Sunday, November 09, 2008

Obama and Race

Interestingly, I read Richard D. Kahlenberg's What’s Next for Affirmative Action? the same night I had a visit from my oldest sister. She explained to me why she had not voted at all this month and her concerns about our having a black president. I did not say much other than roll my eyes and grit my teeth. What tied sister and The Atlantic together was this paragraph:
In the coming months, Americans will watch closely to see how America’s first black president governs on issues of race. His supporters are divided. As a recent Washington Post article noted, some black supporters see Obama’s election as “advancing the black community,” while some white volunteers are thrilled by the notion of “post-racial” politics. In liberal academic circles, where Obama has strong multiracial support, the notion of colorblind policies is considered naive, even reactionary. But the Obama crowds in South Carolina memorably chanted “race doesn’t matter” after his victory there in the Democratic primary.
So did most of us. It is not as if we were voting for 50 Cent.

Obama himself has sent mixed signals on the defining issue of affirmative action. On the one hand, he castigated John McCain for supporting an anti-affirmative action initiative during the campaign. On the other hand, when George Stephanopoulos asked Obama whether his own daughters deserve a preference in college admissions, Obama said no, because they “have had a pretty good deal,” and went on to say that special consideration should be provided to low-income students of all races.

I remember this question about affirmative action. I thought the question was blithely stupid. Just as George W. Bush was a legacy for Yale, the Obama daughters will be legacies for Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard (I do not recall where Michelle Obama attended law school). Obama took the advantage to use the answer to suggest something very important. Kahlenberg picks up on this point and makes a few of his own.

On the other hand, as the first black president, Obama is uniquely positioned to help persuade civil rights leaders that it is time to resurrect King’s idea of affirmative action as a set of programs for low income Americans of all races. He could point to King’s political insight that only a class-based emphasis would forge a potent black- and working-class-white coalition for real social change. And in phasing out race-based preferences, Obama could simultaneously put real money into the enforcement of important anti-discrimination laws to protect against bias in education, housing, and employment, a part of the colorblind agenda that no president has fully funded.

Race exists as an important distinction in American history and thus law. Check out the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Many think we are past all that. I say the simple answer is that we are but that answer ignores the entire Jim Crow era. I will assert here that nothing has poisoned race relations as has affirmative action. On the other hand, I can think of other reasons for our not having promoted an affirmative action based on economic class.

In college admissions—the subject of the ongoing litigation—Obama could back a vigorous program of economic preferences that indirectly addresses our nation’s history of slavery and segregation and the ongoing reality of racial discrimination. According to a 2004 Century Foundation study by Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose, economic affirmative action—looking at the income, education and occupation of an applicant’s parents, and the level of poverty in her high school—will produce almost as much racial diversity as current race-based affirmative action: the result would be 10 percent black and Hispanic representation at the most selective colleges and universities compared with 12 percent currently. But counting other economic factors—such as wealth (net worth)—should boost racial diversity further. Wealth represents the accumulation of income over time and thereby more closely reflects the legacy of past discrimination. Likewise, because homes represent the biggest source of family wealth for most Americans, giving low wealth students a preference will also capture ongoing racial discrimination in the housing market.

With Obama, I think he will surprise us.

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