FRONTLINE's interview with Harvard Law professor Christopher Edley. Edley directed the 1997 White House review of affirmative action programs.

 



INTERVIEWER: In your book, Three Different Ways of Looking at Affirmative Action, can you tell me about what those are?

EDLEY: One way to think about affirmative action is that it is needed as a tool to help remedy discrimination, this remedial concern. The facts demonstrate that there's still a lot of discrimination, the best social science evidence indicates that, more than most people appreciate, and frequently it's hard to detect and it's not the kind of thing you can rush to court and litigate every day. A second cause beyond remedying discrimination is to say that we're interested in diversity, that there are some institutions and some settings in which excellence, the effectiveness of your organization depends upon being more inclusive. If you're talking about a police department for example that's trying to do a good job providing security for a diverse community, law enforcement experts agree that the police force should to some extent reflect the diversity of the community it's trying to serve. A third argument that's sometimes raised.

I think of three basic models for justifying affirmative action. One is to try to remedy discrimination and prevent future discrimination. A second is to focus on diversity, on the need to be inclusive in order to achieve excellence in some particular organization. And a third is redistribution or reparations, if you will. I don't think that the third one is sufficiently compelling morally to justify affirmative action but some people do.

INTERVIEWER: An income redistribution plan, in other words, in a way.

EDLEY: Right. Here's the problem: we have on the one hand irrefutable social science evidence that a substantial amount -- by no means all-- but a substantial amount of the current social and economic disadvantage of blacks is attributable to our history. If you look at wealth figures where median black family wealth is only about 8% that of the median wealth of white families, that's a measure of our inherited disadvantage. On the other hand we also have a moral feeling that the sins of the fathers should not be visited upon the sons, that we should not, as Justice Scalia has put it, have a debtor race and a creditor race.

So my sense is that the moral claim for reparations is in fact very problematic and ultimately would fail in the American body politic. That's not to say that there aren't important social welfare redistributional claims. We believe in economic justice as well as racial justice but I simply think that the reparations justification for affirmative action is weak. But that's a judgment call. On the other hand, the claim that affirmative action is needed as an effective measure to combat discrimination seems quite powerful to me. Discrimination is still widespread. The best social science evidence confirms that over and over again. It was very compelling when we went through it with the president.

INTERVIEWER: Can you recall examples of things that struck you that you just hadn't realized the depth of before?

EDLEY: Well, it wasn't news to me but there has long been research that uses statistical econometric techniques to look at disparities in wage levels and so forth and try to explain it as carefully as possible looking at a variety of factors, education, income, class, etc. The unexplained residual is attributable to discrimination.

The most compelling evidence these days, it seems to me, comes not from the statistical studies of disparity but instead from looking at testers, where matched pairs of individuals, one white, one minority, are sent to apply for a job that's been advertised or to try to rent an apartment that's been advertised, and the testing evidence shows over and over and over again that in areas all over the country discrimination is widespread. 30-40% of minority testers trying to rent an apartment experienced some form of discrimination. 25% of minority testers experienced some form of employment discrimination. And the difficulty is that if I try to rent an apartment and the real estate says oh, I'm sorry, we just let it go, nothing's available, I walk away, I shrug my shoulders, I have no way of knowing whether I'm a victim of discrimination. The tester evidence lets us measure discrimination directly and the evidence is alarmingly clear.

INTERVIEWER: And then, the first model, that discrimination?

EDLEY: So because discrimination remains so widespread and because it frequently is difficult to detect you can't say that it's a problem of long ago history nor can you say it's a problem that simple enforcement of the laws -- take it to court -- it won't work. If you can't really detect it because it's subtle then we need other measures. The value of affirmative action is that it creates a tool whereby we can lean against those simple prejudices and preferences in the system. The value of affirmative action is that it gives us a tool that allows us voluntarily to tilt againstthe preferences in the system, preferring people who are like us. When you add up preferences of that sort the result is widespread denial of opportunity.

INTERVIEWER: One of the things that's happened over the last 30 years of pursuing affirmative action is the black middle class has doubled but the number of blacks in poverty has also increased. In fact, the numbers of blacks living in poverty has increased so fast that as a whole the black community looks like we haven't moved at all since 1965. Is that because affirmative action hasn't worked?

EDLEY: One of the problems in the debate is that critics of affirmative action point to problems ranging from crime to unwed parenthood to you name it. Affirmative action is not the cause of these problems and affirmative action is not the solution to these problems. There's a complicated opportunity agenda in America and affirmative action is simply one tool among many.......

INTERVIEWER: Such as?

EDLEY: World class education for all of our children would be my number one priority. Does that mean that affirmative action is unimportant? No. It simply means that we have to do several things at the same time in order to make the progress that's needed.

INTERVIEWER: The fact that you have a black face doesn't mean that you're going to get the schools fixed. It just means that you've got a black person there. How do you balance the need for policy adjustments with what's seen as a quota mentality?

EDLEY: The African-American community is diverse, there's no question about it. You've got Clarence Thomas on the one hand, you've got my friend Lani Guinier on the other hand. The difference is dramatic. The fact remains, though, that because race continues to be so salient there are strong correlations and I believe that most blacks sitting in the councils of policy will indeed take some pains to do what they think is going to be in the best interest of minority communities and people will differ about what that is.

The question is, who is shaping the agenda and whose policy preferences are involved when government sits down to make a decision? Or when a corporation is sitting down to make decisions about its leadership or about its strategy or about its investment, who is in the room helping to make those decisions? One of the interesting things about the diversity of the community, Glenn Loury who's been on many of these issues pointed out recently that one of the benefits of affirmative action is that even if there are ultra-conservative blacks who are present, from his point of view that's good for the students because he wants his students to see that in fact there's diversity in the African-American, that not everybody is progressive but indeed there are many people who are conservative and that demonstrating that diversity is absolutely critical.

INTERVIEWER: Do you agree with that?

EDLEY: I absolutely agree with that. We have competing goals in mind. If you take the issue of picking federal judges or picking faculty members you're trying to accomplish two things. Well, many things. You're trying to accomplish at least two things. One is we do affirmative action in part to get strength from diversity. I believe that Harvard Law School is a better law school because of the diversity of the faculty and the diversity of the students. What happens in my classroom is better, is enriched by the diversity among the students.

The same is true of the federal court system. We want a diverse set of viewpoints in the federal judiciary. We don't want it all drawn from one class of society. We don't want it all with one social perspective. Things get complicated when there's also a desire for representatives. When you take a Supreme Court with only nine slots then the issue of representativeness may come in tension with the issue of inclusion. George Bush may have thought that he was putting a representative of the African-American community on the court. I have no doubt that 15%, maybe 20% of blacks agree with Clarence Thomas' views, but that doesn't make him representative. It makes him an example, but it doesn't make him representative.

INTERVIEWER: So his presence there then is a good thing in one way and not a good thing if your politics don't agree with him, in other words?

EDLEY: Right. His presence is both good and bad. On balance, I think it's disastrous.

INTERVIEWER: One of the reviewers of your book asked whether the net sum of your argument was that diversity trumps justice in the current debate. Whether or not it's fair that a black gets a job instead of a white person even if they're not as qualified as the white person.

EDLEY: No, that's goofy. The whole point of the book is to question, what is fairness? How do you decide what is fair? The way I put the question to the president was this: do you believe that there is a moral cost to making decisions about people based on immutable characteristics like race or gender? Now some people think that there is a moral cost and it is so great that we should never be willing to pay it. That's the color blind view. Other people believe that there's no special moral cost. It's no different from making decisions about allocating benefits and burdens on the basis of income or geography or height. That kind of leads to a reparations view. Let's just treat affirmative action like any other tool of redistribution.

I think that's problematic because race is different. Our history teaches that there's a different moral quality, it seems to me. I come down in the middle and the president came down in the middle. There is a moral cost to making decisions about people based on color, but it's a cost we should be willing to pay in at least some circumstances and the question is, what are those circumstances? One is the case for remedying discrimination and there's a big argument about how you define and measure and detect discrimination, but let's just put that to one side. A second is that at least in some institutions inclusion or diversity is so important a value, so important an interest that we should be willing to pay the moral cost of making decisions based on color or gender in order to get those benefits. I think a police department is a good example. I think a college is a good example where the very quality of excellence in the institution depends upon being inclusive.

INTERVIEWER: The slogan that you came up with at the end of the six months studying affirmative action was - "Mend It, Don't End It" What's the mending that needs to be done?

EDLEY: Affirmative action has been good for the country. But that doesn't mean there haven't been abuses. The principle one that we were concerned about is situations in which people cut corners, that in an effort to try to achieve a flexible goal they hire by the numbers or they admit college students by the numbers just to hit something that has become a de facto quota instead of doing affirmative action the right way, which requires a careful balancing and consideration of multiple factors.

So one area in which it needs mending is to make sure that those abuses, which by the way are not nearly as common as critics would indicate. The best evidence is that kind of reverse discrimination that's illegal is quite rare. But still, that's a form of abuse. Another is the issue of unnecessary inflexibility. There were, for example, in some of the government contracting programs mechanisms that simply too rigidly excluded participation by small white-owned businesses when in fact a more flexible way could be designed.

INTERVIEWER: So those were two things that needed to be--

EDLEY: Well, a third issue is the Supreme Court is now clear that affirmative action efforts by government have to be carefully justified and narrowly tailored. One element of that is making sure that you've done your homework to really identify that there is a substantial numerical disparity.

INTERVIEWER: The way this looks to most of white America is that you're making the sons pay for the sins of the father. What's the counter-argument to somebody in South Boston who feels like my father was a policeman, my grandfather was a policeman, my great-grandfather was policeman and I'm not a cop because some guy from Roxbury needed to get my job so that they could say they had a diverse police force.

EDLEY: The overwhelming amount of opportunity that's out there right now is still in the sectors going to white folks and to a substantial extent going to white males. Whether you're talking about police departments or judgeships or government contracts, the notion that a white male is endangered or can't get ahead is belied by the facts so there's a certain amount of hysteria and that hysteria of course is one cost of affirmative action, but that doesn't mean we should retreat, that means we should remedy the hysteria.

INTERVIEWER: One of the constants that comes up in this debate is the content of our character and not the color of our skin argument. One of the things Martin Luther King was moving towards at the end of his life was that class was as important as race - that the movement was going to have to include poor whites who had also been left out as well as poor blacks.

EDLEY: Two different things. The content of our character line from Martin Luther King must be read in the context of other statements in which he talked about the importance of color conscious, affirmative action style remedies. At that point in his thinking he was quite clear about the need for America to take affirmative steps in which race was a consideration. No doubt about it.

As you move towards the Poor People's Campaign and he focused on the importance of cross-racial, class-based alliances there's no doubt that he was pointing to our future, where America's future must be. But I think that has to be seen in context. At that point in American history, remember, we also had a war on poverty in the works. The notion that the suffering and the deprivations of African-Americans might best be ameliorated by joining common cause with poor white folks made a lot of political sense at that point in the 60s because indeed the anti-poverty movement was in full swing.

Of course, as history unfolded, the anti-poverty movement lost its momentum. Today, last year, the slogan on affirmative action that the president embraced was mend it, don't end it. The slogan on welfare was we want to end welfare as we know it. He could have chosen to say the same thing about affirmative action but he didn't. I'm here to tell you that both of these patients, the anti-poverty agenda and the civil rights agenda, are in intensive care but the vital signs on anti-poverty are probably even bleaker than the vital signs on civil rights.

I think that moving to class based affirmative action and excluding, eliminating race based affirmative action would be a disaster. I'm in favor of class based affirmative action. Every selective university that I know of, for example, does it. They view that kind of diversity as important to their mission and helpful to the educational enterprise. So do I.

The point is that race is an additional and separable factor in diversity. I said to the President for example during the review, look, is Ron Brown less effective, less of a contributor on your cabinet because he grew up comfortably middle class in Harlem rather than in the housing projects? Am I not valuable to you as an advisor because I grew up middle class rather than in the housing projects? There's no question that my perspective would be somewhat different if I had grown up dirt poor, but on the other hand, I do think I still bring something to the table despite my middle-class upbringing.

Now, in an admissions context, obviously somebody who has multiple attributes of diversity that are important to the institution is even more attractive. And whether that's race or class or musicianship or athleticism-- all of these elements of diversity are important and factor into the balance.

 
INTERVIEWER: One of the counter-arguments to that is that there was essentially a group of black folks who were already middle class during the '60s, the educated black middle class, who probably would have made it anyway, once the barriers were lifted, and that in some ways they might have been the ones who benefited most from affirmative action because they're already there and ready to jump through the gate and the ones who were either working class or under-class folks who didn't really get that access because we were the ones that were most acceptable. So we got in the door first and now the door's closed and there's no room for anybody else to get in.

EDLEY: Here's the way I think about affirmative action. It does two things. First, it opens the door. Second, if it's aggressive affirmative action you kind of reach just outside the door and grab somebody and bring them in. But for people who aren't prepared to walk through that door affirmative action isn't going to help. It only stands to reason that the first beneficiaries of affirmative action would be those who were middle class or who otherwise were most prepared to walk through the door and take advantage of the opportunities, but getting the door open is harder than many Americans admit.

INTERVIEWER: So how do we reach back and get those who are just on the other side of the door?

EDLEY: Reaching beyond that door to get folks who aren't ready is not something that affirmative action alone can do. That's what the rest of the opportunity agenda is for. That's why we need school reform, that's why we need job training, that's why we need stronger families, that's why we need safe communities. It's only by putting the entire package together, including opening the door of opportunity, that we'll make real progress.

INTERVIEWER: Do you as a child of that black middle class feel a special obligation to reach back?

EDLEY: As a child of the middle class I feel a special obligation. Moreover, I hear the stigma argument all the time. But affirmative action causes stigma. Well, yes, affirmative action causes stigma. That's one of the costs of affirmative action, I acknowledge it. It's a cost worth paying. For my generation to bear a little stigma it would be hubris to complain about it. I haven't had to get beaten over the head, I haven't had to get arrested, who am I to complain about a little bit of stigma? I welcome the opportunity to overcome that stigma and demonstrate that I'm making a contribution.

INTERVIEWER: One of the criticisms of affirmative action is that it's going to permanently etch race consciousness into the society....

EDLEY: We have race consciousness. It is alive, it is in many places virulent. The question is what to do about it and I'm not in favor of ignoring it. I'm in favor of taking concrete effective steps to try to ameliorate it. One way we do that, I think, is by creating institutions, creating situations in which people who are different can come together and achieve together and affirmative action is about that. When will affirmative action end? For me I go back to the question of what are its purposes? If its purpose is to remedy discrimination and to bring about inclusion in institutions where inclusion is critically necessary then affirmative action should end when those purposes no longer have force. When discrimination ends, when race is of no more social and economic significance than whether you're a Protestant or a Presbyterian, then there will be no need for affirmative action and it should go away.

INTERVIEWER: How will you know when that day comes?

EDLEY: Right now whether someone is an Episcopalian or a Presbyterian matters for about an hour and a half on Sunday and maybe it matters Sunday night for dinner, but on Monday morning when you go to your work place it doesn't matter. America has only recently in our history come to that point with respect to religious tolerance. I think that someday we will get there with respect to race. It doesn't mean assimilation in the sense that there's no difference between Presbyterians and Episcopalians, it simply means that we accept our differences, enjoy those differences, celebrate them, rather than using them as a way to separate ourselves so that our communities are at each other's throats. It takes a certain amount of faith, whether you call it civic faith or religious faith, to believe that human nature will lead us to that goal, but you've got to be an optimist in this business.

INTERVIEWER: I want to come back to this class thing again because I'm a biracial child and I have a half-brother actually who's white he's my half-brother and he teaches at a university and during the thick of this affirmative action thing back in the '70s I guess it was, he was having a hell of a time finding a job. We actually had very interesting dinner conversations about -- everybody was looking for, preferably a black female to fill those slots in college and he was having a hard time as a white male trying to get a job. And one of the arguments he was making was that it seems like the policy would have met much less opposition, particularly from those white males who feel like they're the disadvantaged class now if it had been a class based remedy from the beginning instead of a race based...

EDLEY: Look, if I go to rent the apartment or apply for a loan class matters, race matters too. So measures that simply address the class issue are simply going to be incomplete. They are not going to deal effectively with the problem of discrimination. Now with regard to diversity, again class matters but race matters too, that the race is a source of strength. I mean take the police department example. Class helps. It helps to have people who perhaps have grown up poor and therefore will feel some more affinity, will have more of an understanding of what's at stake in poor communities that they are trying to police, but color still matters in America and in that respect the effectiveness of the police department will depend, at least in part, on the racial diversity of it. Now again, it's not all black and white. Context matters a lot and the nuances matter a lot. I think it is wrong to say that in all circumstances diversity is a compelling justification, just as it is wrong to say that diversity is never a compelling justification. The issue is to have a conversation in which we can identify those places, those institutions, in which it matters enough to justify using affirmative action. I want to have that conversation.

One of the myths here is that affirmative action has been so overwhelmingly successful that white males can't get a job anymore. Look, if you look around universities you will see very few minorities who are on the faculty so it simply can't be the case that all of these frustrated white males who have wanted academic appointments and had trouble getting them failed to get them because minorities were taking over higher education. It ain't true. Look at the facts. Another problem with this of course is that if you have nine white guys and a woman trying to get a promotion and the woman gets it the nine white guys may all say oh, well, it was affirmative action, but for affirmative action I would have had that promotion and indeed, the manager may tell them I needed a woman instead of telling them you weren't good enough. You know that those nine white guys, at least eight of them are wrong, and maybe all nine of them are wrong.

INTERVIEWER: You said you don't see affirmative action as an outgrowth --

EDLEY: No, I do. I do. Absolutely. I think first and foremost affirmative action is a way of making the anti-discrimination -- first and foremost affirmative action is a way of making the commitment to non-discrimination effective because it helps root out illegal practices that may be too subtle to detect but it also just helps us lean against an almost natural birds of a feather tendency to prefer people who are like ourselves even when that's not justified. I remember at one point in the conversations with the President we were preparing him for a press conference and somebody asked Mr. President, what's your view on affirmative action? He was practicing. And he launched into this long discussion about how much discrimination there is in America and all the evidence that we talked with him about continuing discrimination and he said that's why we need affirmative action because we still need an effective way to root out that discrimination. Everybody thought that was a great answer but I stopped him and I said look, I'm not so sure. The problem is that the public does not believe the social science evidence, they don't know it about how much discrimination still exists. They're going to listen to you and think you're on another planet. So while I believe that the President needs to teach the nation over time about the continuing importance of discrimination there's a subtler thing at work. The audience might not believe that they engage in discrimination but they probably will acknowledge the simple human tendency to hang out with people who are like them, whether it's because they have the same religion or the same class or the same color. They know that when it comes time to make a decision about who to invite to a party or who to hire or who to give a contract to, you look for somebody with whom you feel some connection. Now if race prevents that sense of connection and you put all of those preferences together the result across society as a whole is the denial of opportunity. Affirmative action is something that lets us hold those preferences in check and say look, I'm going to look beyond my simple preference and try to reach out to somebody who's not like me.

INTERVIEWER: Do you see affirmative action as a black issue?

EDLEY: Numerically, the greatest number of beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women. That's not only because there are more white women, it's because white women have, because of class reasons, more likely been in a position to walk through the door of opportunity, take advantage of the opportunity once the door has been open. White women have been the principle beneficiaries of affirmative action. It is not only a black issue. The political spin that opponents put on it is to try to make it a black issue because they recognize that works for them as a wedge issue. On the other hand those of us who support affirmative action constantly try to remind people, Hey, this is about women, also. And increasingly, women recognize that.

INTERVIEWER: One of the thing when I was just starting my reporting career in the '70s, one of the huge debates was--Okay, so we're going to have black folks were supposed to be the original beneficiaries, but then included white women, then they included Asian Americans, then the included Native Americans. How many classes of people can we....

EDLEY: Go back to first principles. Why have affirmative action? If your answer is we need it to remedy discrimination and we need it in order to gain strength through inclusion, then which groups ought to be beneficiaries? Well, the answer is, Who is a victim of discrimination? Of a kind of a persistent enduring sort. And, who's been excluded in a way that cripples us economically, socially. That kind of logic leads you quickly to conclude well women have been and still are important victims of discrimination in lots of sectors and lots of places of the economy. Native Americans, Latinos certainly. Asians, in many communities still. If you think that the basis for affirmative action is reparations for slavery, then there's other groups don't necessarily fit in. But again, I don't think that the moral claim for reparations is very strong.

INTERVIEWER: One of the classes that I took here at Harvard, was one of my favorite courses, was a course I took with Daniel Moynihan who had just, was then in retreat from Washington, and had written this book on the politics of the guaranteed income. And, one of the things that he talked about was if you're going to have a policy that's aimed at doing some rather nebulous thing in America, you really need to figure out a way to explain it simply to people. And, it's occurred to me as I've looked at this affirmative action and even going through the pages of your book, it's just one of the problems with affirmative action is that you can't explain it simply.

EDLEY: Well, that's exactly right. The complexity of this issue is one of the things that was a great concern, as we were doing the White House review, because as we struggled with the moral issues, as we struggled with the social science, there was this haunting concern of how are we going to explain this to the American people? It's not a bumper sticker kind of an issue, and in that respect it may be one of those issues that politics is particularly poor at handling effectively. Because politics is about I'm right and you're wrong. This issue isn't like that.

This issue is about complicated differences and values and we're trying to search for a way to bridge those differences. This issue is about reconnecting communities, and I'm right, you're wrong is not a prescription for connecting communities.

I also think that politicians who over-simplify do us a disservice. If a politician stands up and says I'm for vigorous enforcement of the discrimination laws and I'm for equal opportunity, and I'm against quotas, I don't know for any politician who wouldn't say exactly those same words. David Duke would say exactly those words.

INTERVIEWER: So, who couldn't?

EDLEY: Exactly. That's what I'm saying. Any politician would say exactly those words. It doesn't help the discussion, it doesn't help the debate. It hides the issues rather than helping us bridge our differences. This is one of those issues where we need to demand that our leaders speak truth about race. Simple slogans fail the test.

INTERVIEWER: So, what happens to "mend it, don't end it."

EDLEY: "Mend it, don't end it" is a prescription. "Mend it, don't end it" says, "Mend it, don't end it" is the summary line of a long speech and a long report that doesn't communicate all the values. It simply communicates the bottom line position. What concerns me is people who think that saying I want to enforce the anti-discrimination laws, that constitutes an effective response to anything, because it doesn't.

He is also a consultant for the current Commission on Race. He the author of Not All Black and White: Affirmative Action, Race and American Values. Interview conducted in the spring of 1997.

 
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