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Affirmative action: 40th anniversary: an analysis of books on the promises and pitfalls of a Federal policy intended to equalize opportunity.

IF WE ARE TO BELIEVE JAMES FARMER'S MEMOIR LAY BARE THE HEART: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement (Texas Christian University Press, September 1998), the words "affirmative action" were first uttered at a meeting in 1962 at Vice President Lyndon Johnson's Texas ranch.

Johnson suddenly leaned forward dramatically, staring Farmer directly in the eye, and asked him what he suggested be done to help blacks obtain full equality with whites?

"What I'm proposing," Farmer, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), answered without hesitation, "is that as a matter of policy in employment, we replace color blindness with color consciousness aimed at eliminating inequities based on color ... in a word, what I'm proposing is a policy of 'Compensatory Preferential Treatment' similar to that used with veterans."

To his delight, Farmer noted that Johnson reacted with great enthusiasm. "I guess you can't expect a fellow to compete in a race when the fellow he's running against is halfway down the field, while he is still standing at the starting line," Johnson replied.

The Vice President, however, had a problem with the phrase "Compensatory Preferential Treatment."

"That's a terrible name," he told Farmer. "We can't call it that. Let's see, what can we call it? We have to move the nation forward, act positively, affirmatively. That's it: Affirmative Action!"

The Speech at Howard

AS JOURNALIST NICK KOTZ POINTS OUT IN HIS COMPREHENSIVE study Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr, and the Laws That Changed America (Houghton Mifflin Company, January 2005), as president, Johnson introduced this concept to the world in a commencement speech on June 4, 1965, at Howard University. Echoing his earlier remarks to a surprised James Farmer, he told the students and faculty at the most prestigious school of higher education for blacks in the world, "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and say 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair."

Soon, however, the land was awash with loud cries of "me too," as institutions of higher education, and corporate suites started slowly opening their doors for the first time to blacks, as the nation responded to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and LBJ's forceful advocacy of affirmative action.

White women, gays, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, the disabled, all boldly elbowed themselves into the ranks with blacks as members in good standing of the downtrodden and historically put upon.

Fast Forward to the '90s

THE PROLIFIC YALE LAW PROFESSOR STEPHEN L. CARTER WRITES IN his provocative 1991 debut as an author Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby (Basic Books, September 1991): "In my own student days, the case for racial preference ... might have been controversial, but at least it was clear. The dearth of black students in college and professional schools, like the dearth of black professionals in general, was understood to be a vestige of the nation's odious legacy of racial oppression.

"Evidently, this is not quite the understanding any longer. The ideals of affirmative action have become conflated with the proposition that there is a black way to be ... This notion goes under deceptive rubric of Diversity."

The point Professor Carter is making is that advocates of fostering diversity are saying that for American institutions to do a better job, they need to bring in a broader range of viewpoints. They need a black view, a white woman's view, etcetera--as well as the traditional white male view--to successfully compete in the modern world.

One can see how this color-coding of ideas could easily irk someone as intelligent, and quite frankly, as blessed as Carter. But this isn't the only thing that bothers him about affirmative action. As much as he tries to make peace with his being accepted to Yale Law School because of the color of his skin, he, the son of a Cornell professor, senses there was still a large part of him--and this question permeates his book--that feels somehow stigmatized, that somehow his considerable individual achievements have been devalued by affirmative action.

"I am as irritated," he writes tellingly, "as anybody rise by the frequent suggestion that there lurks inside each black professional a confused and uncertain ego, desperately seeking reassurance--but it is certainly true that as long as racial preferences exist, the one thing that cannot be proved is which people of color in my generation would have achieved what they have in their absence."

On the other hand, author Jamillah Moore (Race and College Admissions: A Case for Affirmative Action, McFarland & Company, May 2005) would have none of this, and has no such qualms about diversity as Professor Carter.

"There is a misconception in the public that underrepresented students of color are gaining admission solely on skin color. This is not the case. Another misconception is that race-conscious admission policies somehow shame or harm underrepresented students of color. Race-conscious admission policies do not harm or stigmatize ... students of color. Race is one of many factors institutions use in composing a student body," she writes.

A Death Greatly Exaggerated

In this opinion, Moore is joined by Bob Laird, an admissions director at the University of California at Berkeley. Laird's book The Case for Affirmative Action in University Admissions (Bay Tree Publishing, March 2005), with a Foreword by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, is a passionate, well-written defense of affirmative action that not only takes diversity in to account, but also deals frankly with the centuries of mistreatment of blacks in this country.

Faye J. Crosby begins her book Affirmative Action Is Dead: Long Live Affirmative Action (Yale University Press, March 2004) with questions: "Why does affirmative action not enjoy stronger support in the United States? What is it about affirmative action that so irritates some members of the intelligentsia and some leaders of public opinion? If the policy is as good as it appears to some of us who study it closely, why does it not look better to more people?" she asks rhetorically.

Professor Crosby then gives us a comprehensive look at the many aspects of the raging debate, and her book is a must-read for anyone who is trying to understand just what all the fuss is about.

Another book that all Americans should read is one of the most depressing books I have ever read: When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America by Ira Katznelson (W.W. Norton & Company, August 2005). In fact, after reading this book, I am ready to smack hard upside the head the next white person who tells me that their ancestors came here with nothing, and no one ever gave them anything!

Professor Katznelson skillfully documents in this important book that the large, white middle class that we now know was created largely by government actions starting with President Roosevelt's New Deal. When these policies were being debated in Congress, the southerner who controlled most of the important committees saw the implications of this effort, and feared that it would create a black middle class, which would cause them to lose their field hands and maids, and upset the racist system in the South.

"The South's representatives built ramparts within the policy initiatives of the New Deal and the Fair Deal to safeguard its social organization. New national policies enacted in the pre-civil rights, last-gasp era of Jim Crow constituted a massive transfer of quite specific privileges to white Americans. New programs produced economic and social opportunity for favored constituencies and thus widened the gap between white and black in the aftermath of the Second World War," he writes.

Tim J. Wise covers some of the same territory, and also deals forcefully with the issue of affirmative action for whites in his book Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge, January 2005).

In the spirit of full disclosure, of all the books I read for this column, I empathized most with Professor Stephen L. Carter's profound ambivalence about affirmative action; mainly because I know he will never feel what I felt. I entered New York University (NYU) before there was no such a thing as affirmative action. The handful of blacks on campus then was a competitive, proud, arrogant lot, who sat in the first row in classes, hands raised. We knew instinctively that we had overcome almost everything a brutal, racist country threw at us; and such a motley collection of low-life thugs had no right to feel superior to anyone.

Yet when we founded the Black American Student Association (BASA), at our first meeting, someone couldn't help but note that all of the black students on campus at NYU fit neatly into one elevator!

For us, this was intolerable and an outrage, despite our very real personal achievements. We knew that it was now our duty to do something about it, something affirmative, if you will, because in the larger picture, those precious personal achievements meant little.


A Black and White Case: How Affirmative Action Survived Its Greatest Legal Challenge by Greg Stohr, Bloomberg Press September 2004, $26.95, ISBN 1-576-60170-6

The Pursuit of Fairness: A History of Affirmative Action by Terry H. Anderson, Oxford University Press, June 2004 $35, ISBN 0-195-15764-8

Fred Beauford is the author of the best-selling novel The Year Jerry Garcia Died (Morton Books, 2004).
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Title Annotation:An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement; Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr, and the Laws That Changed America; Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby; The Case for Affirmative Action in University Admissions; Affirmative Action Is Dead: Long Live Affirmative Action; When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America; Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White; Race and College Admissions: A Case for Affirmative Action
Author:Beauford, Fred
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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