Christopher Edley, Jr. Harvard Law Professor, Presidential Advisor

Civil Rights Journal, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Christopher Edley, Jr. Harvard Law Professor, Presidential Advisor


Christopher Edley, Jr. has taught at Harvard Law School since 1981. His recent book, Not All Black and White: Affirmative Action, Race and American Values, grew out of his work as special counsel to President Clinton and director of the White House review of affirmative action. In that capacity, he participated in developing the President's "Mend It, Don't End It" speech on affirmative action. He is founding co-director of The Civil Rights Project, a recently launched think-tank based at Harvard.

Mr. Edley is a 1973 graduate of Swarthmore College and a 1978 honors joint-degree graduate of the Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School where he was an Editor of the Harvard Law Review. Summer Intern Alicia Bond spoke with Mr. Edley in July, 1999.

CRJ: How did you become interested in civil rights?

I was born in 1953, and as I was growing up in Philadelphia, I began to pay attention to the events related to civil rights. Of course, my father was active in the civil fights movement and also spent some time working as a consultant for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission back in the early 60s; working on Native American issues, visiting Indian reservations and investigating civil rights concerns facing American Indians. I've always been interested in public policy and politics and a career that would involve those issues particularly as they affect a broad audience.

CRJ: How has Four educational background prepared you for work with civil rights?

My undergraduate training was in math and economics and my economics background has continued to be helpful. That's what I built on in graduate school by doing a joint degree in law and public policy. I always intended on a career focused on public policy issues. That combination of training in law and public policy has served me well.

CRJ: What do you hope to accomplish as a commissioner in the next six years?

I think that during the years of Republican control the Commission really became a shadow of its former self. It was not sufficiently aggressive in bringing the nation's attention to unmet challenges and new opportunities to advance civil rights issues. I think that we have an opportunity in the next few years to try and make up for lost ground and strengthen the institution. Substantively, I'm very interested in the ways in which civil rights law enforcement can be an effective tool in opening opportunity in education and employment. We have to continue working on the traditional anti-discriminatory agenda and issues related specifically to economic opportunity. The second general area I am very interested in is the set of new concerns arising from the Nation's exploding diversity. The expanding Latino and Asian populations are causing a lot of communities to think about civil rights issues. A great deal of civil rights thinking is stuck in a black-white paradigm. The Commission can help the nation update its conceptualization of the civil rights struggle.

CRJ: HOW do you foresee future race relations?

It depends on my mood. Some days I'm very optimistic and other days I feel as though there are substantial majorities that are indifferent to the moral shortcomings of the nation.

CRJ: You've been particularly focused lately on affirmative action. What do you see happening to affirmative action in the next few years?

Affirmative action is going to continue to be a battleground issue in the courts and in politics. There are deeply held values at stake on both sides, as well as sharp differences of perceptions. I personally am a strong supporter of President Clinton's "mend it don't end it" approach and believe that affirmative action is a critical tool for remedying discrimination and creating inclusive institutions and communities in the pursuit of excellence. Opponents of affirmative action, however, are well organized, well funded and very skillful in attracting public attention to their views. …

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