Interviewer: Jackie Shearer
Production Team: D
Interview Date: April 10, 1989
Camera Rolls: 4119-4122
Sound Rolls: 452-453
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Luke Harris, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on April 10, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Okay, so let's begin, in the mid-seventies you're an affirmative action student at Yale--
Okay, so, we're in the mid-nineteen seventies, you're an affirmative action student. I want you to tell me how you were perceived as such by faculty members, White students, other minority students.
Can we start over?
Okay, so let's begin with your telling me what it was like being an affirmative action student in the 1970's.
Okay. One of the big surprises for me, when I got to Yale Law School, was that I found that there was a difference in how students at Yale, faculty members at Yale, and for that matter, some administrators at Yale, related to Black students and other students of color; and, uh, this came as a great surprise to me, because it was a marked departure from what I'd been used to in college. Ah, in college I had, ah, worked very hard, and graduated number one in my department and looked very favorably upon going to Yale Law School. I had expected that what I'd find when I got there would be a superb student body, in general. But, also, in particular, that there'd be an excellent array of students of color there. And, when I got there, that's, in fact, what I found. What amazed me, however, was that the students of color were stigmatized in that environment. And, not only that, but, it seemed to me that there were a whole array of ideas that were connected to questions of affirmative action and questions of equality that really misconstrued. A whole lot of wrong-headed ideas, ah, seemed to be floating around the law school environment about what affirmative action was all about, and about how students of color fit into this whole process.
Okay, now, can you wipe your brow. Keep rolling. Did you feel that you were any different from any of the other students at Yale by virtue of your being an affirmative action student?
Well, it was always clear to me that, ah, that, ah, that not only myself, but that the students of color--Black, Hispanic students, ah, the Native American students--they were just as good as anyone else. Ah, the problem, ah, for me, was the interpretation upon the participation of students of color in this environment that was, that was very disturbing. And, it was something that I hadn't, ah, expected to find. It was something that was very different from my experience at, ah, at St. Joe's. Ah, I mean, I had been a, ah, a student that had participated in affirmative action program at St. Joe's, as well; and, ah, without affirmative action, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to attend that college, either. But, once I was admitted to St. Joe's, no one ever gave me, or any of the other Black students and other students of color that were there, the impression that we somehow didn't belong. It wasn't until I got to Yale Law School that I ran into--for the first time--ah, this idea, which I've never learned to stomach, this idea of the best Black. And, the way that works, is that, the idea is that there, that even the best Black, even the so-called best Blacks, are not quite as good, as the so-called best Whites. And, ah, I began to wonder where these, you know, ideas were coming from and how they were connected to, ah, people's conceptions about affirmative action. And, why it was they seemed to collide with reality of what meaningful equality meant in the latter part of the twentieth century, ah, for me and for other people of color in college and universities throughout the country. And, it was really at that time that, ah, my intellectual interest perked with respect to a concern about questions of race and equality in contemporary America.
Now, in February of 1977 the Supreme Court decided to hear the Bakke case. What was significance, what was its symbolic significance to you, as a Black graduate student, at the time.
Well, it, it was, it was--
I'm sorry can you give me the Bakke case.
Oh yeah. The Bakke case was of tremendous significance, ah, for all students, ah, in the United States, at that time. Ah, in particular, ah, students of color. Ah, for the first time the issue of affirmative action was going to be heard by the Supreme Court, and actually decided upon. I mean, the issue had come before the court once before, in the DeFunis case and been mooted. So, there was a, ah, a lot of vocal attention focused upon the issue of what was called, at the time, and what is still called in, in the mass media, the issue of affir--of, of, ah, reverse discrimination. And, the idea that reverse discrimination is inextricably linked with the, ah, inherent nature of what affirmative action programs are supposed to be all about. And, so that issue caused a, a great amount of concern amongst, ah, the entire student body at Yale--particularly students of color. And, ah, I have to say, that, ah, ah, part of the, ah, the array of concerns that, that, that developed as a function of the, the, the whole reverse discrimination debate was that, ah, the issue affected--in some ways--that could be considered psychologically damaging the, the feelings that even some Black students, in particular, and some other students of color felt about, ah, their participation in the environment at Yale. And, so, all of these issues were crystallized, ah, with the courts focusing upon deciding the Bakke case.
What do you mean when you talk about the psychological impact on students of color?
Well, I think connected to, ah, I think that affirmative action has, basically, been misconceived, ah, by the American public. And, I think one of the ways, ah, that it's been misconceived has to with the nature in which the debate, ah, about how affirmative action has been constructed. I mean, if you really look at the terms of the debate--the very terms of the debate imply in subtle, but yet, important respects that, ah, a certain sense of superiority of Whites and inferiority of people of color. The idea is kind of, that, ah, Blacks are getting something that they really don't deserve, and that Whites are, are being hurt--even if it is for a good cause. But, nonetheless they're being hurt, because, ah, affirmative action, inevitably, is said to involve a process of reverse discrimination against Whites. Ah, now the reality is that affirmative action is really something very other than that. But, in the environment of the law school, at the time, where there were very few significant others[SIC] of color, and faculty members who were writing, some faculty members, who were writing articles suggesting that, ah, really--with the exception of a very small handful of students--there really weren't, ah, Black students and other people of color who were suited to, ah, be educated in elite universities; not just at the level of law school and medical school, but also, in terms of, ah, major undergraduate colleges and universities across the country. And, these ideas, as you might expect, affected the thinking even of some students of color. So, one of things that I found interesting was that, ah, ah, it was at Yale--not at St. Joe's--that, for the first time in my life, I ran into extraordinary Black students; some of whom really felt that, ah, maybe they belonged at Yale, but certainly other Black students did not. And, certainly, some of the other students of color did not. And, all of that was really, largely, a reflection--I think--of an inability of, even some of the members of our community to sustain the, ah, the, ah, the constant assault on the psyche that come from being in an institutional environment where significant others[SIC] feel that you really aren't quite as good. And--
Okay, now, I want to pick up on some stuff that you spoke about before. Would you have been able to go to college without affirmative action? And, um, did you feel that you were taking a place that belonged to someone else?
Ah, ah, I would say two things: that, ah, my interest in questions that have to do with affirmative action and, ah, ah, equality, really are a reflection of two dimensions of, ah, my background. One of them goes to my personal background. Ah, the other goes to my experiences at Yale. Ah, you know, I-- Can you stop for a second?
So the question is about your relationship to affirmative action.
Ah, yea, I'm interested in affirmative action, really for two reasons. One grows out of my personal background. And, the other grows out of my experiences at Yale. In so far as my personal background is concerned, I'm deeply interested in affirmative action because, I'm a product of it. I mean, I was fortunate enough to be raised by a very loving great-aunt and great-uncle who were like a mother and father to me; and, they gave me everything that, ah, ah you could have expected and more. But we grew up on--my brother and I--we grew up on welfare in, ah, in southern New Jersey and, ah, additionally, I spent, ah, the first six or seven years of my education in a segregated, ah, elementary school in Merchantville, New Jersey. And, I went to junior high school and high school in, in Camden. Now, by the time I was in ninth grade, ah, I was getting signals from the guidance counselors that, ah, you know, college is not for you. Ah, you know, you're not the kind of guy that's ever going to learn how to do things like chemistry and calculus and physics, and you know, you know, at the time I had never heard of chemistry and calculus and physics, and, and so it was, it was a little disturbing. By the time I got to high school, you know, they had decided that I couldn't take a full college prep load and, ah, ah, I was taking a lot of what's called industrial arts classes--whatever the hell they are. Now, what, what happened for me, and the way things dove-tailed in a way that worked is that I grew up in the fifties and sixties, and I graduated, ah, from high school in 1968. And, it was the year, really, when affirmative action was becoming a national policy at, ah, colleges and universities across country.
By the time I was in 10th grade, ah, I was restricted to taking what were called industrial arts classes. I've never really been able to figure out quite what they were all about. And I was only only allowed to take a very marginal number of, of college prep classes. Ah, but you have to remember, ah, what the '60's was like in, in America what the late '60s was like, I mean, a lot of things were going on in America and despite the things and the message that I was being given in high school, I, I really think that, ah, a lot of things came together to make me think that there was no reason for me to any pay attention to what people were telling me in the high school. I would say basically, you know, you have to look first of all at what was going on in the, in the, in the society. There had been urban riots throughout the sixties. Ah, there was a riot in Newark. There was a riot in, in, ah, in, in Detroit, the riot in, ah, L.A., ah, Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were killed in the year that, ah, I graduated from high school. The, the civil rights movement was still a potent force in terms of the consciousness of America. There was a Black Power, Black consciousness movement going on. And all these things, ah, in combination with three other things, I would say, made a big difference for me. The first thing is that, ah, the one gift that my parents were able to give me that I, I think is really more important than anything else was they gave me the gift of self confidence. Ah, they always taught me that I was no better than anyone else. But I was taught to believe and I always have believed, that, ah, I was as good as anyone, anyplace, anytime on the face of this planet. And that gave me the ego strength to ignore the kinds of things that I was hearing in the high school. And, ah, I knew that, ah, it was possible for me to focus my energies and work hard. But my feeling is, ah, looking back--
Yeah, pick it up again.
But my feeling is looking back at, ah. Can I stop for a second?
Yeah, I knew that I was going to be willing to work hard in college because I had decided because of all the things that were going on in society that I wanted to somehow make a contribution and that I wanted to do something, that I wanted to make something out of my life. But the way I look at, ah, at the way, the way I looked at American life then, it seemed to me that, ah, that there had always been people of color, Blacks in particular, who had been willing to work hard. But working hard had never been enough to allow them, ah, entrance into mainstream institutions, ah, throughout American society. And that's why I had felt at the time that I was, ah, really, ah, lucky to be part of the generation, ah, that was going to be able to be the recipients of these programs that they were calling Affirmative Action. For me, the whole era of Affirmative Action was something that I saw as representing hope, as representing encouragement, and as representing, ah, a chance, ah, that American society was giving, at least in, in some kind of a way, for the first time in its history, to allow people of color to be in a position where their individual capabilities, their human promise could flower and blossom in ways that had never been the case over the centuries and it was in that respect that I think, ah, my feelings about what was going on in that era, dove-tailed with this new range of social programs that opened up, ah, for the first time higher education to people of color. And, ah, without Affirmative Action, there is no doubt, that, ah, I would not have been able to go to St. Joe's. But I got to St. Joe's. Ah, I worked very hard and I wound up graduating number one in my department and that's when I wound up with the opportunity to go to Yale Law School. And, ah, so I went to Yale Law School, ah, feeling that, ah, I was on the crest, part of the crest, of a, of a social movement. And that American society was finally opening up in some limited ways, ah, to allow people of color and Blacks in particular to participate in all aspects of American life. And this was a first time kind of thing. It had never happened before in America. And, I felt proud and I still do feel proud to be a part of that process. And, that's why, in part, I found it so disturbing to find that those of us who had worked so hard against even greater obstacles to go to college, to go to professional school, when we got there found that we were stigmatized and I, I want to make one addendum, you have to remember, ah, what it feels like to be stigmatized in an environment and then sort of edit back to other experiences you've had in life. I can remember being a sophomore and junior at St. Joseph's--
Excuse me. I'm sorry. We're rolling out of tape.
You have to remember that it's very disturbing, ah, to be in an environment like Yale Law School and find that people feel that, ah, there's some question about whether or not you belong, ah, there because you're a person of color. I mean I would edit back in my own mind to, ah, the all White dormitory house that I lived in at, ah, at St. Joes, where, ah, you know I would work night in and night out and the White kids would come into my room and say, "Hey man, you know, you don't have to work that hard to get through this college." You know what I mean? You know, "We have the test, you can do this. You can do that." Now a lot of those kids went on to law schools and, ah, they weren't stigmatized at St. Joe's, they weren't stigmatized at law school. And, ah, you know, I went, came, the number one student in my department and I go to Yale and I'm stigmatized, you know, that to me is disturbing and that to me pisses me off. Because I know it has nothing to do with who I am as a person, anymore than it has to do with who the other students of color are in these environments. It has everything to do with how we're perceived in American society and the seeds of those perceptions are rooted--in my--feeling both in societal racism and in institutional racism but they have little or nothing to do with the, the human province of people of color in these environments.
Okay, so now I want to jump ahead to, um, the, um, brief that you helped write when you were in Yale. You told me that what you were trying to do was to stand the case, as it was being perceived widely in this country, on its head. So, can you tell me what you sought to do in terms of what you thought the--
When you were at Yale you had a very specific relationship to the Bakke case. Could you tell me about the brief that you helped write?
Well, you know, while I was, at the same time that I was sort of coming to terms with the bitter realities of, of some of the experience of what it's like to be a person of color at Yale, ah, the, the Bakke case was winding its way through the courts. In part of my last year in, ah, the, ah, law school the court had decided that it was going to decide the case so, uh, a group of us, ah, including a Yale Law School Professor, ah, crafted [ a ]an amicus curiae brief in the Bakke decision for the Yale Black Law Student Union. And, ah, in that brief what we tried to do was argue for a more meaningful, substantive conception of equal protection in contemporary America. We talked in terms of a genuine equality that really, ah, reflected the nature of the kind of multi-cultural and multi-racial society that we live in. And, ah, that brief, ah, has always served as a kind of starting point for me in terms of my own ideas about Affirmative Action and equality in modern America.
What do you think, what did you think, um, was wrong about the way that many Americans thought about the Bakke case and Affirmative Action and reverse discrimination?
Well, I found myself wondering why it was that Affirmative Action was considered to be a range of programs that never really discriminated against individual rights. I found myself wondering why it was that a range of programs that were conceived in response to centuries of brutal racial oppression in this country, ah, why these, why these programs, why the debate around these programs didn't focus on the perceived needs and the perceived rights of people of color and Blacks in particular. And I found it very disturbing that, ah, really the focus of the debate rather than, ah, the range of people that had suffered these indignities over time, rather than focusing on them, the debate focused on middle-class White guys like Mr. Bakke.
Um, now, what do you think, do the rights that we enjoy under the Constitution come to us as individuals or do they come to us as members of groups?
Should law be color conscious?
Well, I think that if you're going to understand why it is that, ah, Affirmative Action is important in contemporary American society, you have to understand why it is. Ah, at the end of the '60's, Affirmative Action programs were created to begin with. I mean the reality is that Affirmative Action programs were created to offset a range of institutional measures, ah, that existed in American higher education, that ah--
Should law be color conscious?
Well, to answer that question, it seems to me that you really have to look at the nature of the kind of multi-racial, multi-cultural society that we live in and within that context you have to look why it was that Affirmative Action came into existence at the end of the '60's, to begin with. Affirmative Action came into existence because for the first time in American history, institutions of higher education had made a determination that it was going to be important to create a situation where the, ah, the human province, the individual capabilities, the individual potentialities of people of color would receive a propitious environment in which they could mature and develop and flower and blossom in a way that had never taken place in this country. And what institutions of American education had to do across this country in order to make that real was to deal with a range of, ah, institutional measures that had to be built upon the normal admissions process in off, in order to offset a range of criteria called the traditional admissions criteria, that would have obscured the human promise of a whole generation of people of color in this society.
You were talking about how, how Affirmative Action got instituted in the first place.
Yeah, I mean, at a certain point, ah, it became clear to the universities that there were, that not withstanding the great strengths of their traditional admissions criteria, there were serious limits. Now, let's take a look at those limits. I mean, they've been much discussed, ah, but I think little understood over the years in, in this country. I mean a lot has been said about the, the so-called racial bias involved in these criteria, and that certainly exists. It has to do with the fact that there are certain segments of the American population that were kept separate and distinct and had a different range of opportunities than other Americans. There's also a cultural bias that's related to and a complement of the, ah, the problems indigenous to that. What's less talked about, which, which is of equal concern, not just to Black Americans and other people of color, but also Whites is the fact that there's a serious class bias with respect to those criteria. It's no accident that, ah, White kids in Beverly Hills, Shakers Heights, and Scarsdale do a helluva lot better than White kids in Appalachia, Cicero Chicago and South Boston. Affirmative Action now comes on the scene with respect to a range of criteria that are limited in all these ways and one other way that I think is extraordinarily important but is usually overlooked. The criteria, ah, the grades and the tests that are normally used are basically designed to do one thing and, ah, even the admissions officials admit that it does this one thing in, in a kind of limited way. The design is to try and determine what they call a predicted first year average, what a person's grade point average is going to be in the first year of college or law school or medical school. So, that's the context in which Affirmative Action comes on the scene. But what is the mission of Affirmative Action? Affirmative Action is concerned about things much more important than what a person's grade point average is going to be in the first year of college. It's concerned about, what are we going to do in America for the first time to make it possible so that over the term of a college and professional school career, people of color will be able to exercise, you know, their human capabilities and to participate and can contribute, ah, in all aspects of American life in ways that have never before been the case. So, what we find is, the range of progressive social programs that have a much more, ah, ah, utopian mission and underlay much more important core goals than the truncated vision that usually was a part of the application process, even in so far as White Americans are concerned. Ah. Can I stop there for a second?
I don't want to get into too much of this.
I want to try and personalize things a bit. Do the rights that you enjoy as a citizen come to you as an individual or as a member of a particular group?
I think, I think really in the context of American history that that's really a very false distinction. I mean obviously my rights come to me as a function of, of being an individual. But what does it mean to be an individual of color or Black in this, in this society apart from one's racial identity. The two are inextricably intertwined. And my individuality, to a certain extent, has been determined by who it is, ah, or what it is to be a person of color in the latter part of 20th century America. And in fact, it is precisely this reality that admissions committees around the country were responding to. And that's why they decided that, one of the additional factors that they were going to have to begin to consider when it came to admitting students, was their racial background. You know this was not a decision that was made in a vacuum. It was a decision that was made with respect to a particular understanding of the nature of American history with respect to Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, some Asian Americans and Blacks. And all these things taken together are a part of why Affirmative Action is important. But what Affirmative Action is really about is trying to expand our conception of what equal protection means in the latter part of the 20th century. Ah--Can I stop there a second.
So how does equal protection come into play with this issue?
What we're talking about is really expanding our conception of what it means, ah, to provide substantive equal protection to all Americans. And, what we're suggesting is that, ah, it's, it's going to be important if all Americans are to be treated equally. That all the significant factors that play a role in their mobility through American society are considered, even if those factors embrace race or gender or class for that matter. And what's important about understanding how Affirmative Action works in this whole process is that if you look at it this way, you're not talking about a range of programs that is giving Blacks and other people of color anything. If you're not talking about a program that inevitably discriminates against the individual potentialities of Whites, what you're talking about are a range of programs that are designed to offset a specific set of institutional criteria that for generations had been discriminating against the individual potentialities of people of color. And something like that ought to be permissible in American society. I mean those kinds of rational differentiations have been made in American society with, ah, with respect to its admissions policies for much more mundane reasons. Ah, these admissions committees have distinguished between Yale alumni and non-Yale alumni, to admit them. They have distinguished between people from, ah, the far west as opposed to people from the east so that they can do that it seems to me that it's much more important for them to consider whether or not someone applying is, ah, a Native American or someone who is defined as a Black American to understand the historical context out of which, you know, they're, they're life experience grows. And these kinds of rational differentiations, it seems to me, ah, are, are perfectly normal within the context of a society that's moving toward a meaningful concept of equality. Because they have nothing to do with impairing the rudimentary principle of individual merit as defined by the human promise. And that fact is what American Affirmative Action programs are all about, trying to create a situation where the human promise of people of color is realized the first time in American history and trying to do this in the face of a range of admissions criteria that have a much more truncated vision of what, ah, normal admissions procedures have normal--have, have usually been all about.
Now, I want to throw this at you. What do you respond when people say, well other ethnic immigrant groups in this society have not needed special programs like this to make it. How come Blacks are different?
Well, I would, I would say two things when it comes to Affirmative Action. I take it, to begin with, that it's a, it's a, it's a mistake to dichotomize, ah, Affirmative Action to a Black White issue. Affirmative Action is much more, and it always has been, much more than a Black White issue. It's an issue that involves Native Americans. It involves Hispanic Americans. It involves some Asian Americans. It, from the beginning has always involves a certain context, White American women. And, really what we're talking about is, in what context ought Affirmative Action programs to be permissible and what context ought they not to be. And to look at the experience of, of American immigrant groups, White immigrant groups, and for that matter other immigrant groups who come to this country and to adjudge or to assess the, ah, performance of people of color in this society over time based upon, ah, the experiences of these other immigrant groups is really to compare apples with oranges. And let me tell you what I mean by that. Let's, let's look at reality of the American experience. Let's look at the Native American experience for example. Native Americans were the only group of Americans that waged a 300 year war against White encroachment. The result of that war was almost virtual genocide and removal from their tribal lands. Mexican Americans were the only group of Americans that were uprooted from an ongoing modern nation and their the only Americans that has a culture that has remain close to their original land-base in Mexico. Black Americans were the only group in this country to experience 200, 250 years of, of, ah, of slavery. And what I'm arguing is that all of these experiences are not only distinctive but cataclysmiclly different from the types of problems, which is not to undermine or not to deny that, ah, other immigrant groups coming to this country, did not face problems. They did. The Irish faced problems. The Jews faced problems. The Italians faced problems. And, I'm empathetic with respect to all those problems. But to suggest that the problems that they faced in mainland America are analogous to the problems that Native Americans or Mexican Americans or Black Americans, for example, is just a false analogy. And the two have nothing to do with one another in terms of understanding why it's important that Affirmative Action existing in temporary American nor did it have anything to do with a profound understanding of the texture and fabric of American life over the centuries and what the consequences have been of the type of regional oppression that existed here for some groups and not others.
Okay. Cut.. Good.
So, in terms of unfair competition, where do you think the stigma belongs?
Well, I, I, have several things, I have two or three things to say about the whole idea of, of stigma. Ah, first of all, I think that this, the threshold idea that what it is about Affirmative Action stigmatizes people of color is the programs themselves is just, ah, a mistake. And I think it reflects first of all a really hollow conception of what it means to be stigmatized to begin with. Ah, because if you really look at that notion, what does it say? The idea is that if not for Affirmative Action then people of color, let's take Blacks as an example, would not be discriminated in, in contemporary American life. So the idea is, in theory at least, at some point in American history, there is supposed to have been a time when Black Americans were not stigmatized. But let's look at the reality of the American experience. Ah, whether you're talking about slavery or apartheid in the United States or post Second World War II de facto segregation. There's never been a point in time to begin with when, ah, Black Americans have not been stigmatized. Ah, before we were stigmatized because we were excluded. Now, we're stigmatized because we're included. But whether, whether your talking about someone a W.E.B. DuBois at the turn of the century who went to Harvard and studied sociology and had--
Okay, so you were talking about how Blacks have been stigmatized.
Yeah, well, the reality is that, ah, before we were stigmatized because we were excluded and now we're stigmatized because we are included. I think what we see really is a simple transformation of the type of stigma that people of color face in contemporary America. And, ah, that may be true but that stigma comes not from Affirmative Action programs, I would argue that it comes from societal racism writ large and institutional racism in particular. I mean let's look at the experiences of Black Americans over the whole of this century. W.E.B. DuBois was a great social scientist, a brilliant student at Harvard, a brilliant student at the University of Berlin, that did not translate into jobs in White universities for him when he returned from Europe. Ah, Paul Robeson was one of the greatest renaissance men that this country has ever produced. That, that did not transfer into him, once he graduated valedictorian from Rutgers and, ah, once he had been an excellent law student at Columbia into a legal profession that was open to him. Martin Luther King went to school in the post World War II era, when he got his Ph.D. in theology in Boston, that did not translate for him, into an open in American Society. So my argument is that, ah, the idea that there is some reality to this stigma, that is inherent to Affirmative Action apart from the culture of racism that exists in this society is an illusion to begin with. But let's look at this issue a little bit more deeply with respect to stigma. I mean how is it that the one program in this country that for once, ah, in American history, created a situation where the individual capabilities of people of color would be allowed to flourish and subsequent equal opportunity would at least, in a piecemeal fashion, become a reality with respect to open participation of people of color throughout all dimensions of American life, how is it that the one generation in America for whom, ah, this society is supposed to be open, finds itself stigmatized when, if you look at the experience of White Americans, generation after generation after generation over centuries of White Americans participated in rigged competitions in the academia and in the work place. Rigged simply because the human promise of people of color was either crushed and or, or seriously repressed. And how is it that they never have been stigmatized and we are stigmatized by this range of programs that in fact only allow for us to participate in some halfway egalitarian, uh, fashion in the type of America that we live in the latter part of the 20th century. I want to stop this for a second.
Am I, ah, still talking too fast?
So do, uh, Blacks of your generation in college have any reason to feel ashamed of having gotten in through Affirmative Action?
Yeah, I think the, the answer to that question is that a definitive no. Ah, I think it's clearly the case that there's no reason for the beneficiaries of Affirmative Action programs to feel any shame or stigma whatsoever. In fact, in any sane society , ah, people of color, Blacks in particular, would, ah, receive these kinds of programs as a function of their constitutional right, not to have their, ah, human promise discriminated against by an array of criteria, ah, that's not adequate to the task of really ferreting it out. Ah, it does seem to me, if there's any shame for stigma to be associated with Affirmative Action whatsoever, that it belongs in another place, and where that place is, it seems to me clear. First of all, it belongs in, it belongs on the shoulders of the society writ large. Because it's a society, any society that creates a situation where you have the type of brutal racial oppression that existed in this country, that causes after centuries, ah, there to be a need for programs like Affirmative Action should be ashamed and ought to be stigmatized, ah, because of that especially if they consider themselves to be the leader of the free world, all about equal and opportunity for all people, not just here but across the planet. Moreover, it seems to me if any individuals ought to be stigmatized as a function of, of Affirmative Action programs, that of, of, Affirmative Action programs, that it ought to be those individuals who had benefited from the egregious victimization of people of color over the centuries and I would say that, ah, those people, ah, ah--
Keep rolling. I want to ask you, did you, did you feel ashamed? Did you feel that you had an asterisk next to your name as someone who got to college and to law school through affirmative action?
Well I felt, I felt that, ah, I, after I became aware, ah, that stigma was an issue, I felt that there were those who were going to, ah, make assumptions about me, ah, because I was a person of color. Ah, but my feeling is that, ah, ah, that was the case in 1950 when I was going to a segregated elementary school in Merchantville, New Jersey and that was the case in 1968 when I was going to a predominantly Black school in Camden, New Jersey, before Affirmative Action came into place. And I think that stigma would be there anyway. And it doesn't at all, ah, bother me in an existential sense. Because I think that stigma is very much a reflection of the values, the racist values of the general culture and I think it says absolutely nothing about me or the other participants in these programs. Ah, people that are really benefiting from programs that do nothing more than allow them the opportunity to actualize their human promise for the first time in American history.
In thinking back to the decision on the Bakke case, what disappointed you about the thinking embodied in it?
Well, there were a couple of things in particular I would have to say that were very disappointing about the decision. I mean, first of all, it seems to me that in a sense the decision took place in almost a historical vacuum. I mean, here we have, ah, arguably, the most important, ah, civil rights case since Brown, ah, that's supposed to, ah, be about the nature, the inherent nature of Affirmative Action programs, a range of programs that were created to deal with legacies of, of, of, ah, centuries of discrimination, racial discrimination in this country. And the focus of the case is not the perceived needs, not the Constitutional rights of people of color, but rather the perceived needs, the per,., perceived Constitutional rights of a individual, middle class White American male. Now, there are problems with that and I think the problems with that, ah, flow into how this issue has been discussed in the media, ah, for years. And the basic problem is that really, ah, we wind up discussing, ah, Affirmative Action in a historical context that suggests that apartheid can end on Tuesday and racism disappears on Wednesday. Now, if apartheid ended in South Africa tomorrow, no one would assume that racism would end the following day. And apartheid ended just a few short decades ago in this country and it does not seem to me that the type of issues that are being discussed in terms of Affirmative Action in contemporary America really relate to the historical reality that made it, made it, ah, ah, important that Affirmative Action programs that exist in the latter part of the 20th century.
I want you to think about addressing this answer to Black students, Black young people. Would you tell me what you think about the right and wrong ways are to think about race conscious remedies.
Little tired. Could we stop just one one second.
Tell me what you think a helpful and true way is of thinking about these issues.
Well, you know, I don't claim to know the answer to all things but I, I would say that one thing is clear when it comes to Affirmative Action programs. If you're try to, to offset a range of, of patterns of institutional bigotry and institutional racism, ah, that has affected people of color for centuries in this country, the only sure way of doing it is focusing on the perceived needs and the constitutional rights of those people. You don't get at those solutions through looking at these, ah, issues through a prism of the experiences of people like Mr. Bakke. I mean one of the central problems wrong with the contemporary debate on Affirmative Action is that really represents a kind of Alice in Wonderland effect, and what I mean by that is that you wind up trying to focus on an array of issues connected to Affirmative Action which were designed to relate to the specific historical problems that people of color in this country have faced. I'm missing this--I got to go back--
So, let's begin with your Alice in Wonderland metaphor.
Okay, I think the problem is, one of the profound problems with the debate about Affirmative Action in contemporary America is that the, the contours of the debate are defined by, what I would call, a kind of Alice in Wonderland effect. In that, ah, the rights of people of color to equal access and substantive equal opportunity in contemporary America are seen through a prism of the experiences of middle class White Americans. And there's no way to resolve the particular types of problems that people of color face by looking at, ah, the legal issues that address the concerns of folk who have benefited from that victimization and that again, to me, is a very disturbing reality when it comes to why, I think many of us, felt such great disappointment with the Bakke decision because the core of the society's concern, after centuries of discrimination against Native Americans, against Mexican Americans, against Puerto Rican Americans, against Black Americans was not to resolve Affirmative Action with a view towards the needs and rights of people from these communities but rather to focus on the perceived needs of an allegedly innocent White, ah, who wanted to go to medical school.