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President Obama, Doctors, and Diversity

The New England Journal of Medicine has an editorial calling for the Supreme Court to uphold the continued use of racial preferences in university admissions in a case now before it, Fisher v. University of Texas.  But the argument that it puts forward — that racial preferences are justified because we need physicians who can understand their patients — has lots of problems. First, it’s not being asserted by the University of Texas in its case and has never been recognized by the Supreme Court. Second, even if there is some benefit along these lines, the argument ignores the many costs — which I have listed many times, and to which I would add here the fact that our physicians will not be as qualified if they are being chosen in part because of their color, which ought to give everyone some pause. It’s one thing to have a bad plumber; it’s something else to have a bad doctor.

 

In any event, it really makes no sense to use race and ethnicity as a proxy for being able to “understand the communities and cultures” of some patients. For example, most of the African Americans who would get these preferences come from middle- and upper-class backgrounds, so their “cultural competence” will not be much different from whites and Asians (who are discriminated against) from these backgrounds (to say nothing of the fact that some whites and Asians, conversely, may come from underserved communities themselves). A particular cultural competence can be learned by people from any racial or ethnic background, and there is no assurance that the African-American med student will end up returning to his particular community. And indeed why should we be pushing black doctors — with lower qualifications, mind you — to focus on treating black patients, as if we were still in the Jim Crow era? Finally, there are so many racial and ethnic groups and subgroups now in the United States that going down this road is a futile exercise.

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Here’s another recent and dubious editorial opinion.  NAACP head Benjamin Todd Jealous had an op-ed in USA Today about the barriers to progress for African Americans.  It fails to say anything, anything at all, about the fact that 72 percent of black children are now born out of wedlock, and that this is the principal reason for all the racial disparities he complains about.

His piece is also unpersuasive in what it does say: It is not lack of funding or racial imbalance that is the main problem in our public schools; it is not discrimination that sends so many young black men to prison; and the reference to “voter-suppression laws in 30 states” is just silly. But it is what he doesn’t mention that is most lamentable.

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Answering a question about his recent string of white-male Cabinet nominations, White House spokesman Jay Carney says President Obama believes that, considerations of “diversity” notwithstanding, the best qualified individual should be chosen for the job.  He does say that he likes to choose from a list that includes diverse candidates.

Two points: First, if President Obama thinks that he should choose the most qualified applicant, then why doesn’t he think that universities should choose the most qualified applicant? (His administration argued in support of racial preferences in the amicus brief it filed with the Supreme Court recently in University of Texas v. Fisher, discussed above.) Second, if the decision about who gets picked from the list should be based on merit alone, then why shouldn’t the decision about who gets put on the list be determined by merit alone? Surely you can ensure that a wide net is being cast without requiring a quota-driven list.

I can’t believe that Mike Huckabee and Elaine Chao (Bush’s former labor secretary) have reportedly taken President Obama to task for not having a “diverse” enough set of Cabinet appointments for his second term.

You can call him a hypocrite for insisting on selecting the best-qualified applicants while his Justice Department is telling the Supreme Court that it’s not a good idea for universities to do so, but hypocrisy is, after all, the tribute that vice pays to virtue. And Obama is, for once, being virtuous in insisting on hiring the best-qualified candidates, regardless of race, ethnicity, or sex (they are not the people I’d choose, but that’s a different story).

What this episode shows is that no one really believes that you can select people with an eye on their color while also trying to pick the best people. It’s a good thing that the administration has unwittingly acknowledged that.