Standard Complaint
Fear of merit.


Bill Cosby wasn’t talking about affirmative action when he made his remarks late last month, criticizing the failure of some African Americans to meet standards of decent behavior. But it should surprise no one that those most unhappy with Cosby’s criticism are the people most enamored of preferences based on race and ethnicity.

There are really two principles at stake in the current debate over racial and ethnic preferences or, more broadly, civil rights, or, more broadly still, racial and ethnic relations. The first is whether we ought to encourage discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity; the second is whether we ought to allow discrimination on the basis of merit.

Once upon a time, the Left opposed racial discrimination. It argued that it was unfair to let racial considerations trump qualifications based on merit. The principle of nondiscrimination carried the day in the 1960s, and it was enshrined into law in various statutes. But these statutes have not resulted in proportional representation for some groups, particularly African Americans, at the upper reaches of our elites. And so now, ironically, it is the Left that pushes racial preferences and denigrates merit.

There are both charitable and uncharitable ways to explain this. The charitable explanation is that the Left cares so deeply about integration that it is willing to sacrifice or bend considerations of merit. If you insist on integration, and merit stands in the way, then you must sacrifice merit. The less charitable explanation is that the Left has never been comfortable–or, perhaps, with the ascendancy of deconstructionists and other certain kinds of Leftists, it has become less comfortable–with the whole notion of merit.

As African Americans disproportionately failed to succeed, in any event, excuses were made. Once upon a time, segregation and institutionalized discrimination were serious, formidable, ubiquitous obstacles. Removing them improved blacks’ status and opportunities, but other obstacles remained, or grew, like illegitimacy, crime, substance abuse, and failing to make the most of the greater opportunities given. To attack these problems, however, was not in the Left’s repertoire; it was “blaming the victim.” It was easier to continue to blame discrimination, present and past–even if present discrimination is dramatically and undeniably less, and even if the legacy of past discrimination must be exaggerated. And the Left also started to attack merit itself.

I am using “merit” broadly to mean “standards” of all kinds. I am not saying that reasonable people cannot differ about whether high-school grades are more or less important than SAT scores in predicting academic performance in college, to give an obvious example. The Left likes to paint the opponents of preferences as wishing to make university admissions mechanically. This is not so. Choose whatever standards you like, but do so honestly and apply them equally to all. But one suspects that a significant part of the Left really doesn’t want standards, period.

They don’t like the SAT, of course, and they really don’t like the whole notion that some individuals are thought to be smarter or to work harder than others. They love making it illegal for employers and educators to use selection criteria that have a “disparate impact” on minority groups–having a high-school diploma, for instance–no matter that the criteria are neutral on their face, as applied, and as intended, and were adopted for nondiscriminatory reasons. They don’t like laws that say convicted criminals can’t vote, even those still in prison.

They love multiculturalism. The relativists favor multiculturalism because they don’t believe that one culture can be superior to another. They oppose assimilation for the same reason. Assimilation can be favored only if we believe that one culture is preferable to others and ought to be dominant.

So long as applicants meet “a minimum test score,” liberal civil-rights professor Lani Guinier is happy to have university admissions made by “what is in effect a lottery for admission among the applicants who meet the minimum standard.” Of course. This makes it statistically certain that no group will be “underrepresented” or “overrepresented,” whether that group is racial, ethnic, sexual, whatever (so long as they all apply in the right proportions). The only problem is that the less qualified are as likely to get in as the more qualified. But if you reject the whole concept of qualifications, then what does that matter?

Well, there are in fact many problems with this kind of egalitarianism. By not rewarding talent and industry, we fail to encourage them. There are, likewise, benefits to a stratified higher education system. It better ensures that each student can have the most demanded of him or her, can be given an environment most tailor-made to his or her potential. Society–as well as the individuals involved–ultimately reaps the rewards when hard work and industry are rewarded. And society will suffer if we refuse to acknowledge differences between, say, criminals and non-criminals–those who steal “pound cake” and those who don’t, in Cosby’s words.

It is wrong to discriminate on the basis of race and ethnicity; it is foolish not to discriminate on the basis of merit. And so the Left’s program of favoring the former and opposing the latter is both wrong and foolish. Whatever Cosby’s views on affirmative action, he believes in merit, and that is enough to make many people uncomfortable.

Roger Clegg is general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Sterling, Virginia.