FOR DISCRIMINATION. By Randall Kennedy. Pantheon. 304 pages. $25.95.
Reading the dust jacket of “For Discrimination,” one anticipates the encounter and promise of a “clearheaded” yet “provocative defense” of affirmative action. We are offered a series of questions arguably addressed by the text: What precisely is affirmative action, and why is it fiercely championed and fiercely denounced? Does it signify a boon or stigma? When should affirmative action end, if it must?
While I failed to find what I was set up to expect, I discovered that the strength of “For Discrimination” is precisely what I first considered its weakness.
Its strength, and its contribution to the literature, is its complete, full-service account of race-based affirmative action. The text speaks as equally to a reader with little experience or understanding of the subject as it does to someone with a more complex relationship and understanding. Kennedy puts together a remarkable package, in which one is drawn into a historical perspective and conversation of affirmative action as unfair racial preference or discrimination against Whites.
Policy arguments for and against are presented completely and succinctly, as is the legal framework and backdrop behind the most recent Supreme Court case, Fisher v. University of Texas, which at the time of publication had not been decided.
I was hoping to have to reconsider my views on the policy — I am not a fan of affirmative action or its more acceptable twin sister, diversity. This is not because I believe we live in a post-racial America. There is nothing post-racial about America. What there is, however, is a schizophrenic political environment in which half of society dreams in 1965 (or earlier) and the other half dreams in 2013.
My beliefs have nothing to do with whether or not I was a beneficiary. And while I would like to think that I was granted admission to elite schools or offered certain competitive jobs on the basis of merit, it is very possible that the people making the decisions wanted me more for my Latina-ness than for my competencies. I do not know and will never know. But ultimately, I am disposed to a position that does not favor the policy, because, for me, affirmative action reinforces a racial hierarchy, or a racial power structure in which there is privilege in whiteness, property and legacy.
With that, I proceed to consider the three discussions that I found the most compelling about “For Discrimination.”
First, Kennedy exposes reverse discrimination as a historical criticism against affirmative action. He draws the reader into a surprisingly honest historical account, in which we discover that the strongest criticism of affirmative action as reverse racism is nothing new. In fact, it has its origins in arguments against emancipation.
Reading the actual words of opponents of emancipation is certainly provocative: Kennedy writes, “Those who sought to abolish slavery, a Florida slaveholder fumed, were determined ‘to give the “n-----” more privileges than the white man.’ ” And in a footnote, Kennedy further informs us that Sen. John C. Calhoun had similar concerns and “warned that if abolitionists succeeded in emancipating slaves, ‘the next step would be to raise the negroes to a social and political equality with whites; and that being effected, we would soon find the present condition of the two races reversed.’ ”
Reading the words of Calhoun admittedly take on different meaning now that I live and work in Charleston and not New York City. Kennedy then goes on to discuss development in antidiscrimination legislation after emancipation through the 1940s and 1960s and with each phase we are reminded that the perception of these policies has always been the dolling out of “special benefits” to blacks and “racial favoritism.”
Second, Kennedy considers how our culture of meritocracy, and essentially the fallacy of it (fallacy is my term, not his), misguides many critics. The fallacy of meritocracy is precisely what allows individuals with weak records to secure placement in competitive schools and jobs because of family legacies, and to do so without shame, while minorities in the same jobs and schools are dismissed as less qualified beneficiaries of affirmative action, and shamed for it.
It is also what permits citizens like Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff behind Fisher v. Texas to think that she deserved admission to the University of Texas at Austin while blacks and Latinos with higher GPAs and LSAT scores than hers were also denied admission. Meritocracy is what distorts affirmative action as a special and undeserved giving away of goodies to blacks and Latinos rather than a rectification of this country’s historical misallocation of property, resources (i.e. education) and opportunity.
The diversity initiative, Professor Kennedy tells us is “consistent with meritocratic premises,” as “the diversity model offers a nonstigmatizing account of why members of targeted racial groups are preferred: they bring valuable features to the institution’s mission. This is a meritocratic rationale which represents the targets of affirmative action as contributing, deserving agents rather than pitiful subjects of an institution’s beneficence.”
Professor Kennedy presented (for me) those never-heard-before criticisms of diversity, and significant new discussions about it, highlighting (for me) what I find is a consistent flaw: Diversity is always talked about as a contribution that minorities make to an all white institution. Diversity is not talked about in terms of benefits derived by minorities themselves. For example, Kennedy writes, “I have seen firsthand the intellectual deprivation suffered by white law students consigned to racially homogenous classes. In the absence of Black and Latino students, discussions regarding large swaths of law were obviously and painfully impoverished.” He, however, says little about how diversity benefits the black and Latino student, which for me reinforces my position that diversity is largely a policy that has little substantive effect beyond using blacks and Latinos as ornaments.
“For Discrimination” is largely a text that presents in a complete and valuable manner all arguments for and against race-based affirmative action. However, I found that in repeating what everyone else has to say about the topic, the text lost its argumentative role and took on an encyclopedic nature. I also found an apologetic air about the piece, which, in my opinion, is common of liberal politics and writing.
But perhaps my criticisms of the book say something more about me than they do about the text’s efficacy. Race talk, and certainly race-based policy, is complex and rife with emotion and subjectivity. Kennedy has his experience; I have mine; and the readers of this review have their own experience as well.
At the end of the day, any text that stimulates thought and discussion is a successful one.
Reviewer Geiza Vargas-Vargas is assistant professor of law at The Charleston School of Law.
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