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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.