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“For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law”

Terri Schlichenmeyer | 9/13/2013, midnight
Hiring on the basis of race or gender is supposedly illegal … but it happens. And in the new book ...
"For Discrimination"

You were pretty sure the job was yours.

You successfully interviewed, passed a background check, even met the office’s other workers. Everything looked positive–until you got a “we’re sorry, but . . .” letter. Someone else got hired, and there was a small part of you that wondered if it happened that way not because of your skills but because of your skin.

Hiring on the basis of race or gender is supposedly illegal … but it happens. And in the new book “For Discrimination” (c.2013, Pantheon $25.95 / $28.95, Canada 295 pages) by Randall Kennedy, we read why the author believes that affirmative action is an idea that needs to stay.

It should come as no surprise that discussions of an early form of affirmative action came at the end of the Civil War. It may also come as no surprise that Andrew Johnson opposed a constitutional amendment on the basis that it gave “the Negro” advantages that had never been given to other groups.

In 1945, New York was the first state to pass a law banning racial discrimination in the workplace. Some 20 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” he contends.

Filled with law terms, legal precedents, and words that made my head swim, “For Discrimination” is very, very academic. The author 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 benefited 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.