In Reflections of An Affirmative Action Baby, Stephen L. Carter attempts to bridge the gap between mainstream black leaders and so-called black conservatives in the United States. Carter, a law school professor at Yale, draws from his personal experience in order to provide a fresh perspective on affirmative action and related issues. While the autobiographical aspects of Carter’s book make it impossible to ignore his racial identity—he prefers the term “black”—the book’s effectiveness flows from its author’s combination of clear reasoning and quiet passion rather than his color.
For Carter, vocal support for affirmative action has become a shibboleth used to determine who belongs in and who should be cast out of the nation’s black community. Put more bluntly, it has been used by some to determine who is truly “black.” Carter has two problems with this. First, he is not certain that affirmative action has been an effective policy. Even if it has, Carter is convinced that it no longer is needed to promote equality of opportunity. Second, he is concerned with the harsh criticism of dissenters from the affirmative action orthodoxy of mainstream black leaders. He believes that black solidarity is highly desirable, but that it should not be purchased at the cost of individuality and freedom of expression.
Carter states openly that affirmative action aided his admittance into Yale as a law student and that it was also a factor in his being hired as a law professor. He does not apologize for the fact. Affirmative action beneficiaries are not the only Americans who occasionally get a leg up toward success based on some principle other than merit. Carter judges himself not on his entry into law school or his profession, but rather on his performance. His answer to the question, spoken or unspoken, as to whether he got to where he is by means of affirmative action is: “Yes, so what?” The important thing is that his performance measures up to the same expectations to which anyone else would be subject. Carter thinks this is the proper attitude for any affirmative action beneficiary.
Nevertheless, Carter is not entirely happy with his route to success. A self-described “faculty brat” (his father taught at Cornell University), Carter was an excellent student who looked forward to competing for a National Merit Scholarship upon his graduation from high school. After taking the qualifying test, he was offered a lucrative alternative award for promising minority students before he learned his test results. Having been unable to cast away the bird in hand, he expresses dissatisfaction with the fact that his minority-based award kept him from knowing just how far he might have gotten on pure merit. Instead, he moved up the ladder not as the best candidate but rather as the “best black.” Given Carter’s ability, he would certainly have been highly successful even if no affirmative action program had existed. Would he be happier today if he had unambiguously earned his own way to a point one or two notches below Yale Law School? Carter is not sure, but he at least raises the possibility that the policy of racial preference from which he benefited had a substantial cost in terms of self-esteem.
While these possible regrets seem somewhat whimsical, the widespread resentment of affirmative action by white Americans is too great a force to be ignored. For many people, it is an article of faith that, except for athletes and entertainers, anyone who happens to be black and successful must be a beneficiary of affirmative action. While Carter’s general response to this line of thought has already been noted, the very fact that it exists in such abundance erodes successful blacks’ sense of accomplishment and pride. Thus, affirmative action helps to breed a new form of racial prejudice, one that devalues the achievements of black people whether or not they have benefited from the policy.
Still, Carter grants that affirmative action might have made sense when the black middle class was tiny. Whether because of affirmative action or not, this is no longer the case; there is now a sizable, prospering black middle class. Carter argues that middle-class black Americans are in a position to earn their own success without relying on the mixed blessings of affirmative action programs. He believes that they would be best served by an attitude stressing hard work and excellence rather than advocacy of racial preference. Should affirmative action continue to be a recognized policy, Carter believes that it should only be used to the point of getting minority candidates into positions of opportunity. Once on the job, all candidates should be judged by the same standards.
On the other hand, many black Americans have yet to achieve middle-class status. Following well-known sociologist William Julius Wilson, Carter believes in the declining correlation between race and poverty. Black Americans are still disproportionately poor, but what has developed is a dramatic disparity between those black Americans who have made it and those who constitute the “truly disadvantaged,” according to Wilson. The truly disadvantaged are too far behind educationally and culturally to profit from affirmative action. Pretending that affirmative action meets the needs of...
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