Kinsley’s Invidious Ubiquitous Non Sequitur

Lately I’ve been feeling a bit like Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” furiously trying to bail out a boat that is being flooded with the bilge of moral equivalence/IUNS (invidious ubiquitous non sequitur) arguments that view racial discrimination as morally indistinguishable from any other kind of discrimination. You’ve memorized this bull by now as well as I have: how can you claim to oppose racial discrimination when you’re perfectly happy to accept ballet or baseball scholarships or bonus points to Boise residents or whatever. Because of Bush, the favorite equivalence argument at the moment is that preferences for legacies are the same as preferences based on race. Alas, I fear I can’t bail fast enough, and I can feel the intellectual muck rising from ankle to knee….

Now comes Michael Kinsley to dump his load into the mix (Link thanks to Stuart Buck).

They may not have had an explicit point system at Yale in 1964, but Bush clearly got in because of affirmative action. Affirmative action for the son and grandson of alumni. Affirmative action for a member of a politically influential family. Affirmative action for a boy from a fancy prep school. These forms of affirmative action still go on.

…. George W. Bush, in fact, may be the most spectacular affirmative-action success story of all time. Until 1994, when he was 48 years old and got elected Governor of Texas, his life was almost empty of accomplishments.

You could finish this article without reading the rest and without my telling you what it says. Inconsistent, hypocrite, etc.

So what is the difference between the kind of affirmative action that got Bush where he is today and the kind he wants the Supreme Court to outlaw? One difference is that the second kind is about race, and race is an especially toxic subject. Of course, George W.’s affirmative action is about race too, at least indirectly.

Heard this too. Willing to give preferences for everything under the sun except race, aren’t you? We know what that makes W, don’t we? Of course we’re too polite to say, but you can figure it out: r*c**t.

I don’t have time now to repeat everything that is wrong with this argument. You’ve heard it all from me already anyway. The most profound flaw is the assumption that all types of discrimination lie on the same moral plane. If you’re willing to reward talent or privilege or geographical background, you can’t consistently refuse to reward race or, logically, religion. I find this argument almost bizarre in its moral obtuseness.

Another flaw, related to the first and in some sense enabling it, is the mistaken belief that a blind faith in “merit” provides the only basis for criticizing preferences. If that were true, it would make some sense to accuse people of inconsistency if they were willing to compromise merit when it benefited them (for legacies, etc.) but not when it benefited blacks and Hispanics.

But the most penetrating and persuasive criticism of racial preferences has nothing whatsoever to do with a fealty to merit. It is that discrimination on the basis of race or religions violated the fundamental American principle that people should be judged “without regard” to those characteristics. Indeed, the preferentialists are probably more committed to merit than we colorblinders. They are the ones who are unwilling to sacrifice their devotion to high grades and test scores for admission to the “flagship” schools where so many of them are or were. If they would compromise those standards, as suggested in little appreciated passages of the administration briefs in Grutter and Gratz (not the Top X% alternatives, which is all that anyone discusses), they could achieve diversity without being forced to turn to racial discrimination.

This schoolyard “You’re one, too!” refrain that legacy preference = racial preference is now so ubiquitous that I’m beginning to think there are operatives holed up somewhere in Preference Central writing everyone’s script and distributing it through mailing list, fax, and mimeograph. Otherwise how could so many of the herd of independent mines come up with the exactly the same deeply, disturbingly flawed argument?

Say What? (5)

  1. Joanne Jacobs January 24, 2003 at 4:27 am | | Reply

    In what way was W’s “affirmative action” admission to Yale about race? He was a legacy from a well-known family. Lots of whites from unfamous, non-legacy families are rejected.

    Nobody mentions that Al Gore got into Harvard only because his father was a senator. His prep school grades and SATs were not Harvard caliber.

    I was rejected by Radcliffe (then the only way for girls to apply to Harvard) and wait-listed by Yale with much higher grades and test scores than Bush or Gore. And awards, extra-curriculars, etc. My race was sure no help to me. Of course, I wasn’t a legacy. When my parents were applying to college, quotas kept Jews out. My father wanted to apply to Yale but figured it was hopeless; his family couldn’t afford it anyhow.

  2. John Rosenberg January 24, 2003 at 1:38 pm | | Reply

    Kinsley would presumably say (others have) that W’s legacy admission to Yale was itself a legacy of racism. Since blacks were excluded from Yale in past generations, black students of W’s generation were prevented by the former discrimination from having parents who attended. This is true, but it demonstrates primarily, I think, that because of history the “playing field” of real life is never level, and in some important respects can’t be made level. Rejecting W or some non-legacy to that a minority could be admitted because of race doesn’t undo the past; it just tilts the playing field in another direction.

  3. Felix_Frankfurter January 25, 2003 at 12:29 pm | | Reply

    Like so many others, Kinsley fails to understand that preferences based on race are different because the Fourteenth Amendment says they are different. This is not surprising. What is surprising is the number of so- called “legal scholars” you have cited (including Jack Balkin) that should be aware of what the Constitution says but are not.

  4. Andre Barrett March 15, 2003 at 12:23 pm | | Reply

    What happened?

  5. […] The Fallacy Of Fungible Discriminations The very first sentence of the majority opinion notes that the effect of Michigan’s prohibition of racial preferences is that a student has many avenues open to seek legacy preference in admissions, but “the same cannot be said for a black student” seeking a racial preference. Thus a state that allows preferences for tuba players or tight ends cannot bar preferences for blacks or …. […]

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