REFLECTIONS OF AN AFFIRMATIVE ACTION BABY. By Stephen L. CarterBasic Books, 286 pp., $23 APPLYING to law schools as a Stanford University senior in the 1970s, Stephen Carter had the eye-opening experience of being turned down initially by Harvard, only to be telephoned days later by officials apologizing for their "error." He had been rejected, they informed him, because we assumed from your record that you were white.' " This "error and the school's hasty attempt to "correct" it - contained a two-fold insult: the undisguised acknowledgment that they were accepting Carter only after finding out he was black and the dismaying revelation that these admissions officers had automatically assumed that a student with Carter's excellent undergraduate record could not have been black. Carter chose to go to Yale, which had already accepted his application, where he is currently the William Nelson Cromwell professor of law. But he has no doubt that he got into Yale Law School on account of its policy of affirmative action. When the Yale Political Union scheduled a debate on affirmative action in the wake of the 1978 Bakke reverse-discrimination case, Carter was one of a group of black student protesters shouting "We are not debatable!" But this "affirmative action baby" has come a long way since then. Although he still sees affirmative action as a way of providing opportunities, he is strongly opposed to the notion that an institution should hire a less qualified minority-group member merely to achieve a semblance of racial "balance." The thrust of his argument is not so much an attack on affirmative action as a plea for intellectual honesty in discussing issues of race, civil rights, social justice, academic freedom, and the pursuit o f excellence. The civil-rights movement, Carter points out, has made allegiance to affirmative action a kind of shibboleth. Black intellectuals like Thomas Sowell or recent Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, who dissent from this position, are frequently - and, Carter believes, unfairly - branded as traitors to their race. A strong believer in meritocracy (white racism only inspired him to work harder, he says), Carter suspects that ending affirmative action would not be a serious setback for blacks. He argues that it is far more important to address the overwhelming problems of the urban poor - drugs, crime, unemployment, health care, housing, and education - than to worry whether well-educated, middle-class blacks like himself get into one of the two top law schools or only into one of the top 10. But he is also dismayed by the fact that in conservative and neoconservative circles, vociferous opposition to affirmative action is an end in itself, with no alternative plans for meeting the more serious concerns of black people. Carter has a splendid ability - rare among academics - to cut through cant. Here he is, for example, on the problem of racism on campus and the demand of minority groups to be protected from "politically incorrect" speech: "Is it really necessary to run unhappily to some white authority figure to complain that a racist white student thinks black students are stupid? Lots of white people think black people are stupid. They are stupid themselves for thinking so, but regulation will not make them smarter." The "reflections" Carter offers in this book are complex and deeply thoughtful, but he has a gift for presenting his ideas clearly and vividly. Perhaps his most interesting argument is his case against the current enshrinement of "diversity." Carter warns of at least two dangerous consequences of the rush to embrace diversity as a desirable goal in and of itself. Pleas for diversity, he notes, have gone hand-in-hand with demands for the abandonment of so-called white male, Eurocentric standards, which, in turn, has become an attack on the value of all standards whatsoever. Furthermore, as he illustrates, the notion of diversity has also come to mean that one hires a black (or female or Hispanic or gay) person expressly in order to represent and articulate "the" black (or female or Hispanic or gay) position - as if there were but one position for all members of a given group, and as if each person were required to think not as an individual but as a specimen of his or her group. Rejecting labels, Carter eloquently denies that he is a "black neoconservative." His positions on a variety of issues, as he points out, are anathema to the current crop of "movement conservatives." Although he has sometimes supported "the so-called Reagan doctrine in foreign affairs" and sympathized with the conservative belief in upholding standards of excellence, Carter hardly finds himself comfortable in the company of people who consider taxes "one of the great evils of the modern age." "My parents raised me to believe that paying taxes to the United States of America is a privilege, not a burden," he declares. The common-sense approach to issues displayed in this book will, I think, strike a responsive chord among a wide variety of Americans who are equally frustrated at being forced to choose between a party committed to a program of special preferences and a party that does not really seem to care about addressing the concerns of black Americans or other groups still largely stalled on the periphery of the American dream.