Henry Farrell, in the comments on my earlier post on Kinsley’s piece, cryptically refers to the counterarguments by Kieran Healy and Daniel Dresner (no permalink; last 6-24 entry).

Kieran writes,

Doesn’t Kinsley know the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions? He’s writing as though race (and everything else) were both necessary and sufficient — either they make all the differene or none at all. Last time I heard, though, being a member of a racial minority group wasn’t sufficient to get you admitted to Michigan Law. It wasn’t necessary either, as a quick glance at most of the law students there will tell you. Of course, minority status can raise your chances of admission, in conjunction with other conditions, and may sometimes be an added variable that pushes a candidate into the ‘Yes’ pile. That’s the whole point of affirmative action. But it’s wrong to argue, as Kinsley does, that “’no role’ and ‘determinative factor’ are in fact the only possible options†and that “There cannot be an infinite variety of effects on a yes-or-no question.†Actually, there can. Either you’re married or you’re not married. Yet there are an enormous number of causal paths to this simple binary outcome.

Dan makes a similar point, but extends it a bit:

Other admissions criteria are sufficient but not necessary. For example, if an applicant had a letter of recommendation from William Rehnquist saying “this is the brightest undergraduate I’ve met,” that person will be accepted. However, it’s not necessary to have such a letter to be accepted.

One can parse conditions further. There are SUNI conditions — sufficient but unnecessary parts of a necessary but insufficient condition. There are also INUS conditions — insufficient but necessary parts of an unnecessary but sufficient condition.

Race, in the Michigan admissions criteria, is a INUS condition. To be let in for reasons of diversity, it’s necessary for the person to be a minority. There are other criteria that must be satisfied — no felonies, remember. Race, in and of itself, is not a necessary and sufficient condition.

Kinsley isn’t arguing that it’s necessary to be black to get into the University of Michigan. Nor does Kinsley argue that merely being black is sufficient to gain entry into school. For example, one has to graduate college and take the LSAT. Kinsley understands that, at the aggregate level, race is indeed one of many factors. What he’s saying is that, for any given applicant, race may well a sufficient condition. Let’s say there are two candidates, one Asian and slightly ahead in the competiton and one African American, slightly behind in the competition. If the non-quantitative “bonus” added to the African American’s score pushes him ahead of the Asian, then race was indeed determinative. He was, in effect, let in solely because of his race because, were he white (or Asian, or Arab, or Pacific Islander, etc.), he would not have been accepted.

Everyone understands that blacks aren’t all automatically admitted and that race is one of many factors. The question is for the marginal candidates, say, the bottom 10 percent of those offered admission. There, race may well be determinative. And, unlike geographical status, musical talent, or quality of letters of recommendation, race is a protected class under the 14th Amendment and decades of Supreme Court jurisprudence.

Further, Kinsley is applying this argument against against O’Connor’s assertion that this bonus system doesn’t “unduly burden” applicants from outside the preferred races. He argues, persuasively, that it of course does. And, again, I believe Kinsley SUPPORTS affirmative action–he just thinks we should be honest in how we view it. Of course it hurts white kids at the margin. The questions are 1) Is it worth doing anyway and 2) Is the rationale advanced constitutionally permissible?

Update (1422): One of Healy’s commentors notes that the evaluation process is not linear–that candidates are merely rated rather than ranked. Again, this is probably true for the top tier candidates. But, unless the law school simply lets in all students it rates “Michigan material,” this isn’t true for the bottom tier of admittees.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.