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Why Does Affirmative Action Confuse Us? Blame Descartes

February 11th, 2022 by dk

President Biden promised during his campaign to choose a Black woman for the Supreme Court. Justice Stephen Breyer’s announced retirement now makes this possible. Biden’s critics are upset. To understand the issue better, let’s consult with Ted Cruz, John Kennedy, Brian Flores, and René Descartes.

Sen. Ted Cruz was first to opine that the president was effectively disqualifying 93 percent of Americans who are not both female and Black. Never mind that White men received 100 percent of the nominations until President Ronald Reagan also fulfilled a campaign pledge by choosing Sandra Day O’Connor. Victimhood isn’t the only hood that fits Cruz and his followers.

When did the term “affirmative action” enter public policy? Like “social security,” the policy’s original  intent is hidden in the plain meaning of the words.

President John Kennedy issued an executive order on March 6, 1961, requiring that government contractors “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed … without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” (Sex and gender were added in subsequent orders in 1965 and 1968.)

“Affirmative action” can also be called “extra effort.” Finding a qualified candidate who doesn’t look like the usual hires requires extra effort. That (extra) action has been affirmed by our government for over 60 years.

Most Americans don’t care much about affirmative action or the Supreme Court, but they do care about football. Former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores is suing the NFL for racial discrimination. Flores may not win his lawsuit, but he has exposed how affirmative action’s extra effort can be reduced to a performative sham.

Quota mandates were not part of any original formulation. Those came later as enforcement mechanisms to root out evident bad faith.

Biden has pledged to consider three factors. Race and gender are easy to measure. Qualifications for a lifetime appointment to the highest court are more difficult to measure. So why are we confused about Biden’s pledge? Because we are trapped in a particular habit of thinking pioneered by René Descartes and his Enlightenment ilk 400 years ago.

Enlightenment thinking emerged after two inventions early in the 17th century changed scientific inquiry. The microscope and the telescope effectively erased the limits of human observation. Observation jumped forward faster than imagination could explain, and measurement followed quickly to extend it.

René Descartes, who died 372 years ago today, built a system of thought that asserted primacy for measurements. Enlightenment thinkers believed life must be measured to be meaningful. Ever since, we’ve tended to overvalue whatever can be easily and precisely measured. It’s not the only way to think about things. It’s just the only way we know.

(I bring this up every year around this time to remind readers and myself that our system of thought and the habits that follow were made by men and won’t serve us forever. We cannot build a new awareness of the world until we admit our old ways have stopped working.)

Biden’s pledge to identify a qualified candidate who doesn’t look like her predecessors requires extra effort — affirmative action. It should be applauded, not attacked. 


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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  • 1 Susie Stevens Feb 11, 2022 at 6:04 pm

    Great!! Thank you & for the last post also :-)