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Carter, Stephen L.(1954–) - Lawyer, writer, educator, Denied Admission to Harvard Law School, Chronology

yale affirmative action writes

Setphen L. Carter, a distinguished writer and professor of law, has gained critical acclaim and notoriety for his views on the role of religion in politics and culture and has sparked debates on the role of integrity and civility in American daily life.

Born in 1954, Stephen Lisle Carter grew up in Washington, D.C.‘s middle-class neighborhood of Cleveland Park. Carter was born into a family of highly educated professionals. His grandmother, Eunice Hunton Carter, was a member of the prosecuting team called Twenty against the Underworld, who were responsible for bringing to trial Lucky Luciano, one of New York’s famed mobsters. Stephen’s father, a lawyer, worked in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare during the administrations of presidents John F Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Stephen’s mother, Emily E. Carter, was a college graduate who worked as an assistant to the head of the National Urban Coalition. Along with his family, Stephen Carter, the second of five children, moved to Ithaca, New York, at the age of thirteen, after his father accepted a teaching position at Cornell University.

Growing up, Carter attended nearly all-white schools, in Washington, D.C. and in Ithaca. This racial imbalance never bothered Carter; indeed, it eventually provided the framework for his mindset into adulthood, giving him as a young African American male the opportunity to achieve and excel. When he took the SAT, and made a good score of 780 on the math section, Carter took the test over so that he could make a more acceptable score of 800. After graduating from Ithaca High School, Carter enrolled at Stanford University, in California, where he majored in history and in 1976 earned a BA. degree with honors.

Denied Admission to Harvard Law School

During his senior year in high school, Carter applied to various law schools. He was accepted at all of the schools except Harvard. Carter decided to attend the Yale Law School, but two days after he received his rejection letter from Harvard, he received a phone call retracting the former letter. The Harvard officials explained that there was an error: they somehow misread Carter’s application and thought that he was white. Of course Carter was insulted and turned down their late offer for admittance. In a book that Carter later wrote about the experience, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby , he stated, “I was told by one official that the school had initially rejected me because ‘we assumed from your record that you were white.’” Carter went on to say that the school had obtained “‘additional information that should have been counted in your favor’—that is, Harvard had discovered the color of my skin…. Stephen Carter, the white male, was not good enough for Harvard Law School, [while] Stephen Carter, the black male,… rated agonized telephone calls urging him to attend. And Stephen Carter, color unknown, must have been white: How else could he have achieved what he did in college?” Carter admits that even though he was accepted to Yale, he wonders if his admittance there was also based on his race. He went on and earned his J.D. degree from Yale in 1979.

Carter landed his first job as law clerk to Judge Spottswood W. Robinson III at the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C, and in 1980 he served as clerkship at the U.S. Supreme Court for Justice Thurgood Marshall. Carter admired Justice Marshall, looking up to him as a father figure. Carter was admitted to the bar in Washington, D.C, in 1981, and in the same year he became an associate at Shea & Gardner, a Washington law firm. He began teaching law at Yale in 1982, and three years later became the youngest tenured professor in the university’s history. That same year he also married Enola Aird, a fellow Yale Law School graduate. At Yale, he became the distinguished William Nelson Cromwell professor and began writing books.

In Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby , Carter discussed the positives and negatives of racial preference programs, using his own experiences as examples. He argues that affirmative action harms racial minorities more than it helps them. Carter advances three arguments in support of his thesis that affirmative action harms people of color. First, racial preferences reinforce, rather than eliminate, differences between minorities and non-minorities. Justification for affirmative action based on diversity—that is, minorities add a special viewpoint, outlook, or perspective “actually perpetuate ugly stereotypes about the different ways in which people who are white and people who are black supposedly think.” The proposition that skin color always stands for a single perspective leads to troubling results. Second, affirmative action creates the assumption that people of color can be only the best in their group but never the best, period. Carter relates how he was prevented from competing for a National Merit Scholarship in high school because he had already been chosen for the National Achievement Scholarship, an award exclusively for black students. Third, affirmative action diverts attention from the people who need the most help—poor blacks who never have the opportunity to prove themselves under affirmative action in the first place. As Carter puts it, “The most disadvantaged black people are not in a position to benefit from preferential admission.” Thus, he concludes, affirmative action is merely “racial justice on the cheap.”


1954 Born in Washington, D.C.

1967 Moves with family to Ithaca, New York

1976 Graduates with B.A. from Stanford University

1979 Earns J.D. from Yale; serves as law clerk at U.S. Court of Appeals to Judge Spottswood W. Robinson III

1980 Serves as law clerk at U.S. Supreme Court for Justice Thurgood Marshall

1981 Admitted to the bar, Washington, D.C; becomes an associate at Shea & Gardner law firm; marries Enola Aird

1982 Accepts position as assistant law professor at Yale University

1984 Promoted to associate professor at Yale

1985 Promoted to professor of law at Yale

1991 Writes Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby; awarded the William Nelson Cromwell chair

1993 Writes The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion

1994 Writes The Confirmation Mess: Cleaning Up the Federal Appointments Process

1996 Writes Integrity

1998 Writes Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy

2000 Writes God’s Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics

2002 Writes first novel, Emperor of Ocean Park

Carter, Terry (1928–) [next] [back] Carter, Lisle C.(1926–) - Lawyer, federal government official, college president, Chronology

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