Saturday, May 30, 2009

Preferential Treatment (by Phila)

Matthew Yglesias compares Sonia Sotomayor's "preferential treatment" to that of white conservatives:
Beyond the simple observation that conservatives really and truly are fanatical in their defense of the prerogatives of white people, the obvious observation to make is that everyone in life has been treated preferentially by someone at some point. Sometimes if you face a lot of disadvantages in life, people recognize that and extend you an extra helping hand. Or maybe, like John Roberts, you were educated at a private boarding school before attending Harvard. Or maybe you’re Irving Kristol’s son. Or maybe because your ideology pleases Rupert Murdoch, he agrees to cover the losses of the magazine you work at.
This displeases Robert VerBruggen, who presumably clawed his way to an eminent position at NRO's Phi Beta Cons through willpower and the sweat of his brow.
When someone is privileged in life — for example, by going to an elite boarding school — he can leverage these privileges to make himself more qualified for various positions. When someone is privileged in the awarding of a credential — such as by receiving a degree for less or lower-quality work than others had to do — this makes the credential less valuable. In other words, it papers over a lack of qualifications.
Having granted that last point, as we must, most of us would go on to imagine a situation in which a wealthy white legacy student does less or lower-quality work than his peers, gets a prestigious degree regardless, and proceeds directly to the board of a multinational company, or some thinktank whose goal is to maintain a stranglehold on political power and the national terms of debate. We might even imagine him holding forth stridently on some complex subject like genetics or climatology, even though he barely managed to "earn" his MBA, and spent his few science classes irritating professors with talking points gleaned from J. Philippe Rushton and William Dembski.

VerBruggen, I'm sure, would find these scenarios totally outlandish. As he sees it, wealthy, privileged people use privilege to better themselves, which is what makes them great. By contrast, greedy, grasping, dim-bulb minorities like Ms. Sotomayor use privilege to crash High Society. Picture a 1906 cartoon of a cannibal in a tuxedo and top hat, spouting comical malapropisms at a dinner party, and you'll get the basic idea.
No one, not even white-folks-lovin' conservatives, disputes that minorities get fewer "special advantages in life than do middle class white men." The issue at hand is whether that fact mandates we hold minorities to a lower standard when it comes to hiring and university admissions — and then, apparently, forget they were held to a lower standard when they're nominated to the Supreme Court....

If universities didn't treat minorities preferentially, there'd be no question about whether Sotomayor's graduation from Princeton with honors means anything less than anyone else's.
In this last sentence, VerBruggen acknowledges that certain people's qualifications can basically be taken on faith, even if they involved "leveraging privilege." To anyone with the slightest self-awareness, or the faintest glimmerings of conscience, that really ought to set off a few alarm bells. If VerBruggen isn't saying that gender and skin color are strongly suggestive of inferiority - and that any "honors" minorities flaunt are likely to be stolen, like a twenty-dollar bill in the pocket of a sharecropper - it's hard to know what he is saying.

He'd probably argue that this isn't about minorities and women per se; he's just worried - in his amiable, doting way - about the corrupting effect of special advantages on people who "normally" lack them; he might fret just as ostentatiously over the table manners of people at a soup kitchen, for all I know. But I suspect that if AA were repealed tomorrow, he and his co-religionists would soon find equally earnest reasons to suggest that people like Sonia Sotomayor are substandard and inadequate and ultimately ludicrous, in accordance with the popular theory which states that you're only a racist if you dislike minorities for no good reason.

In any case, VerBruggen's bright idea is to let inborn privilege continue to work its magic in the lives of people who have it, while demanding that women and minorities prove their (alleged) worth by overcoming the structural disadvantages that inevitably arise from this process. As usual, "preferential treatment" is fine, as long as you have the correct preferences.