MICHAEL KINSLEY, How
Affirmative Action Helped George W.
The President might ask himself, "Wait a
minute. How did I get into Yale?", Time Magazine, Tuesday,
Jan. 21, 2003
George W. Bush is all for diversity, he explained last week, but he
doesn't care for the way they do it at the University of Michigan. The
Administration has asked the Supreme Court to rule the Michigan system
unconstitutional because of the scoring method it uses for rating
applicants. "At the undergraduate level," said Bush,
"African-American students and some Hispanic students and Native
American students receive 20 points out of a maximum of 150, not because
of any academic achievement or life experience, but solely because they
are African American, Hispanic or Native American."
If our President had the slightest sense of irony, he might have
paused to ask himself, "Wait a minute. How did I get into
Yale?" It wasn't because of any academic achievement: his high
school record was ordinary. It wasn't because of his life experience —
prosperous family, fancy prep school — which was all too familiar at
Yale. It wasn't his SAT scores: 566 verbal and 640 math.
They may not have had an explicit point system at Yale in 1964, but
Bush clearly got in because of affirmative action. Affirmative action
for the son and grandson of alumni. Affirmative action for a member of a
politically influential family. Affirmative action for a boy from a
fancy prep school. These forms of affirmative action still go on. The
Wall Street Journal reported last week that Harvard accepts 40% of
applicants who are children of alumni but only 11% of applicants
generally. And this kind of affirmative action makes the student body
less diverse, not more so.
George W. Bush, in fact, may be the most spectacular
affirmative-action success story of all time. Until 1994, when he was 48
years old and got elected Governor of Texas, his life was almost empty
of accomplishments. Yet bloodlines and connections had put him into
Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School, and even finally provided him
with a fortune after years of business disappointments. Intelligence,
hard work and the other qualities associated with the concept of merit
had almost nothing to do with Bush's life and success up to that point.
And yet seven years later he was President of the U.S.
So what is the difference between the kind of affirmative action that
got Bush where he is today and the kind he wants the Supreme Court to
outlaw? One difference is that the second kind is about race, and race
is an especially toxic subject. Of course, George W.'s affirmative
action is about race too, at least indirectly. The class of wealthy,
influential children of alumni of top universities is disproportionately
white. And it will remain that way for a long time — especially if
racial affirmative action is outlawed.
A second difference is that the Michigan system is crudely numerical,
whereas the favoritism enjoyed by George W. Bush is baked into the way
we live. Between these two extreme examples are all the familiar
varieties of preference: explicit racial favoritism without numbers,
favoritism based on something as amorphous as social class or as
specific as your high school, favoritism limited to recruitment and
preparation, and so on.
Opponents and supporters of affirmative action actually tend to agree
that there is something bad, generally called quotas, and something
good, generally called something like diversity. Their argument is about
where you draw the line. Bush calls the Michigan 20-point bonus a quota,
and his critics insist that it is not. But both sides are wrong. If your
sole measure of the success of any arrangement is whether it increases
the representation of certain minorities, then it doesn't really matter
what procedure you use to achieve that result: some people are getting
something desirable because of their race, and an equal number of people
are not getting it for the same reason.
Of course a series of somebodies didn't get into Andover, Yale and
Harvard Business School because their blood wasn't as blue as Bush's,
and other somebodies didn't get a chance to own the Texas Rangers or to
use the capital Bush borrowed to buy his share of the team because these
somebodies were nobodies. Life is unfair. A legitimate criticism of
affirmative action is that it politicizes life chances and focuses blame
on race. If you get turned down by Yale to make room for a George W.,
you're not even aware of it. But if you get turned down by the
University of Michigan, you're likely to blame affirmative action (if
you're white), even though the numbers say you probably would have been
turned down anyway.
So ask yourself: Would you rather have a gift of 20 points out of 150
to use at the college of your choice? Or would you rather have the more
amorphous advantages President Bush has enjoyed at every stage of his
life? If the answer to that isn't obvious to you, even 20 extra points
are probably not enough to get you into the University of Michigan.