Criticizing Racial Preference Is Not “Begging The Question.” In Fact …

Regarding my letter to the editor in the November 27 Washington Post (discussed below, here), a good friend here in Charlottesville — I’ll call him Bob — responded:

I think you’re right…almost.  It begs the question though about what is the morally responsible thing to do about social and economic effects lingering from having had a slave population followed by Jim Crow discrimination for so long.

No, it doesn’t. Quite the opposite. In fact, saying it does turns out itself to be a classic example of … begging the question.

Normally I would ask your forgiveness for indulging in the following bit of pedantry, but as it happens a good while back I had occasion to look up the correct usage of “begging the question,” and what I learned is so relevant to the consideration of racial preferences that you might not even regard it as pedantic.

1. Criticizing racial preference begs no question. That’s because of what it means to beg a question:

Any form of argument where the conclusion is assumed in one of the premises. Many people use the phrase “begging the question” incorrectly when they use it to mean, “prompts one to ask the question.” That is NOT the correct usage. Begging the question is a form of circular reasoning.

More generally, from Fallacy Files: “an argument begs the question when it assumes any controversial point not conceded by the other side.” The New York Times agrees.

2. It is actually Bob who begs a question. He claims that my criticism of racial preferences — more specifically, my criticism of Democrats for pushing racial preference — is only “almost” right because that criticism “begs the question” of what to do about the lingering effects of slavery and Jim Crow. But by arguing in effect that one should not criticize racial preferences without proposing a better way to fight inequality, it is actually Bob, not I, who begs a question. That’s because his premise assumes a controversial proposition that I believe to be untrue: that preferential treatment based on race does in fact reduce discrimination and inequality.

If it does not, or even if it does but its benefits are swamped by its costs, then criticism of it begs no question. Conversely, however, the argument that critics should stand mute in the face of racial preferences until they come up with something better (or until “the playing field is level,” an argument I’ve considered many, many times) does beg a question — because it assumes its premise: that preferential treatment based on race in fact does more good than harm.

Editorial Interruption: My “Toward A Liberal Devil’s Dictionary” has the following entry:

“LEVEL PLAYING FIELD, n. The political, social, and economic terrain ensuring that two or more teams with different levels of ability, experience, equipment, interest, attitude, coaching, etc., always achieve equal scores and win the same number of games.”

The important issue here, however, is not a grammatical nicety, not who is begging what question. It is whether those of us who are critical of racial preferences, of distributing benefits and burdens based on race, should hold our tongues as long as inequality persists. The answer, you will not be surprised to hear, is a resounding No, we definitely should not, for several reasons.

First, the most practical but probably least powerful reason is legal. Liberals, working through the courts, have knocked a large hole in the principled fence protecting individuals from discrimination based on race, but that hole, even as large as it has become, is limited to “diversity”-justified discrimination. Courts, in short, do not allow compensatory discrimination to correct “societal” ills such as the lingering effects of slavery and Jim Crow.

Even leaving aside the compelling argument that any discrimination based on race is morally wrong, a powerful, practical reason not to keep silent is that racial preferences don’t work, if “work” means anything more than promoting proportional racial representation. In fact, not only do they not reduce racial strife, discrimination, and inequality, they actually exacerbate those evils. Put another way, their benefit is low (though not necessarily non-existent) and difficult to quantify, but their cost is quite high.

Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, has listed a few of the costs of racial preference in college admissions (quoted here):

It is personally unfair, passes over better qualified students, and sets a disturbing legal, political, and moral precedent in allowing racial discrimination; it creates resentment; it stigmatizes the so-called beneficiaries in the eyes of their classmates, teachers, and themselves, as well as future employers, clients, and patients; it mismatches African Americans and Latinos with institutions, setting them up for failure; it fosters a victim mindset, removes the incentive for academic excellence, and encourages separatism; it compromises the academic mission of the university and lowers the overall academic quality of the student body; it creates pressure to discriminate in grading and graduation; it breeds hypocrisy within the school and encourages a scofflaw attitude among college officials; it papers over the real social problem of why so many African Americans and Latinos are academically uncompetitive; and it gets states and schools involved in unsavory activities like deciding which racial and ethnic minorities will be favored and which ones not, and how much blood is needed to establish group membership – an untenable legal regime as America becomes an increasingly multiracial, multiethnic society and as individual Americans are themselves more and more likely to be multiracial and multiethnic (starting with our president).

One of these days Roger will get around to telling us what he really thinks.

So, finally, if you think criticizing racial preference begs the question of what to do about lingering inequality, I beg to differ.

Say What?