Reflections on Affirmative Action Angst
Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, by Steven Carter (Basic Books, 1991). Reviewed by Julian Bond
Vol. 14, No. 1, 1992, pp. 22-23
Students of race relations have watched with interest the elevation to media prominence of a small cadre of black male conservatives, academics who question the worth and wisdom of racial preference programs in place over the last twenty-five years.
Most often included in the group are Shelby Steele, an English teacher at California State University, Thomas Sowell, an economist at Stanford, and Glen Loury, an economist at Boston University.
Curiously, there is no comparative outpouring of objections to assistance from affirmative action’s greatest beneficiaries, women, both white and black. It may not be coincidental that, among beneficiaries, complaints about affirmative action seem limited, at present, to upwardly mobile black men. Economist Julianne Malveaux argues these men are “exercising their masculinist game-playing prerogatives by closing the door on affirmative action and other social programs.”
They may be engaging in a blackface version of the “Iron John” male-bonding rituals currently in vogue among some white men. In an attempt to reclaim their masculine selves in an increasingly feminine world where race makes qualifications suspect, these victims of affirmative action angst, hands joined in a circle, are pounding on symbolic drums, like the soulmate John Doggett did during the Clarence Thomas hearings.
With some slight deviations, these black male conservatives share a common list of objections against affirmative action and its proponents. And despite their shared complaint that deviance from established civil rights orthodoxy is dangerous, these intrepid warriors have found it rewarding instead. Joining that small circle is more than a passage to male bonding; for these drummers, it is the path out of the jungle to fame, fortune, television appearances, and publishing contracts.
Now comes Steven Carter in Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, to add his drumbeats, announcing he too suffers affirmative action angst. He shares with Steele, Sowell, and Loury an unease at preferences that make his appointment to Yale Law School faculty seem to some the result of his black skin color rather than his grey brain cells. With his colleagues around the circle’s fireside, he chides black leadership for holding on to policies white Americans oppose.
Like Steele’s, Carter’s approach is largely anecdotal. Like Steele, he offers little documentation or proof of his assertions, and like all his campus-bound counterparts demonstrates an ignorance of the prevalence of racism in America’s past and present that should deny any of them a position on a history faculty.
But Carter rejects the label “conservative;” as a self-described intellectual, he stands above political arguments.
Sadly for a law professor, he stands against the evidence as well. If only middle-class blacks benefit from affirmative action–and there is no evidence that only they do–why abandon it rather than expand it? If discrimination exists no more, what accounts for differences in black and white incomes, years of education completed, life expectancy? Are these indices of social decay the result of some malignancy unconnected to race? Do others subject to discrimination–women, Jews, Hispanics, gays and lesbians–believe they are targeted individually, or as members of a despised group? Do they react individually–as Carter urges blacks to do–or seek the power that comes from group action? Will whites cease being racists if affirmative action is abolished?
Common to all these victims of affirmative action angst is ignorance of ugly, deep-seated, white racism in America today.
The Center for Democratic Renewal reports that hate-crimes and hate-group membership are increasing. A survey conducted by the National Employment Lawyers Association reports that since a series of 1989 rulings
by the Supreme Court which overturned eighteen years of civil rights law, minorities and women have greater difficulty obtaining lawyers to take discrimination cases; and when they do secure a lawyer, they have greater difficulty proving discrimination in court. Census data tell us that white men remain twice as likely as black men to hold sales, managerial, or professional positions, and two and a half times as likely to hold any job at all. A national poll released this year shows that a majority of whites believe racial minorities are lazier, less intelligent, more prone to violence, and less patriotic than whites.
A 1988 study by the National Research Council concluded that whites oppose equal treatment for blacks when it would result in “close, frequent, or prolonged social contact.” A 1989 University of Chicago study of residential segregation in ten American cities showed “racial segregation is deeper and more profound than previous attempts to study it had indicated.”
This evidence suggests that white Americans cannot be trusted to make discrimination-free judgments in hiring and university admissions, housings rentals, and sales. Affirmative action is the watchdog that tries to keep them honest.
If ignorance of daily proof of discrimination were not enough, common to each of the new complainants is a total failure to prescribe any cures for these continuing racial disparities beyond the foolish hope that if affirmative action is abandoned, previously bigoted whites will joyously embrace some unspecified programs to solve black joblessness, poverty, and poor education.
In fact, most affirmative action hires are in entry-level, factory-floor jobs, not in the rarer confines where Carter, Steele, Sowell, and Loury toil over their textbooks and word processors. To this observer, black complaints about the delegitimizing of credentials through affirmative action seem to come exclusively from blacks in white collars: lawyers, professors, accountants, and other managers crying and dispirited because their hard earned bona fides are being challenged. No assembly line or construction workers, firefighters, or nurses’ aides seem to worry that some white person thinks they got a job because they are black. Prejudiced whites have been claiming blacks lack qualifications since slavery; some of Carter’s Yale colleagues would question his right to be there absent affirmative action. But if the burden is as great as he and his fellows imagine it to be, one wonders why they don’t resign, and let some better qualified white men take their places?…
Julian Bond is a Visiting Professor at the American and Harvard Universities, and observes the South and the nation from Washington, D.C.