Saturday, August 2, 2008

Barack Obama and Racial Preferences

One of the more important issues raised by Stanley Kurtz in his essay on Barack Obama's "lost years" in Chicago politics is the candidate's hypocrisy on racial preferences in affirmative action programs.

It turns out, in contrast to Obama's frequent claims to offer a transcendent post-racial sensibility, the Illinois Senator boasts an aggressive record of pushing racial preferences in minority and women's enterprise programs, in minority construction contracting, and in riverboat casino-gambling.
As Kurtz notes:

Obama's intensely race-conscious approach may surprise Americans who know him primarily through his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention of 2004. When Obama so famously said, "There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America-there's the United States of America," most Americans took him to be advocating a color-blind consciousness of the kind expressed in Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream that his children would one day be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Anyone who understood Obama's words that way should know that this is not the whole story. In an essay published in 1988 entitled "Why Organize? Problems and Promise in the Inner City," Obama tried to make room for both "accommodation and militancy" in black political engagement. He wrote,

The debate as to how black and other dispossessed people can forward their lot in America is not new. From W.E.B. DuBois to Booker T. Washington to Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, this internal debate has raged between integration and nationalism, between accommodation and militancy, between sit-down strikes and board-room negotiations. The lines between these strategies have never been simply drawn, and the most successful black leadership has recognized the need to bridge these seemingly divergent approaches.

However his views may have evolved in the ensuing 20 years, Obama surely knew that the King-like rhetoric of his keynote address would be taken by most Americans as a repudiation of the kind of race-based politics he and his closest allies have consistently practiced throughout his electoral career. It's difficult to gauge the extent to which Obama may have consciously permitted this misunderstanding to take hold, or the extent to which he still believes that the opposition between "integration and nationalism, between accommodation and militancy" is a false one. Neither alternative is particularly encouraging.

Kurtz's research represents the essential story on Obama's civil rights record, much of the which the mainstream press has blown off.

It's all the more noteworthy, therefore, that the New York Times offers a new, in-depth look at
Obama's delicate path on class politics and racial preferences:

In 1990, as his fellow students rallied to protest the dearth of black professors at Harvard Law School, Barack Obama wrote a vigorous defense of affirmative action. The campus was in an uproar over questions of race, and Mr. Obama, then the first black president of The Harvard Law Review, decided to take a stand.

Mr. Obama said he had “undoubtedly benefited from affirmative action” in his own academic career, and he praised the intellectual heft and wide-ranging views of his diverse staff.

“The success of the program speaks for itself,” he said of the law review’s affirmative action policy in a letter published in the school’s student newspaper.

Mr. Obama, a Democrat, has continued to support race-based affirmative action, calling it “absolutely necessary” when he was a state senator in Illinois and criticizing the Supreme Court for curtailing it in his time in the United States Senate. But in his presidential campaign, he has unsettled some black supporters by focusing increasingly on class and suggesting that poor whites should at times be given preference over more privileged blacks.

His ruminations about shifting the balance between race and class in some affirmative action programs raise the possibility that, if elected in November, he might foster a deeper national conversation about an issue that has been fiercely debated for decades. He declined to comment for this article.

“We have to think about affirmative action and craft it in such a way where some of our children who are advantaged aren’t getting more favorable treatment than a poor white kid who has struggled more,” Mr. Obama said last week in a question-and-answer session at a convention of minority journalists in Chicago.

During a presidential debate in April, Mr. Obama said his two daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, “who have had a pretty good deal” in life, should not benefit from affirmative action when they apply to college, particularly if they were competing for admission with poor white students.

While Mr. Obama’s biracial background in many ways makes him an ideal bridge between racial sensibilities, the issue remains politically treacherous, especially with race taking an increasingly prominent role in the campaign. Indeed, Mr. Obama’s comments have already begun resonating in the long-running dispute over affirmative action, emerging as three states consider ballot initiatives that would ban racial preferences altogether.
I seriously doubt that racial preferences constitute an issue that Obama wants to embrace as a main campaign plank.

There are few other programs in American public policy that fail as badly on the merits as contemporary affirmative actions programs. The U.S. is now committed to equality before the law - and equal protection for all people. To discriminate in favor of one group, or sets of groups, at the expense of a "privileged" white hegemonic class makes a mockery of notions of color-blind justice.

If Obama truly is America's post-racial candidate (and potential savior) he must abjure a politics of racial recrimination, reparations, and set-aside redistributionism. Should he not, he risks becoming just the latest black candidate of ethnic grievance and racial parochialism.

Obama will be seen as "all talk" if he can't help the nation rise above the peculiar divisions of our past: Personal responsibility? That's just for conservative traditionalists. Educational achievement? That's a "white thing." Yo, my man, the black community needs "progressive" programs and "social justice"!

Indeed, what may happen is that Obama ends up as serving as the set-aside savior for groups such as ACORN, La Raza, NAACP, NARAL, and Now.

This would be a tragedy.

The U.S. is ready for the post-racial transcendence that Obama's original campaign rhetoric promised. Family responsibility, educational opportunity, minority enterprise and capitial formation, universal programs in market-driven health care and taxes - and a considerable role for efficient government. These alternatives promise a much better avenue of color-blind uplift than does racial-preference divisiveness.


UPDATE: See also, Just One Minute, "The Time To Lead Is Later," which points out the Times' description of how Obama might "foster" a deeper national conversation on race, while Obama refused at the same time to be interviewed for the article:

Obama is so eager for a national conversation on affirmative action that he won't talk to the Times about it...
You can't make this stuff up!