Stephen L. Carter

Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby

VTR Date: November 30, 1991

Guest: Carter, Stephen L.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Stephen L. Carter
Title: “Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby”
VTR: 11/30/91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND… and my guest today is the distinguished legal scholar, Stephen L. Carter, Professor of Law at Yale, and most recently the author of Basic Books’ provocatively personal “Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby”.

Now early on I began to hear such positive reports on Professor Carter’s critical evaluation of affirmative action, I still thought it best to hold off on inviting him here to THE OPEN MIND until President Bush’s nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court was or was not confirmed by the Senate…because I thought the televised Senate hearings would, but definition, but the occasion for this nation’s most thorough-going examination of affirmative action, and it seemed best not to detract, in any way, however modest, from that “great debate”.

But the televised hearings never did become such an occasion. Charges and counter chares bout sexual harassment: Yes. Innuendos about mental health: to be sure. Partisan politics as usual: with a vengeance. But very little thoughtful talk about affirmative action, despite Judge Thomas’ controversial earlier comments on the subject…all of which seems to bear out he wisdom of Professor Carter’s plaint that “as the twentieth century spins toward its close it has become something of a commonplace that it is hard to hold an honest conversation about affirmative action”…and I would like to begin our program toady by asking Professor Carter just why this is so.

Carter: It’s not just affirmative action. It’s hard to have an honest conversation about race in America. We live in this peculiar situation, where after all of these hundreds of years of struggle, the nation hasn’t put down its racial burden yet. And if anything, we live in an era today in which racial tensions seem to be rising. As witness the fact that David Duke, even though he lost the Gubernatorial election in Louisiana, won the White vote in Louisiana by what you would ordinarily call a landslide, 55 to 45%. We live in this peculiar situation where our national debate about race is carried on the level of slogans and charges and counter-charges, rather than at the level of concrete analysis and back-and-forth discussion with some sort of understanding and mutual respect.

Heffner: What would happen, though, Professor Carter, if, indeed, there were a real exchange…the kind of intellectual duel that you would truly appreciate? What would we find?

Carter: I don’t know what we would find, but wouldn’t it be fun to find out? Just imagine for a moment the possibility that we could talk about affirmative action, to take just that example, without having to throw the word “quota” around, without having to throw the word “qualification” around, without having to throw the word “racism” around. We could sit here and say, instead, “What are we trying to accomplish? Is this a good way to do it? What is…what are its benefits…what are its weaknesses…how can it be improved…where can we go instead…what else should we be doing…what more…what less?” It seems to me these are questions that we can analyze the same way we analyze any other program. Unfortunately, what happens is, especially today, so many of the gains, the good solid valuable gains of the civil rights movement seem to be under threat that a lot of people I think flinch instinctively from any discussion of affirmative action for fear that this is one more thing that will just be yanked away.

Heffner: Do you know…I want to go into that, but first I…forgive me if I would challenge the notion that there is something peculiar about Americans’ unwillingness to, or inability to enter into a dialogue on serious issues, whatever the issues are…I mean, do you, do you really pick out racial issues, as peculiarly resistant to intellectual exchange?

Carter: No, no you don’t need to challenge me because, of course, we agree on that. There has, unfortunately, long been this strand in American politics, that the simpler, the better. Slogans and code-words in every field work better than detailed arguments. There are all kinds of hot button issues that one could name…flag-burning, abortion, you name it, on which it is very hard to hold debate. I agree with that. Race, of course, is an issue near and dear to my heart, and I’d hope near to the heart of most thinking Americans…we have always had a problem in this country…a problem of deep racial mistrust and hostility. It’s a problem that I would think after all these years we’d need to be moving toward solving. We have made great strides. I’m not one who says that America is still where it was 100 years ago. But the fact that we’ve made a lot of progress doesn’t mean we don’t have a long way to go. We do have a long way to go. And my view is to let…that that progress is retarded if we cannot have open conversations about things if one who questions say, the wisdom of a particular program like affirmative action, is, if White, a racist…if Black, a traitor. Or if one who supports affirmative action is…if Black, looking for a hand-out…or if White, a traitor. These are not, it seems to me, very productive ways of talking about an issue. What we’ve done is we’ve talked about the motives leading people to make arguments…why does this person support this? Why does this person oppose this? Instead of talking about the arguments themselves. And I believe in talking about policies, rather than people.

Heffner: Alright, if we reduce this formula by the function of our…shall we call it anti-intellectualism…or whatever anti-reasonableness…whatever it may be. What do we come down to, when we come down to what you call the, the “racial burden”? You mean that it’s a burden upon all Americans, I’m sure.

Carter: Well, I do think that, yes. In America we have to move toward racial justice in a way that we have been trying to…I give the nation credit for struggling. But there’s a lot of work to be done. Now let’s start with what work needs to be done, and from that we can talk about programs that make sense. It’s often said we’ve moved toward one America…toward two Americas…one White and one Black. It’s also true we’re moving toward two Black Americas…one fairly well-to-do, and one very badly off. My view is that the greatest burdens of racism in America, whether one wants to call it “historical racism’s legacy”, or “the burden of present day racism”, and that burden falls most heavily on the poorest, inner-city and rural poor Black Americans who are suffering and dying because of basic needs and basic services that cannot be fulfilled. Now, it seems to me that a strategy that says what is just answer to the history of racial oppression in America should start with “what are we going to do about these people who are worst off”?

Heffner: Is, is, is that analysis the cause for your…I shouldn’t say “disdain for”…but your concern about, your negative feelings about affirmative action? Because in your book, you keep coming back to this point that affirmative action has, in reality, been an instrument for the “bettering-off” of the well-to-do Black, rather than an instrument for those poorer people that, that other part…that quadrant that you were talking about.

Carter: Well, affirmative action has done a lot of different things and it’s important to talk about what kind of affirmative action one has in mind. In my book, I talk mostly about the kind of affirmative action one encounters in moving upward in the professional world…college and professional school admission…entrance to a profession, and so on. Most of those benefits have, indeed, gone to the Black people who are best situated, if you look at whatever socio-economic measures you’d like to, like to look at. On the other hand, there are forms of affirmative action such as the use of affirmative action programs to break up lily-white trade unions and things like that, that have clearly benefited working class Black people as well. So it depends a lot on what you’re talking about. But there’s one reality we do know, that since the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the increasing move toward affirmative action programs in the late 1960s, the income gap between the top and bottom fifth of Black wage earners ahs increased faster than the income gap between the top and bottom fifth of White wage earners. I don’t want to insist that affirmative action has caused this phenomenon, but what this data does tell us that affirmative action is not solving the problems of those who are nearer the bottom.

Heffner: But is…you say “has not solved this problem”…”has not caused this problem”…”affirmative action has not caused the greater and greater gap between well-to-do and poorly-off Black”. But why do you have this reputation, now, for being so negative about affirmative action?

Carter: You know, I don’t think of myself as negative about affirmative action. I think of myself as realistic about affirmative action. My view about affirmative action is that it can be a useful tool in some circumstances, but it has to be used sensitively and what’s vital is that we de-throne it from its centrality of being the main tool most often debated and most often talked about in the move to racial justice. It can be very useful…has its place, but too often, at a rhetoric on both sides of the issue is structured as though it’s the only important tool, or the most important tool, and those propositions I deny. When you ask why I have this reputation…it goes back to were we started. There is this problem that if one criticizes affirmative action, especially if one is Black, there’s vision one must be against it, one is either against it and wanting to tear it down in every respect, or one is plying into the hands of those who are against it. This notion that affirmative action should be above criticism, that we shouldn’t have realistic conversations about is weaknesses, as well as about is strengths, that notion is part of what I talk about in the book, when I talk about putting people into little boxes. That one can’t hold what one might think of as the intellectual middle-ground, one can’t stand off from affirmative action and say “let me be critical without necessarily being in opposition”. Instead one is forced into one camp or the other, and if one says some critical things about it, people say, “Oh, that’s that anti-affirmative action fellow…Professor Carter”.

Heffner: Yes, but you’ve identified that you recognize that you’re dealing with it intellectually. Isn’t there some obligation that you deal with it…in what you write…that you shrug your shoulders then and say, as I think we must, that’s the way it is in contemporary America…we can’t have that kind of discourse…we can’t have that kind of exchange?

Carter: But I’m not one to accept that. That is, I recognize that there are many problems about which that is the way we end up in America but the problems of race are too important. I‘m not willing to accept the idea that in dealing with people’s views about race, until serious argument and analysis about race, all we need to do is slip people into categories and not deal with what they’re saying. My view is that what matters is the argument, not the person who’s putting the argument forth.

Heffner: Do you think that it’s, it’s functioned as the, as a diversion…the argument over…

Carter: Yeah, I…

Heffner: …race, particularly…

Carter: …no, I think, I think it has in a sense. I think that it’s become so central to rhetoric on many different sides, that it’s been a diversion. So that when I talk, for example, about the problems of the inner-city, the need for improved health care…The need for pre-school programs…I’m talking about programs that we know are cost-effective. I’m not talking about throwing money at things. When I talk about that, people’s attitude is often to say, “Yeah, I know, I know, but let’s talk about affirmative action”. As though these programs are, not so much insignificant, but I would say, insoluble…that these are problems that are so deep, and so intractable that we shouldn’t talk about them, we should talk about affirmative action instead. My view about affirmative action is that it has its strengths and its weaknesses. My fear about affirmative action is when it becomes institutionalized so that rather than a sensitive issue of race as a means of aiding integration of society by spotting people and promoting opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be there, instead it becomes the society’s principal commitment to racial justice. At that point you’re playing the numbers game in a way that can be very dangerous…dangerous principally in my view because it detracts from other issues we need to be focusing on. When the principal issue is “What is the correct percentage of Black employees, or employees of color in a particular corporate work force?”, we’re losing sight of the question about where’s the appropriate number of dollars to spend in the inner-city, much earlier on…so we don’t need to worry about affirmative action programs 15 and 18 and 20 years down the road.

Heffner: So instead of Carter the neo-Conservative headline, we should have”Carter, the economic radical”.

Carter: I don’t know…I don’t know…I don’t like these labels generally. I will tell you that after all these reviews that I was a conservative, then the “National Review” came out with a book review saying that I’m a Liberal. So I don’t know…

Heffner: They knew better.

Carter: (Laughter) Well, I don’t know. These labels don’t really appeal to me much. I would say that I, like many Americans, I have some views that some would say are conservative, some views that some would say are liberal, and some views that are probably hard to characterize.

Heffner: On this issue, you say that you believe that affirmative action will be made by the Bush Administration and the Presidential campaign of 1992 quite central.

Carter: Well, I believed that at the time I wrote the book. The fact that the President decided to sign the Civil Rights Bill of 1991 suggests to me that maybe this isn’t true. My fear when I wrote the book was that the ’92 campaign for the Republicans would feature a lot of quota-bashing, which no matter how much one dislikes quotas, and I dislike them myself, it strikes me that the kind of attack on affirmative action as somehow taking away your jobs, meaning white people’s jobs and giving them to “those” people, which is what Jesse Helms did in his 1990 Senate campaign, that kind of approach plays on people’s resentments by pointing to an outside group to blame…Black people, in a very ugly way. I think our national political leaders have to be above that, they have to be involved in binding up wounds rather than playing upon them for political gain. My fear in the debate over the Civil Rights Bill, whatever I may think of its strengths or weaknesses, my fear that the way the President was attacking it…that a quota bill was a lead-up to the 1992 campaign. That it would be couched exactly in those terms, and that I believe would appeal to the worst, rather than the best of the American character. My hope is that the fact that the President has now signed the bill…whether one thinks it’s a good bill or a bad bill…the fact the President has now signed it means we won’t see that in the campaign…that’s my hope.

Heffner: But we probably will see Willie Horton.

Carter: Well, we might. I, I hope that we…again I hope that we don’t see Willie Horton again. I think that the Republicans are perhaps duly chastised for that. You know my feeling about Willie Horton was that it…never a problem that a, a…it was a separate committee, wasn’t the Bush campaign…but nevertheless that a group of Republicans wanted to have a commercial focusing on crime, and I want to take them at their word that they weren’t thinking about race. But oddly enough here’s a, here’s a place where if they were not thinking about race, they should have been. Because the idea that one could be unaware that there’s a connection in the minds of millions of Americans between race and crime is either ludicrous or terribly depressing. It just seems to me that people who are in positions to put national advertisements on television, for Presidential candidates, ought to be aware of, and I think usually are aware of the racial cues and codes to which they’re playing and ought to avoid them. Again at the level of national politics…at every level. But certainly at the highest level, we ought to be about avoiding, rather than encouraging the rise of racial resentment.

Heffner: Well, you want some Lincolnian figure to bind up the nation’s wounds. Clearly. Do you see that?

Carter: I don’t think that it…we need go back in history and find some giant. It doesn’t take a giant to do this…all it takes is someone who sincerely wants to. You know, the President of the United States can give a televised address in the evening almost anytime he wants to. If this President wanted to sit down and give a serious televised address about race in America, about binding up the wounds, and avoid racial resentment, an treating people as equals, and with mutual respect I think that would be a very helpful thing, and I’m sure he’d get air time to do it.

Heffner: Oh, I’m sure of that. You remember President…you may not remember, but I remember very well, President Kennedy’s June 1963 address to the nation. Later that night Medgar Evers was assassinated, but that first great Civil Rights speech was of enormous importance. What would you like to see happen with this concept that we discussed of affirmative action? How would you like to see it shaped in that national debate?

Carter: You know I’m less concerned about the shape of a particular affirmative action policy than about the mindset with which it’s carried on. It matters to me a lot, both how the producers of affirmative action, the firms and schools and institutions that provide it think about it, and the way that the consumes, people like myself, perhaps might think about it. It’s very important that affirmative action not be done in a patronizing way, “Oh, we need one of those Black people. Let’s go out and get one. That kind of idea…people say that doesn’t happen. But it does happen.

Heffner: You say in your book, time and again, you don’t want to be the best Black.

Carter: It’s not that there’s anything wrong with being Black and being good. I’d like to think that I’m both of those things. But, but I think that the problem is being…is that in the minds of many people, and this was true long before affirmative action, of course, but in the minds of many people there’s this dichotomy between the people who are the best at what they do, and the Black people who are the best at what they do. I think one of he hopes, or bright promises of affirmative action was that by breaking down barriers and providing role models…would help to overcome that kind of dichotomy. I think affirmative action probably hasn’t done that…and in some circumstances, I’m afraid, it’s even reinforced it…I think trying to avoid that reinforcement, trying to avoid the sense of a double standard is tremendously important. I prefer to think of affirmative action as a way, again, if you model them on college admissions…think about spotting people out there who ought to be given a shot if they look as though they could probably do the j ob of taking advantage of the schools’ resources. Not hit an ideal number of such people and not to try to let in people one thinks are going to fail. But simply as a way of helping the move toward integration by giving people opportunity, only that, to show what they can do.

Heffner: And after that? You say “only that”, but I ask after that.

Carter: Well, because…well, because in college and professional school, I think people have to be treated the same as everyone else. I don’t think the idea of any kind of special treatment in school is a good idea at all. The interesting question is what happens afterwards. My suggestion in my book is that we try to think in the professional world, at least, of a kind of pyramid…that as one advances up the ladder of professional success, it strikes me that the benefits, and there are benefits…that affirmative action grants, ought to fall away. The people who are beneficiaries of affirmative action ought to demand that. That is, even if one might have the benefit of affirmative action in college admission and maybe say law school and medical school admission, and possibly even, who knows to get this…that critical entry level job…the idea that this system is going to stay and stay, as one talks about being promoted through the ranks and rising to the top of a field, it would strike me that for most professionals this would …this is not an attractive idea. When I talk to people who are professionals, even the strong supporters of affirmative action, by and large, if they’re, say, partners in law firms, their attitude is…”I’m a partner because I’m good…because I’m as good as, or better than…or even twice as good as all these other people…not because I got a break of, of some kind”. And having said that I should add that the other response I sometimes get is people tell me “Well, people won’t be fair…the law firms won’t be fair in making partners…the investment banks won’t be fair in making Vice Presidents…hospitals won’t be fair”, and so on. I mean there’s a great sense that many people of color have that White people won’t be fair in evaluating their qualifications, and that’s why you need affirmative action programs even at the level of promotion.

Heffner: Now, how do you evaluate that notion?

Carter: Well, I can’t evaluate it, really. My sense of White people that I know, I’m not one who goes around saying, “Gee, White people will never be fair”. I know a lot of White people who, I think, are pretty fair-minded about these things. I’m not going to universalize my experience and claim that no one’s experience is different…but I think that what we have to worry about, in order to avoid, is the presumption that White people will always be unfair…that we need the programs incase they’re unfair. At that point, I think we’re going a little too far. It’s not because White people in American history have never given us any evidence of unfairness…on the contrary, that’s been most of the interaction between White people and Black people in America. But it’s rather because if we’re going to rise, ultimately, in the professions and in other fields at some level we have to be willing to demand, to say “We want to be treated like everybody else”.

Heffner: If you have to make a bet, are you going to bet “yes” the Black community will give up the notion to the extent that it holds onto it now, and that White means unfairness towards Black?

Carter: Well, at some point in our future will that happen?

Heffner: Yeah, I’m willing to go all the way out.

Carter: Sure. There will come a point, I’m sure, when that’s true, although I worry, and it does seem to me that when you day “give up that notion”, I don’t want to suggest that somehow it is simply the responsibility of Black people to shrug this off. I, I think that White people have important responsibilities…White people want Black people to say, “We trust you to be fair”. I think it’s very important for White people to take attitudes and take actions, avoid the Willie Hortons, avoid quota-bashing…take actions that will help Black people to trust that yes, White people will be fair.

Heffner: And your sense of what has happened…You talked about the racial burden when we began. I gather you see that as having been lightened.

Carter: Well…

Heffner: In your lifetime.

Carter: …in some sense that’s true, although I think in recent years, unfortunately, racial tensions have been on the rise again. In a survey that bears this out…you can look at the surveys, for example, of the attitudes of White Americans about Black Americans, an you find that…take, take one item…the White Americans who doubt…who, who believe that Black people are, on the average, intellectually inferior to White people. Those numbers are starting to rise in recent years, after dipping consistently in the Times survey…the 50s, 60s, 70s and into the early 80s.

Heffner: How do you account for that? That it’s not so tough to say it…that it’s not saying the unsayable…

Carter: Well…I worry…

Heffner: …thinking the unthinkable?

Carter: …unfortunately, I do think that, that there’s a lot of racial animus that people are suddenly finding easier to express, although it’s often channeled into things other than “I hate Black people”, or “I would never hire a Black person”. Instead it’s “I think Black people aren’t smart”, or “aren’t qualified” and things like that. I think one of the things that affirmative action does… affirmative action sometimes provides an excuse to express that view, so instead of saying “I hate Black people”, or “I think Black people aren’t smart”, someone will say, “Well, affirmative action is the reason these Black people got their jobs, therefore they’re not qualified”. That’s not a reason to get rid of affirmative action but I do think that people have to recognize that when people talk about affirmative action heightening racial tensions, I don’t think it’s heightened racial tensions…I do think it’s provided excuses for some White people to express what I would consider racist attitudes.

Heffner: But you’re not talking now about eliminating the excuses?

Carter: No, that’s right…I’m not. My view, here again, is that it’s vitally important for our national political leaders to set the tone. And I think things like the Willy Horton commercials and things like quota-bashing set the wrong tone. This has nothing to do with the intent of those things…I would not at all claim that George Bush is some sort of racist…I don’t think that’s true. I think George Bush is in many ways, clearly a decent human being…but I think he’s been badly advised very often on issues of race, and I think that the rhetoric that he and some of his strongest supporters have chosen to talk about Civil Rights issues has been the kind of rhetoric that whether calculated or not, would have the effect of scaring Black people away from the Republican Party and the Conservative Movement and also would have the effect, unfortunately , of encouraging some of the forces on the Far Right of the Conservative Movement, who I do believe at that level…the Far Right are actively hostile to Black people.

Heffner: Does your…is your recognition that the percentages have gone up of Whites who feel less constrained in expressing animus towards Blacks? Is that understanding shared sufficiently do you believe?

Carter: I don’t know. I think that oddly enough race is not big news any more except when something like the Clarence Tomas hearings comes up. There was a time, you know, 25 years ago, if you asked Americans to list the biggest problems in America…race was right up there at the top. Now its finished 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, behind a lot of other things that are equally insolvable in peoples’…like the environment and other…and other problems. I think that nowadays data and serious scholarly work about race in America doesn’t get the kind of press attention it got say back in the late 60s and in the early 70s. I think a lot of people believe that they don’t think about race as much. The reason, the reasons that I believe that is I’m one who thinks that people think about race more than they say they do, but I think that, that it has sort of vanished from national politics except when there’s a hot-button issue like a quota or something like that, that one can talk about. But as an issue, race as a problem, or racism as a problem is something that we don’t talk about any more.

Heffner: Well, one way to deal with that is have everyone read “Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby”, very interesting book, and thank you for joining me today, Professor Carter. Obviously there are so many things to examine here that I hope you’ll come back again.

Carter: Please invite me.

Heffner: Okay, I shall.

Carter: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, about our guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.