Gates Anger

By most accounts Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a nice fellow. He is, however, susceptible to anger, which was on display once or twice at a recent appearance in New London, Connecticut.

His anger emerged again on the subject of affirmative action, without which this Cambridge scholar, author of numerous books and host of several PBS series said he would never have gotten into Yale, where he received his undergraduate degree.

To deny that fact, said Gates, “would make me a hypocrite as big as Mr. Justice Clarence Thomas.”

In several earlier posts (here, here, here, and here) I have dubbed this the “C’est Moi!” defense of racial preferences. Responding to a version of this argument offered by Mr. Theodore Shaw, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in the third and fourth of those posts above, I had this to say, which is also applicable to Prof. Gates:

One can readily understand why Mr. Shaw regards his own success as compelling justification for the racial discrimination against someone else required to achieve it, but there may be some benefit in those of us without his interest examining the argument. Let us begin by assuming, with him, that he would not have been accepted at Wesleyan or Columbia without the racial preference he received, although in fact that may not be true. (In the absence of preferences, after all, some minorities are still admitted into even the most selective schools.) Still, there is no reason to assume that it was Wesleyan and Columbia or nowhere. Since Wesleyan found him “qualified,” he presumably would have been accepted elsewhere, and since it sounds as though he was poor he would have qualified for financial aid. Indeed, he might have wound up exactly where he is, for even the NAACP LDF doesn’t require graduation from elite colleges and Ivy League law schools of its employees. Nor is there any reason to assume that the white’s, Asian’s, or other non-preferred minority’s place Mr.Shaw took would have led a life of sloth and indulgence, contributing nothing comparable to Mr. Shaw’s contribution to the national well-being. I mean no disrespect to Mr. Shaw when I say that, placing his success and contributions on one side of the scale and the principle of non-discrimination on the other, there seems to be no compelling national interest in sacrificing the latter for the former.

Of course, it is not necessarily hypocritical for someone who may have benefited from racial preferences to oppose them. The beneficiary, for example, might well have also so frequently encountered the assumption that he owed his success to those preferences that he would, quite reasonably, have preferred to take his chances without the benefit of racial preference. Or he might be truly humble, and believe that his developing his own talents doesn’t justify compromising the principle of “without regard” colorblind equality. Gates, whatever else may be said about him, does not seem to be afflicted by undue humility:

“The only reason I’m here is I had a mother who told me every day I was brilliant and I was beautiful,” said Gates, allowing that one of those adjectives might have been far-fetched.

Is there a name for self-deprecating humor that is at the same time arrogantly self-congratulatory?

But leaving Gates’s brilliance or beauty aside, let us further assume with him, for the sake of argument, that for him it was “Yale or jail,” or at least that had he not been admitted to Yale because of affirmative action his future career would have been prevented or stunted, and Harvard and the nation (do people at Harvard believe there’s a difference?) would have been deprived of his contributions. The fact that affirmative action may have been necessary to launch him on his career forty years ago (again, assuming that to be true) does not mean it is still needed to launch future little Gates (Gateses?) on their careers today and for who knows how much longer.

Are preferences really still necessary for Gates’s children and grandchildren? I don’t think so.

UPDATE [7 Oct.]

In preparing the post just above on Rep. Harold Ford, who is also on record (here) offering a “C’est Moi!” defense of racial preferences, I ran across the following old posts that discussed other examples of that curious and self-centered defense: here and here.

Say What? (7)

  1. Richard Nieporent October 7, 2006 at 11:21 am | | Reply

    Professor Gates must surely know that the original reason for affirmative action was to ameliorate the effects of discrimination towards Blacks. The purpose was to give them an equal chance to compete against Whites. That was the policy that helped him get into Yale. Subsequently the policy of affirmative action has changed so that it is now used to enable Blacks with lower grades and SAT scores to be admitted above higher achieving Whites and Asians. He is being disingenuous when he calls for the continuation of affirmative action when he knows that the way affirmative action is currently carried out is far different than the way it was administered in his day. Today, nobody other than a hard-core racist would be averse to continuing the original policy of affirmative action. Speaking of hypocrites, it appears that Professor Gates has no intrinsic objection to discrimination. As long as the current discriminatory policy of affirmative action is used against Whites and Asians, he sees nothing wrong with it.

  2. Hull October 10, 2006 at 9:49 am | | Reply

    “Subsequently the policy of affirmative action has changed so that it is now used to enable Blacks with lower grades and SAT scores to be admitted above higher achieving Whites and Asians. He is being disingenuous when he calls for the continuation of affirmative action when he knows that the way affirmative action is currently carried out is far different than the way it was administered in his day.”

    And your evidence for this is. . . wait I think I hear crickets chirping.

    You claim that today’s affirmative-action isn’t fair like the good old affirmative action of Gates’ day. Do you have some kind of evidence to support this notion or is this more of the same “everybody knows it’s true” evidence that you people are so fond of.

  3. John Rosenberg October 10, 2006 at 10:01 am | | Reply

    …Do you have some kind of evidence to support this notion….

    Two good bits of evidence are the texts of the two Executive Orders signed by by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson requiring the federal government to engage in affirmative action … to ensure that all applicants, employees, and contractors were treated “without regard to race.”

    Moreover, in the early days of affirmative action there was fear that the 1964 Civil Rights Act would be interpreted to mean what it says, and what all of its supporters had said it meant when they urged passage, that it would not lead to what was then quaintly called “reverse discrimination.”

  4. Hull October 10, 2006 at 2:44 pm | | Reply

    And as you well know John, the Executive Orders were primarily implemented by Republican President Nixon in a FAR MORE biased manner (read: quotas) than they are currently applied today. So no, you and the Doctor are mistaken in the idea that affirmative action is somehow less fair today than when Gates was a young man.

    Further, as you are also aware, the Executive Orders and Civil Rights Act have been interpreted through case law to allow applicants’ race to be taken into account. So to argue that these policies were fair then and unfair now is, again, mistaken.

    Aside from the texts of the Executive Orders which do not support your point and this “fear that the 1964 Civil Rights Act would be interpreted to mean what it says” which you have conjured from thin air (who expressed such fear? when?) you have provided no article, statistic, or study, that affirms the Doctor’s mistaken view that affirmative action used to be fair and is now somehow unfair.

  5. John Rosenberg October 10, 2006 at 7:27 pm | | Reply

    You’re certainly right about how Nixon implemented affirmative action, but he wasn’t the first to implement it. President Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925 was signed March 6, 1961; President Johnson’s almost identical Executive Order 11246 was signed Sept. 25, 1965. The both required federal agencies to take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” (emphasis added) Nixon, you will recall, was not elected until 1968, and the infamous “Philadelphia Plan” was not announced until 1969.

    Still, if you read what I’ve written I’ve never argued that affirmativ action as it has generally been implemented has ever been fair. Almost from the beginning its intent was subverted, as was clearly and demonstrably the case with the way the courts allowed the Civil Rights Act to be stood on its head.

    Thus, contrary to what you say, affirmative action did NOT immediately turn to race preferences, and one of the reasons is that people feared the Civil Rights Act meant what it said. It was not until later, after Nixon’s Philadelphia Plan and the courts’ turning a blind eye to the subversion of the meaning and intent of the CRA, that affirmative action becoma a racial entitlement program.

    Finally, NOW there is clearly a great deal of fear that the courts will interpret the Civil Rights Act the way it was written and intended.

  6. […] I wrote, immediately below (here), about Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his “C’est Moi!” justification for racial preferences […]

  7. […] last two posts (here and here) have discussed examples of what I’ve called the “C’est Moi!” defense of racial preference […]

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