Pamela Paul

This 1991 Book Was Stunningly Prescient About Affirmative Action

A photograph of a graduate in cap and gown in silhouette.
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Opinion Columnist

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

“I live in a box,” he wrote, one bearing all kinds of labels, including “Careful: Discuss Civil Rights Law or Law and Race Only” and “Warning! Affirmative Action Baby! Do Not Assume That This Individual Is Qualified!”

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

Weaving personal narrative with a broader 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 it took (“a decidedly mixed blessing”) as well as affirmative action’s sometimes troubling effects on Black people as the programs evolved.

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

In anticipation of what many expect will be 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 first got me thinking seriously about the subject. What immediately struck me on rereading it was how prescient Carter was about these debates 32 years ago. What role affirmative action should take was playing out then in ways that continue to reverberate.

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

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

The diversity argument holds that people of different races benefit from one another’s presence, which sounds desirable on its face. But the implication of recruiting for diversity, Carter explained, had less to do with admitting Black students to redress past discrimination and more to do with supporting and reinforcing essentialist notions about Black people.

An early critic of groupthink, Carter warned against “the idea that Black people who gain positions of authority or influence are vested a special responsibility to articulate the presumed views of other people who are Black — in effect, to think and act and speak in a particular way, the Black way — and that there is something peculiar about Black people who insist on doing anything else.”

In the past, such ideas might have been seen as “frankly racist,” Carter noted. “Now, however, they are almost a gospel for people who want to show their commitment to equality.” This belies the reality that Black people, he said, “fairly sparkle with diversity of outlook.”

Given statements like this, it’s hard to imagine Carter welcoming the current vogue for white allyship, with its reductive assumption that all Black people have the same interests and values. He disparaged what he called “the peculiar relationship between Black intellectuals and the white ones who seem loath to criticize us for fear of being branded racists — which is itself a mark of racism of a sort.”

At the same time, Carter bristled at the judgment of many of his Black peers, describing several situations in which he found himself accused of being “inauthentically” Black, as if people of a particular race were a monolith and that those who deviated from it were somehow shirking their duty. He said he didn’t want to be limited in what he was allowed to say by “an old and vicious form of silencing.”

In an interview with The Times in 1991, Carter emphasized this point: “No weight is added to a position because somebody is Black. One has to evaluate an argument on its own merits, not on the race of the person making it.”

Carter took issue with the belief, now practically gospel in academic, cultural and media circles, that heightened race consciousness would be central to overcoming racism. However well intentioned you may be, when you reduce people to their race-based identity rather than view them as individuals in their full, complex humanity, you risk making sweeping assumptions about who they are. This used to be called stereotyping or racism. As Carter noted, “There has always been something unsettling about the advocacy of a continuation of racial consciousness in the name of eradicating it.”

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

Though a consistent majority of Americans today oppose racial preferences in college admissions — including majorities of Black and Hispanic people, as well as Democrats — defenders of affirmative action too often dismiss those beneficiaries of affirmative action who publicly express reservations about the policy. These defenders often make knee-jerk assumptions about the political agendas of liberal Black writers like Thomas Chatterton Williams and my colleague at The Times John McWhorter, falsely casting them as conservatives or traitors to their race.

Some people jumped to the same conclusions about Carter back in 1991. But he rejected all efforts to label him, insisting that intellectuals should be “politically unpredictable.” As Washington Monthly noted: “Critics who attempt to push (or pull) Carter into the ranks of the Black right wing will be making a mistake. He is not a conservative, neo- or otherwise. He is an honest Black scholar — the product of the pre-politically correct era — who abhors the stifling of debate by either wing or by people of any hue.”

This strikes me as the greatest difference between reading the book today and reading it as an undergrad at a liberal Ivy League college: the attitude toward debating controversial views. “Reflections” offers a vigorous and unflinching examination of ideas, something academia, media and the arts still prized in 1991. Carter’s arguments were considered worthy of discussion, however misguided his critics took them to be. And Carter was prepared and willing to defend them.

Today, a kind of magical thinking has seized ideologues on both the left and the right, who seem to believe that stifling debate on difficult questions will make them go away. But if affirmative action itself goes away, America — which Carter deemed “a society that prefers its racial justice cheap” — will no longer be able to avoid grappling with the real and persistent inequalities that necessitated it in the first place.

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Pamela Paul became an Opinion columnist for The Times in 2022. She was the editor of The New York Times Book Review for nine years and is the author of eight books, including “100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet.”

A version of this article appears in print on  , Section A, Page 22 of the New York edition with the headline: A 1991 Book Was Stunningly Prescient About Affirmative Action. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe