Monday, January 17, 2011

MLK Day Rerun: Spot the Real Liberal

Over this long weekend, I've been reflecting on my first year of blogging. Readers of this blog know that I've droned on endlessly about the current state of liberalism. Saturday's rerun explained my current predicament:  although I've always thought of myself as a pretty straight-laced liberal and don't think that my core political commitments have changed all that much over the years, I've been having my doubts about a lot of what passes for common sense in liberal circles.  Sunday's rerun was an attempt to explain why those doubts are necessarily a species of self-doubt.  Today I'm rerunning this post  (slightly edited) from October 5 to complete the trilogy because it sharpens the question that's been driving my doubts about liberalism and myself:

Ideology has both a deliberative and an expressive aspect.

Its deliberative dimension is a matter of the degree to which it sustains a reasonably coherent and compelling set of ethical and political principles and a political agenda that answers rationally to them. If ideologues are occasionally annoyingly doctrinaire it’s because they’ve taken the trouble to figure out what their political priorities are and how best to realize them. As I’m using the term, having an “ideology” is no guarantee of political rationality, but not having one betrays a lack of political seriousness.

At the same time, visibly adhering to an ideology is an ideologue’s way of saying something important about himself. Our political commitments aren’t branded on our foreheads for all to see. So ideologues need a protocol for spotting each other in a crowd as a prelude to deliberating together. Publicly taking a politically correct position is an expression of a political identity, a way of staking a claim to membership in an ideological community.

When an ideological community is firing on all cylinders as an engine of deliberation, intellectual seriousness and communal solidarity point in the same direction. Showing your comrades that you’re deliberating seriously about how best to promote commonly held values draws you closer to them. You know that an ideological community needs a tune up, however, when displays of intellectual seriousness drive erstwhile comrades apart.

Here’s an episode from a couple of years ago that I’ve pieced together from newspaper articles here, here and here.  I make no claims about its typicality or that I've unearthed all the material facts pertaining too it.  The incident interests me because it's a relatively clear example of liberalism’s deliberative and expressive aspects pulling in opposite directions. As such, it challenges liberals to learn something about the current state of liberalism and themselves by asking who in the story are the real liberals.

The story begins in 2004 with UCLA law professor Richard Sander’s publication of a provocative law review article arguing that, if the principal aim of affirmative action in law school admission is the integration of the legal profession, it’s been a self-defeating policy (see “A Systematic Analysis of Affirmative Action at American Law Schools," 57 Stan. L. Rev. Vol. 57 367-482 (2004)). He hypothesized that affirmative action programs that introduce minority candidates into schools for which they are not, or only marginally, prepared so demoralize their intended beneficiaries as to make them less likely to enter the legal profession than they would have been had they attended less exclusive law schools. On the basis of fragmentary empirical evidence, Sander estimated that affirmative action in law school admissions and law firm recruitment may have decreased minority representation in the national legal community by roughly 8 percent.

From all appearances, Sander didn’t undertake his research to serve some reactionary agenda. He’s a longstanding member of the liberal community, a former Vista volunteer and a fair housing advocate. If he’s a racist, he has an odd way of showing it, having an African-American son and having been an energetic political supporter of Harold Washington, Chicago’s only African-American mayor. I’ve no reason to doubt him when he describes himself as having "been a civil rights activist most of [his] life" who “deeply believe[s] in the idea of fostering integration and greater equality of outcomes in our society . . . [but has] grave doubts that affirmative action in higher education is the way to do that.”

Sander is the first to admit that, owing to the limited data at his disposal, his research to date is inconclusive. That’s why he petitioned the California Bar Association to grant him access to the “perfect data base” to test his hypothesis, its voluminous bar exam records which include the race, gender, academic credentials and bar scores of candidates for the California Bar over a thirty-year period. The Bar Association’s release of the data raised legitimate issues about confidentiality. It had been compiled from questionnaires that the respondents completed on the understanding that their answers would be held in confidence and used only to test the fairness of the California bar exam. Sander, however, was more than willing to work with the Bar Association to redact any information that would reveal the identity of the respondents. If scrubbing the records wasn’t sufficient, he even offered to submit his research protocol to the Bar Association so that it could crunch the numbers itself without releasing the data to third parties. The Bar Association still turned him down anyway on the implausible ground that the confidentiality issues were intractable.

Five members of the formally nonpartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, at least some of them vocal conservatives, urged the Bar Association to comply with Sander’s request. Even if you think their position served a reactionary agenda, it’s hard to see that it gives liberals much to argue with. You might have thought that they, of all people, would want to know if one of their favorite techniques for promoting racial integration and rectifying a history of discrimination is not only ineffective, but counter-productive. Yet there was a considerable amount of liberal opposition to Sander’s submission to the Bar Association from inside and outside the Civil Rights Commission that was intemperate in tone and conclusory in content.

One liberal Commission member spoke for many of his comrades when he dissented from the Commission’s majority position in these inflammatory terms: "To follow the reasoning of the majority, we might as well hang a sign saying 'blacks and other minorities need not apply' on the doorways of Yale, Harvard and other elite schools."

Other liberals who joined in the debate made no effort to hide the fact that they opposed Sander’s research principally because they feared it would reveal politically inconvenient facts. Society of American Law Teachers co-Presidents Eileen Kaufman and Tayyab Mahmud couldn’t have been more forthright: “If it turns out that individual bar exam scores are used to indicate that minority applicants have not 'learned the law' as well as their white counterparts at similar schools," they cautioned, "then the California State Bar may unwittingly contribute to the misperceptions already confronting minority bar applicants and attorneys." The sources I've cited don't tell us why they thought that research conscientiously undertaken by a highly credentialed social scientist subject to peer review would feed rather than dispel “misconceptions.”

Deborah Waire Post, a professor at New York's Touro Law Center did them one better. She argued that Sander’s research is beneath consideration, apparently on the ground that anyone who even contemplates that affirmative action is ineffective must be an out-and-out racist. It must have come as a shock to Sander when she revealed to the world that he “is not studying affirmative action or diversity policies, he is marshaling evidence to show that blacks do not belong in elite schools or elite firms." If that wasn’t enough, Post compared his work to pseudo-science from "the late 19th and early 20th century when this country was beset by 'scholars' and 'scientists' who constructed theories of racial inferiority to justify the subordination of African Americans." Sanders has to be stopped before he "constructs" again.

You can give yourself a quick ideological Rorschach test by asking yourself which characters in this story are the real liberals, Sander or the people anxious to excommunicate him from the liberal church.

When I pose that question to myself, Sander is the only genuine liberal left standing. I’ve always thought, and still hope, that being a liberal is essentially a matter of being genuinely committed to realization of egalitarian values in the real world. That entails caring about whether the public policies you employ to promote equality really work. So I can only regard Sander’s critics as people who care more about looking like a liberal than actually being one.

Yet the fact that so few liberals rushed to Sander’s defense doesn’t inspire confidence that I’m right. Granted, most self-identified liberals probably wouldn’t have been as hard on Sander as the people I’ve quoted above. But that doesn’t change the fact that Sander’s critics trashed him from secure institutional perches within the liberal community without inhibition. That suggests that, in liberal circles, it’s not particularly bad form to impugn the ideological authenticity of someone like Sander.  "Liberalism" is just what the people we call liberals actually think.  So if enough members of the liberal community really think Sander's liberalism is inauthentic, it really is.

So, I ask again: who in this story is the real liberal?  When I heard about this story I was shocked to discover that I am no longer altogether sure what the answer is.

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