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Saturday, May 30, 2009
By Steven L. Taylor

Via Think Progress (Barnes: Sotomayor ‘benefited’ from affirmative action ‘tremendously.’) is the following transcript of Fred Barnes talking to Bill Bennett on Bennett’s radio show earlier in the week:

BARNES: I think you can make the case that she’s one of those who has benefited from affirmative action over the years tremendously.

BENNETT: Yeah, well, maybe so. Did she get into Princeton on affirmative action, one wonders.

BARNES: One wonders.

BENNETT: Summa Cum Laude, I don’t think you get on affirmative action. I don’t know what her major was, but Summa Cum Laude’s a pretty big deal.

Setting aside for the moment any particular discussion of the relative merits of affirmative action, what struck me about this interchange is that it has to be one of the worst examples of an argument against affirmative action that one could muster. To wit: the idea behind affirmative action is that it allows opportunities for qualified people who otherwise would have been unable to access them because of racial/ethnic reasons. Indeed, the notion is that such persons actually deserve such opportunities and will excel if given them. The counter argument to affirmative action is basically that it allows less qualified persons of color to obtain slots in schools/jobs based on unfair preferential treatment.

Here’s the problem: if Sotomayor did receive affirmative action help in getting into school (and I don’t think that we know that she did) then she is a pretty lousy example of an undeserving recipient, as she clearly took full advantage of her opportunity. Someone who graduates Summa Cum Laude from Princeton clearly deserved to be there.

As such, she would be (again, assuming she even received such a benefit) a perfect argument for affirmative action.

Barnes’ capper on the above dialog is quite petty, underscoring perhaps his recognition that his argument was going off the rails:

BARNES: I guess it is, but you know, there’s some schools and maybe Princeton’s not one of them, where if you don’t get Summa Cum Laude then or some kind of Cum Laude, you then, you’re a D+ student.

I’ve heard of the past practice of gentleman’s C’s at Ivy League school before, but never the D+ Cum Laude. That’s a new one.

I was going to blog the above earlier in the week, but didn’t have the time and was reminded of it via Megan McArdle’s post, The Problem of Affirmative Action in which she concludes

Sonia Sotomayor is not manifestly unqualified to be a Supreme Court justice, so focusing on affirmative action is completely irrelevant. You can argue with her politics or her legal judgement, and hey, I’m all ears. But the affirmative action complaints aren’t advancing our quest to find out whether or not she’d be a good justice.

I must concur. Indeed, it is almost a reflexive reaction (the Dems talk about diversity, so the Reps have to rail on about affirmative action and reverse discrimination) that ultimately leads nowhere. If anything it a) does nothing for the Reps arguments about the Court itself, b) makes them look petty, and c) helps to alienate future voters.

Really, what is the point here of bringing up affirmative action? It seems to me that the net effect is to make affirmative action look good, Republicans to look bad, and for Sotomayor’s nomination to be utterly unaffected. This is the very trifecta of poor politics.

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3 Responses to “How not to Argue Against Affirmative Action”

  1. Pug Says:

    I believe Sotomayor was valedictorian of her high school class at a very competetive Catholic school in the Bronx. I’m thinking no affirmative action was needed or applied in her case. Summa cum laude from Princeton speaks for itself.

    The automatic assumption of conservatives that any minority who achieves success is because of affirmative action is condescending. I don’t know Fred Barnes academic record but I would assume it is not as good as Sotomayor’s. Limbaugh and Hannity are college dropouts who still managed somehow to become experts on economics, politics, international relations and any other subject. How they did this remains a mystery.

  2. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    The automatic assumption of conservatives that any minority who achieves success is because of affirmative action is condescending.

    A valid point with which I must concur.

  3. ProfessorBainbridge.com Says:

    The Politics of the Sotomayor Nomination…

    Kevin Drum observes: On Friday it looked as though the conservative movement was suffering from a personality disorder. The insane half wanted to brand Sonia Sotomayor as a dull-witted affirmative action hire whose seething racist bitterness would soon…


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