Spring 1998, Volume XIII Number 2
Affirmative Action: A Dialogue on Race, Gender, Equality and Law in America
Editors: What are two or three good, recent books on affirmative action/race in America? Could you say a few words about why you like each book?
Paul Finkelman: Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom (W.W. Norton, 1975) remains the essential starting place for understanding the origins of racism in America. The book argues, with great success, that republican government and democracy were in part possible because of slavery and the racism that grew out of it. This is a complex book written by one of the greatest historians of our era. It may not tell us how to solve our current problems, but it will allow us to better understand how we got started on the road that led us to where we are now.
Andrew Kull's The Color Blind Constitution (Harvard Press, 1993) is a study of the idea of color blindness in constitutional history. It succeeds in part, but it is also so ideological at some points that some of his history goes astray. Nevertheless, it is an important book to read, no matter what side you are on.
Two of my recent books are useful for understanding the roots of affirmative action, though neither is directly about the subject. Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson (M.E. Sharpe, 1996) provides a discussion of how slavery shaped the framing of the U.S. Constitution, its implementation in the early years of the republic, and the problem of Jefferson who-despite his reputation in the popular media-never did much to undermine slavery and often aided it. Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford Books, 1997) provides readers with a quick overview of the Dred Scott case, an edited version of the case including excerpts from all nine opinions, and examples of responses to the decision.
Camille deJorna: I've certainly found Richard Kahlenberg's The Remedy: Class, Race and Affirmative Action (Basic Books, 1996) very helpful. Chuck Lawrence and Mari Matsuda's We Won't Go Back: Making the Case for Affirmative Action (Houghton Mifflin, 1997) is a thoughtful, progressive book that argues for an expansion of the scope of affirmative action. Harlon Dalton's Racial Healing (Doubleday, 1996) is a candid discussion by a black scholar on the impact of race for blacks and whites. I particularly found helpful Dalton's discussion of the lack of coping skills among current black students, which he partly attributes to the dissolution of black unity. David K. Shipler's A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America (Knopf, 1997) looks not only at blacks and whites but at relationships between different groups as well. Christopher Edley's Not All Black and White: Affirmative Action and American Values (Noonday, 1998) provides a good descriptive look at the national political landscape of this issue.
Donna Maeda: Two of my suggestions are not limited to the topic of affirmative action but include significant sections that speak to it directly and carefully. These books provide ways of considering inequality; race, gender, and class; law and concepts of rights; and the constructedness of objectivity, which are very helpful for thinking about affirmative action.
Patricia Williams' The Alchemy of Race and Rights (Harvard University Press, 1991) shows how social meanings associated with race complicate the idea of objectivity in law. She considers affirmative action but also points out contexts and ways of thinking that contribute to ongoing constructions of race and inequality.
Kimberle Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas' Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement (New Press, 1996) is an anthology that includes many of the articles that have shaped a major intellectual movement in law. While it offers writings on key themes of Critical Race Theory, the anthology focuses particularly strongly on new ways of understanding discrimination. Like the Williams book, this one attends to ways that law and legal thinking contribute to constructions of race and racial hierarchies.
Angelo Ancheta's Race, Rights, and the Asian American Experience (Rutgers University Press, 1998) confronts the tendency of much discussion about race to center on the Black/white opposition. He argues that, by paying attention to immigration and nativism, we can reshape our understandings about discrimination and the ways that race operates in law and policy.
Jennifer Hochschild: Edward Carmines and James Stimson's Issue Evolution: Race and the Transformation of American Politics (Princeton University Press, 1989) gives a really eye-opening argument about how race has become the defining dimension for all of American national politics since 1964. For the 25-year period they looked at, race defined American national politics as no other issue did, thereby permanently changing the contours of our national political debate.
Barbara Reskin is now editing a volume soon to be published by the American Sociological Association, which summarizes all the empirical literature on affirmative action in employment; it is a fabulous literature review.
Finally, my own Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation (Princeton University Press, 1995) has about ten pages directly on attitudes toward affirmative action, but I actually think the rest of the book is more important given our discussions. The book demonstrates and tries to explain why: (1) the best-off third of African Americans are much better off in socioeconomic and political terms than their counterparts 30 years ago, but they have lost much faith in the American dream over that period; and (2) the worst off third of African Americans are not better off materially and politically, but have not lost faith in the American dream. I think the book sets a context for understanding the intense commitment among middle class African Americans to affirmative action, the intense opposition among many whites (who mostly think the race problem is solved), and the relative indifference to the whole issue among poor blacks.
Glenn C. Loury: I don't believe anyone has mentioned John David Skrentny's very fine book, The Ironies of Affirmative Action (University of Chicago Press, 1996). It is a political and sociological analysis of the historical origins and cultural meaning of affirmative action. The book is nuanced and full of insights. Skrentny shows how the controversy over affirmative action is linked to the social meaning of (stigma associated with) race in American society.
Spring 1998 Issue Home | Why Race Matters
Affirmative Action as Social and Legal Policy
Affirmative Action, Diversity and College Admissions
Gender, Race, and Affirmative Action
Reconceiving Merit | Affirmative Action in the Workplace
Constitutional Status of Affirmative Action
Book Recommendations | Contributors
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