WASHINGTON — Washington. -- It does not strike me as terminally hypocritical for Clarence Thomas to have enjoyed the fruits of reverse discrimination at every stage in his career -- including his nomination for the Supreme Court -- while claiming to be morally opposed. Unless you are Ghandi, you live in society as you find it while working for change. I oppose the home mortgage-interest deduction, but I still take it every year.
What nicely complicates the anti-affirmative-action position, though, is the evident reasonableness of giving someone like Clarence Thomas a leg up in the game of life. Even the purest of meritocratic purists can see that Mr. Thomas' history of overcoming poverty and racism is itself meritorious. And few would argue that he has found the career advantages of his background to outweigh the disadvantages.
The moral of the Thomas saga therefore, some have suggested, is that affirmative action should be revised, not discarded. The basis should be social class rather than race. At meritocratic crisis points, a Clarence Thomas should get extra credit for having been born in poverty, but not because of the color of his skin per se.
This is not a new idea. In ''Illiberal Education,'' his recent attack on the American university, Dinesh D'Souza concludes that ''Universities should retain their policies of preferential treatment but alter their criteria . . . from race to socioeconomic disadvantage.''
Twelve years ago, before he was a judge, Antonin Scalia interrupted a screed against affirmative action to remark: ''I do not, on the other hand, oppose -- indeed I strongly favor -- what might be called . . . 'affirmative action programs' of many types of help for the poor and disadvantaged [even if] most of those benefited would be members of minority races.''
The idea is very tempting. Certainly it is hard to explain why a prep-school-educated child of two black professionals should get admissions preference to Harvard over, say, the kid of an unemployed white coal miner from a run-down public school in Appalachia. Trading race for social class sounds like a very good deal for affirmative-action supporters, especially if this would actually end the toxic debate over racial preference.
But would it? Only if opponents are prepared to abandon many of the principles they ostensibly have been fighting for.
First, affirmative action by social class is still a departure from what Mr. D'Souza is pleased to call ''a neutral standard of academic excellence.'' If ''qualifications'' are measured by ability do the job or to succeed at school, any form of affirmative action is a departure from the principle that scarce spaces should go to the best qualified candidate.
Remember the fuss when a student working in the admissions office at Georgetown University's law school revealed that blacks on average had lower admissions test scores? ''Gotcha!'' was the general attitude among critics. But under a system of preferential treatment by ''socioeconomic disadvantage,'' blacks admitted to Georgetown would still have lower average scores than whites.
Second, affirmative action by social class is still a form of zero-sum social engineering, and for every winner there will still be a loser. Will the man in that famous Jesse Helms commercial -- crumbling his rejection letter in disgust -- be comforted because he lost his job to someone else adjudged to be socioeconomically preferable rather than racially preferable? Would Justice Scalia explain to the shade of his immigrant father -- who (the son wrote) ''never profited from the sweat of any black man's brow'' -- that this is simply making up for past injustice?
Third, affirmative action by social class would not address the hi-brows' favorite complaint: that affirmative action stigmatizes the beneficiaries in their own minds and in the minds of others. Any debilitating self-doubt that exists because of affirmative action is not going to be mitigated by being told that you got into Harvard because of your ''socioeconomic disadvantage'' rather than your race. To be sure, the beneficiaries of ''new, improved'' affirmative action wouldn't wear the stamp of it on their faces. But they themselves would know, their friends and advisers would know, and all but a very few blacks would be assumed anyway to be affirmative-action beneficiaries.
And affirmative action by social class might bring its own innovative horrors. Definitions, to start. Does Clarence Thomas the sharecropper's kid get more or fewer preference points than the unemployed miner's son from Appalachia? Is a large suburban public high school a bigger or smaller minus than a second-rank prep school? Communist societies, such as Mao's China, produced hierarchies of reverse social discrimination that match the social distinctions of the most rigidly stratified traditional society.
Affirmative action by social disadvantage does have a certain logic that traditional affirmative action lacks, and a seductive freedom from the poison of racial awareness. To embrace it honestly, though, critics of reverse discrimination would have to give up about three quarters of their case -- and about 99 percent of the political power of their argument. That I doubt they are prepared to do.
TRB is a column of the New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.