The Problem of Affirmative Action

HL Mencken once defined Fundamentalism as "the terrible, pervasive fear that someone, somewhere, is having fun".  I've been thinking of this a lot watching some of the attacks on Sotomayor, but I'd frame the critics as suffering from the terrible, pervasive fear that some brown person, somewhere, is getting away with something.

Posit that everything the critics say about Sotomayor is true; that indeed, everything they say about affirmative action is true.  Is this the biggest problem facing America?  Is this the biggest problem facing America from Sonia Sotomayor

Given my politics, I am probably not going to like how she rules on many, maybe even most, issues.  But almost none of those issues involve racial preferences, which, even if they are a problem, are a small problem for America, affecting fewer people than almost any of the other major policy questions we're debating today.  Making race, or racial politics, the central complaint, makes it seem like your biggest policy priority is making sure that not one minority in the land gets anything they don't deserve.  But hey, we all get things we don't deserve.  I'll go further:  almost all of us get something we don't deserve as a result of our race, including white people.  Perhaps even especially white people.

If you don't believe it, ask yourself why repeated studies show that resumes with identifiably black names get fewer interview offers than identical white resumes.  Being identifiably black hurts your chances worse than having a felony conviction.  Even if you want to argue that an identifiably black name is a socio-economic marker for a certain kind of parenting, an argument I find pretty dubious, are you really willing to argue that black kids should be permanently barred from employment because their parents have dubious taste in names?  Well, go ahead, I guess, but I'm going to find it hard to take you seriously when you complain about affirmative action because it undermines our fantabulous American meritocracy.

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.  They're just alienating the people you want to convince.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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