Opening Argument – Obama Logic Versus Racial Preferences

National Journal

"I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged, and I think that there’s nothing wrong with us taking that into account as we consider admissions policies at universities. I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed." — Barack Obama, May 13, 2007

This Obama response to a question by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos about whether the children of two well-off Harvard law graduates should "get affirmative action" (meaning racial preferences) has potentially radical implications for a Democratic presidential contender.

Although Obama has often embraced racial preferences, the above-quoted statements — as well as his inspirational rhetoric about getting away from racial categorizing — are hard to reconcile either with the regime of racial preferences that now pervades this country or with Democratic orthodoxy on the subject.

Obama seemed to imply that "advantaged" African-Americans should not receive affirmative-action preferences — at least, not at the expense of less advantaged Asian-Americans or whites — in college admissions, or (one might extrapolate) other walks of life.

But most recipients of racial preferences are relatively advantaged. According to the most comprehensive survey of the relevant data, although white students are wealthier on average, 86 percent of the black students (and 98 percent of whites) enrolled in 28 selective colleges came from middle- or upper-class backgrounds. (The numbers come from a 1998 book, The Shape of the River, by William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, both ardent champions of racial preferences.)

Similarly, it appears that selective colleges pass over many not-so-affluent (as well as affluent), better-qualified Asian-American and white kids to make room for more affluent black and Hispanic students. A subset of these passed-over whites and Asian-Americans "have grown up in poverty," in Obama’s words. Indeed, a 2004 study found that only 3 percent of the students at 146 selective institutions were from the bottom 25 percent of the socioeconomic ladder. A recent study also found that high-achieving Asian-Americans have lost out more than whites under selective universities’ racial-preference regime for blacks and Hispanics.

What we have here is a contradiction between the logical implications of Obama’s response to Stephanopoulos — not to mention his supporters’ chants that "race doesn’t matter" — and his history of advocating racial preferences.

Other writers, including Mickey Kaus of Slate, Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation (also writing in Slate), and Terry Eastland of The Weekly Standard, have suggested that Obama should try "abandoning race-based preferences," in Kaus’s words. Kahlenberg says that the acid test will come when Obama has to take a position on the ballot initiatives that would ban state-imposed preferences in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma; he opposed a similar initiative in Michigan in 2006.

Such a Nixon-goes-to-China surprise might be too abrupt to hope for from a candidate whose party now sees racial preferences as an article of faith and whose strongest supporters are black voters. Indeed, were Obama to call today for a halt to racially preferential affirmative action, it might well deliver the nomination to Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But I do hope to see Obama at least acknowledge that it’s time to start phasing out racial preferences and replacing them with special consideration for promising low-income kids without regard to race. Indeed, Obama might need to go at least that far to win the general election if the Republicans are smart enough to shine a spotlight on the logical implications of his response to Stephanopoulos and of his post-racial campaign posture.

The Republican nominee could say during the debates, or Republicans could say in campaign ads: "Senator Obama, in May 2007 you suggested that colleges should stop giving racial preferences to affluent, advantaged African-Americans and instead give special consideration to disadvantaged kids of all races. But at other times you have supported the current regime of giving racial preferences to affluent black students, in many cases, at the expense of less affluent, better-qualified Asian-Americans and whites. Aren’t you being inconsistent? Which is it? Do you want to continue favoring upper-income blacks over less affluent whites and Asian-Americans, or not?

"Also, do you agree with the suggestion made five years ago by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and her four most liberal colleagues that racial preferences should be phased out within no more than 25 years? Isn’t it already time at least to start moving away from counting by race? Or do you want to perpetuate preferences into the indefinite future?"

Republicans could also put a spotlight on the magnitude and social costs of the current racial-preference regime by publicizing recent studies that show how the double standard thrusts many supposed beneficiaries into academic competition for which they are so unprepared that they fail, drop out, or lose confidence.

Such a line of argument could put Obama in a tight spot. If he were to embrace the current racial-preference regime, he would forfeit his appeal to many whites (and perhaps Asian-Americans) who might otherwise vote for him.

Polls have long shown racial preferences to be very unpopular — even among many blacks — except when camouflaged by misleading euphemisms such as "affirmative action" and "diversity." In a Newsweek poll last July, for example, 82 percent of respondents said that race should not be "allowed as a factor in making decisions about employment and education"; only 14 percent said that race should be allowed. And as the centrist Democratic Leadership Council asserted in 1995, racially preferential affirmative action "divides Americans most dramatically along racial lines" and makes it more difficult "to transcend racial difference."

If, on the other hand, Obama were to call the Republicans’ bluff by saying that it’s time to start moving from racial preferences to special consideration for promising poor kids of all races, he would infuriate many of his supporters. But he might also win far more votes than it would cost him.

And by reclaiming Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that people should be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, Obama could make his party and the country stronger and more united in the long run.

To be sure, a move away from racial preferences would, if implemented, somewhat reduce minority admissions to selective universities in the short run. But as Kahlenberg has written, "class-based affirmative-action programs would still benefit African-Americans more than other groups, given the unfortunately strong link between race and class in American society."

An Obama move away from racial preferences would also require him to moderate (if not abandon) some of his own past pro-preference assertions. He has, for example, stressed that the need for "diversity" and "people of all backgrounds" in educational institutions justifies racially exclusive scholarship programs. He opposed the 2006 ballot initiative in which Michigan’s voters banned state-sponsored racial preferences 58 percent to 42 percent. He assailed the Bush administration five years ago for seeking "to slam the doors of higher education in the face of African-Americans and other minorities" by opposing racial preferences in two University of Michigan admissions cases.

And while saying in that May 2007 Stephanopoulos interview that racially preferential affirmative action could become "a diminishing tool for us to achieve racial equality in this society," Obama suggested that the diminishing should come only after "we improve K-12 education" to prepare more minority kids for academic competition.

That could be read as hinting that Obama is so wedded to maximizing racial diversity that he wants affluent black kids from good schools to keep getting preferences over less affluent white (and Asian-American) kids until K-12 education for less fortunate black kids improves. If so, his position is not so different from that of the racial-preference lobby after all.

For the fact is that K-12 education, especially for poor blacks, is not getting much better and in some ways may be getting worse. And there appears to be little hope for changing that — no matter how much more money we spend on schools — unless and until we make it easier to remove chronically disruptive kids from classrooms and to reward the best teachers and fire the worst. That would require taking on other core Democratic constituencies by cutting through the regulatory and legal thickets that have paralyzed school discipline and overriding the power of the teachers unions.

Dare we hope that Obama might someday call for such radical steps? Not a chance. Not, that is, unless he is really, really serious about being the candidate of change and opening opportunities for the least fortunate among us.