If our President had the slightest sense of irony, he might have paused to ask himself, "Wait a minute. How did I get into Yale?" It wasn't because of any academic achievement: his high school record was ordinary. It wasn't because of his life experience prosperous family, fancy prep school which was all too familiar at Yale. It wasn't his SAT scores: 566 verbal and 640 math.
They may not have had an explicit point system at Yale in 1964, but Bush clearly got in because of affirmative action. Affirmative action for the son and grandson of alumni. Affirmative action for a member of a politically influential family. Affirmative action for a boy from a fancy prep school. These forms of affirmative action still go on. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Harvard accepts 40% of applicants who are children of alumni but only 11% of applicants generally. And this kind of affirmative action makes the student body less diverse, not more so.
George W. Bush, in fact, may be the most spectacular affirmative-action success story of all time. Until 1994, when he was 48 years old and got elected Governor of Texas, his life was almost empty of accomplishments. Yet bloodlines and connections had put him into Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School, and even finally provided him with a fortune after years of business disappointments. Intelligence, hard work and the other qualities associated with the concept of merit had almost nothing to do with Bush's life and success up to that point. And yet seven years later he was President of the U.S.
So what is the difference between the kind of affirmative action that got Bush where he is today and the kind he wants the Supreme Court to outlaw? One difference is that the second kind is about race, and race is an especially toxic subject. Of course, George W.'s affirmative action is about race too, at least indirectly. The class of wealthy, influential children of alumni of top universities is disproportionately white. And it will remain that way for a long time especially if racial affirmative action is outlawed.
A second difference is that the Michigan system is crudely numerical, whereas the favoritism enjoyed by George W. Bush is baked into the way we live. Between these two extreme examples are all the familiar varieties of preference: explicit racial favoritism without numbers, favoritism based on something as amorphous as social class or as specific as your high school, favoritism limited to recruitment and preparation, and so on.
Opponents and supporters of affirmative action actually tend to agree that there is something bad, generally called quotas, and something good, generally called something like diversity. Their argument is about where you draw the line. Bush calls the Michigan 20-point bonus a quota, and his critics insist that it is not. But both sides are wrong. If your sole measure of the success of any arrangement is whether it increases the representation of certain minorities, then it doesn't really matter what procedure you use to achieve that result: some people are getting something desirable because of their race, and an equal number of people are not getting it for the same reason.
Of course a series of somebodies didn't get into Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School because their blood wasn't as blue as Bush's, and other somebodies didn't get a chance to own the Texas Rangers or to use the capital Bush borrowed to buy his share of the team because these somebodies were nobodies. Life is unfair. A legitimate criticism of affirmative action is that it politicizes life chances and focuses blame on race. If you get turned down by Yale to make room for a George W., you're not even aware of it. But if you get turned down by the University of Michigan, you're likely to blame affirmative action (if you're white), even though the numbers say you probably would have been turned down anyway.
So ask yourself: Would you rather have a gift of 20 points out of 150 to use at the college of your choice? Or would you rather have the more amorphous advantages President Bush has enjoyed at every stage of his life? If the answer to that isn't obvious to you, even 20 extra points are probably not enough to get you into the University of Michigan.