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Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby.

Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby. Stephen L. Carter. Basic Books, $23. Shortly after Harvard Law School rejected him, Stephen Carter got a rush of calls from Harvard professors. His record was so good they had assumed he was white, they explained, and so had passed over him. But now they had learned he was black. Wouldn't he like to come after all?

Such is the saga of a whole generation: African-Americans who, having gained admission under special preference programs, pioneered the integration of predominantly white institutions in the sixties and seventies. In the debate over affirmative action currently rocking America, with one side decrying the policy as discriminatory against whites and the other defending it as the least that can be done for America's oppressed minorities, little has been heard from the beneficiaries. Carter, a noted constitutional scholar and Yale Law School professor, is as successful a representative of those beneficiaries as they come, and he tells their story well.

Reflections is a collection and an analysis of Carter's experiences as a student competing at mostly white schools: Ithaca High, Stanford, and Yale Law. It is laced with the kinds of stories of stereotyping that make African-Americans seethe with anger. "The smartest students of colr were not considered as capable as the smartest white students," he writes, and "therefore would not be allowed to compete with them." The syndrome haunted him--and other African-Americans--into professional life.

The author laments that he could never be viewed as anything better than the best black. That lament is shared widely among African-American professionals, and it leads in turn to the ultimate question: Are affirmative action programs really worth it from the beneficiary's point of view, or are minorities better off fending for themselves? The dilemma hangs over Carter's whole narrative, and his views about it are wildly mixed. On the one hand, he argues, racial preferences force blacks into boxes they cannot escape. On the other, that is a small price to pay for trying to combat the enormous problems facing black America.

At times, Carter's handwringing seems excessive. It has all the charm--and some of the inanity--of an ivory tower seminar. What makes his internal debate worthwhile, is that a lot of lives have turned--and will continue to turn--on affirmative action programs. After all, without affirmative action, Carter acknowledges, he would not have gained admission to Yale, and he finally comes out in favor of some system of preferences, at least at the undergraduate level. "It is true that the result of racial preferences is sometimes the hiring of black people not as qualified as white people who are turned away, and preferences of that kind do much that is harmful and little that is good," he says. "But preferences can also be a means of selecting highly qualified black people from a pool of people who are all excellent." The status Carter has achieved as one of the nation's leading legal scholars lends credibility to his conclusion. If he stopped there, his book would be remembered for bringing a much-needed, if not decisive, perspective on race in America.

But Carter goes well beyond that. In the second part of Reflections, he exposes one of the most serious problems plaguing African-American intellectuals today: their tendency to dismiss the views of black dissenters, particularly conservatives, as illegitimate. He gives a wide range of examples: There's the story of Julius Lester, formerly a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts, purged from the faculty after his conversion to Judaism. And the story of Shelby Steele, a professor at the University of California at San Jose, attacked for declaring that blacks spend too much time crying race. And then there is the case of William Lucas, the conservative Michigan politician whom Ronald Reagan nominated to be an assistant attorney general and who was opposed by the civil rights establishment. "While there is a magnificent tradition of black dissent in the United States," Carter writes, "there is no comparable tradition of black intellectual tolerance. Our history as a people has been to cast out those whose views make us uncomfortable."

Another example Carter uses is Clarence Thomas, though the U.S. District Court judge's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court came after Reflections went to print. Beyond describing Thomas to further illustrate the harsh treatment black dissenters receive in the black community, Carter makes two important points about him. First, he shows how sensitive Thomas has been to the shunning he has received from black intellectuals. "Thomas has been called the usual names--an Uncle Tom, a traitor, and the rest--and he has said of the situation, 'It is lonely, I mean really lonely.'" Second, on a couple of occasions, Carter quotes Thomas acknowledging that conservatives have invited the wrath of blacks by showing remarkable insensitivity to their problems. Both points help to humanize Thomas, who has been vilified by some blacks (and whites, too) as being so conservative that he is something less than human.

But Carter's objective here is not to defend Thomas. he is careful to avoid that; indeed, when invited to do so before the Senate Judiciary Committee a couple of years ago, he declined. He is equally adamant in rejecting the view of himself as a black neoconservative, partly because he dislikes labels and partly because he has many views that are truly left of center. At one point, he even makes a list of them, and in so doing, he appears to protest just a little too much.

But critics who attempt to push (or pull) Carter into the ranks of the black right-wing will be 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 abhors the stifling of debate by either wing or by people of any hue. Carter seems to genuinely care that blacks don't limit their intellectual potential or resources by discrediting those whose views fall out of the mainstream. In documenting the ostracization of Clarence Thomas, Thomas Sowell, and others so thoroughly, he effectively condemns it. And that is the crowning achievement of his noble book.
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Author:Lee, Gary A.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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