All Commentary
Sunday, March 1, 1992

Reflections Of An Affirmative Action Baby

In Clarence Thomas, most Americans discovered a political and philosophical oddity, a “black conservative” with reservations about affirmative action. Stephen Carter, a constitutional law expert at Yale Law School, describes how such labeling limits honest and constructive political discourse.

Carter, who tells of his personal experiences—both beneficial and negative—with affirmative action, argues that affirmative action has become a trap for black professionals. For accepting affirmative action’s benefits, such as privileged entree into universities, professional schools, and the business world, aspiring black professionals—primarily those who go into politics, law, and academia—must then be prepared to accept not only its stigma, but also an obligation never to break from its ranks of supporters.

Those who dissent, writes Carter, face the fate of Clarence Thomas—a dreaded association with conservatism, which in the eyes of many blacks (primarily from the generation that still carries the torch of the civil rights movement and among emerging campus diversity militants) is tantamount to racial treason.

Carter, a liberal embarked on dissent, confronts his more vocal colleagues forcefully: “Preferential treatment comes in two kinds, the kind we like and kind we hate. Both kinds have roots in the idea that race is a useful proxy for other information: in the early days of affirmative action, a proxy for disadvantage; today, a proxy for the ability to tell the story of the oppressed.” This outlook, says Carter, has given birth to a ruthless dogma among liberal black elites that brooks no criticism, particularly from other blacks.

Its vitriolic nature can be seen in the personal denunciations of “black dissenters,” as Carter describes them, such as Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, and Clarence Thomas, whose Heritage Foundation speech is often quoted by Carter as a converse example of conservatives’ expectations of black dissenters. And while Carter defends black dissenters espousing conservative beliefs and policies, he pleads not to be misinterpreted as a “black neo-conservative” as happened to Content of Our Character author Steele, a Jesse Jackson backer in 1988.

That Carter displays a certain sympathy for the dissenters may come from his never having a personal need for affirmative action. The son of a law professor and a lawyer, raised in upper-middle class neighborhoods in the 1960s, and a National Merit Scholarship runner-up, he made it to Stanford, and later Yale Law School, on his academic record. He credits affirmative action with helping him to a certain extent, but cautions that it is no substitute for personal drive—an argument that runs throughout the book.

Despite growing up in white suburbia and being matriculated in predominantly white, well-meaning liberal institutions of higher education, Carter wasn’t free from racism or race-based assumptions, in fact, at times in the book it seems he bristles more against condescending attitudes from whites than blatant racism.

Carter recounts the hurt of being the subject of epithets in high school and more vicious ones in Palo Alto and Atlanta. But he more poignantly recounts the sting of being told an “error” had been made on his rejection from Harvard Law School, that the admissions committee didn’t realize he was black: “I was told by one official that the school had initially rejected me because ‘we assumed from your record that you were white.’ . . . Suddenly coy, he went on to say that the school had obtained ‘additional information that should have been counted in your favor’—that is, Harvard bad discovered the color of my skin.”

And if there is one thing Carter hates, it is the supposition affirmative action has created among blacks that they can’t be the best in their field, but they can be the “best black.”

The underlying theme of this book is the perception of intellectual and political limitations both black and white establishments attach to blacks because of affirmative action—which, Carter senses, is on its way out politically, certainly among many whites who have lost faith in the policy, and, he believes, among many blacks who now see it as a social burden.

And it is the deep divisions between the black establishment and dissenters that now overshadow what, in Carter’s opinion, should be the central issue for black intellectuals—the future, and the shifting of affirmative action to blacks who need it most, not blacks raised in the middle class or bound for professional careers: “When black people criticize [affirmative action], the response is bewilderment, pain, and, in the end, open hostility. In the difficult years ahead, we cannot afford the luxury of letting our squabble over preferences, which help mostly those who can best survive without them, interfere with the needed dialogue on what to do next.”

Jim Christie, a graduate of the National Journalism Center, is a staff writer for California Republic.