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THE NUANCE EXCUSE

11:00 PM, Feb 2, 1997 • By THOMAS SOWELL
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ONE OF THE CURIOUS THINGS about the bitter battle over preferences and quotas that came to a head in the California Civil Rights Initiative is how many critics of affirmative action were missing in action when the issue faced its first test at the ballot box. After the fight was won without them, we could say to them what Henri IV said, after a great victory in battle, to one of his followers: "Hang yourself, brave Crillon; we fought at Arques and you were not there."


Among those who were not there were Nathan Glazer, John H. Bunzel, and Glenn Loury, all critics of preferences and quotas for many years. Their reasons for not supporting the principle of equal treatment for all when high noon rolled around were curious, at best.


Bunzel, for example, argues that we should determine "the relevance of race that falls between 'none at all' and 'too much.'" Isn't that a lovely thought? And a lovely principle for a law? Imagine taking down highway signs that say "65 mph" and replacing them with signs warning against "too much" speed.


Apparently it was because of its "moral simplicity" that Bunzel, writing in the Los Angeles Times, "found the ballot initiative so troublesome." He preferred a "nuanced response" rather than a "blunt instrument."


Unfortunately, nuanced nonsense is still nonsense. Government itself is a blunt instrument. That is one of many reasons for opposing expansions of its power. Expecting nuanced government is like expecting a dry ocean.


Then there is the old familiar moral equivalence argument, which some might have thought -- or hoped -- had vanished with the Cold War: "I would even suggest that CCRI is as blunt an instrument in trying to confront these excesses as affirmative action itself has often been in trying to use race to overcome racism."


And for those who are true nostalgia buffs, Bunzel has this: "What do we put in its place?" Is there any greater confession of bankruptcy than this rhetorical question? When firemen put out a fire, what do they put in its place? When a surgeon removes a cancer, what does he put in its place? Perhaps the people who backed out of joining Gary Cooper when he confronted the bad guys in High Noon should have asked: After you have shot these gunmen, what will you put in their place? But perhaps they were not nuanced enough for that.


Nathan Glazer at least tries to defend some form of affirmative action in substance in a recent piece in the New Republic. How well he does it is another question. To Glazer, the bottom line is that "the end of affirmative action means facing the prospect that the number of African American students accepted into selective colleges would drop from 6 to 7 percent to around 2 percent." This in turn means that "the predominant pathway to wellpaying and influential jobs for blacks would all but disappear."


Does this mean that blacks -- or anyone else for that matter -- cannot make it without having been to the Ivy League and the like? It would be fascinating to see the empirical evidence behind this breathtaking conclusion. Surely a scholar of Glazer's stature knows about the staggering attrition rates of black students in institutions with which they are mismatched. This is not a formula for success, but a way to create artificial failures out of people who already have the ingredients of success in some other setting.


In addition to all the explicit failures, there are the hidden failures, like the students who could have carried out their original intentions to major in a field that offered them some real prospects after graduation, but ended up having to take ethnic studies or some other driver in order to get enough easy grades to survive at a college where they are in over their heads.


Moreover, even those black students who meet the same standards as their white classmates and earn good, legitimate grades in serious subjects end up graduating under a cloud of suspicion because of all the double standards that have corrupted academia. None of this sounds like the royal road to money and power Glazer talks about.


Perhaps the most amazing conclusion Glazer reaches is that getting rid of preferences and quotas would have "damaging consequences for race relations." Where has he been all these decades while affirmative action has been creating enormous ill-will among whites in general and serving as a golden recruiting issue for hate groups in particular?