Elizabeth Warren As A Class Act?

Richard Kahlenberg, who wishes affirmative action were based on class and not race but refrains from condemning race preferences, now turns to Elizabeth Warren’s “Worst Week in Washington” to offer four mild criticisms of current affirmative action practices, concluding with an attempt to show how the flap over Warren’s claimed Cherokeeness “suggests a way out.”

First, like everyone else he dismisses Warren’t explanation that she listed herself as Native American so she could get invited to lunch with other Native Americans, at least until she got to Harvard and stopped so listing herself. This lame explanation, according to Kahlenberg, undercut Warren’s “greatest strength: that unlike most politicians, worried about offending wealthy donors, she is a straight-shooter, willing to tell it like it is.” Whether or not Warren is more willing to offend her supporters than other politicians is, I think, an open question, but Kahlenberg’s assertion that “[h]er questionable explanation is unfortunately typical of discussions of affirmative action” is true but rather limp. “Years ago,” Kahlenberg writes, “when a conservative opponent of affirmative action leaked the lower median test scores of black students at Georgetown Law School, school leaders, rather than defending the diversity program outright, suggested unpersuasively that the discrepancy might be explained by the superior essays of minority students.”

Years ago? Defenders of affirmative action continually haul out that unpersuasive possibility. After criticizing the work of a leading scholar of affirmative action, Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade, for arguing that the “softer variables” may explain the vast gap separating the test scores of admitted blacks and Hispanics from Asians, I concluded that “[i]f these passages mean anything they mean that those Asians may look good on paper (grades, test scores, etc.), but for all Espenshade knows they may all share an inability to write admissions essays that can compete with those written by blacks and Hispanics and a similar inability to garner enthusiastic letters of recommendations from their teachers.”

Kahlenberg’s second and third criticisms of affirmative action suggested by Warren’s bad example are quite similar: that someone whose ”ties are weak” to their group reinforces the notion that affirmative action ”rarely helps the most disadvantaged minority group members” and that intermarriage insures that “the number of beneficiaries with relatively weak ties will increase.” These are bad, according to Kahlenberg, because “[t]he great moral authority behind affirmative-action policies comes from the fact that they benefit those who inherit the disadvantages associated with horrendous crimes, such as slavery, segregation, and the decimation of Native Americans.”

Really? Whether or not affirmative action actually has any “great moral authority,” the Supreme Court certainly doesn’t recognize this as it. “Diversity” is now the sole justification the Court recognizes as justifying the racial and ethnic discrimination that is at the core of affirmative action programs. And that means that “disadvantaged minority group members” are not, and are not even intended to be, the “beneficiaries” of affirmative action. Those who benefit from whatever “diversity” offers are not the preferentially admitted minorities — who, after all, would receive those benefits even if they attended less selective institutions — but whites and Asians who would be deprived of exposure to them.

Fourth, Kahlenberg properly describes Warren’s reference to her grandfather’s “high cheekbones” as highlighting “the creepiest aspect of racial preference programs,” their reliance on genetic racial identity. He might have added that Warren’s claim of 1/32 Cherokee identity calls to mind the old “one drop” rule from the segregated South as well as the fact that it undermines any claim that she could provide any Cherokee “diversity” to anyone else.

All of these rather tepidly offered criticisms, however, serve merely as preface to Kahlenberg’s attempt to look “on the bright side” of what Warren’s worst week can contribute to the future of affirmative action, what he predictably calls the “progressive alternative: affirmative action based on class.”

Warren grew up in a working-class family (her father was a janitor), and polls indicate Americans support giving a leg up to college applicants who come from economically disadvantaged families and have overcome odds. You can defend that policy plainly and openly, and do not have to resort to reasoning that strains credulity, as Elizabeth Warren has in recent days.

Preferences based on economic disadvantage can certainly be defended “plainly and openly” — they don’t, for example, trample on any fundamental principle such as the right to treated “without regard” to race, creed, or color — but Warren makes almost as poor a poster child for class-based preference as she does for Cherokee- based preference. She didn’t need such a preference when she was admitted to law school at Rutgers. And even if by some liberal stretch she needed a class-based boost to be hired at the University of Houston Law Center, after serving there as assistant professor, associate professor, and associate dean, she hardly needed any such boost when hired by the University of Texas at Austin, or after that the University of Pennsylvania, or after that at Harvard.

Unless class-based boosts expire after a use or two, even by Kahlenberg’s rather limited criteria they will become as unfair as race-based privileges given to undeserving (because un-disadvantaged) minorities.


Elizabeth Warren now accuses her Republican opponent, Scott Brown, of “raising ugly insinuations” about her, of “launching ‘ugly innuendos’ about how she got her law school teaching jobs.” (HatTip InstaPundit)

Hmm. Would those ugly “insinuations” and “innuendos” be that she benefitted from affirmative action? Is she, that is, accusing him of accusing her of benefitting from preferential policies that she supports? Sounds like it.

“People have made it clear I work hard. I am a good teacher and I have gotten my jobs on my merits,” she said in Worcester. People who are hired or promoted under affirmative action, then, i.e., people who really do belong to the minority racial or ethnic group they claim to, by implication are hired or promoted even though they don’t work hard, are not good teachers or students, and have insufficient merit to get hired or promoted without the extra benefit they are given because of their race or ethnicity.

With defenders like this, does affirmative action really need any critics?

Say What? (1)

  1. LTEC May 12, 2012 at 12:20 pm | | Reply

    One minor point. If it turned out that Black students who got high uniform test scores received poor recommendations from their teachers, would this be viewed as evidence that they weren’t really all that good after all? More likely it would be used as proof of discrimination by the teachers.

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