Tuesday, October 21, 1997

Clayborne Carson, director, Martin Luther King Papers Project, Stanford University, and Stephan Thernstrom, co-author, America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible, sharply disagree on affirmative action and offer radically differing views on one of the most divisive issues in American society.

Recorded on Tuesday, October 21, 1997

ROBINSON Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, no, not the secret of the perfect putt, affirmative action. With us, two guests. Clay Carson is a Professor of History at Stanford University and Stephen Thernstrom is a Professor of History at Harvard. Now, there is a reason why I am holding a golfclub. Golf epitomizes fair play and one feature of golf is the handicap. If you're a so-so weekend golfer, you might have a handicap of fifteen. That means that when you play a par golfer, you start out with a fifteen stroke advantage. Your handicap helps to make the game more even between the two of you. The handicap, a way of compensating for disadvantages is the very idea underlying affirmative action. Black Americans and others receive preferential treatment- in the case of blacks to compensate for decades of slavery and still more of discrimination. It's a simple matter of fair play. Or is it? Consider just these few differences. We're not talking about a game, we're talking about life. College admissions, the job market, the awarding of contracts. We're not talking about an arrangement voluntarily entered into, but one enacted and enforced by government. And we're not talking about preferential treatment based on athletic ability, but upon gender and skin color. Make just those few changes and, as you'll see, the discussion of just what is and isn't fair play becomes- involved.

ROBINSON Clay, let me begin by asking a fundamental question. Is Affirmative Action fair? Axiom: it is wrong to discriminate against people based on the color of their skin. Fact: Affirmative Action does just that preferring certain people over certain other people based on the color of their skin. Now how do you justify that?

CARSON Well I think that first of all you have to put Affirmative Action in some kind of a context, that it didn't just come out of a vacuum. It came out of a policy discussion in the late 1960's about what do we do to carry on the gains of the civil rights struggle. And I think that if you think about what options were also available at that time there might have been say a massive program to improve public education, there might have been a continuation of the war on poverty, you know, there's a lot of other possibilities. But the country was moving in a very conservative direction, so when I look at Affirmative Action I look upon it as what the country in that context was willing to do and Affirmative Action programs were basically set up by the major institutions of American society as the best response that they were willing to give at that time.

ROBINSON Okay, so there's no moral problem for you. It wasn't a question of justice and the, it may sound trite but it's a fundamental tenet of western civilization: two wrongs don't make a right. So even if the motive is to correct for past injustice, the action is to discriminate against others. That's not a problem because the past injustice is so overwhelming, or?

CARSON Does the GI Bill of Rights discriminate against non-GI's? I mean, many government programs discriminate in favor of one particular group and against another particular group. I think that what we have to ask the question is how do Affirmative Action programs fit within the context of what a nation is willing to do to make up for a legacy of discrimination in the past.

ROBINSON Steve, I want to pursue that in a moment, but I just wanted to check in with you on this question of justice or fairness. Is there any problem in your mind about Affirmative Action as a matter of fairness?

THERNSTROM Yes, there is a huge problem only I think when we go back to the late 60's the whole issue was it fair is very difficult and I can see arguments both ways. If Affirmative Action were understood as a temporary measure to jump start a process of social change that seemed to be working too slowly. I think there are real questions as to whether it achieved that but I can see, you know, they're really very difficult, competing goods here. I think now, you know, close to three decades later it's very difficult to justify that unfairness anymore unless you are prepared to say I reject the notion that we can have a society and which each person is judged solely as an individual regardless of race, religion, gender, anything else. I believe that our society is such that you have to guarantee the distribution of certain rewards, you know, so many to women, so many to Blacks, so many to Hispanics.

ROBINSON And you accept that simply as a fact of political life in America in 1997, that there is going to be a certain amount of group rights, you might say?

THERNSTROM No, I don't accept that.

ROBINSON Oh, you don't? You're characterizing the other argument.

THERNSTROM I'm saying that unless you argue that, and I reject that, it seems to me the unfairness of Affirmative Action is very striking and I indeed would argue that it's unfair, not only to those who supposedly suffer from it who lose the place at the University of California or whatever, I think it's unfair to the beneficiaries particularly in the realm of higher education where it involves putting less well-prepared students into highly competitive institutions they are not able to do well at, end up dropping out of, end up failing the bar exam, end up failing the medical boards. So it's ineffective, but we'll come to that.

ROBINSON America's black middle class is growing. Now, is that because of Affirmative Action or in spite of it?

ROBINSON In this book, Steven, America in Black and White, you spend a certain amount of time marshaling the historical evidence in effect before and after. Black progress before Affirmative Action, Black progress such as it has been after Affirmative Action. Give us the before picture.: 1940 to 1970 I think is the time frame you used.

THERNSTROM Right. Well one of the things that somewhat surprised us in doing research and pulling the evidence together was that the pace of Black progress was so extraordinary in the 40's, 50's and 60's. We soon came to realize that the conventionally accepted argument that if we end Affirmative Action now it will be disaster, it will be you know a shrinking of the Black middle class, disappearance from the university and so on, is very suspicious because in fact Blacks were making such enormous progress before Affirmative Action was even dreamed of.

ROBINSON Give us a couple of examples of that progress.

THERNSTROM In 1940 only 12 percent of Blacks were high school graduates versus 41 percent of whites so there's a huge gap there. Today both Blacks and white have identical high school graduation rates of 87 percent. In 1970 the differential was perhaps 10 points so that this doesn't suffice to show Affirmative Action failed. Affirmative Action accomplished nothing. We do show that by most measures the rate of progress since 1970 has been distinctly slower. Now one does certainly have to recognize that the rate of economic growth has been slower. There are other factors that can be involved here but I would say the minimum the argument you can't have progress without it doesn't pass the test of historical analysis.

ROBINSON So let me sum up this picture. From 1940 to 1970 roughly by a number of indices, there is very rapid Black progress and at the same time declining white racism.


ROBINSON Then we come to the watershed, the late 60's, the 70's. We have the Civil Rights Movements, the Civil Rights Acts being enacted into law, and we have Affirmative Action beginning and from that watershed forward we see what? Black progress tails off. There continues to be progress but at a much slower rate. Here's what to me seems at the nub of the argument against Affirmative Action. Maybe it's not the nub of an argument against anything. At a minimum, it's a historical conundrum. Progress, progress, progress. Affirmative Action is enacted: progress tails off. Isn't that an argument on the face of that Affirmative Action hasn't worked?

CARSON Well, again, I think you have to look at an overall context. What has happened with not only the economy of the United States but the economy of the world? What has happened with the gulf between rich and poor everywhere in the world over the last 30 years?

ROBINSON So part of the explanation is economics?

CARSON Part of the explanation. A large part of the explanation.

ROBINSON Would you agree with that?

THERNSTROM Yes, part of it though. I'm not sure how large a part but it's clearly a factor.


CARSON And then I think also, Over the last 30 years there has been tremendous change in some institutions, particularly in the professions at the higher levels, and those changes I would argue have been in a large measure the result of Affirmative Action although even there I would argue that Affirmative Action was the best that the society was willing to offer at that time. There might have been other programs. In fact, even today if you gave many Black people the choice of saying we can either keep Affirmative Action programs or as an alternative to that, we will do massive programs to improve the quality of public education, health care, and other kinds of social programs, my guess would be that a majority of Blacks would probably vote for the programs.

ROBINSON And you'd vote for the programs yourself?

CARSON Yeah, I think that both are needed. Do you trust a situation where over a long period of time where you see no outcomes of a positive nature or do you trust some kind of institutionalized program that at least is going to produce an outcome? And I think that that's what Affirmative Action offered. It was not the best solution but it was a solution to a problem that was faced at that time.

ROBINSON A solution to a problem that was faced at that time, but what about this time? Is Affirmative Action still the solution?

ROBINSON Ward Connerly, a Black man in California, led the fight in favor of what we in California called CCRI, the California Civil Rights Initiative, a ballot initiative. Last year it passed by a large margin and it made illegal Affirmative Action by the State of California in doling out contracts and employing people and so forth. Before that, the regents of the University of California held a vote and declared that Affirmative Action would end on a date certain in admitting students to the University of California. So my question then is how do you feel about these efforts, pretty forceful, impressive efforts to bring Affirmative Action to an end?

CARSON Well again, one of the things about the effort to bring it to and end is that it did raise the question which I think is very important, and that is what are you going to put in its place and how much is it going to cost? And one of the things that became very noticeable is that when people were faced with the alternatives, then you begin to have questions about are we willing to pay this cost? Are we willing to do programs that are going to produce a larger number of qualified Black students at the university level?

ROBINSON But people seem to be saying yes to that.

CARSON Well, I think the answer is very mixed to that. I think that...

ROBINSON So the voters enacted CCRI without a full view of the consequences, that is to say there will have to be programs to take...

CARSON Well, I don't think that necessarily voters knew the consequences. None of us knew the exact consequences because we were used to the idea of Affirmative Action programs being in place. And one of the things about the programs is that they produce a very predictable result, is that that's one of the ways in which the programs are constructed.

ROBINSON The Affirmative Action programs produce a predictable result. All right. Now...

THERNSTROM May I speak to that question?

ROBINSON Sure, sure.

THERNSTROM First of all...

ROBINSON Do you want to roll Affirmative Action back?

THERNSTROM Definitely. I favored Proposition 209. I think it will benefit everyone including African Americans and other supposed beneficiaries. The question what are we to put in its place? I would say first of all we might recall what is told to physicians as the first rule. Do no harm. Would we say at a time when physicians thought it was really very good for your health to put leaches on your arms or to cut your veins and release excess blood, would we say, "Well, we can't stop doing that without putting something else in its place." So I think the whole notion of putting something in its place assumes that it was achieving some very positive objectives.

ROBINSON Affirmative Action is harmful on the face of it.

THERNSTROM Yes, I think so, and let us look at the California picture. There has been a lot of attention given to what's happened to medical and law school admissions, but one of the striking things to me is that, in fact, Black medical school admissions have not fallen 80 percent or 60 percent. No Black admitted to UC San Diego Medical School was the headline but, in fact, for the state as a whole, it's 5 five medical schools, Black enrollment is down 24 percent. So that's a rather modest drop when you consider that there from henceforth all Black medical students in the University of California medical schools will not be under the suspicion they got in under double standards. Now in law schools there was a much bigger drop and that mainly reflects the fact that to even apply to medical school requires a certain long-term planning, you have to take Biology 101, you have to be serious, whereas a great many bright students 20 years old, they're nearing the end of the college, they don't know what to do, so they're going to apply to law school. So they're not very serious and when you look at pure academic credentials at that age you find there is a big racial disparity: very, very few Black students qualify for the top American law schools.

ROBINSON So Affirmative Action has been rolled back at the University of California and you're willing to live with the results?


ROBINSON They're not dramatically bad, in your view?


ROBINSON There is a crisis in Black America. Is Affirmative Action diverting attention from the true problems?

The statistics show, so far as I can tell, undeniably the disintegration of the Black family in America. In 1965, the out-of-wedlock birth rate among Blacks was 26 percent; today it's 68 percent: more than two-thirds of all Black children born out of wedlock. The white rate is also high today but still only 26 percent: a fraction of the Black rate, and it is projected that only 6 percent, 6 out of 100 Black children born in 1980 will live with both parents to the age of 18. Now that's an enormity and it's an enormity being visited on those children not by a racist society but by their own parents. Am I wrong about that?

CARSON Family disintegration does not take place in a vacuum. Something was not in the air in 1968 that suddenly made Black men and women part company.

ROBINSON So what has - my point is simply isn't Affirmative Action, it's enacted and Black progress begins to tail off. At a minimum, whether one is for Affirmative Action or against it, isn't it obvious that there are worse problems that we simply have to understand and try to find something of groping, of dealing with it?

CARSON Of course, of course. I would be the first to concede that Affirmative Action does not get to the heart of the problems in the Black community today. I mean that, I, one of the things I've tried...

ROBINSON What does? What does? What is the...?

CARSON I believe that one of the things that the central problem for me in the Black community is a problem that's related to a larger problem in the society and that is that the economy has changed in some very basic ways over the last 30 or 40 years. It is no longer possible to go and work at General Motors and have a middle class lifestyle that's going to put you in the suburbs. The kinds of jobs that were open to people with fairly low skills where they could be trained on the job are no longer open to young Black kids coming up today. And this is happening at a time, this economic change, which is a worldwide change.

ROBINSON 94 out of 100 Black kids effectively by single parents for some part of their upbringing by the age of 18. Now all that we know about child development tells us that these kids are going to be developmentally, obviously apart from race or any other- but they will be developmentally behind kids who are raised in intact homes. And if you impose Affirmative Action on a marketplace which because of global pressures and so forth is being forced to be more competitive and more efficient rather than less so...

THERNSTROM I'm not following why Affirmative Action is destroying...

ROBINSON My point is simply that you could have Affirmative Action until you're blue in the face and if 94 out of 100 Black kids are being raised in single parent homes Affirmative Action just won't work.

CARSON You're not blaming Affirmative Action for the break up of homes?

ROBINSON No, no, no, not at all. I think we agree, in effect, that Affirmative Action is in way a distraction somehow.

THERNSTROM I wonder if Clay would agree? I mean, back in the late 60's when he something of a student radical and I was very sympathetic to this view the common take when Affirmative Action was beginning was from the left point of view was this is terrible, this is a kind of capitalist plot in which you're picking out the potential leaders of this race and seeing that they get good education and good jobs and so they won't forget their responsibilities to the larger community. And it seem to me if you want to be cynical you might indeed say there's something to that in what really agitates the NAACP, the Urban League, and so on are things like Proposition 209. I mean there's much more rhetoric about ethnic cleansing at Berkeley than there is about what's happening to the Black family. Also, crime in the Black community is another massive problem. Now I would like just another word. Clay suggests there's an economic explanation for this and I wish that were so. It may have something to do with larger economic trends but let us not forget that when the Black family faced a total economic calamity called the Great Depression, the Black family didn't respond the way it has since then. It is not true that there are no longer good jobs at General Motors or at least at Honda where there are some very good jobs opening up all the time

CARSON Not in this country.

THERNSTROM In this country which require though a level of math that only about half of our white high school command today and only one-fifth of Black high school graduates, so there are good jobs available but you need skills which students are not getting from our current rotten schools.

ROBINSON If Affirmative Action disappeared what, if anything, should take its place?

ROBINSON Let's close with what is to be done and let me set this up with a heartbreaking quotation. Here are the words of a noble American, Martin Luther King, in a 1965 interview in which he was calling for economic assistance to Black Americans. I quote, "I am positive that the money spent would be more than amply justified by a spectacular decline in school drop outs, family break ups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls, rioting and other social evils." Now why is that heartbreaking? Because 30 years later what we've seen is a spectacular increase in virtually every one of those social evils. What do we do?

CARSON Well, I think that first of all one of the aspects of the quote that you make the assumption is that the money was spent. The money was not spent.

ROBINSON Well, he called for a 50 billion dollars over ten years, '65 to '75, and by the great society and so forth, far more than that.

CARSON Look closely at his Bill of Rights for the disadvantaged which none of those programs that it called for a minimum guaranteed income and there were a number of other programs that were called for...

ROBINSON So the answer is spend the money the way he would have wanted?

CARSON Well, I think that's part of it it is that but part of it is that we have to really think about what kinds of programs really work, which ones don't work. Many times when we engage in reform, the real purpose of reform is to sustain the system as it is as opposed to what really works in terms of changing the situation for - this was true for many of the aspects of the poverty program and I was involved in some aspects of it that I would be the first to admit that some of these programs were designed to give middle class people jobs, not to help poor people. so I think that what we need to do, and I hope that one of the things that we can get away from is this kind of argument over particular kinds of programs, at least Affirmative Action programs produce a benefit for specific people. I think we can always agree on that whether it's good social policy or not good social policy. But let's focus on the larger issue of how are we going to deal with the widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots in this society? How are we going to deal with the issue of public education? How are we going are we going to deal with the fundamental issue?

ROBINSON The mechanism used basically is government. Government programs or...?

CARSON Government has to be a part of it. I think that government has to be the stimulus for it simply because there is no other agency big enough to do it.

ROBINSON Steve, we you have a calamity among the Black Americans. What do we do?

THERNSTROM Well, in my view, two things. One, I think getting rid of preferences will help. They don't effect the vast mass of African Americans certainly in their daily lives but I think they poison the society. I think that we have to insist on the, really, the moral demand behind the Civil Rights Movement all through the 50's and through 1965 in that we want to treat everyone purely as an individual without regard to these extraneous characteristics.

ROBINSON So get rid of Affirmative Action.

THERNSTROM Get rid of Affirmative Action. Second, I do certainly agree with Clay that focusing on elementary and secondary education is crucial. My own view, very reluctantly, I mean I've never attended, I always went through public schools so did my children, but my own view is that our public school system is in need of such massive shock treatment that I'm not sure a purely public school solution is possible. I do think that the charter school movement is very promising. It will inject competition, but I frankly think we may need to go all the way to vouchers which will give poor people the kind of choice that Clay and I and you had. You can move to a suburb where the schools are great or you can live in an inner-city and send your kids to private school. I do think that inner-city residents, however poor, should have that kind of freedom of choice so I believe in vouchers.

ROBINSON So end Affirmative Action and, as a first step, shock treatment for America's public schools.


ROBINSON Clay, Steve, thank you very much.

It's been thirty years since the advent of Affirmative Action programs. Clay Carson would say Affirmative Action has been essential to Black progress. Steven Thernstrom would say, Blacks don't need it. One way or the other, during those thirty years, there has, thank goodness, been progress. As witness, the world's preeminent golfer, a Black American, Tiger Woods.

I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.

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