Affirmation Action for Bluebloods

Norah Vincent is a columnist in Yardley, Pa.

President Bush is in the soup again on race, and it’s hard to see how he will escape calumny on this one -- or even whether he should.

After facing down fierce charges of Republican racism in the wake of the Trent Lott fiasco, the president made the right move in taking a bold public stand against affirmative action. On Jan. 16, the Justice Department filed a brief with the Supreme Court, asserting its opposition to race-conscious admissions policies and urging the high court to declare such policies unconstitutional in a case to be decided this spring involving the University of Michigan.

So far, so good.

But now, in a stroke of partisan genius, the liberal opposition has managed, through a series of damning editorials, not only to resuscitate charges of Republican racism but to link them to that other topical Republican bugbear, class warfare.


The Bush administration’s view that racial preferences unfairly elevate the academically unqualified is laughably hypocritical, former Slate Editor Michael Kinsley and others have argued, since Bush, an academic underachiever, gained admittance to Yale because he was the son of an alumnus and the scion of a wealthy and influential family.

What’s most impressive about this attack is not just that it so skillfully yokes racism and elitism to the heart of this administration -- or even that it takes yet another golden opportunity to reiterate the liberal intelligentsia’s oft-proclaimed contempt for the president’s intellect -- but that, in echoes of postelection 2000, it questions the very legitimacy of Bush’s presidency, this time by means of the man’s own policy prescriptions.

After all, if the president truly believes in merit alone, how does he, a ne’er-do-well, defend his own advancement from prep school all the way to the White House, a process dictated by the sheer triumph of influence over desert?

A very good question, and one that has called Bush and the whole conservative brain trust on the carpet to reconcile a glaring inconsistency.

Naturally, in response to these attacks, certain Republican Party flacks have rushed in -- rather ham-handedly, I might add -- to defend legacy admissions, which has proved something of an embarrassment to those of us who like to think that conservative opposition to affirmative action is more than a skin game.

Defending legacy admissions is a mistake, not just because it is inconsistent with opposition to affirmative action but also because legacy admissions are indefensible.


They make a mockery of merit, granting special status to the applicant whose only virtue is an accident of birth and whose achievements, as in the case of our C-student commander in chief (with SAT scores of 566 verbal and 640 math), are modest at best.

They further privilege the already privileged, turning college admissions into a loathsome, nepotistic enterprise that, according to one admissions director, admits children of alumni at “up to twice the rate of the general pool.”

Worst of all, they do all this not in the name of noble ideals like diversity or social justice -- as affirmative action purports to do -- but for the simple reason that money has changed hands.

Private academic institutions admit the children of alumni because substantial parts of their operating budgets come from the financial contributions of alumni.

It’s the most detestable kind of unabashed corruption -- quid pro quo -- and it has no rightful place in any admissions office. Conservatives who defend it while opposing affirmative action are properly charged as self-deluding racists and elitists.

As University of California Regent Ward Connerly, one of the few conservatives who has been consistent on this point, has argued, either we are earnestly striving to make equal opportunity and fairness the guiding principles of our academic and other vital institutions, in which case those who oppose affirmative action in good conscience must also oppose legacies and other meritless preferences, or we are effectively consigning our most cherished and enshrined notions of liberty to the rhetorical dustbin.


Which is it, Mr. President?