Reviews | Reflections on Stephen L. Carter’s 1991 book, ‘Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby’
In 1991, Yale Law School professor Stephen L. Carter began his book “Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby” with a disconcerting anecdote. A fellow professor had criticized one of Carter’s articles for “showing a lack of sensitivity to the black experience in America.” When the professor, who was white, learned that Carter was black, he withdrew the remark rather than defend his claim. It was a reminder to Carter that many people, especially among his colleagues in the establishment elite, had certain expectations of him as a black man.
“I live in a box,” he wrote, one bearing all sorts of labels, including “Warning: Discuss Civil Rights Act or Law and Race Onlyand “Warning! Positive action baby! Do not assume that this person is qualified!
It was a book that refused to dance around its subject.
Weaving a personal narrative with a broader discussion of the successes and limitations of affirmative action, “Reflections from an Affirmative Action Baby” offered a nuanced assessment. A graduate of Stanford and Yale Law School, Carter was a proud recipient of affirmative action. Still, he acknowledged the personal toll it took (“a decidedly mixed blessing”) as well as the sometimes unsettling effects of affirmative action on black people as programs evolved over time.
I first read “Reflections” for a course on municipal politics at Brown University shortly after it came out, and shortly after Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court to fill the seat previously occupied by Thurgood Marshall, for whom Carter had been clerk. . The fact that Thomas was most likely nominated because he was black And because he opposed affirmative action posed a conundrum for many proponents of racial preference. Was it enough to be black? Or did you have to be “the right kind” of black person? It’s a question Carter grapples with openly in his book.
In anticipation of what many hope will be the end of affirmative action when the Supreme Court hands down rulings in two college admissions cases at the end of the current term, I thought I would return to the book that m first caused serious thought to be given to the subject. What immediately struck me on re-reading it was how far-sighted Carter was on these debates 32 years ago. The role that affirmative action should play was playing out then in a way that continues to reverberate.
The end of affirmative action, according to Carter, was both necessary and inevitable. “We must reject the common claim that the end of preferences ‘would be a disastrous situation, amounting to a virtual reversal of the 1954 desegregation decision,'” he wrote, quoting activist and scholar Robert Allen . “The prospect of its end should be a challenge and an opportunity.”
For Carter, affirmative action was a necessary stopgap measure to remedy historical discrimination. Like many people today — both proponents and opponents of affirmative action — he expressed reservations about using diversity as a constitutional basis for racial preferences.
The diversity argument holds that people of different races benefit from each other’s presence, which on the face of it seems desirable. But the implication of diversity recruiting, Carter explained, had less to do with admitting black students to redress past discrimination and more to do with supporting and reinforcing essentialist notions of black people.
An early critic of groupthink, Carter cautioned against “the idea that black people who gain positions of authority or influence are vested with a special responsibility to articulate the presumed opinions of others people who are black – in fact, to think, act and speak in a particular way, the Black way – and that there is something special about black people who insist on doing something else.
In the past, such ideas might have been considered “frankly racist,” Carter noted. “Now, however, they’re almost gospel for people who want to show their commitment to equality.” This contradicts the reality that black people, he said, “sparkle quite enough with diversity of perspective.”
Given statements like this, it’s hard to imagine Carter welcoming the current white “alliance” vogue with its reductionist assumption that all black people share the same interests and values. He disparaged what he called “the special relationship between black and white intellectuals who seem reluctant to criticize us for fear of being called racist – which in itself is a mark of racism in a way”.
At the same time, Carter bristled at the judgment of many of his black peers, describing several situations in which he found himself accused of being “inauthentically” black, as if people of a particular race were a monolith. and that those who deviated from it were somehow failing in their duty. He said he didn’t want to be limited in what he was allowed to say by “an old and vicious form of silence”.
In a 1991 interview with The Times, Carter made this point: “No weight is added to a position because someone is black. One must evaluate an argument on its own merits, not on the race of the person making it.
Carter challenged the belief, now virtually evangelical in academic, cultural and media circles, that increased racial awareness would be essential to overcoming racism. No matter how well-meaning you are, when you reduce people to their racial identities rather than seeing them as individuals in their complete and complex humanity, you risk making sweeping assumptions about who they are. It used to be called stereotyping or racism. As Carter noted, “there has always been something troubling about the plea for a continuation of racial consciousness in the name of its eradication”.
Carter’s arguments were controversial at the time, but the book nonetheless received widespread praise. In a New York Times Book Review cover review, David J. Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the civil rights movement, called “Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby” “powerfully written and persuasive.” The Los Angeles Times said it was “a pivotal text in the public debate about racial preference.” The New Yorker called Carter “cunning, subtle and funny”.
Although a consistent majority of Americans today oppose racial preferences in college admissions — including majorities of blacks and Hispanics, as well as majorities of Democrats — advocates for action too often reject recipients of affirmative action who publicly express reservations about the policy. These advocates often make instinctive assumptions about the political agendas of liberal black writers like Thomas Chatterton Williams and my Times colleague John McWhorter, misrepresenting them as conservatives or “traitors” to their race.
Some people came to the same conclusions about Carter in 1991. But he dismissed all efforts to label him, insisting that intellectuals should be “politically unpredictable”. As the Washington Monthly noted, “Critics who try to push (or pull) Carter into the black right wing ranks are making a mistake. He is not a conservative, neo-or otherwise. He is an honest black scholar – the product of the pre-politically correct era – who hates the stifling of debate by either wing or by people of any color.
That strikes me as the biggest difference between reading the book today and reading it as an undergraduate at a liberal Ivy League college: the attitude toward debating controversial viewpoints. “Reflections” offers a vigorous and unwavering examination of ideas, something that academia, the media and the arts still valued in 1991. Carter’s arguments were considered worth discussing, as flawed as his critics considered them. And Carter was prepared and willing to defend them.
Today, a sort of wishful thinking has taken hold of ideologues left and right alike, who seem to believe that stifling debate on difficult issues will make them disappear. But if affirmative action itself goes away, America – which Carter saw as “a society that prefers its racial justice cheaply” – will no longer be able to avoid grappling with the real and persistent inequalities that have necessitated it in first place.