The ivory tower seems to restrict Stephen L. Carter's view of affirmative action

September 22, 1991|By Garland L. Thompson

REFLECTIONS OF AN

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION BABY.

Stephen L. Carter.

Basic Books.

286 pages. $23. Stephen L. Carter has written an eloquent defense of the right to dissent and still remain a card-carrying member of the black community, but after reading, the question yawns: So what?

Mr. Carter, son of a lawyer and Cornell University faculty member, calls himself an "affirmative action baby" but doesn't seem so from here. Rather, his story describes a child of privilege for whom nearly all of the civil rights fight provided tangential excitement and glancing effect. There is nothing wrong with that; as he says, not everyone has the same experience.

What is surprising is that Mr. Carter misses so much of what his erstwhile radical law school friend tried to say. American blacks are surely not all the same, but the "systemic racism" his friend described irrevocably has cast all blacks into the same boat. Mr. Carter, a tenured professor at Yale Law School, has traveled mostly in staterooms, where the ride is different from that in steerage. He forgets that everyone aboard gets to the end point in company, if not in agreement.

But Mr. Carter has managed to set his face against the main

direction. Instead of adding clarity to a civil rights debate already roiled by the assertions of a national polity openly hostile to large black advances, Mr. Carter has added murk.

Consider his extensive declamation over the "correct" way to be black. That notion excited white commentators across the country, but they ought to know it isn't new. In his second chapter, Mr. Carter cited many incidents he felt showed that black and white liberals were trying to force a particular "viewpoint" -- his italics -- on blacks seeking prominent roles. The incidents he cited certainly did happen, but one has to wonder why he couldn't see that what was being urged was a sensitivity, not a particular viewpoint.

It is neither a recent nor an exclusively "liberal" phenomenon that whites demand that black high achievers be representatives of their race as well as exemplars. Nor is it exclusively a response of blacks considered "liberal" to demand that, so long as whites keep restricting access to the circles of power and influence, the blacks who do make it inside speak out for that underrepresented majority left back "where they came from." Sensitivity and the willingness to champion the cause of less-favored blacks, in that light, would appear to be minimal dues to expect, despite Mr. Carter's anguish as he observes from his ivory tower.

But perhaps it is the ivory tower itself that restricts Mr. Carter's view. Loftiness of perspective has put blinders on many other observers, black as well as white. Mr. Carter might lose some doubts about the efficacy of affirmative action for poorer blacks if he would step down from the rarified atmosphere of academia and get his hands dirty representing people in legal controversies such as the Operating Engineers Local dispute decided by U.S. District Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, now on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, during the late 1970s.

The Operating Engineers case revealed a clear pattern of discrimination: blockage of access to apprenticeships and union membership, physical harassment and intimidation of black and Hispanic applicants. The resulting low minority craft-union participation at Philadelphia-area construction sites hurt lower-class blacks and Hispanics, not the middle class. The remedies Judge Higginbotham fashioned, after brilliantly rebuffing a union petition to recuse himself, helped members of "the masses" get better jobs.

The landmark EEOC v. AT&T consent decree, entered in the Third Circuit, won new jobs, back pay and continuing career help for 36,000 blacks and women back in 1973, when Mr. Carter was in college and I, one of the instigators (I was a telephone switchman), was changing careers. Stanford undergrads like himself may not have thought it significant, but the blacks freed from lifetime assignment to low-level janatorial jobs spoke warmly of the new opportunities. That moved many into the middle class, and what of it? That alone will not support the oft-repeated claim that such decrees "helped" only the middle class.

And so it goes with other passages. In the book's beginning, Mr. Carter makes much of his uneasy response to whites' questions about the competence of black beneficiaries of affirmative action. He supposes those who react angrily do so out of a deep-seated self-doubt, and there may be many out there who suffer so.

What he overlooks, however, is that there is also room for genuine outrage at having one's clearly demonstrated competence denied by questioners themselves full of doubts over their vaunted superiority, confronted by properly credentialed black competitors. His assumptions here are as baseless as the "liberal" biases he decries.

And so it goes. Rave notices from some quarters have promised vastly more than Mr. Carter delivers. His questions could spark a pretty good coffee-table debate, but he posits no proposals that move out on their own merits.

The final verdict here, despite the pleasure with which affirmative action's opponents have greeted this work, is disappointment. Instead of a crusader, boring in with the intellectual firepower to be expected, Mr. Carter seems more a lone Sancho Panza, tilting at windmills without Don Quixote in the lead, no Cervantes behind him to organize the odyssey. Too bad.

Mr. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.

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