It’s clear that Peter Beinart of The New Republic is not reading this blog (or at least not learning its lessons), for he has now made a major contribution to the literature of the Invidious Ubiquitous Non Sequitur. But Beinart is a good writer and TNR is a serious and thoughtful journal, and so he has done so with a flair and a twist.
“The next time you hear a Republican denouncing racial preferences at the University of Michigan,” Beinart advises, “test his or her moral consistency with three simple questions.” “Moral consistency.” That’s nice. I will list Beinart’s questions, then quote and discuss his comments about them.
Have you denounced other identity-based preferences in college admissions?
Here we go.
Republicans make a big deal of the fact that under Michigan’s numerically based admissions system, black applicants get points just for being black. But students also get points for being from different regions of the country or even different parts of the state.
So, discriminating on the basis of race is no worse than discriminating on the basis of geography.
And here we go again.
And, if geographic preferences are as bad as racial preferences, surely parental preferences are worse.
The point is pure IUNS: if you’re willing to discriminate on the basis of geography or legacy status, you’re “morally inconsistent” if you’re unwilling to discriminate on the basis of race. This is a very strange morality. But leaving morality aside, this position is inconsistent only if one regards “merit,” i.e., grades and test scores, as the supreme, overriding value. But merit need not be the basis for criticizing preferences. One could simply entertain the increasingly quaint notion that racial and religious discrimination are, in our tradition, uniquely evil.
Do you believe in color-blindness across the board?
Here Beinart attempts (unsuccessfully in my view) to respond to the above criticism, but then he makes a good point, or at least an arguably good point.
Affirmative action opponents might distinguish racial preferences from geographic and parental ones by claiming that, given this country’s terrible history, there is something especially toxic about classifying people by race. The problem with that retort is that Republicans and conservatives are perfectly willing to classify people by race when it serves policy goals they like.
Beinart points to Republican and conservative support, or alleged support, for racial profiling of black motorists and Muslim/Arab passengers as proof of inconsistency. I think there’s a serious issue here worth pursuing — this point is not, in short, off the wall, as I believe his first point was — but I also think it’s not quite the “Gotcha!” that Beinart believes. First, note that no advocate of colorblindness I know says race should never be taken into account. No one, for example, would insist on placing a red-headed Irish cop undercover in a black gang.
One defense of this “exception” is that it’s not really an exception. The core principle of colorblindness, this defense would hold, is not blindness but neutrality: all races must be treated the same. This is the basis of the criticism that the Japanese internment was unfair not because ethnicity was taken as a proxy for potential disloyalty but because no Germans or Italians, equally risky, were interned. (I’m not comfortable with this myself, but there it is.) Thus, the argument would go, as long as we profile any and every group for which there is a reasonable profile (and the reasonable requirement would place the burden on the government to establish the claimed benefits of the profiling) for particular crimes, there is no discrimination involved. I think these are interesting points, but as I said I’m not completely comfortable with them myself. I agree with Beinart here to the extent that anyone defending any racial profiling has the very heavy burden of justifying it. I suspect this burden will lead to the very destination where the courts have arrived on racial classification: they can be justified only if they are compelling and narrowly tailored. I say “anyone” and “any racial profiling” here because, although Beinart doesn’t mention it, preferentialists are clearly engaging in racial profiling when they assume skin color is a valid proxy for diversity-enhancing qualities, and then give preferences based on that assumption.
Have you denounced the affirmative action in your own party?
Here Beinart refers to the showcasing of minorities at Republican conventions, etc.
Since President Bush took office, Republican reverse discrimination has only intensified. Bush has appointed an African American secretary of education who had never held federal or even state office and a Hispanic secretary of housing and urban development who had never held office above the county level. (When Bush’s first choice for secretary of labor bowed out, he selected another nonwhite woman: Can anyone say quota?) In the wake of Trent Lott’s downfall, Republican National Chairman Marc Racicot earlier this month vowed to appoint more blacks to positions in the GOP. Given that politically experienced black Republicans are about as common as black college applicants with perfect SAT scores, Racicot has virtually pledged to discriminate against more qualified whites. What Bush and Racicot realize, of course, is that racial preferences can help Republicans appeal to black, and even some white, voters. But, if affirmative action is justified when it helps the political fortunes of the GOP, why isn’t it justified when it helps create a racially diverse college campus?
Beinart calls these examples “as flagrant an expression of racial preferences as anything taking place in Ann Arbor.” I believe this reflects excessive exuberance, but let’s forgive it and let Beinart enjoy a good, if relatively minor, clean hit on a Republican vulnerability. At least he didn’t mention Rice and Powell as examples. It is debatable whether appointing someone to a high party or government office (cabinet member, etc.) on the basis of race violates any “right” or not, but it is not debatable that it violates the colorblind principle. And there’s a very good word to describe this sort of behavior by politicians: pandering. And I agree that pandering is worse coming from Republicans because when they do it they hypocritically violate their stated principles. Democrats, having abandoned the principle that burdens and benefits should not be distributed on the basis of race, at least aren’t hypocrites about it. Pandering is what they preach.
Indeed, taken as a whole, the point of Beinart’s column is unclear. He says in conclusion that
Republicans aren’t wrong to espouse merit and color-blindness. They’re wrong to espouse merit and color-blindness while ignoring the ways in which they violate those principles themselves.
Note, by the way, that he must claim a devotion to “merit” to make his point, which I believe misses the point of the most fundamental criticisms of preferences. Nevertheless, when is all is said and done, what is Beinart saying. If Republicans “aren’t wrong” to espouse colorblindness, are they right? He doesn’t say. The main thrust of his criticism seems to be that they act like Democrats. And in those few places where this is true, that’s damning enough.