Is There A Ford In Tennessee’s Future (Or An Edsel?)

Yesterday I wrote, immediately below (here), about Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his “C’est Moi!” justification for racial preferences (without them, he says, he wouldn’t have gotten into Yale). In that post I linked to several other examples of the self-centered “C’est Moi!” defense, but as it happens I missed a few.

One of the interesting ones I missed was this one, about Rep. (and would-be Senator) Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee. (That post, in turn, links to two others that I missed yesterday, but unfortunately the link to the story quoting Ford arguing that affirmative action is a good thing because it helped him is longer operative.)

Ford’s offering himself as an example of why racial preference is a good thing took on new meaning yesterday when the Chattanooga Times Free Press published an article revealing that “Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful Harold Ford Jr. referred to himself as a lawyer earlier this week, but the congressman has not passed the bar exam.”

My old post was brought to my attention by a reader, S.T. Moore, who was so succinct that I’m simply going to quote his email to me rather than say the same things in my own words:

A news report yesterday revealed that Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-TN) has been referring to himself as a lawyer despite the fact that he failed the only bar exam he ever took. [Cites article about Ford’s lack of law degree cited above.]

This report made me curious and I was interested to find in my googling that you have discussed on your blog Rep. Ford and his acknowledgment that he benefited from affirmative action in his admission to the University of Michigan Law School. [Cites my old post on Ford linked above.]

Further googling about Mr. Ford reveals that his own background is about as elite and privileged as it gets — son of a long time Congressman; prep school at St. Alban’s; undergrad in the Ivy League (U of Penn), and Law School at the University of Michigan. All of that, of course, just begs the question of what in Rep. Ford’s own background warranted giving him any preference in admission to the U of Michigan law school at all. (Unless the UM Law School was trying to ensure a critical mass of privileged, prep school, Ivy League elitists.) But a less obvious question arises from the twin facts of Mr. Ford’s race preference admission to UM and the fact that he ultimately failed the bar exam.

That is, did being an affirmative action admittee to the law school really benefit Mr. Ford?

As you know, a thoughtful academic study issued by Richard H. Sander of UCLA last year posited that racial preferences in law school admissions actually hurt the chances of success of African American law school students. One manifestation of this is that Af-Am students admitted to law schools they are not suited for academically tend to fail the bar exam at vastly disproportionate rates. [Search this blog for “Sander” to find a number of posts on this topic.]

That Mr. Ford was elected to Congress the same year he failed the bar exam suggests that actually practicing law was not foremost among his ambitions and perhaps that distraction explains his bar exam failure as well. But one has to notice the irony in the fact that in making himself the poster child for the claimed benefits of affirmative action Mr. Ford’s own failing of the bar exam also helps to prove one of the more compelling failings of affirmative action.

Since I couldn’t have said that better myself, I didn’t.

UPDATE [8 Oct.]

A must read for anyone interested in following the development of Prof. Richard Sander’s “mismatch” theory of the unanticipated (but entirely predictable) effects of admitting students into more selective schools than their credentials warrant is his recent series of eight posts on the Empirical Legal Studies blog. Start here and read up.

Of particular relevance to my post above is a table comparing black and white bar passage rates at the top thirty law schools he presents in Post 5.

Sander concludes his series by noting (Post 8)

My previous posts laid out the story of what is happening to black law students as a result of affirmative action. There are grey areas and we need better data to resolve several issues. But if this were a less controversial topic, I think many would agree that affirmative action in law schools may not be achieving many of its core goals, and that it is probably producing some extremely serious side effects. If affirmative action were not an entrenched social policy, but instead an experimental drug, could it possibly survive an FDA review? Not on the existing evidence.

Say What? (2)

  1. Alex Bensky October 8, 2006 at 10:07 am | | Reply

    Well, the University of Michigan Law School forfeited any right to claim high standards long ago: they gave me a degree. And for that matter, I’ve taken three bar exams in three states and passed them all on the first try.

    But I wouldn’t read too much into one bar exam failure. It happens to a lot of perfectly bright people…you don’t prepare well enough because you’ve got other concerns, you have a bad morning,etc. I knew a woman who was both bright and a good legal mind who failed the Michigan bar exam five times. She just had some sort of psychological block and when I and a few other friends suggested she get professional help she was able to deal with the anxiety problem, passed with flying colors, and is a fine lawyer.

    The main point is well taken, of course: the only possible claim Ford has for special treatment is his skin color, which apparently overrides everything else. Your skin color is all that’s really important about you–gee, I used to think that was a racist statement.

  2. John Rosenberg October 8, 2006 at 10:56 am | | Reply

    Alex – Good points. I must say that I’ve found Ford Jr. attactive — articulate, smart, not locked in to Democratic orthodoxy on every point. Indeed, if he would only endorse the position on discrimination that was followed by the NAACP for most of its history, that Thurgood Marshall argued in his string of legal victories, that the Democratic Party used to stand for, I could even imagine supporting him. Of course, I don’t vote in Tennessee….

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