A Victim Of Preference

One spring day in 1976, Stephen Carter's phone rang. It was, seemingly, a miracle: a Harvard Law School official, calling to apologize for rejecting his application and to offer him a spot in the class. But the miracle was a stinging insult in disguise. "We assumed from your record that you were white," the official explained. In other words, Carter writes today, "Stephen Carter, the white male, was not good enough for the Harvard Law School; Stephen Carter, the black male ... rated agonized telephone calls urging him to attend. And Stephen Carter, color unknown, must have been white: How else could he have achieved what he did in college? ... My academic record was too good for a black Stanford University undergraduate, but not good enough for a white Harvard law student."

Carter opted for Yale, where he is now a tenured member of the law-school faculty. But he still frequently faces well-intentioned racial put-downs like that one from Harvard. Indeed, he has been dealing with expressions of doubt about his intellectual ability, some veiled, others brusque, ever since he first encountered the sobriquet "black and smart" as a faculty brat at Ithaca High School near Cornell University (his father was a professor). This, Carter maintains, is the bitterly ironic legacy of the racial preferences he and other middle-class blacks have received on their way to professional achievement. Trenchant as a legal brief, compelling as the best fiction, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby (286 pages.Basic.$23) is the story of how Carter, for all his success, came to wonder whether he was really a beneficiary of such programs, or their victim. In the autobiographical tradition of Frederick Douglass and Richard Wright, Carter uses his own coming-of-age story to redefine what it means to be black in America-and, hence, what it means to be an American.

Carter's critique of the contemporary civil-rights agenda risks cries of betrayal from many blacks-and cries of vindication from conservative whites. Either response misreads the book. Carter's arguments are far more radical than those which critics of "quotas" such as President Bush seem to have in mind. For Carter, affirmative action is "racial justice on the cheap." Reminding us that black nationalists of the '60s scorned affirmative action as a white plan to co-opt the black elite, he argues that its biggest beneficiaries have been middle-class blacks least needful of help. The poorest blacks are worse off than before. For whites, giving university slots or corporate jobs to a handful of already-advantaged blacks is a bargain--compared to the cost and complexity of addressing the health and education needs of the poor.

The cost of affirmative action to blacks is not limited to the demoralizing "best black" syndrome. Racial preferences are frequently defended on the ground that each racial group has its own "perspective" on a host of issues, so that affirmative action is the only way to bring "diversity" to American institutions. To Carter, "diversity" is actually an Orwellianism which encourages black students to act not as individuals but as representatives of a supposedly unitary black "perspective." Carter argues this leads to the establishment of an ethnic party line, enforced by accusations of racial treason-a charge most recently leveled by many prominent blacks at conservative Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Carter, who served as a law clerk to Justice Thurgood Marshall, appeals to blacks to end the fight over who "deserves" membership in the race, in favor of a solidarity which accommodates dissent: "In an era in which a third of black people still live in poverty, when the inner cities are besieged by drugs and crime ... we cannot afford the luxury of insisting, in the name of solidarity, that any of our problems has a single, unchallengeable answer."

Carter advocates a return to tough standards throughout society, coupled with a vigorous remedial effort for the black poor. The poorest blacks should, he argues, receive substantial help in health and education. But at the top, middle-class black graduates of college or professional school should get no "extra points." A good many blacks will object that excellence is a "white male" norm. But some whites might have as much or more to fear from Carter: his plan would also do away with the "star system" which benefits well-connected whites whose only talent is the ability to schmooze the boss. A utopian proposition, perhaps, but it does remind affirmative action's smugger critics how far America is from a meritocracy. Even with the old-boy network still in place, Carter argues, blacks are better off pursuing excellence without affirmative action: "The corruption of the meritocratic ideal," he writes, "offers professionals who are not white ... the chance to teach the corrupters their own values. .."

Carter's arguments, derived from his own time in academia, apply best to that arena. It is less clear how they fit into more workaday realms, where (as Carter recognizes) old-fashioned racism is probably still more prevalent than the "best black" syndrome. What would Carter think of using quotas to compensate unskilled steelworkers for past hiring discrimination? Or to integrate an all-white police force in a predominantly black city? Much of his case for overhauling affirmative action is based on the pragmatic assertion that blacks must soon adjust to a conservative-dominated world without racial preferences. This is debatable, both because "diversity" is deeply entrenched on campuses and because the Republican Party itself has discovered the political utility of racial preferences: the GOP has helped establish majority-black voting districts under the 1982 Voting Rights Act amendments, driving a wedge between white and black Democratic voters in the name of civil rights. Naming Thomas shielded George Bush from a Bork-style Supreme Court debacle. The right may subtly be investing in some of the worst forms of affirmative action, even as it reaps white votes by denouncing them.

Unlike Douglass, who grew up under slavery, or Wright, who experienced a largely segregated country, Carter became an adult in the post-civil-rights era. New, but no less anguished, issues presented themselves-black-Jewish conflict, the breakdown of the cities. Today, as Carter puts it, "it is hard to hold an honest conversation about affirmative action ... it may be harder still to hold an honest conversation about the reasons why it is hard to hold an honest conversation about affirmative action." He might have said the same about discussing any racial matter in these uneasy, defensive times. Stephen Carter's candor, reason and eloquence show the way for all Americans to talk to each other.