The Limits of Candor

For Discrimination
Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law
Randall Kennedy
Pantheon, $25.95, 304 pp.

For Discrimination offers the bravest and most honest defense of affirmative action in a long time (maybe ever), and for that we are all in Randall Kennedy’s debt. But his candor reveals how tough it will be to sell a forthright approach to the American people, to their representatives, and even to judges. This helps explain why so many defenders of affirmative action have resorted to euphemisms and evasion, a strategy Kennedy acknowledges but deplores.

It is best to start by allowing Kennedy to speak for himself. Here is what I take to be the heart of his argument:

Surely one of the most influential defenders of affirmative action over the past decade has been Barack Obama. Acutely sensitive to charges that he supports racial favoritism that discriminates against whites, Obama defines affirmative action in a fashion meant to drain it of all controversiality. “Affirmative action programs,” he writes, “when properly structured, can open up opportunities otherwise closed to minorities without diminishing opportunities for white students.” But how can that be? If a campus or work site is at all constrained by scarcity, as all selective ones are, special efforts made on behalf of racial minorities will necessarily diminish opportunities for white, even if only minimally. Obama is simply obscuring the...

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About the Author

William Galston is Ezra Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of Liberal Purposes and Liberal Pluralism, both published by Cambridge University Press. Galston served as deputy assistant for domestic policy under President Bill Clinton, 1993–95.