Obama and Affirmative Action

It's worth actually watching Obama responding to questions at UNITY and his specific assessment of the future of Affirmative Action before you decide what you think. As you guys know, I've always been kind of luke-warm to AA. I think that pro-AA folks have a point that there's going to be AA no matter what (legacies for instance), and the real question is what kind. That said, the prospect of an upper middle class black or Latino kid getting preference over a poor white kid from Virginia should rankle all of us. I basically agree with Obama's assessment--that AA isn't really the future, that AA does nothing for masses of black kids dropping out of school, that decent health-care and better schools will be the best AA, in that they will help whites and disproportionately help blacks, but finally that the time is not yet now to phase them out.

Chris Bodenner, who is officially my new favorite sparring partner, cites the The Corner's reaction to Obama's speech:

Obama's criticism is wrongheaded for at least three reasons:  (1) it is obviously preferential policies that are divisive, not their abolition; (2) the “big problem” of helping people from disadvantaged backgrounds can be addressed by helping people of all colors who are disadvantaged, rather than crudely and unfairly using race as a proxy for disadvantage; and (3) Obama himself has recognized as much, ... acknowledging the divisiveness of preferential treatment (in his Philadelphia speech), and the fact that his own daughters, for starters, come from privileged backgrounds and thus are “probably” not deserving of preferential treatment.
This is a solid, important commitment by [McCain] to the principle of E pluribus unum, and Americans across the political spectrum, but especially conservatives, should applaud him.  As for Barack Obama: This is a critical moment in his campaign.  Is he a candidate of change who will transcend race and bring us all together, rejecting divisive policies he knows in his heart are outdated and irrelevant—or just another Democratic pol who lacks the courage to stand up to powerful but aging interests in his own party, which remain hopelessly infatuated with identity politics and insist on perpetuating a set of policies that have always been unfair and divisive and are now outmoded to boot?

And Lashawn Barber:

The whole point of the civil rights movement was to bar the government from preferring one citizen over another based on factors like race. But our government continues this odious practice, and I can think of nothing more unfair or divisive, no matter which race or sex benefits from the discrimination. A government with the power to discriminate in favor of blacks has the power to discriminate against blacks.

Here is something that grates on my nerves as much as the term “African American”: People use the terms “affirmative action” and “race preferences” interchangeably, but they are not even synonymous. Affirmative action was a policy designed to provide qualified blacks with opportunities to compete with others for jobs. The “cast a wider” imagery described the process. The goal was to include more qualified blacks into the hiring pool. Affirmative action as conceived quickly became what’s known today as race preferences. Under this standard, blacks are not expected to compete against whites, only against one another. Public colleges and universities are notorious for unofficial separate admissions tracks, for example. It is truly tasteless.

A quick aside--I believe in looking at wealth, instead of race, in terms of AA. Having said that, I admire Obama's refusal to use AA as some sort of foil to reach white voters. There's a basic logic problem here, as well as one of perspective. Barber's proceeds from a reductionist argument--that the Civil Rights movement was about barring "the government from preferring one citizen over another based on factors like race." In fact, the CRM had much a loftier goal--full citizenship for African-Americans. The problem wasn't merely race-based discrimination (i.e. you can't go here because of your color) but an entire system that worked to cripple black communities. Indeed when you consider the period spanning post-Reconstruction to the CRM, simply describing that era as a time when whites preferred "one citizen over another based on factors like race" is Orwellian.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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