a gadfly like me, there are worlds to be spun and a great deal of my Socratic needs the kind of ammo I believe he is likely to provide. And yet I do wonder whatever happened to Brent Staples.

What do I do? I do business intelligence - so I know myths about 'corporate America' are overbroad and simply don't apply. I have the numbers and computer models to show it. If the China Deal had worked, on the other side of that I would have built XRepublic and then sat down to study some economics. I've always wanted to know what I believe that men like Fryer and Levitt seem poised to present, which is some juicy detail at the micro. How do the numbers work in this neighborhood, that neighborhood? And is that neighborhood like my neighborhood? And I just did that geek thing out of curiosity and a little bit of myth-questioning over the question of the 'black mecca'. Imagine what we're going to get when the pros come with the hardline. (Damn, this reminds me of an email I haven't responded to..sorry Kevin G.)

Posted by mbowen at March 20, 2005 07:19 PM

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Quick thoughts on Fryer from Vision Circle
Ok. The Fryer meme has been going around and hitting up some of my boys. Bomani emailed me about my thoughts after reading Cobb's take...and I've already weighed in on Prometheus' ideas on him. In as much as the number... [Read More]

Tracked on March 21, 2005 11:10 PM

stephen j. dubner re: roland g. fryer, jr. from South(west)paw
Theres a new econoblog: Freakonomics by University of Chicago economics professor and John Bates Clark Medal winner Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner. Yesterday, the Steves' book with the same name went on sale. Dubner had an interesti... [Read More]

Tracked on April 13, 2005 11:14 AM

stephen j. dubner re: roland g. fryer, jr. from South(west)paw
Theres a new econoblog: Freakonomics by University of Chicago economics professor and John Bates Clark Medal winner Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner. Yesterday, the Steves' book with the same name went on sale. Dubner had an interesti... [Read More]

Tracked on April 13, 2005 11:33 AM


Here is his site at Harvard that has some of his papers


Posted by: Ken at March 21, 2005 05:24 AM


Funny, I was on that page when I got this picture and for some reason the links didn't work.

Posted by: Cobb at March 21, 2005 05:47 AM

I read that NYT article--and thanks very much for your thoughts on it. The strongest reaction I had to hearing the guy's story is "this seems something like Hyman Rickover"--the drive, the push to be better. I wonder if Dr. Fryer's heard of him.

Posted by: Chap at March 21, 2005 10:48 AM

Don't believe the hype. This quote is the most telling...

''The inclination to look for an explanation based on some sort of group-based dysfunctionality is an instinct I don't have,'' Darity says.

Now, I know Professor Darity very well, and I've had dinner with Roland. His hustle is immaculate, but this is not the Negroid salvation that academics are looking for. The willingness to use economic models to deal with real life is interesting, but there are methodological issues with some of the work he does, and I specifically have issue with two papers he's doing with Levitt (one on "black names" and another on the effects on crack).

But if you're looking toward him for something new, I'm not sure what gives the positive feelings that people have. Unless you're looking for some fantastic double talk, this may not be the place to direct your attention. He's a young cat, though...no telling where he'll end up. I just wasn't encouraged in a face-to-face meeting, and the Times did nothing to change that.

Posted by: Anonymous at March 21, 2005 02:01 PM