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Is It Time To End Affirmative Action?

Etymologically, the word symposium means a convivial meeting, usually involving food, drink, and intellectual conversation. The Intelligence Squared U.S. debate series, made possible by philanthropist Robert Rosenkrantz, may yet restore this classical sensibility to public discourse. Last night was the … Read More

By / November 15, 2007

Etymologically, the word symposium means a convivial meeting, usually involving food, drink, and intellectual conversation. The Intelligence Squared U.S. debate series, made possible by philanthropist Robert Rosenkrantz, may yet restore this classical sensibility to public discourse. Last night was the 12th debate of the series, hosted at Asia Society and Museum, and if conviviality was evidenced in the buzzing pre-debate cocktail hour, civility and intellect prevailed during the Oxford-style main event.

Which is not to say things didn’t get heated. Somehow, no political or cultural topic provokes in Americans the unease that accompanies discussions of race and policy. People don’t whisper in neutral terms when hashing it out over, say, the Iraq War, or healthcare. For all the civil progress and legislative change, racial differences persist insidiously as the core tension in the heart of our republic. No subject could benefit more from a thoughtful airing in such a forum. The proposition before the house was “It’s time to end affirmative action,” a declaration provocative in both how much it says and how little it elaborates. The debaters, however, addressed racial preference only as it plays out in university admissions. Supporting the proposition were John McWhorter, linguist, author, and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute; Terence J. Pell, president of the Center for Individual rights (CIR); and Joseph C. Phillips, actor and writer. Those opposed were Khin Mai Aung, staff attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF); Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, law professor at UCLA and Columbia, and executive director of the African American Policy Forum; and Tim Wise, writer and educator. Whether consciously in the spirit of meta-sensitivity or not, IQ2 pulled together an ethnically diverse cast of luminaries, and this conferred a sense of real-world immediacy upon the proceedings. NPR’s Robert Siegel moderated, and in so doing served as a reminder that to moderate is an active verb. A debate can be called civil not because there’s a lack of fury, but rather there’s an avoidance of the ad hominem and a respect for the structure of the format. The debaters kept the cheap shots to a minimum, and Mr. Seigel moved things along admirably. Before the debate began the audience voted electronically on the proposition. Results were: 34% for, 44% against, and 22% undecided. A second round of voting was held after the debate. First up was Joseph Phillips in defense of the proposition. He delivered a personal attack on the idea and practice of racial preference in school admissions. I’ll reproduce a portion of Phillip’s opening remarks so as to convey the effectiveness of his approach.

My wife was at a birthday party with our children…The mothers are grouped and they’re talking about their children, where they go to school and it comes to light, that my oldest boy attends a magnet program, uh, for highly gifted students. Without missing a beat one of the other mothers says, well, you know, now, with this Supreme Court decision they won’t be able to accept, uh, kids in these programs for diversity. Well, my wife was kinder than I would have been. After she picked her jaw up off the floor she explained to the woman, look. He’s not in this program because he checked some box. You can’t get in this program unless you score 99.9 percent on the test. And he’s making straight A’s. In this program. And what is more ironic, is that the woman she was talking to, is a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. That. . .is the evil of racial preferences. That is the real-life impact of racial preferences. Teachers who lack faith in the academic abilities of their students, and children, who no matter how hard they work, no mater how broad their gifts, are stained with stained with preference.

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