A Preferences Proponent Waffles…

Newsweek contributing editor Ellis Cose has written widely if not very deeply about affirmative action. He’s written a new report on it for the Institute for Justice and Journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, which you can read about, if you want, here. More interesting is this transcript of a “Live Talk” question and answer session.

I’m not going to summarize it or argue with all of Cose’s points here, but I want to mention several snippets that I found interesting. First, consider how the following two of his comments fit together, or don’t.

First, in response to a question about affirmative action in college admissions, Cose replies:

I have certainly observed it in practice in many places, including in Michigan and California. I think (to probably state the obvious) that is has resulted in a number of people gaining admission to universities who would otherwise have had a very difficult time. And most of the those people have done very well.

A bit later, when someone asks how minorities can “combat the idea that they got their jobs, school acceptance letters, etc. through affirmative action and hence aren’t really worth being there?” Cose replies:

In my experience, people tend to believe what they want to believe. An unfortunate reality of life is that many people of color who have achieved much are suspected by certain other people of having only gotten by on the basis of race. That is, as I said, unfortunate.

Unless I’m missing something here, Cose has acknowledged that “a number of people” get accepted because of affirmative action who would not have been accepted without it, but then for some reason he finds it “unfortunate” that it is “suspected” that “many people of color” have “only gotten by on the basis of race.”

Well, yes. As long as some people get ahead because of their race, there will certainly be others who say, not just “suspect,” they got ahead because of their race. And, sadly, they will also say that about minorities who did not receive any special preferences, or who did not need them.

Indeed, I found Cose’s comments suffused with a failure to face facts. I’m not sure whether he was dissembling, trying to deflect questions and disguise unpleasant realities, or whether he simply doesn’t see what’s there himself.

Consider, again, two examples. Here’s the first:

Scottsbluff, Neb.: Isn’t the issue class more than race? I mean, poor people of any race need more of a leg-up than minorities from wealthy families

Ellis Cose: I actually think they are two very related issues. I think there are people who have been disadvantaged as a consequence of their low-income status. I think there are also people who have been disadvantaged because of their racial classification. If the question is whether poor people, whatever their color, need help more than wealth[y] minorities, I think the answer is yes. But the fact is that most affirmative action programs are not really directed at wealthy people.

Nor do most affirmative action programs give preferences to people who like green cheese, a fact that is about as relevant as the fact that most “are not really directed at wealthy people.” Whether they are “directed” at wealthy people or not, “the fact is” that racial preference programs give preferences based on race (duh!), and thus “the fact is” that wealthy minorities do get preferences that are not given to poor whites, Asians, whatever. You’d think that Cose must know that, but then you’d think he could give a more forthright answer to what was a very straightforward question.

Finally, consider this model of dissembling obfuscation:

New Canaan, CT: How do you define affirmative action in college admissions? Does it include giving a plus for being a member of an under represented minority?

Ellis Cose: Affirmative action in college admissions means taking race, ethnicity and, in some cases, gender into account in some way. It does not necessarily mean “giving a plus.” Indeed, the Supreme Court ruled a program unconstitutional because it simply gave a certain number of points to minority candidates. I think a more thoughtful form of affirmative action trys to look at a person in his or her totality, including what role race has played in his or her life.

Perhaps in his next “Live Talk” Mr. Cose can explain how “taking race into account” while not giving it a “plus” always seems to lead to the admission of more minorities, or why refusing to “take race into account” would always result in admitting fewer minorities if race weren’t always given a “plus.”

“Taking race into account” means nothing if race counts for nothing. If it’s given a minus, it’s called racial discrimination. If it’s given a plus, it’s called “affirmative action” … but it’s still racial discrimination.

Actually, I find the the inability or unwillingness of people like Cose to talk honestly, or accurately, about racial preferences to be one of the more hopeful indicators of the status of racial preferences today. Their dissembling, evasions, and stumbling are all a tribute, whether witting or not, to the breadth and depth of popular commitment to the principle holding that Americans deserve to be treated without regard to their race.

Say What? (2)

  1. Richard November 21, 2006 at 10:05 pm | | Reply

    Great post! Thanks, John

  2. [...] have criticized the race writing of Newsweek’s Ellis Cose several times, such as here, here, and especially here. A large, hard to miss target in his work is his pooh-poohing of the [...]

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