opinion | Reflections on ‘A Positive Action Child’

Author: Yuvi May 25, 2023  opinion |  Reflections on 'A Positive Action Child'

In 1991, Stephen L. Carter, a professor at Yale Law School, began his book “Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby” with a disheartening anecdote. A fellow professor criticized one of Carter’s papers because it “demonstrated a lack of sensitivity to the experience of black people in America.” When the professor, who was white, learned that Carter was black, he retracted the comment rather than defend his claim. It was a reminder to Carter that many people, especially among his fellow establishment, had certain expectations of him as a black man.

“I live in a box,” he wrote, which has all kinds of labels, including “Caution: Discuss Civil Rights Laws or Laws and Race” and “Warning! Affirmative Action Baby! Do not assume this person is qualified.” !”

This was a book that refused to dance around its subject matter.

Weaving personal narratives with a comprehensive discussion of affirmative action’s successes and limitations, “Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby” offered a nuanced assessment. A graduate of Stanford and Yale Law, Carter was a proud beneficiary of affirmative action. Yet he acknowledged the personal toll (“a decidedly mixed blessing”) as well as the sometimes troubling effects of affirmative action on black people as the programs evolved over time.

I first read “Reflections” for a class on urban politics at Brown University shortly after it arrived, and shortly after Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court to fill the seat formerly held by Thurgood Marshall. for which Carter served as a clerk. , The fact that Thomas was nominated because he was black and because he opposed affirmative action became a conundrum for many supporters of racial preferences. Was being black enough? Or do you have to be the “right kind” of black person? It’s a question Carter wrestles with openly in his book.

In anticipation of the end of affirmative action when the Supreme Court issues decisions in two cases about college admissions during the current term, I thought I’d return to the book that got me thinking seriously about the subject. Compelled to. I was immediately struck upon re-reading how prophetic Carter was about these debates 32 years ago. What role affirmative action should play is then being played in ways that continue to resonate.

The end of affirmative action was, in Carter’s view, both necessary and inevitable. Quoting activist and academic Robert Allen, he wrote, “We must reject the common claim that the end of preferences ‘would be a catastrophic situation, amounting to a virtual repeal of the 1954 desegregation ruling. “The prospect of its end should be a challenge and an opportunity.”

For Carter, affirmative action was a necessary stopgap measure to address historical discrimination. Like many people today – both proponents and opponents of affirmative action – he expressed reservations about relying on diversity as a constitutional basis for racial preferences.

The diversity argument holds that people of different races benefit from each other’s presence, which seems desirable on the face of it. But the recruiting implications for diversity, Carter explained, had less to do with admitting black students to overcome past discrimination and more to do with supporting and reinforcing essential assumptions about black people.

An early critic of groupthink, Carter “warned against the idea that black people who attain positions of authority or influence are vested with a special responsibility to clarify other people’s projected views—in fact, particular way to think and act and speak, the black way — and that there is something strange about black people who insist on doing something else.

In the past, such views could be seen as “blatantly racist”, Carter said. “Now, however, they are almost a gospel for those who want to show their commitment to equality.” It belies the reality that black people, he said, “quite shine with a diversity of viewpoints.”

Given statements like these, it is hard to imagine that Carter would welcome the current vogue for white “allies”, with its reductionist assumption that all black people share the same interests and values. He described the “peculiar relationship between black intellectuals and white people who are loath to criticize us for fear of being branded racist—which in itself embodies a kind of racism.”

At the same time, Carter described a number of situations at the judgment of many of his Black peers, accusing himself of being “unofficially” Black, as if people of a particular race were a monolith and those who strayed from it Somehow he was running away from his duty. He said that he did not want to be limited in what he was allowed to say by “an old and vicious form of silencing”.

In a 1991 interview with The Times, Carter emphasized this point: “No weight is added to a position because someone is black. An argument must be evaluated on its merits, not those who make it.” on the basis of caste.

Carter took issue with the belief, now practically gospel in academic, cultural and media circles, that increased race consciousness would be central to overcoming racism. Although well-intentioned, when you reduce people to their race-based identities instead of seeing them as individuals in their full, complex humanity, you run the risk of making sweeping assumptions about them. This was called stereotyping or racism. As Carter put it, “There has always been something unsettling about advocating the continuation of racial consciousness in the name of abolition.”

Carter’s arguments were controversial at the time, but the book nonetheless received widespread acclaim. In a cover review in The New York Times Book Review, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the civil rights movement David J. Garrow called “Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby” “powerfully written and inspiring”. The Los Angeles Times said it was “an essential lesson in the public debate over racial preferences.” The New Yorker called Carter “clever, subtle and funny”.

Although an enduring majority of Americans today oppose racial preferences in college admissions—including black and Hispanic people as well as a majority of Democrats—defenders of affirmative action also often dismiss those beneficiaries of affirmative action who are critical of the policy. I express reservations publicly. These defenders often make knee-jerk assumptions about the political agenda of liberal black writers like Thomas Chatterton Williams and my colleague at The Times John McWhorter, falsely characterizing them as conservatives or “traitors” to their race.

Some reached similar conclusions about Carter in 1991. But he rejected all attempts to label him, insisting that intellectuals should be “politically unpredictable”. As The Washington Monthly noted: “Critics who attempt to push (or pull) Carter into the ranks of the black right wing would be mistaken. He is not conservative, neo- or otherwise. He is a conscientious black scholar. There are — products of the pre-politically correct era — who resist the suffocation of debate by people of any wing or any color.

It strikes me as the biggest difference between reading the book today and reading it as an undergrad at a liberal Ivy League college: the attitude to debating controversial ideas. “Reflections” offers a vigorous and fearless examination of ideas, something academia, the media and the arts still prized in 1991. Carter’s arguments were considered worthy of discussion, although his critics found them misguided. And Carter was ready and willing to defend them.

Today, a kind of magical thinking has gripped both left and right ideologies, which seem to believe that stifled debate on difficult questions will overcome them. But if affirmative action itself goes away, America – which Carter deemed “a society that likes its racial justice cheap” – will no longer be able to avoid grappling with the real and persistent inequalities that plagued it in the past. It was necessary on the spot.

Author: Yuvi

My name is Yuvi, I work as Sub Editor at newscinema.in

25 May, 2023, 9:40 pm

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