Elizabeth Warren and the wages of race-based preferences

The Elizabeth Warren affair made the front page of today’s Washington Post. The story, by Chris Cillizza and David Fahrenthold, is cast in familiar Washington terms: What should have been a nothing story (a “bump”) has become a big deal (a “hurdle”) because Warren failed to deal competently with the matter when it arose. It’s “an iron law of politics,” the Post-men intone, “Bad denials make little things big.”

But there are less trite lessons to be learned from the Warren affair.

In the mid-1960s, John Kaplan, latter one of my favorite law professors, wrote the first good critique of racial preferences of which I’m aware. Among the problems Kaplan raised were the potential that being hired or admitted to school pursuant to a racial preference would stigmatize the beneficiaries and that it would cause these intended beneficiaries to doubt whether they really belong.

The culture of political correctness, which Kaplan would later encounter and thumb his nose at, didn’t exist yet. But it arrived in short order, and one of its missions was to negate the kind of thinking Kaplan had expressed. White students and employees were expected not to air, or even to harbor, doubts about whether their minority counterparts had obtained their places on merits.

In the university context, moreover, the minorities receiving preferences were told that they were doing the college a favor, not the other way around. Through their presence, they were providing a rich, diverse learning atmosphere for white students. The “pleasure” is all yours, white students were told. As for the whites who were denied admission, they could obtain the same pleasure at a lesser institution that also granted race-based preferences.

To what degree did this ideology successfully counteract problems of stigmatization and self-esteem? I’m not sure what the empirical research shows. If I recall correctly, Derek Bok and William Bowen (former presidents of Harvard and Princeton, respectively) found little problem in these regards in their book The Shape of the River. But this work may have been more of a piece of advocacy than an example of reliable social science.

Anecdotally, most of us can probably cite evidence that problems of stigmatization and self-esteem do arise from race-based preferences. Intuition tells us the same thing. No high-achieving person wants others to believe, or to believe himself, that he did not merit selection for a job or a slot in a student body.

I have heard that, as a Harvard law student, Barack Obama would tell fellow students that he did not disclose his race when he applied to Harvard – as if his very name wouldn’t sufficiently tantalize diversity mongers on the admissions committee. Obama was aiming high at Harvard; in fact he wanted (and got) its top Law Review office. Under these circumstances, presumably, it would not do for his fellow strivers to have any doubt that Obama was at the law school on merit alone.

This brings us to Elizabeth Warren. Why did she deny telling Harvard that she is an Indian? Probably for the same reason Obama allegedly stressed that he didn’t tell Harvard his race. Like Obama, she is aiming high, and the left considers her (as she must want to consider herself) not just another liberal but a state-of-the-art, transformational statesman of the highest intellectual order. It will not do for anyone to believe that she used her alleged ethnicity to get to reach the platform from which she can plausibly represent herself as this special. Nor will it do for her to believe this.

So, yes, the Warren story reinforces the classic Washington cliché that “the cover-up will get you every time.” But the real moral of the story is a much deeper one.

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