Williamsburg’s Village Idiot II

In “Williamsburg’s Village Idiot,” posted on New Year’s Eve eve, I discussed the sophomoric, over-the-top response of Timothy Sullivan, the president of William & Mary,” to an affirmative action bake sale on campus sponsored by student critics of racial preferences. (He responded, unoriginally, to a Charlottesville minister who criticized his action by replying that “[s]ome fool has sent me an email and signed your name to it.”)

Those sales, as everyone must know by now, have been held on a large number of campuses across the nation; by selling cookies for different prices based on the race or ethnicity of the purchaser, they are a pointed way of pointing out what many of us regard as the fundamental unfairness or preferences based on race.

When the student sponsors were attacked, the William & Mary administration did the predictable thing: it closed it down, and threatened the victims with disciplinary action. A strong letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education seems to worked, however. So far as I know the bake salers were not in fact punished, and now, out of the strong commitment of President Sullivan to the principles of free speech at Jefferson’s alma mater, the bake salers have even been given a permit to hold another sale.

But not without further word from President Sullivan, who issued a press release elaborating his views on the matter. They are not pretty. After acknowledging, in what struck me as a belligerent tone, that “the right to freedom of expression belongs to every member of this community,” Sullivan went on to say:

What I find personally offensive is the manner in which they have chosen to express their views. The “bake sale” with racially differentiated prices that they hold today is inexcusably hurtful to members of this community whose presence here is welcome and critically important to the quality of our life together. Those who have chosen this abusive method of self-expression will have not a few occasions in later life to look back with regret on what they have done.

I believe Sullivan’s agitation shows how effective these bake sales are in forcing people to think about the wisdom of treating people differently because of their race. Not that Sullivan himself seems to have thought much about it; if he had, he might explained why it is “inexcusably hurtful” to sell cookies for different prices to buyers of different races but it is perfectly fine but to judge applicants to William & Mary by different standards based on their race. I suspect most readers of his statement will wonder about that as well.

That’s not all Sullivan said, or didn’t say. I found his next sentence also disappointingly revealing:

The wealth of skills, talents, backgrounds, races and interests our students bring to campus is itself an important element in our learning environment.

It is of course true that students bring their race to school with them along with other skills and talents. But to imply that race is merely one among many skills, talents, and interests is to say that it’s nothing special, that there is no reason to wall it off from discriminatory treatment. In other words, it is to commit the IUNS (Invidious Ubiquitous Non-Sequitur) fallacy so often discussed here of assuming that if discrimination on any basis is acceptable, then discrimination on every other basis must be equally acceptable.

It is equally true, as I’ve also argued here many times, that students bring their religion with them as well. If it is legitimate to engineer an appealing racial mix, why not do the same with religion? Famous alum, and later President, Jefferson might not get himself worked up over President Sullivan’s lack of respect for the principle of racial non-discrimination, but I suspect he would posthumously burn his William & Mary diploma if his college treated religion according to the same principle (or lack of it) underlying its treatment of race.

Say What? (15)

  1. Mike January 28, 2004 at 10:55 am | | Reply

    What’s amazing is that in Sullivan’s statement about what the students bring to campus, singled out, “race” is the only factor that could group people based solely on the color of their skin. Every other item of “wealth” the students bring to campus (skills, talents, backgrounds, and interests) could potentially include a student from every race. Which would seem to be the ultimate goal for any university.

    But by mentioning race at every opportunity, you simply bring more attention to it which seems to polarize the campus even more. Why don’t these people understand that.

  2. nobody important January 28, 2004 at 1:49 pm | | Reply

    The race of a student is no more than a physical characteristic, like a student’s wieght, height, eye color, hair color, breast cup, length of penis, etc. How this adds to the ‘wealth’ of the university, to me, is a mystery – unless you believe that race is a proxy for some other attribute, like political point of view, intellectual capacity, etc. That seems racist to me.

  3. Zach January 28, 2004 at 3:43 pm | | Reply

    More fodder for my argument that university presidents are just people looking for their own fiedom over which they can exercise complete control. Perhaps Electronic Arts could make Sim University.

  4. Tung Yin January 28, 2004 at 4:00 pm | | Reply

    It really is disgraceful that schools take this approach. A far better one would be for the school to post a statement explaining why it disagrees with the position taken by the proponents of the bake sale. That statement might or might not be persuasive, but it could at least be a rational debate on the merits of a touchy subject.

  5. stu January 28, 2004 at 6:27 pm | | Reply

    Tung Yin-The reason you won’t hear rational debate from supporters of racial discrimination in admissions is that their position is one that dare not speak its name or truthfully declare its principle elements: African-Americans and Hispanics at the median are intellectually inferior to Asians and whites, and African-Americans and Hispanics all think alike.

  6. Tung Yin January 28, 2004 at 10:45 pm | | Reply

    Stu, I think a rational debate would first require that AA supporters refrain from automatically labeling opponents of AA as “racists.” Then there would be the question of whether underperformance of minorities on standardized tests and in graduation rates reflects some kind of systemic discrimination or some other problem. I tend to doubt everything can be blamed on tests, etc. for the reasons set forth in Dan Farber’s and Suzanna Sherry’s book, Beyond All Reason.

    I disagree, however, that the reasons must therefore reflect innate racial inferiority. It may be that there are cultural matters that can be addressed relatively easily. I haven’t read Thernstroms’ book, No Excuses, but I understand one thing the authors did was survey different students and find out what minimum grades they had to get to avoid getting in trouble at home. For Asian kids, it was an A-, for whites, it was a B-, and for everyone else, it was a C-. Something like that might go a long way toward explaining things.

    This isn’t really my field, however; I’m sure that our host knows much more than I do.

  7. Tung Yin January 28, 2004 at 11:06 pm | | Reply

    Something I forgot: I think that, given the Supreme Court’s rulings — which I realize (a) you all think were wrongly decided; and (b) might be logically incoherent — if AA defenders were to concede there are issues beyond racism at work, it might be possible for them to work up a policy defense of AA. It may not satisfy all of you, but I think it could possibly be defended along the lines of: the sort of reforms necessary to provide an equal opportunity to everyone of all races (including poor whites) will take time to figure out (it’s not just throwing money at the problem) and time to take effect. AA, while perhaps distasteful to many Americans (as demonstrated by the support for Prop 209 in California, and the similar measures in Washington, Michigan, etc.), may be a necessary (or at least desirable) stopgap measure until those reforms take effect. That’s not to say that the race-blind position wouldn’t continue to have strength. But I think the AA supporters would be on much stronger ground if they defended it in those terms, instead of crying “racism” and shutting down bake sales.

  8. John Rosenberg January 28, 2004 at 11:33 pm | | Reply

    I think we would indeed be better off if true believers on both sides of the AA question (and I definitely include myself among the true believers on one side) could see their/our way clear to following some of Tung Yin’s suggestions, or at least adopting some of the spirit in which he offers them.

    This would require supporters of AA to stop assuming all their critics are racists, but it would also require us critics to recognize more vocally than most of us do that the hearts of most AA supporters are in the right place. Slavery, segregation, and discrimination were horrible evils, and they do require drastic actions to overcome.

    I’m not optimistic this will happen. Once something is defined as a moral issue, people on the other side do tend to be seen as immoral. That’s unfortunate.

    Speaking only for myself now, and not “my side,” I think it would be great if our two sides could agree on some practical compromises. For example, I’ve written (I think; I know I’ve said this) that, despite the enormous practical difficulties, I would even be willing to consider some form of reparations in exchange for the AA supporters abandoning all forms and defenses of preferences. I also would be willing to consider dropping my objections to AA — and urging others to do the same — for a fixed period of time in return for an agreement to abandon all forms of preference after that date.

    This all may be utopian. Despite Sandra Day O’Connor’s lip service to AA not being needed in 25 years, the damage her opinion has done, and other legal acceptances of preferences has done, cannot easily be undone.

  9. stu January 29, 2004 at 12:51 pm | | Reply

    John-I suppose it is time for my the-road-to-hell-is-paved-with-good-intentions harangue, but I am not certain it would do any good. Pardon my irreconcilability, but if something is immoral, then it is immoral, period. If your heart says otherwise, then I suggest ignoring your heart and using your head. Sometimes, you are just too nice a fella for your own good. (Fortunately, I have never suffered under such a handicap.)

    Slavery was and is immoral, and 500,000 white men–regardless of each man’s individual motivation or lack thereof–died ending it in this country.

    Racial discrimination is also immoral. Overwhelmingly and historically, blacks have suffered grievously because of it. Then a great moral crusade began in the 1950s to eradicate it–at least its de jure existence. That was accomplished by the mid-1960s. Since then we have been on a collective mission to extirpate its de facto existence. And overall that mission has gone well, largely due to a bone deep recognition by the vast majority of whites that racial discrimination is dead wrong.

    In fact, burdened with massive collective guilt, whites have granted an exemption to one form of racial discrimination for the last 30 years–a form which disadvantages themselves.

    Now, it is proposed that we set a timetable for how much longer this form of racial discrimination will last. That sounds benign, but is anything but.

    In agreeing to seek agreement on a timetable, those who participate in the negotiations thereby implicitly invalidate the colorblind principle. And in so doing, they destroy the moral argument for eliminating racial discrimination that favors one group over the other. In the end, there is no need to pursue a timetable to end a wrong (racial discrimination) to establish a right (colorblind society), when the wrong is not really wrong and the right is not right.

    As for reparations, I don’t have the strength right now. Spend five or six hours reading Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell, then we can talk.

  10. Tung Yin January 29, 2004 at 7:10 pm | | Reply

    Stu, there’s no denying the strength or sincerity of your belief. However, on the other side, there are true believers with equally strong and sincere beliefs that AA not only is not racial discrimination but also is necessary in our society. And there are people who are not true believers on either side. A textual reading of the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act is certainly consistent with your view, but it hasn’t been accepted by the courts yet. It may be in the future. Or it may not. The question is, given a bloc who agrees with you, a bloc who disagrees vehemently, and a bloc in the middle, how do you best go about reaching the result you’d like to see? I don’t think John thinks that a timetable under which AA would be phased out at a set future date coinciding with the effect of real reforms is his ideal solution, but it may be second best and something tolerable.

    By the way, on the subject of color-blindness, I think it should be apparent that the Constitution can’t be 100 percent color-blind. Example: the FBI has need for someone to partake in a dangerous undercover mission, one so dangerous that if the agent survives, he/she will automatically be promoted. It happens to be a mission to infiltrate a radical group made up entirely of [pick your preferred racial group: African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, whites]. Surely the FBI need not consider applicants on a race-blind basis?

  11. John Rosenberg January 29, 2004 at 11:04 pm | | Reply

    Stu, as usual I agree with most of what you say, and if the choice were between having the principles we share implemented immediately or agreeing to a delayed phase-in of them to make the preferentialists feel better, I’d probably be at the barricades with you. Although honesty, or doubt, compels me to add that even with this choice I might well hesitate to consider it, since I think the bitter vitriolic divisiveness we are now experiencing is very bad for the country, and alleviating it somewhat would be a Good Thing, maybe even worth a small compromise of principle. But, as usual, I think reasonable people can disagree about that. By the way, you don’t have to argue with me about reparations, since I agree with you on that as well. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t consider buying off preferentialists if a deal could be worked out.

    Tung Yin, as usual I also agree most of what you say as well, but let me offer a couple of clarifications. You are right that I would be willing to compromise my principles a bit — or more accurately, agree to a compromise that would delay their implementation — but I wouldn’t agree to a deal that delayed the elimination of preferences until the “effect of real reforms” were acknowledged. Until a date certain, yes (as long as it’s not too far in the future); but not “a set future date coinciding with the effect of real reforms.” That would saddle us with us preferences forever, which of course is precisely what the preferentialists want. If that’s the best deal that can be struck, I’m sticking with Stu.

    Although you are right that there are some unusual occasions where it is legitimate to take race into account (I have discussed that issue here), I believe you exaggerate the significance of these exceptions to a general regime of colorblindness. I believe the Constitution, in other words, could easily be interpreted to place the burden on those arguing for an exception to colorblindness so high that almost no exceptions would be granted while still leaving open the recognition of an exception in the case of police undercover officers being placed in racial or ethnic gangs, or analogous situations. In fact, that wouldn’t be so different from the “strict scrutiny” the pre-Grutter court has said it applied in the past, though I would probably make the “scrutiny” even highter than it has been, and certainly higher than it is now.

    In that regard, I might go even further than you and admit that insofar as original intent is concerned the 14th Amendment can almost be read any which way. It was designed that way by the Republican moderates and conservatives of their day who defeated the radicals’ attempt to have it ban any distinctions based on color. I don’t believe that is so, however, regarding the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Regarding that act, I think the courts have simply misread it whenever they have upheld racial distinctions. But to return to your point about complete colorblindness being impossible, note that even the purely colorblind 1964 act recognized exceptions for “bona fide occupational qualifications.”

    What I believe is impossible (and I bet Stu agrees with me here) is the co-existence of civil rights laws outlawing discrimination based on race and the widespread practice, and acceptance of the practice, of racial preference. That’s why the courts have been forced — at great cost, I believe — simply to disregard whole swaths of “the law,” such as Title VI in order to reach their desired result.

  12. Tung Yin January 29, 2004 at 11:27 pm | | Reply

    John, I should have been more clear — I did understand you to be willing to compromise to a date certain, not a more vague standard of some other metric.

    Also, I didn’t mean to offer the infiltration example as proof positive that racial preferences of any sort could be justified, only that it is not possible to construe everything in a strictly colorblind way. As you point out, the infiltration example is a far cry from the more usual examples of preferential treatment.

  13. WM Junior January 31, 2004 at 3:50 pm | | Reply

    What I find particularly appaling was in this article from WM’s Flathat on the matter, at http://flathat.wm.edu/2003-11-21/story.php?type=1&aid=3 :

    “We want to make experts available,” she said. “It’s very frustrating when students take a position on an issue when the issue is very complex.”

    This was from sociology Department Chair Deirdre Royster.

    What on earth does that mean? Am I not supposed to have an opinion because I’m not an expert? Or what?

  14. Joe Peden February 1, 2004 at 12:29 am | | Reply

    This Sullivan guy seems to think the bake sale was somehow directed at him: He finds it “personally offensive”. Possibly he means that he, personally, finds it offensive.

    But I doubt it, as indicated by the intimation also that someone has been trying to inhibit his right of free speech, contained in his otherwise gratuitous assertion that he, as President, is possessed of it.

    In brief, Sullivan is paranoid.

    We might also wonder if anyone, white or black, found it “hurtful” or “abusive” and complained to Sullivan about it.

    White males might have complained about being goughed on the basis of their skin color, as they are also blamed for everthing else under the sun.

    But no one really wanted any cookies anyway. The sale was symbolic, which means that it is covered by the First Amendment, unless, Lord help us, someone thinks it was a “hate crime”. But then, maybe, so is AA?

    AA is in fact an abusive and hurtful practice in itself. It abuses and hurts everyone involved. Do we really need to argue this? Maybe to simpletons, but then what would be the use?

    As sold at its inception, AA was not supposed to be a quota system, or Hubert Humhprey was going to “eat his hat”. Unfortuneately Hubert did not live that long. Otherwise, he would have died of eating too many hats.

    AA was supposed to be employed only if candidates were otherwise equal. That it is not is the main problem — the one which really fires up those who don’t like AA’s descrimination.

    AA was supposed to be temporary. Forty years is not temporary.

    In any case, if AA is still “necessary”, then something is wrong elsewhere. Can we say “public education”, starting at K? AA at the college level will not cure this.

    Still, Liberals persist in living in the past, on their eternal missions, while apparently not having actually noticed the past as a process which has led to the apparent inequities they still complain of, and about which something else obviously needs to be done, if they are correct.

    Unfortuneately the Supreme Court missed its chance, which would have necessarily led to an anlysis of what else might need to be done.

    Instead we are faced with bake sales, ignoramus University Presidents, and of course the race baiting Politicians and opportunists, among which are many Liberals. AA is really a program only for them.

  15. Joe Peden February 1, 2004 at 1:56 am | | Reply

    “What on earth does that mean? Am I not supposed to have an opinion because I’m not an expert? Or what?”

    Posted by: WM Junior on January 31, 2004 03:50 PM

    No, you fool: it simply means you must have the “correct” opinion. You need guidance from the “experts”, even though you are over 16.

    You cannot think for yourself, or with other mere mortals in order to even hope to come close to something insightful and/or creative.

    Wait a minute, I’ve got this backwards. Forget all experts. Listen to your own thoughts. Otherwise there is no insight or creation, no self-knowledge.

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