Richard Kahlenberg on Racial Preferences and Gay Marriage

In a recent post, I wrote about the growing number of people who oppose racial preferences in education, while also supporting gay marriage. Richard Kahlenberg, a long-time advocate of replacing race-based affirmative action with socioeconomic affirmative action, can be added to the list:

The Supreme Court’s decision to hear gay-marriage cases from New York and California this spring means the justices will weigh in on two highly fraught social questions this term—same-sex marriage and affirmative action in higher education. (Not to mention the future of the Voting Rights Act.) Justice Anthony Kennedy is likely to be the swing vote in these cases, and many are predicting he will side with conservatives to limit racial preferences and with liberals to support gay marriage. Paradoxically, the very reasoning that could guide Kennedy to support marriage equality may bolster his decision to curtail race-based affirmative action, spurring colleges to adopt new approaches.

Proponents of gay marriage advance two powerful arguments: Couples seeking to marry should not be discriminated against on the basis of an unchangeable factor like sexual orientation; and shifting attitudes, especially among young people, make gay marriage an inevitability.

The problem for supporters of racial preferences is that these precise arguments can be, and have been, made by conservatives challenging the use of race in university admissions in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas. Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff, says the fact that she was born white should not be used to disadvantage her in admissions; and large-scale trends over the past half century—the decline in racial discrimination coupled with growing economic inequality, a rise in racial intermarriage, and the “browning” of the U.S. population—all make affirmative action based on race look outdated.

I don’t agree with all the points Kahlenberg makes. Not every possible argument for gay marriage can also be turned into an argument against racial affirmative action. Similarly, there are various arguments for affirmative action that don’t imply any particular stance on gay marriage. For example, the compensatory justice rationale for affirmative action is potentially consistent with support for gay marriage. Nonetheless, there is greater synergy between the case for gay marriage and the case against affirmative action than meets the eye. In both cases, the core claim is that government should not discriminate on the basis of an ascriptive characteristic – race in the case of affirmative action and sex in the case of laws banning gay marriage. And in both cases, the standard rationales offered to justify discrimination are increasingly implausible in a pluralistic society that has come to accept a wide range of intimate relationships and is no longer clearly divisible along traditional black-white lines.

UPDATE: Well-known blogger and gay rights advocate Andrew Sullivan recently expressed similar views:

I support marriage equality as passionately as I oppose affirmative action. I believe in formal civic equality of opportunity, not actual equality of results….

For years, that position – the core underpinning of my book Virtually Normal – was regarded as eccentric. But the logic of equal opportunity is as solid for one as for the other. Eventually, people will see that. Some already are.