Confronting Affirmative Action

Affirmative action is under attack. In recent decisions, the judicial system has rejected its claims and politicians are asking, why? for whom? and how long? The recent ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Hopwood v. Texas exemplifies not only the courts’ position but also the changing nature of discourse on this complex issue. The future of affirmative action seems uncertain, at best.

Yale University will host a two-day symposium on Thursday, October 17, and Friday, October 18, to consider the controversies surrounding affirmative action. Scholars, legal experts, educators, and opinion leaders on all sides of the issue will explore the texts and discourses–legal, institutional, and cultural–that define, justify, and challenge affirmative action.

“An informed discussion of Affirmative Action, what we think of it and how we talk about it, seems imperative at the present moment. And we have assembled a fine and varied group to do so,” says Peter Brooks, Tripp Professor of Humanities and acting director of the Whitney Humanities Center. He and Paul Gewirtz, Yale Law School’s Potter Stewart Professor of Constitutional Law are organizers of the symposium.

Participants will include New York Times columnists Anthony Lewis and Richard Bernstein; former nominee for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Lani Guinier; literary critic Stanley Fish; psychologist Jerome Bruner; Abigail Thernstrom–author of Whose Votes Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights; Richard Kahlenberg–author of The Remedy: Class, Race and Affirmative Action, and other distinguished experts in the field.

The program will open on October 17 at 1:45 p.m. with a panel questioning the historical imperative of affirmative action. How do understandings of the past shape the current debate? Are there broad ethical implications to be drawn from the role of race in American society, or simply a quarrel of historical interpretations? Professor Brooks will moderate this panel. Participants include professors Owen Fiss, Yale; Randall Kennedy, Harvard; Abigail Thernstrom, and Gerald Torres, University of Texas.

A second panel will convene at 4 p.m. to consider the meaning of diversity and its relevance to affirmative action. How does the rhetoric of diversity differ from other discourses used to justify affirmative action? What is the appeal of the language of diversity for proponents, and why do opponents find it so objectionable? Professor Gewirtz will moderate this session, and Akhil Amar, Yale; Stanley Fish, Duke; William Galston, Clinton White House Domestic Policy Counsel; Anthony Lewis, and Eugene Volokh, U.C.L.A. will serve as panelists.

The future of the university in the context of affirmative action will come under scrutiny on October 18 at 10 a.m. The university has been a prime site of real and symbolic contest in this battle, pitting merit-based selection of students and faculty against selection on the grounds of race or gender. Does the definition of “merit” emerge from narrow and unexamined logic? How can the impact of affirmative action on the university be evaluated? How have the very terms of the debate changed the university? Anthony Kronman, dean of the Yale Law School and Edward J. Phelps Professor of Law, will moderate this session. Participants will be Richard Bernstein, New York Times; Jerome Bruner, New York University; Lani Guinier, University of Pennsylvania; Reva Siegel, Yale, and Richard Kahlenberg, Center for National Policy.

“This is a good moment to reflect on where we are–not only the important legal and policy questions, but also the language and rhetoric we use to discuss them,” notes Professor Gewirtz.

The symposium will take place at the Whitney Humanities Center, 53 Wall Street, New Haven, CT. All sessions are free and open to the public.

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