Another Attempt to Justify Preferences and Quotas

Troy Duster, a past president of the American Sociological Association and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s Warren Institute for Law and Social Policy, has a long Chronicle of Higher Education article that is usefully if unwittingly revealing and instructive because it so perfectly reflects both the profound misunderstanding of their critics and the logical fallacies of their own position that are so prevalent among those who defend racial and ethnic preferences.

Duster believes that the “unapologetic quota system” employed in the selection of National Merit Scholars — chosen by state — and admission to the service academies — two admits for each Congressional district — shows that critics of affirmative action are both hypocritical for not opposing them and wrong, because both programs demonstrate the value of “diversity” over “a single-minded reliance on ‘individual merit’ as measured by test scores.”

Among the misunderstandings, flaws, and fallacies of Duster’s argument are the following:

The False Dichotomy Fallacy

In Duster’s false dichotomy, opponents of affirmative action believe “individual fairness should trump any concern for diversity” while supporters believe that “diversity is a vital, compelling state interest.” True, critics do value individual fairness more than preferentialists, who favor group rights, but our concern is not limited to individual victims. We also believe that having a society where all members are treated without regard to their race, creed, or color is more appealing than one that distributes benefits and burdens based on race or ethnicity. The disagreement thus is not whether to favor individual or society but what kind of society we want.

The Straw Man Fallacy

Duster argues that critics of affirmative action believe that college admission should be “based solely upon test scores.” He’s wrong; we don’t. We believe that colleges should be free to define “merit” however they want (or even to disregard it altogether if they choose), limited only by a prohibition against trespassing on the protected categories of race, religion, ethnicity, or sex.

The Fallacy of Fungible Discriminations

Duster assumes, absurdly, that no one who accepts the legitimacy of criteria based on anything other than test scores can make a principled criticism of racial preference. If one kind of preference is o.k., so his argument goes, any kind of preference is o.k.

A Cost Benefit Analysis That Ignores Cost

Duster sees no downside to “diversity.” He says nothing about the two-track racial admissions scandal at the Naval Academy widely reported by Bruce Fleming, a professor and admissions board member there (or the scandal of the retribution against him). He ignores all the recent evidence of the effects of “mismatch,” evidence that is as acute at the service academies as elsewhere. A report by the Center for Equal Opportunity demonstrated “a substantial academic qualifications gap” between blacks and whites admitted to the service academies and a corresponding graduation gap. A major RAND Corporation study commissioned by the Secretary of Defense also found that blacks graduated at a substantially lower rate and that blacks who did graduate completed their initial service obligation at a substantially lower rate than white and Asian graduates.

Racial preferences deserved to be condemned more than other kinds of preference because, as the Center for Equal Opportunity’s Roger Clegg pointed out in a succinct comment on Duster’s blustery article, they are “uniquely ugly, unfair, divisive, immoral, and illegal.”


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