In 1945, New York was the first state to pass a law banning racial discrimination in the workplace. Some twenty years later, the Civil Rights Act made it illegal, nationwide. Still, several powerful people then—some of them Black—opposed any law favoring specific races or genders.
“Despite wide-ranging attacks against affirmative action,” says Kennedy, “it has, remarkably, continued to survive.” That may be, arguably, because it’s sometimes “justified as a means” of reparation, diversity and integration, and “countering ongoing racial prejudice.”
There are, of course, pros and cons to those arguments—the “single most powerful” one of the former being that racial affirmative action “seeks to rectify, at least partially, injuries that continue to put certain racial minorities at a competitive disadvantage with white peers.” Still, some who’ve benefited also complain that rectification leads to a “stigma” of having been hired or admitted, not based on qualifications, but because of affirmative action itself.
And what about “reverse discrimination,” a scenario that affirmative action opponents purport? Kennedy says that they and the “disappointed white candidate” who feels he’s a “victim” should understand that affirmative action addresses “a major social problem: the continuing trauma of racial division in America.”
“Racial affirmative action needs to be better targeted,” says Kennedy. But not having it would be “a calamity.”
Filled with law terms, legal precedents, and words that made my head swim, “For Discrimination” is very, very academic. Author Randall Kennedy is a Professor of Law at Harvard, a graduate of Princeton, and a Rhodes Scholar. It shows, and that makes this book hard to read—not because of what he says, but for how he says it.
And yet, this is an important book. Kennedy, who admits to having benefitted from affirmative action, will force a lot of long-needed conversations with his opinions, conversations for which he includes abundant, solid fodder.
This book is about as far as you can get from a casual read, and should be approached with an open mind, general legal knowledge, and a good dictionary. If you can handle that, then go ahead and make “For Discrimination” yours.
(“For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law” by Randall Kennedy, c.2013, Pantheon, $25.95/ $28.95 Canada, 295 pages)