Michigan's Thin Line

April 2001

Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. —George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

We have often had occasion to dilate on the Orwellian nature of the phrase "affirmative action" in this space. We are going to do so again. Memories are short; ideological pressure is unremitting; in short, some things cannot be repeated too often. Rhetorically, as we all know, "affirmative action" is redolent of high principle and the struggle for equality. One can almost hear strains of the Marseillaise echoing behind its syllables—or maybe that sound is only the thump of a judge’s gavel ordering some new social experiment. In any event, "affirmative action" suggests, . . . well, something good: something positive, something affirmative. (Also, of course, something pragmatic: we’re talking about action here, not theorizing: results, not starry-eyed speculation.) And the opponents of affirmative action, what do they want? Something beginning with "N" at any rate: something involving the word "no," something negative, and no doubt impractical to boot.

In actuality, of course, affirmative action is first and foremost a powerful engine for perpetuating preferential treatment and discrimination based on race, sex, ethnic origin, or some other approved badge of victim status. It is not about assuring equality of opportunity but artificially—that is, judicially—enforcing equality of outcome. It sounds quite different when put like that, doesn’t it? But liberals never do put it like that. They love the phrase "affirmative action" precisely because it allows them to avoid acknowledging—perhaps even recognizing—the unpleasant actuality at the heart of affirmative action. This is one reason that connoisseurs of Orwellian obfuscation cannot admire the phrase "affirmative action" too greatly. It is a gift that just keeps on giving. It is vague enough to cover nearly any contingency, pompous enough always to garner partisan support. Talk of "affirmative action" automatically catapults one onto the moral high ground, at least rhetorically, even if it allows one to pursue inequitable programs of social engineering and racial or sexual redress. (Some liberals acknowledge the inequity involved in enforcing the diktats of affirmative-action programs; those who do will generally point out—usually sotto voce and with a rueful smile—that one cannot make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.) Perhaps the greatest boon conferred by embracing affirmative action is an insensibility to contradiction. It nudges one blissfully over the "hard place" one faces when simultaneously affirming X and not-X. It is an invitation to what Orwell called Doublethink. College admissions are a laboratory case. We all know about the many colleges whose applications begin by declaring that admission will be granted without consideration of race, sex, creed, or national origin—and then go on a few pages later to inform applicants that it is to their advantage if they are black, Hispanic, American Indian, etc., etc. (We have been told, but have not verified, that at least one distinguished university even has a category for "current gender.") "Check here," they say, "and we’ll see what we can do for you."

It turns out, of course, that many universities are prepared to do quite a lot for applicants who meet the correct racial/ sexual/ethnic profile. Consider the University of Michigan. Just last month, a federal judge ruled that the two-tiered admission system employed by the university from 1995 to 1998 was unconstitutional because it employed different admission criteria for whites and minorities. It was, plain and simple, a matter of separate but unequal. Well and good, you say: at last a victory in the war against quotas. Not so fast. For in the same ruling, Judge Patrick J. Duggan said that the university’s current policy, which automatically awards twenty points (out of a possible 150) to black and Hispanic applicants is just fine. So it is "No" to what Judge Duggan called "fixed racial quotas" but "full steam ahead" when it comes to "consideration of an applicant’s race during the admissions process." No wonder he went on to observe that "in situations such as this, it is often a thin line that divides the permissible from the impermissible." So thin, we fear, that one would have to be an affirmative-action activist to be sure of discerning it.

Let’s put Michigan’s twenty-point bonus into perspective. As The New York Times reported on December 14, applicants can get up to eighty points for their grades. They can get another twelve points for stellar performance on so-called standardized tests ("so-called" because affirmative action has come to the Scholastic Aptitude Tests as well: see our note "Boycott the SAT" in the October 1999 issue of The New Criterion). Being a Michigan resident gets them ten points, being the child of an alumnus four. According to the Times, "an outstanding essay, leadership, or personal achievement are each worth 3 points," that is, a mere nine points total for factors that one might have thought should count—that once upon a time in fact did count—a great deal in the admission process. But then what is a terrific essay, outstanding leadership, or superior "personal achievement" in comparison with skin color or (the right) ethnic origin? Not much in Michigan, apparently, for that is all it takes to qualify for the university’s twenty-point gift.

You see the vertiginous land of Oz one enters by embracing affirmative action. But what is a poor judge to do? Back in the late1970s in the infamous Bakke case, the ` U.S. Supreme Court institutionalized confusion by simultaneously forbidding explicit quotas while upholding the unofficial quotas mandated by the demand for "diversity"—another Orwellian mantra. The Michigan ruling dramatizes that confusion. What it amounts to is a species of racial profiling, though of course we must not call it that. At bottom, affirmative action is the application of welfare mentality to academia and the business world. It is a hand out, not a hand up, and its ultimate effect is to harden the very prejudice it claims to be battling. It creates a two-track system in which some people succeed by dint of hard work, talent, and accomplishment, while others succeed at least partly by dint of racially- or sexually-mandated preferential treatment. Everyone recognizes this, the beneficiaries as well as the victims of affirmative action. The result is an increase in cynicism, resentment, and, not least, the selfish spirit of litigiousness.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Michigan decision is the suggestion that the policies it endorses will have to go on indefinitely. According to Judge Duggan, the University of Michigan’s points-for-minorities system is not a temporary expedient but one attempt to address a permanent inequality. "[T]he need for diversity lives on perpetually," he was quoted in the Times as saying, and programs to enforce it could therefore continue until the "day when universities are able to achieve the desired diversity without resort to racial preferences." "Perpetually" is a very long time. Today Michigan gives minorities twenty points; maybe it will have to be fifty next year to achieve the same result. George Orwell encapsulated the contradiction inherent in such procedures perfectly when he wrote, in Animal Farm, that "all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." There, too, the rhetoric of fairness was employed to institutionalize the reality of inequality.

We observed above that embracing affirmative action tended to impart an insensibility to contradiction. Insensibility, it is worth noting, is not the same as immunity, as those unfortunate people who lack feeling in some part of their body know well. Just because you are without pain does not mean your hand has not been burned.