Over the years, I’ve participated in several dozen panel discussions and debates about affirmative action, but none quite like the one last Thursday evening. The debate took place at the Oxford Union Society, a student-run organization which has been hosting such discussions since 1823 on the campus of Oxford University.
The dress is formal (black tie), and the delivery style is theatrical and passionate, mimicking the British parliament. Indeed, participants stand adjacent to dispatch boxes of the type found in the British House of Commons and can be interrupted by opponents—or members of the audience—raising points of information.
The invitation to speak, which arrived in June, was meant to flatter, and in my case succeeded. “The Union has hosted world leaders in virtually every field, including former US presidents Reagan, Nixon and Carter, Malcolm X, Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama to name but a few.” There were no heads of state or Nobel Prize winners on the roster Thursday, but the slate included a highly able group of debaters who wrestled with a very difficult issue.
The debate involved four speakers on each side of the motion: “The House Believes Positive Discrimination is a Necessary Evil.” (Positive Discrimination is the term the British give to affirmative action policies for women and people of color.)
Advocates for the proposition included Martin Castro, chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, Ada Meloy, general counsel of the American Council on Education, Carla Buzasi, editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post UK, and Oxford student Toby Fuller.
As a liberal proponent of class-based rather than race-based affirmative action, I was placed (somewhat uncomfortably) with conservative opponents of the motion, who included Fox News commentator and radio host Erick Erickson, Financial Times columnist Heather McGregor, and student Martine Wauben. I guess my role was to inject some compassion into the group’s compassionate conservatism.
The rules provided that in the middle of the debate, a limited number of audience members would be recognized to give short, three-minute speeches, reacting to what had been said so far. At the end of every debate, audience members would vote not by a raise of hands but by exiting the hall through one of two doors, in favor or in opposition to the motion.
At dinner before the debate, our side concluded we would surely lose. As Erickson noted in his RedState blog post regarding the debate, the previous week, the Oxford Union students had voted against patriotism.
When we entered the historic hall, the room was crowded with close to 300 audience members. Fuller, Castro, Meloy, and Buzasi passionately argued that racial and gender discrimination continues to plague Western societies, and positive discrimination is necessary to counteract it.
Wauben and McGregor suggested we’re making progress for women and minorities, Erickson made the case that all discrimination is wrong, and I suggested that the way to address discrimination—and deprivation—without resorting to the disease–as-cure is to provide a leg up to economically disadvantaged students of all races, a disproportionate share of whom are students of color.
If the debate had stayed at that abstract level, I would not have been optimistic about winning. But I think tide began to turn when audience members started to participate with short statements, and the discussion became more concrete.
Parit Wacharasindhu, president of the Oxford Union, said he had a confession to make: that Ada Meloy, Carla Buzasi, Heather McGregor, and Marine Wauben had been asked to participate not because they were the most qualified, but because the debate needed women panelists. Participants looked around at one another uneasily. Wacharasindhu then said that he had a second confession to make: that his first statement was untrue, but meant to underline the insulting nature that racial and gender preferences can take on when spoken aloud.
I tried to make the discussion concrete as well, by raising the question that George Stephanopoulos asked of President Obama: Do his daughters deserve a preference in college admissions over a low-income white applicant? So long as race and class run together, many people of goodwill want to give a break to a disadvantaged minority applicant.
But what should we do when the roles are reversed and the minority applicant is quite advantaged and the white applicant disadvantaged? A student speaker favoring the proposition said that Sasha and Malia Obama deserve a preference because “they are the victims of racial and gender oppression.”
The response was jarring, not because racial and gender discrimination are no longer serious problems in our society; they are. But when the daughters of the world’s most powerful leader, students at one the best private schools in the country, are painted as society’s victims, deserving a preference over the most disadvantaged white applicant, the concrete application of affirmative action policies looks hard to defend, whether you’re a conservative or a liberal.
The Oxford Union members may have voted against patriotism the week before, but when the students filed out the door, the opponents of positive racial and gender discrimination won by nine votes.