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Carter, Stephen L. 1954–

Stephen L. Carter 1954

Law professor, writer

At a Glance

Selected writings


I call usblack professionals of my generationthe affirmative action babies. I know that this term is sometimes used pejoratively, but it is my intention to invert that meaning, to embrace the term, not reject it, stated Stephen L. Carter in the New York Times. Born in 1954, Carter is a member of the generation that came of age during the height of the affirmative action programs of the 1970s, which were set up by the U.S. government to provide minorities with educational and employment opportunities in an attempt to remedy the effects of earlier discriminatory actions and policies.

After graduating from Stanford University in 1976, Carter attended Yale Universitys law school and eventually became a tenured member of Yales law school faculty. Carter decided to attend Yale rather than Harvard University after having his application to Harvard Law School rejectedand then miraculously accepted when officials there realized that Carter was not white.

Describing the incident, Carter wrote in the Wall Street Journal: Stephen Carter, the white male, was not good enough for Harvard Law School; Stephen Carter, the black male, was not only good enough, but rated agonized telephone calls urging him to attend. And Stephen Carter, color unknown, must have been white. How else could he have achieved what he did in college? Except that my college achievements were obviously not sufficiently spectacular to merit acceptance had I been white.... My academic record was too good for a black Stanford University undergraduate, but not good enough for a white Harvard law student.

Carters disillusionment with affirmative action programs may have begun when he was a student at Ithaca High School in upstate New York. His test scores for the National Merit Scholarship competition were the second highest in the school, an impressive accomplishment, especially since most of the students at Ithaca High, including Carter, were the children of Cornell University faculty. Carter received word from the programs sponsors that he had been awarded a National Achievement Scholarship, which was given to (in their words) outstanding Negro students. When he questioned whether accepting this award would preclude his being considered for the more prestigious National Merit Scholarship, Carter was reportedly told: People who get National Achievement Scholarships are never good enough to get National Merit Scholarships.

At a Glance

Born Stephen Lisle Carter in 1954; raised in Ithaca, NY; son of educators. Education: Stanford University, B.A., 1976; Yale University, J.D., 1979.

Admitted to the Bar of Washington, DC, 1981. Law clerk to presiding justice, U.S. Court of Appeals, Washington, DC circuit, 1979-80, and U.S. Supreme Court, 1980-81; Shea & Gardner, Washington, DC, associate, 1981-82; Yale University Law School, New Haven, CT, assistant professor, 1982-84, associate professor, 1984-85, professor of law, 1985.

Addresses: OfficeYale University Law School, Drawer 401A, Yale Station, New Haven, CT 06520.

Linda Chavez, writing in the Wall Street Journal, stated that Carter recognizes that the [affirmative action] policy reinforces the stereotype that blacks and other recipients cannot measure up to the same standards as white males. Chavez believes that in his 1991 book Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, Carter captures the ambivalence affirmative action arouses in its beneficiaries better than any book on this subject so far. Carter elaborates on the issue of best vs. best black by explaining that affirmative action is not merely something manufactured by racists to denigrate the abilities of professionals who are not white. On the contrary, the durable and demeaning stereotype of black people as unable to compete with white ones is reinforced by advocates of certain forms of affirmative action.

In spite of his criticism of affirmative action, Carter does acknowledge that without it he would not have gained admission to Yale. After graduating from Yales law school, Carter applied for teaching positions and found that many colleges and universities were eager to hire a black professor with such impressive credentials. Carter had been a member of the Yale Law Journal, had practiced with a good law firm, and had served as a clerk for renowned Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, who is best remembered for his groundbreaking work on school desegregation.

According to Walter Guzzardi in Fortune magazine, the offers left [Carter] soured because he wanted to be judged on his merits, and was insulted to find himself viewed as the best black. Carter is not alone in his feelings. That lament, stated Gary Lee in Washington Monthly, is shared widely among African-American professionals, and it leads in turn to the ultimate question: Are affirmative action programs really worth it from the beneficiarys point of view, or are minorities better off fending for themselves?

One of Carters main arguments is that affirmative action has helped only middle-class blacks and has left untouched those who truly need help. Carter maintains that our society at large prefers its racial justice cheap. In his Fortune magazine piece, Guzzardi agreed: Affirmative action makes it easier for society to reject a costlier, more sweeping civil rights agendaespecially improving early education and medical carethat would do most to change the lives of poor blacks. Carter calls for those who have made it to focus on how to solve the problems of the millions... of black Americans for who affirmative action and entry to the professions are stunningly irrelevant. As put forth in Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, the author believes that the black professional and intellectual middle class will endure, but that as they struggle through the violent prisons that many inner cities have become, millions of other black people may not.

The ideal situation, in Carters view, would be for affirmative action to be eliminated or for it to be used to help the genuinely disadvantaged gain access to the educational system. Once in the system, blacks must move ahead based on their own merits. What blacks need, Carter says, is a fair and equal chance to show what we can do. After the playing field is leveled, insisting on preferential treatment, according to Carter, is something of an insult to our intellectual capabilities.

Reviewing Carters book in the New York Times Book Review, David Garrow focused on Carters insistence that the era of playing on our history of oppression, the fact of our victimization, to urge or shame or coerce the assistance of the larger white society is surely over. Carter maintains that far too much has been allowed to turn for too long not only on our groupness but on the idea that our problems arent really ours, but someone elses: the governments, white peoples, historys.

In an article for Newsweek, Charles Lane addressed another issue covered in Carters book: Racial preferences are frequently defended on the ground that each racial group has its own perspective on a host of issues, so that affirmative action is the only way to bring diversity to American institutions. Carter rejects the diversity to argument which favors affirmative action because he believes that it forces black people to act as representatives of a unified black perspective rather than acting as individuals. Carter strongly holds to the notion that it is crucial for black solidarity to accommodate dissent. He is quoted in Newsweek as saying: In an era in which a third of black people still live in poverty, when the inner cities are besieged by drugs and crime... we cannot afford the luxury of insisting, in the name of solidarity, that any of our problems has a single, unchallengeable answer.

Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby was published late in 1991 when conservative Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was going through highly publicized Senate confirmation hearings. The hearings were highlighted by allegations that Thomas had sexually harassed law professor Anita Hill when she worked on his staff at the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. The Village Voice stated that a sub-theme of much of the organizational and individual criticism of Thomas by African Americans is that he is a black man who doesnt think black. Thomas was frequently criticized for his conservatism, the implication being that he had betrayed the black race, which historically has been liberal. Carters book calls for black people to make a shared love for our people the center of our belief, and use that shared center as a model for a possibility of a solidarity that does not need to impose a vision of the right ways to be black. In August of 1991 in the New York Times, Carter wrote of the importance of communication: Perhaps, for a golden moment, we can pause in our quarreling and talk to one another, instead of continuing an endless, self-defeating argument over who is the authentic keeper of the flame.

Selected writings

Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, Basic Books, 1991.



Carter, Stephen L., Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, Basic Books, 1991.


American Spectator, December 1991.

Business Week, September 23, 1991.

Chicago Tribune, September 1, 1991; September 8, 1991.

Christian Science Monitor, September 10. 1991.

Commonweal, November 8, 1991.

Ebony, October 1991.

The Economist, November 23, 1991.

Fortune, September 23, 1991.

Los Angeles Times, September 11, 1991.

Nation, November 18, 1991.

National Review, October 7, 1991.

New Republic, September 30, 1991.

Newsweek, July 15, 1991; September 30, 1991.

New Yorker, October 21, 1991.

New York Times, July 22, 1991; August 5, 1991; October 13, 1991.

New York Times Book Review, September 1, 1991.

Village Voice, October 22, 1991.

Wall Street Journal, February 7, 1989; September 13, 1989; September 6, 1991.

Washington Monthly, October 1991.

Washington Post, September 8, 1991; October 13, 1991.

Debra G. Darnell

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