REFLECTIONS OF AN AFFIRMATIVE ACTION BABY. By Stephen L. Carter. Basic Books. 296 pages. $23. TO BE white and conservative is to be part of the American mainstream," writes Stephen L. Carter, a black Yale Law School professor. He adds, "To be black and conservative is to be part of the lunatic fringe." The author, who insists his political beliefs are far too diverse to label (as some have) "neoconservative," is clearly not happy with this situation.
If not a conservative, neo or otherwise, Carter is clearly an accomplished intellectual (whose prose is mercifully free of jargon and eminently readable) and a self-confessed "affirmative action baby." He got into Yale Law School because he is black, but he has also clearly made the most of the opportunity. A widely published constitutional law scholar and a frequent guest on television news and public affairs programs, he is the embodiment of what racial preferences are supposed to accomplish.
Carter, however, argues that affirmative action has been a mixed blessing and that adamantly defending it in the face of growing ** political opposition may not be in the best interests of blacks.
"Our economic condition improved steadily in the decades before the institution of affirmative action, and I have far too much faith in our competitive capacity to anticipate some apocalypse when, inevitably, the programs are cut back."
If racial preferences are eliminated, then what? Carter explains that preferences have always been "stunningly irrelevant" to "millions of struggling black Americans." In fact, he insists that the main beneficiaries of such programs have been middle-class blacks such as himself. The son of a Cornell professor, Carter was a "fac-brat" with good grades and good test scores -- a person who would have succeeded even if Yale had not made a place for him.
The author believes that the answer to the advancement of blacks caught in the cycle of inner-city poverty is, in part, spending more of the taxpayers' money to improve schools and preschool programs as well as medical services in poor neighborhoods. "Racial justice isn't cheap," writes Carter, who clearly knows how to make conservatives wince.
On the other hand, the author invokes the proverb of self-help, pointing out that "It is likely that [white people] will not help us as much as we might think just." He is concerned about surveys indicating that a substantial number of black teens view studying, going to class and trying to achieve as "white" behavior. "If verbal attacks on achieving students turn out to be common, we face a problem that no remedial government program will be able to solve."
Besides intellectually tweaking both the right and the left, blacks as well as whites, Carter spends much of the book pointing out an inevitable side-effect of preferences -- that the resumes of black professionals of his generation will always bear an invisible asterisk: They didn't quite make it on their own. They aren't the best. They are merely the "best blacks." It is a limiting label which the author understandably detests intensely.
Carter's book undoubtedly will inspire serious debate as well as hate mail from both white and black extremists. If not a conservative himself, the author strongly believes that blacks should not be relegated to one end of the political spectrum. In essence, he insists: We all don't think alike, nor should we. To some, this is a controversial notion.
In many ways, the position of black professionals like Carter is not enviable -- or at least not remotely comparable to that of their white colleagues: "Some whites think I've made it because I'm black. Some blacks think I've made it only because I'm an Uncle Tom. The fact is, I've made it because I'm good."
David Holahan writes from East Haddam, Conn.