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.