Vanderbilt Law Review


Thomas Ross

First Page



When we create arguments, when we act as rhetoricians, we reveal ourselves by the words and ideas we choose to employ. Verbal structures that are used widely and persistently are especially worth examination. Arguments made with repeated, almost formulaic, sets of words suggest a second argument flowing beneath the apparent argument. Beneath the apparently abstract language and the syllogistic form of these arguments, we may discover the deeper currents that explain, at least in part, why we seem so attached to these verbal structures.

Argument about affirmative action in the context of racial discrimination is particularly wrenching and divisive, especially among people who agree, formally speaking, on the immorality of racism.' In a world where the dominant public ideology is one of nonracism, where the charge of racism is about as explosive a rhetorical move as one can make, disagreement about affirmative action often divides us in an angry and tragic manner.

In this Paper, I examine a recurring element of the rhetoric of affirmative action. This element, the "rhetoric of innocence," relies on the invocation of the "innocent white victim" of affirmative action. The rhetoric of innocence is a rich source of the deeper currents of our affirmative action debate. By revealing those deeper currents, we may gain a clearer sense of why the issue of affirmative action so divides good people, white and of color.