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Roundtable
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Race in America

Round One: Response

CHRISTOPHER EDLEY JR.

Glenn Loury is certainly correct when he says that "affirmative action is not the solution, but neither is it the problem." I would add, however, that affirmative action is one element of the solution. And the campaign to eliminate it without effective replacement policies is symptomatic of America's great malady.

Countless commentators and politicians who have never been soldiers for justice are now puffing out their chests with righteous faux-concern about the unfairness of race-conscious measures. Though their opposition to these measures is framed as principle, certainly their real goal is to protect the current distribution of privilege and opportunity that has produced white-male elites in virtually every sector. The vast majority of civil-rights counterrevolutionaries are actively hostile to public strategies, old or new, that would provide opportunities for the poor. The only approach they do support is using trickle-down tax breaks which, in a budget-balancing world, require offsetting cuts in programs -- and those cuts always fall disproportionately on those with the least political clout. Guess who?
From Post & Riposte:

"It is so sad that Edley cannot imagine (or allow for the possibility of) a principled and unselfish objection to policies of racial preferences, and it is unfortunate that he avoids the larger questions by resorting to good old reliable ad hominem. How depressing that in the dreary landscape of his imagination everyone on the other side of this issue is a white-supremacist hypocrite."
--M. David Martin, 11/14/97


"Every minority group in America has a story of discrimination to tell, and unless we recognize, reflect on, and repair the damage caused by so many injustices we will always be divided. It is our own fault that we have let racism continue to flourish, but I do think that we can reverse it."
--Kenneth Edwards, 11/14/97



What Do You Think?
Join the debate in the Community & Society forum of Post & Riposte. Throughout the coming weeks we'll highlight readers' comments in the margins of the Roundtable, and in Round Two (to be posted November 26) our panelists will respond to selected questions posted in the forum.

Innumerable young journalists and legislative staffers came of age during the long Reagan-Bush civil-rights winter. At the core of their indoctrination were "evil quotas," not "freedom now." They exhibit not the burning impatience for racial justice common in the 1960s but a self-serving conviction that "reverse discrimination" is the compelling civil-rights issue of their generation. Now, as they take control of our politics and civic culture, their moral compasses point fixedly toward their own navels. Dinesh D'Souza is a good candidate to be their poster boy, Abigail Thernstrom their high priestess.

Messages of self-help, cultural pathology, and free markets are seized as excuses from a responsibility to create a more just community. Minority counterrevolutionaries like Clarence Thomas, Ward Connerly, Linda Chavez, Rep. J. C. Watts, and (at times in the past) Glenn Loury have been used by their white colleagues as political and moral "cover" to defend against charges of racism; these conservatives are rewarded with white establishment celebrity and even, at least in Justice Thomas's case, a certain place in history.

The counterrevolutionaries are flatly wrong to peddle partial explanations of inequality and inherited legacies of disadvantage as complete accounts of an America so long divided by color. In the theft of the century the counterrevolutionaries swiped the message and even the language of the true movement. And they are getting away with it, as was shown by the misleading language of California's Proposition 209. More than stealing language, they are stealing history, too. Glenn Loury (the new Glenn?) is properly calling them to task.

Most societies are terrible at dealing with difference, and our future holds only more of it. Ignoring our differences is not the solution for us any more than it was a sensible strategy in Central Africa or Yugoslavia or Northern Ireland. Studies of American discrimination, especially those involving matched-pair testing (in which, for example, an African-American and a white with similar qualifications apply for the same job), tell us that subtle discrimination remains alarmingly prevalent in many sectors. Patterns of residential segregation by color and class are worsening in much of the country.

And ask yourself: When did you last invite someone of another race to dinner in your home? When you decide whom to work with or play with, don't you have a tendency to prefer someone who is like you? In today's America color still gets in the way. Affirmative action is not the cause of that; indeed, it can break our simple human tendency to prefer people like ourselves.

In that sense, affirmative action is a flash point for policy. It is also inseparable from the grander issue of how we will handle the challenges of difference and the inherited legacy of disadvantage. Time won't heal all these wounds by itself. It needs our help.


Roundtable Overview


Introduction and opening questions by Nicholas Lemann

Round One -- posted on November 13, 1997

Round Two -- posted on November 26, 1997

Christopher Edley Jr., a professor of law and the co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, served as special counsel to President Clinton for the White House review of affirmative action and is currently a special advisor to the President for the White House Initiative on Race. He is the author of Not All Black and White: Affirmative Action, Race, and American Values (1996).

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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