Randall Kennedy targets affirmative action in ‘For Discrimination’

Erin Aubry Kaplan (Los Angeles Times) | August 29, 2013

Why is America so intent on killing affirmative action?

Randall Kennedy’s clear-eyed new book, “For Discrimination,” offers many reasons, among them: As a remedy for racial injustice, albeit a modest one, affirmative action invokes slavery and, therefore, rattles the philosophical foundation of democracy and fairness upon which much of America believes the country was built. Another reason is that affirmative action is seen as increasingly incompatible with the aims of the so-called post-racial age in which a first black president would seem to argue against any more need for racial redress.

Yet President Obama himself supports affirmative action, reflecting a deep divide of opinion between black and white — deeper than the one between liberal and conservative — and highlighting a third reason why affirmative action struggles to survive in a meaningful way. Throw in the vacillation of the federal and state courts over the last 30 years on the issue — the last case heard by the Supreme Court, Fisher v. Texas, was thrown back to the lower courts last year — this book begins to look timely indeed.

A Harvard law professor, former Rhodes scholar and onetime clerk to Justice Thurgood Marshall, Kennedy as an author and public intellectual has become known for parsing our thorniest racial issues with a mix of scholarly rigor and moral certitude; only such an approach could have made his most famous work, “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,” a bestseller.

Affirmative action may not seem as sexy a topic as the N-word, but Kennedy shows us how it is every bit as racially explosive, and as unresolved. He goes straight at the issue with fearlessness and a certain cheekiness, telling the story in the beginning of the book about how he became a legal academic in an overwhelmingly white environment.

His story illustrates exactly what affirmative action supporters applaud and its detractors decry: As a very promising young black scholar, he is steered into a plum position at Yale, chosen over whites who are almost certainly more qualified on paper. Later on, he is admitted to exclusive professional associations.

Does he feel diminished because of this? Hardly. Black anxiety about getting “special treatment” is one of many anti-affirmative-action-related myths that Kennedy repeatedly counters. But though the book bristles with conviction, it is not a polemic; Kennedy is too skilled a debater and analyst to resort to that. Yet he intuits that AA, because it references a past Americans are almost desperate to put behind them — even black folks, for different reasons — is not really an academic or even legal issue, but an emotional one.

“There will be those, I suspect, who will put a mental asterisk next to my name upon learning that my race counted as a plus in the process of selecting me for induction into these organizations,” he remarks early in the book. “If they do, then they should also insist upon putting a mental asterisk next to the name of any white person who prevailed in any competition from which racial minorities were excluded.” Touché.

Read more at: http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-randall-kennedy-for-discrimination-20130901,0,1322019.story

Photo credit: Martha Stewart, Pantheon / August 29, 2013

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