« Moral Judgment | Main | Taking Aim at the Trial of the Century »

Breaking Ranks

[Review of Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby by Stephen Carter. Originally appeared in National Review, Oct. 7, 1991].

* * *

"I got into law school because I am black." Stephen Carter isn't just grabbing our attention by opening his first chapter that way; he wants to cut through the pretense. He doesn't see any point in denying that elite American universities and employers admit on a racial curve. He's not impressed by activists who want "simultaneously to insist that racial preferences be preserved and to force the world to pretend that no one benefits from them."

Carter's experience won't let him pretend. He recalls how Harvard first turned down his application because, as one official candidly put it, "we assumed from your record that you were white," then switched to frantic wooing when it discovered "additional information that should have been counted in your favor"--namely, "the color of my skin."

Instead he went to Yale; having graduated from the law school, he became a professor there, and got tenure at a precocious age. Star minority candidates, it seems, are the targets not only of cultlike love-bombing from recruiters but also of bidding wars that can bring them bigger pay packets than similar white scholars may expect. At least at places like Yale, "race continues to add value in the hiring process. The value is often reflected, as values in a market generally are, by a price tag."

That's the upside, or part of it, for the intended beneficiary. Part of the downside is that certain things are expected of your writing and thinking. Carter gets letters addressed "Dear Minority Colleague" presuming that he holds correct positions on various controversies. People seem surprised, if not cheated, to find that his main research interests -- separation of powers, patent and copyright law, and the legal status of religion -- have little to do with race.

Not that he can avoid the subject. At one point a white colleague he hadn't met sent him a draft of a planned article charging that Carter's writings showed a "lack of sensitivity" to minority concerns. On learning that Carter was black, the critic simply dropped the attack from the final draft rather than amplify or defend it. "In his eyes, my blackness evidently provided an immunity from the charge."

It may not provide him with a similar immunity when it comes to the recriminations of his fellow blacks. Already Harvard psychologist Alvin Poussaint has declared that if Carter feels uneasy with racial preferences, as by the evidence of this book he does, he should quit his Yale post so it can be filled by someone with fewer qualms. (The New York Times letters section seems to serve as a sort of bulletin board for resignation calls these days, having also recently run Joyce Carol Oates's curt demand that Joseph Epstein, accused of improper witticisms, step down as editor of The American Scholar.)

The ultimate dread of someone in Carter's position is being labeled a "black conservative," which seems tantamount these days to being drummed out of the race. He has seen it happen: to Glenn Loury (called "treasonous" by Benjamin Hooks); to Shelby Steele ("a basket case," according to Amiri Baraka, who finds even Spike Lee a sellout); to William Lucas (merely "biologically black," in Representative John Conyers's revealing phrase); to Clarence Thomas (pick your own calumny from this morning's paper); and, of course, to Thomas Sowell (worse, Carl Rowan suggested, than Vidkun Quisling). Such dissenters may not have a bright future in tomorrow's academy: Harvard law professor Derrick Bell warns that "the ends of diversity are not served by people who look black and think white."

Precisely because Carter feels a sense of racial solidarity, he writes with feeling on how hurtful such charges can be. Winning the esteem of (some) whites, he says, may be no great consolation for being ostracized by the equivalent of one's own family. Unfortunately, "while there is a magnificent tradition of black intellectual dissent in the U.S., 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."

If it will help spare him such casting out, it may be worth noting that Carter, like Steele, disavows the conservative label, and it's not for the rest of us to pin it on him. True, he has spoken at gatherings of the Federalist Society, and he quotes Clarence Thomas at sympathetic length here. Even more tantalizing, he departs from Left orthodoxy on some important issues in constitutional law. But none of that is really incompatible with the role of open-minded liberal.

When you get right down to it, Carter's views on Topic A will strike many conservatives as unsatisfactory. He favors efforts in Congress to shift burdens of proof onto employers accused of misdeeds. And he seems to think that even if the recruitment and admission stages are stacked, things can be put right -- perhaps already have been -- by insisting that applicants sink or swim once they reach the classroom or workplace. Thus he dismisses as "rather silly" the old chestnut about whether you'd choose to be sawn open by a surgeon who benefited from affirmative action, saying the real question is not whether he deserved to get into med school, but how he did once he got there.

But it's not so silly. Universities face legal pressure to retain as well as admit minorities, which can mean pressure to grade leniently and dispense with other barriers to the granting of the eventual license or diploma. New York's Baruch College, which mostly admits far-from-privileged kids but is tough in its grading, got in trouble for this -- paradoxically being threatened with loss of accreditation for not lowering its standards. Similar retention-and-promotion pressures apply at later stages of training; if med schools are an exception, they're an unusual one.

And is it really an "insult" and "demeaning," as Carter thinks, for hiring committees to draw up separate lists of minority candidates? Or just an entirely predictable response to today's legal demands? In general, for a law professor, Carter has oddly little to say about the role of lawsuits. This is, after all, not mostly a matter of blundering good will. It is a matter of force and confiscation. The affirmative-action system is run by threats to inflict pain and expense, to subpoena records of the tenure meeting and grill the co-workers in harrowing depositions. It has little to do with racial amity. It is litigation.

Even when not convincing, Carter is cautious and wants to be fair to both sides; the corresponding defect is an overdrawing of distinctions, so that his best insights tend to be preceded by a hem and followed by a haw. In his more inhibited moods he can come up with more hedges than the Hampton Court maze, and more on-the-other-hands than the six-armed Shiva. The pace picks up when he moves from abstraction to factual circumstance, as in his personal recollections and some brief but intriguing passages on black intellectual history.

What stands out most brightly, in fact, is Carter's affection for freedom of thought. People overcome racialism when they come to value something else more; in Carter's case that something is everyone's latent power "to use rational faculties to distinguish wisdom from folly." It doesn't take a white or a black mind to explode a fallacy; it takes a mind.

That is why Carter scorns the "diversity" notion that black thinkers can contribute insights that whites could never reach on their own, the claim to "speak, in effect, in a language that others cannot hope to understand." As he points out, this is an assertion that implies its humiliating converse. And it is why he opposes the "temptation to try to make the world shut up" by deploying campus speech codes against unwanted opinion. He considers it "another sign that we are losing the moral high ground, for there was a time when the civil rights movement had no reluctance to debate."

The rest of us should wish him well in his call for "an end to the enforced isolation of dissenting black intellectuals"; there will be plenty of time to thrash out our disagreements after tongues are untied.