Early in his career, Heckman worked extensively on racial conflicts. “One of my earliest projects,” he remembers. “was to prove that Civil Rights Laws passed in the 1960s had a major effect in elevating the status of blacks.” It was the start of a lifelong interest in African American culture. Today, Heckman feels that the conflict is getting worse. “I think it was the biggest disappointment during the Obama presidency. He was trying to create an inclusive society. But he lost the ability to reach out.”
As a young boy, Heckman lived with his family in the South during the Jim Crow era, when people still believed in the legal doctrine “separate but equal”. In the 1960s, Heckman traveled with his college roommate, a Nigerian. “I saw and I hated the discrimination that I saw,” he remembers. Even though times are changing, Heckman feels that “today, it’s not possible to have an honest, factual discussion about race,” and that he, being white, cannot discuss it as an academic.
“The whole idea of an intellectual life is that you can share ideas, you want scholars of all stripes,” Heckman argues. “Some of the best work on African Americans could be done by a Chinese currently getting a PhD in Beijing. It’s a question of the quality of the argument, not the qualification of the person making the argument.” Nowadays, Heckman refrains from commenting the situation too much, though he feels the measures that have been taken are not sufficient. “You want people to be able to go to the highest level,” he explains. “But I don’t know if actually assigning quotas and making explicit distinctions based on race or sex is productive in creating an enriched environment. It’s the difference between forcing a result and providing an opportunity.”