The culture and politics of race are some of the most vexing issues in society today, applicable to everyone. Over the past few months I’ve read a few books to try to gain insight into this unresolvable issue. Accidental Asian by Eric Liu was reflections about being a, quote, Asian-American, and the struggle to retain some of his Asian heritage combined with American customs. More broadly, Liu struggled with the whole notion of identity and the role race plays in that. Then it was Cornel West’s Race Matters, a book that didn’t live up to its expectations but still contained stirring rhetoric. Next was The Case for Affirmative Action in University Admissions, a read that will only interest Californians and isn’t highly reccomended.
Finally, I just read one of the best books on race I have ever read – Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby by Stephen Carter. It is a must-read. I wrote a formal book review below. Enjoy!
“I got into law school because I am black,” begins Yale Law School’s Stephen L. Carter in his powerfully nuanced and fair analysis of affirmative action. He is neither the first nor the last to take on arguably the most contentious issue in America – race – and the controversial practice of affirmative action, which means granting preference to candidates of color in school admissions or hiring. But Carter’s effective use of personal experience combine with numerous citations of scholarly works in the social sciences to present an authoritative response to a vexing issue. With debate raging over diversity and preference to minorities (a term with which Carter has quarrels) in admissions to colleges, this book is required reading for anyone seeking a tutored viewpoint on a complex issue.
Carter’s central plea is that his analysis be a starting point for rich discussion. He despises name-calling, virulent argument, and most of all, labels. Because of this, it would be against the spirit of his work to quickly characterize his book as the standard neoconservative take on the culture and politics of race and, in the name of convenience, juxtapose him with a more left-wing pundit so as to reduce the argument to a simple choice. In fact, Carter’s serious reservations about affirmative action may place him in the neoconservative camp by default, but his constant (maddening, at times) wavering on the issue stems from an attempt to reconcile his present-day opinion with his personal experience of gaining a leg up when applying to law school.
Carter offers four main points for debate. First, he believes “So what?” is the appropriate follow-up statement to “I got into law school because I was black.” That is, what is most important is what the student does after the preference is granted. Second, he strongly disagrees with the notion that just because someone is black, he will represent a unique perspective. He sees the assumption that a person of color will “represent her people” as misguided. Many proponents of affirmative action intend to diversify a professional world that is said to represent mostly the viewpoints of white males. “But suppose the representatives speak in the wrong voice,” Carter asks, “What if they press views that are deemed not, in fact, the views of the people?” He concludes that race cannot be a proxy for diversity of viewpoints. Third, he worries about the subconscious acceptance of “best black syndrome” which affirmative action propagates. For example, Carter cities his own experience of winning a National Achievement Scholarship awarded to “outstanding Negro students.” He was not considered for a National Merit Scholarship despite qualifying board scores. The tendency to consider and hire the best black candidate instead of the best candidate is not simply a ploy manufactured by racists, Carter argues; instead, it is reinforced by affirmative action advocates.
Fourth, he points out that in the era of affirmative action class stratification has increased. Notwithstanding various overt and subtle racist facts of life in America today, Carter uses his own socio-economic background as grounds for why he should not have benefited from preference in law school admissions, replacing a lower-class black student. He recalls a friend at law school telling him, “You are disadvantaged. Racism has marked you. It has held you back, as it has held all of us back. Racism is systemic.” Carter goes on to suffer from “analytic confusion.” Sure, he postulates, racism has touched him. He has been asked to sit at the backs of buses; he has been called a “dirty nigger” countless times; eggs and racial epithets have been tossed at him. But, he says, in the spectrum of racial transgressions these are relatively minor. He has never been beaten or arrested for something he didn’t do. He has never “gazed out at a bleak and uncaring world, certain that there is no place for me in it.” Yet, he, not the more disadvantaged student from down the street, gained admission to the top law schools in the country thanks to some racial preference. Thus, Carter argues that the most disadvantaged black people are not in a position to benefit from preferential admission. Obviously, a a college will assemble a class filled with students most likely to succeed. “The problem is that the truly disadvantaged are not likely to succeed in college: their disadvantage – perhaps the fruit of systemic racism, to use my friend’s term – has taken that opportunity from them. How is the elite college or professional school, under pressure to diversity its student body, to resolve the dilemma? Simple: make race a proxy for disadvantage and then, ignoring other aspects of their background, admit as students those among the nonwhite applications who seem most likely to succeed.”
Racial justice isn’t cheap, Carter says, and it is our responsibility to bridge the economic gap between white and black folk through vast improvements in education and medical care to help those poor children so they are prepared to be successful. In the meantime, Carter somewhat unrealistically calls for universities to take a risk on those who have not heretofore had the opportunity or resources to gain admission to a top university. He says while it won’t look as good on paper, schools should admit certain students who are truly disadvantaged even if they otherwise do not meet the paper standard – just like legacies, athletes, or students from favorable geography. Easier said than done. And what if these unqualified students fail and therefore reinforce a negative stereotype associated with that race? Carter doesn’t have a good answer, so he only urges those students admitted due to a racial preference to achieve – to “bend to their work with an energy that will leave competitors and detractors alike gasping in admiration.”
Given all the aforementioned reservations about the side effects of affirmative action, one would think that Carter would unequivocally argue that the nation focus on solving those problems that widen the socioeconomic gap between white and black students and not bother with a racial preference program which does more harm than good to the very segment of the population it is trying to help. Carter is not sure, though. He says, “With the proper goal in mind, then, a degree of racial consciousness in college and perhaps professional school admission can plausibly be justified – but just a degree, and just barely.” (Italics are his own.) Talk about waffling! In short Carter thinks that colleges should offer racial preference to disadvantaged students who show extraordinary potential, see what they can do, and, throughout their four undergraduate years in an environment where th ey are afforded luxuries not available to them in the past, show the world what they’ve got. After undergraduate studies, the student should stand on his own two feet, and therefore racial consciousness should evaporate in professional school admissions and most definitely in job hiring.
Up to this point Carter has been at his best, presenting provocative ideas with powerful prose. He meanders a bit with a topic of equal importance in his mind but not terribly related to the title of the book. He defends the right of conservatives (again, Carter quarrels with such a label) like Thomas Sowell to participate in the national debate on this issue. Black intellectuals who do “not agree that the reason to hire more people of color is to liberate the voices that racism has stifled, to represent the special perspective that people of color bring, evidently sacrifice [their] birthright.” Yet again, Carter’s own inner second-guessing is exposed. For he does believe – somewhat – in the value of a unified front of solidarity for black America to achieve political progress. But when it turns into a one-for-all-and-all-for-one model where dissenters are silenced, Carter is opposed. He doesn’t satisfactorily resolve these divergences, simply leaving them on the table for further debate.
Perhaps these unresolved quandaries are a flaw of the book, but I don’t think so. Race and affirmative action are too controversial and complex for one volume to resolve the country’s most challenging questions. The issues are firmly rooted in an unchanging history of slavery yet subject to current evaluations of the same issues with presumably more sophisticated analytical and creative tools. The latest stereotypes, the latest data on income levels, the latest numbers in university admissions. Some things about this conversation stay the same – but not everything—so it is commendable that Carter’s contribution is focused on stretching the debate, not ending it. When Carter falters it is not in his waffling, as frustrating as that may be for some readers searching for a convenient opinion to adopt as their own, but rather his strange insistence on preempting critics who will use this book to bolster their claims that he is a neoconservative. Instead of sticking to a general and concise treatment of the fallacies of labels, his tone becomes defensive as he explains his political persuasions on topics that have nothing to do with the matter at hand. Like somebody who denies committing a crime before anyone has asked him, Carter’s repetitive preemptive denials of being the stereotypical black conservative may actually work against him in the same way well-intentioned affirmative action programs work against black people: Carter does have some neoconservative stripes (though not in the same league as Sowell), but we wouldn’t have cared if he did fixate on them. On the whole, however, this is merely a small annoyance.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. provides a back-jacket testimonial for Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby. He says, “Carter writes with honesty and elegance, even, at times, ardor. Do not affix labels on him: read him.” Indeed.